The Home Office’s handling of the UK’s skyrocketing modern slavery cases has been branded a “shambles” after MPs heard a new group set up to tackle the scourge has yet to meet.
Safeguarding minister Sarah Dines faced a fiery backlash from the Home Affairs Select Committee after revealing stakeholders involved in the government’s new modern slavery forums have failed to sit around a table.
The groups—made up of representatives from various charities and safeguarding organisations—were due to replace previous modern slavery stakeholder forums in April.
The move was in direct response to escalating figures of potential trafficking victims after the UK recorded its highest ever number of those referred to the authorities last year.
In 2022, 16,938 potential victims of modern slavery referred were referred to the Home Office—the highest annual number since the government’s anti-slavery system was established.
The small boats crisis has contributed to the high figures, with experts previously telling the government that an increasing number of Albanian immigrants—including children—are coming to the attention of first responders.
Asked when the previous modern slavery groups had last met, Ms. Dine was unable to give a date to the committee.
She was also unable to confirm when a new independent anti-slavery watchdog will be appointed.
Tory MP Tim Loughton replied: “You have no knowledge about whether they’re met or not, so clearly, there’s been no input to the minister about their their findings.
“They’re now to be replaced—you don’t know with what, and the replacement hasn’t actually met, you’re only anticipating how that might be refreshed.
“We have no modern slavery commissioner for the last 16 months—this is a shambles, isn’t it?”
Calling Mr. Loughton’s description “unfair,” Ms. Dines said the groups were engaged with the civil service, and she had met a representative from the Salvation Army “for a meal.”
The Tory MP replied: “None of you know when they last met, we have no formal minutes or recommendations they may have made.
“We know nothing about the way ministers and the Home Office may have responded to those recommendations.
“We don’t have a commissioner to oversee any of this work, and you still don’t know when they’re going to meet, but it’s OK because you’ve had a sandwich at the Salvation Army. That’s not good enough minister.”
The minister was giving evidence as part of the committee’s ongoing inquiry into human trafficking.
Despite rising modern slavery cases, the government’s strategy to tackling the issue has not changed since 2014.
Last year, the UK’s anti-slavery commissioner Dame Sara Thornton resigned from her post.
She has not been replaced by the home secretary, Suella Braverman, despite a legal requirement for the post to be filled.
The committee questioned whether the government is doing enough to prioritise modern slavery crimes.
They also questioned whether the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is in need of reform, in light of lengthy decision-making times and lack of confidence from victims and some stakeholders.
In 2022, only 1.6 percent of referrals from the NRM resulted in a conviction for modern slavery.
Trafficked for Sex
The minister also faced tough questions on what was being done to combat sex trafficking.
Asked by Labour MP Carolyn Harris what the Home Office is doing to address the sex work demand that leads to human trafficking, the minister said attempts were being made to make the UK “the most unfriendly country for this sort of practice.”
Ms. Harris responded: “But if the Home Office is so keen to deter people from wanting to buy sex from trafficked individuals, why is it that over the last seven years, there have only been three prosecutions for buying sex from a trafficked person?”
Ms. Dines said there were a number of “complex” issues including victims leaving the country and being unable to give evidence.
“There are a myriad of other offences for which people are regularly prosecuted and convicted; it’s proving the force element which is hard,” the minister said.
“So it doesn’t give the full picture to pull just the three out, you need to look at the thousands of investigations that our police, the NCA [National Crime Agency] are involved with across the country.”
The minister also received a fiery response from committee Chair Dame Diana Johnson, who had asked Ms. Dines to provide details of a £10,000 campaign aimed at targeting those using adult websites to buy sex.
After the minister said she did not have those details, Ms. Johnson replied: “So in preparation for today’s session, I would have expected your officials and your advisers to have looked at what I was asking and prepared you for to be able to respond.
“So are you not able to tell me? Are your officials able to tell me about this £10,000 grant?”
One of Ms. Dines’s senior civil servants said the details would have to be given in private.
Ms. Johnson described the Home Office’s response as a “very strange, strange state of affairs.”
“I’m very surprised if public monies being spent and given to an organisation to do a piece of work looking at who’s buying sex, that we’re not allowed to know who that is publicly and what the outcome of it was.”