Modern slavery is too common in the UK. Thousands of adults and children are enslaved and subjected to forced labour, sexual and criminal exploitation, human trafficking, organ harvesting, child exploitation and household servitude. This is a level nearly four times higher than it was just five years ago. However, given its very nature, modern slavery is often a hidden crime, meaning that the numbers reported to authorities are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the total number of survivors in the UK today.

Being a survivor of modern slavery takes a huge mental, physical and emotional toll. Many survivors of modern slavery report feeling lonely, hopeless and like there is no way out. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) - the system for identifying and supporting potential survivors of modern slavery – offers a lifeline. It provides financial help, assistance with accommodation, advice, and counselling services to help survivors move on from their experiences and start again.

However, the number of people waiting in the NRM – and therefore on a decision on their case – is growing. So is the length of time that people are waiting for a decision on whether their case should be formally recognised as 'modern slavery'. This suggests the rapid growth in referrals has not been matched by sufficient resources to manage the cases within the Home Office. As a result, we estimate that over 24,000 people were stuck in the NRM waiting for a conclusive grounds decision to be made at the end of 2021. This backlog of cases is up 72% on the year before and this has been building rapidly since 2017. Furthermore, in 2021 the average person waited for 452 days for a decision to formally recognise their case as modern slavery. This time has increased by more than 200 days since 2017 – up more than 80% over the last five years.

These growing delays leave potential survivors in a state of uncertainty for longer, as they wait for a decision on their status. This is likely to compound what has already been described as a “frustrating” experience. In addition to this, for those without a right to work in the UK, living on subsistence payments provided through the NRM can lead to prolonged periods of financial hardship. With the equivalent of under £10 a day to cover food and living costs, remaining in the NRM for a long period of time is especially challenging during the current cost of living crisis.

However, we estimate that if the right to work were extended to the 7,000 adults currently in the NRM who are denied this right, then it could reduce this financial hardship and provide a boost to the economy of between £10 million and £41 million. This includes £8 million to £32 million in the form of increased income for the survivors and £2 million to £8 million in benefits to the taxpayer in the form of increased tax revenue and reduced subsistence payments. In addition to the direct economic benefits, there are likely to be significant wider benefits from the improved health and wellbeing of those that get jobs.

Combining the extension of the right to work to all potential survivors of modern slavery with the support provided by expert social sector organisations through the NRM could offer a powerful solution to help survivors recover from the trauma of modern slavery. With the right safeguards in place to ensure people in the NRM are very likely to be genuine survivors, it would be a win-win decision - delivering both emotional and economic benefits to the survivors themselves, as well as providing benefits to wider society.

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