Debate on Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking, House of Commons - 29 March 2023

Human trafficking and modern slavery are heinous crimes. Supporting councils to tackle modern slavery is a key priority area for the LGA.

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Key messages

  • Human trafficking and modern slavery are heinous crimes. Supporting councils to tackle modern slavery is a key priority area for the LGA. Councils have multiple roles in tackling modern slavery, including identifying and referring victims, supporting victims, disrupting perpetrators and ensuring that the supply chains they procure from are free from modern slavery.
  • To support councils with their work to tackle modern slavery, the LGA has recently published comprehensive guidance for councils on modern slavery (an update or our original 2018 guidance document, which pre-dated the Government’s statutory guidance by over two years). The LGA is also establishing a national network of council officers working on modern slavery to share learning and best practice and discuss common challenges of working on this issue.
  • Councils’ work on modern slavery continues to strengthen. Councils are voluntarily adopting transparency in supply chain statements ahead of the expected extension of the statutory requirement to produce one. The LGA supports the introduction of statutory measures requiring public authorities, including councils, to comply with transparency in supply chains requirements and want to see legislation brought forward to achieve this as soon as possible.
  • Many councils have established dedicated modern slavery teams or services and are working with partners effectively to take a multi-agency approach to tackling modern slavery and human trafficking. It is vital that Government finalises and publishes the outstanding updated modern slavery strategy, to support this work and strengthen partnership working.
  • Councils and their partners are facing significant challenges in providing effective support to confirmed victims of modern slavery given the existing pressures on local housing services, social care and health services such as mental health. Councils have never received any new burdens funding to support any activity to tackle modern slavery or support victims. Due to funding pressures, not all councils have been able to financially support a modern slavery team or dedicated lead officer out of existing budgets, with the role often absorbed on top of an existing full-time role. Where funding can be identified or secured – including from the local Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) – to support dedicated teams or services (such as accommodation), it often leads to better outcomes for victims. It is therefore important that additional resources are made available to councils and PCCs, to bolster the support that is available to victims.
  • There are particular issues with providing local accommodation for victims before they enter the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). Under the Domestic Abuse Act specific funding has been made available for local authorities to provide accommodation-based support for victims of domestic abuse, who may have similar needs to modern slavery victims arising from the trauma they have experienced. The LGA would like to see consideration of a similar approach to funding services for victims of modern slavery.
  • While we recognise that modern slavery can be linked to asylum and immigration, there are many victims of modern slavery and human trafficking within the UK, including British nationals, who have no connection with the asylum and immigration system. The Government should ensure that it continues to approach modern slavery from a safeguarding perspective, alongside dealing with issues which are linked to illegal migration and asylum.

Extent of modern slavery in the UK

Anyone can become a victim of modern slavery. Government figures showed that in 2021, of 12,727 potential victims referred to the NRM. 77 per cent (9,790) were male and 23 per cent (2,923) were female. 43 per cent (5,468) reported that they were exploited as children. The number of child referrals in 2021 increased by 20 percent on the previous year, which has been driven a rapid increase in the identification of ‘county lines’ cases over recent years.

In 2021, adults were most often referred for labour exploitation (33 per cent; 2,141 referrals), whereas children were most often referred for criminal exploitation, such as county lines operations (49 per cent, 2,689 referrals).

People who are vulnerable or are part of minority or social excluded groups are more likely to be exploited through modern slavery. For instance, unaccompanied children travelling to the UK, young girls and women, former victims of modern slavery or trafficking and vulnerable men, particularly those with substance misuse issues, debts, mental health problems or learning disabilities.

Disrupting modern slavery

Local government plays an important role in discouraging trafficking. Many councils use their extensive buying power to reduce the risks of modern slavery occurring in their supply chain by adopting and embedding processes and procedures in procurement and contract management. Councils also work with local businesses and SMEs to raise awareness and provide support to their efforts to tackle slavery in their supply chains.

Additionally, many councils carry out due diligence in key high-risk areas of their domestic supply chains, such as social care, construction, agriculture and food processing which can help disrupt criminal gangs infiltrating the contracts councils tender for with cheap, trafficked labour. Although these measures are not a statutory requirement, many councils have voluntarily implemented them following the introduction of the original Modern Slavery Act 2015.

To strengthen action to tackle modern slavery, we support the introduction of statutory requirements for all public authorities, including councils, to comply with transparency in supply chains requirements. We want to see these statutory requirements brought forward in the proposed Modern Slavery Bill as soon as possible.

Alongside this, it is vital that Government finalises and publishes the outstanding updated modern slavery strategy, to help strengthen partnership working to address the many instances of modern slavery impacting the UK. The appointment of a new Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner would also be a welcome and visible embodiment of the Government’s ongoing commitment to the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and desire to tackle this heinous crime.

Supporting victims of modern slavery

Councils play a crucial role in supporting victims of modern slavery.  Depending on the age and needs of victims of modern slavery, councils may have statutory responsibilities to provide support to them.

Child victims

Under the Children Act 1989, where a council has reason to believe that a child (irrespective of immigration status) may suffer or is suffering significant harm, they are under a duty to investigate whether any action is needed to protect the welfare of that child.

Although the support provided to child victims is led locally, child victims are also referred into the NRM. In 2021, councils referred 25 per cent (3,229) of all cases referrals into the NRM, the vast majority of which related to children.

Particularly in the case of victims of county lines criminal exploitation, child slavery cases will often constitute a very different pattern of risk and impact to traditional child safeguarding, which focuses on preventing children from being harmed within the home. Victims of criminal exploitation will have been groomed by their exploiters, may not see themselves as victims and may resist support from both families and statutory services, including going missing from family homes and care.

Significant work is underway to develop child safeguarding practice and social care support to reflect these more recent patterns of exploitation and identify the best responses. A third of councils are signed up to implementing the contextual safeguarding framework developed by the University of Bedfordshire, with other councils also working with partners on approaches to extra-familial harm ( risks to the welfare of children that arise outside of the family/home, for example in the community or through peer groups).

Adult victims

Although this may change under the Illegal Migration Bill, victims of modern slavery who choose to enter the NRM (which many do not wish to do) are currently entitled to support from the Modern Slavery Victim Care Contract, in addition to local support that they may be eligible for. The support a person is entitled to depends on individual needs (particularly if they have care and support needs as defined by the Care Act 2014) and their immigration status. Adult victims of modern slavery may be entitled to support under:

  • The Housing Act 1996: Victims may be entitled to a range of support including the provision of interim accommodation and temporary accommodation (if homeless and in priority need). The homelessness code of guidance was updated in summer 2021 specifically to reflect these duties more clearly. However, a victim may not be entitled to support, for example, if they do not enter the NRM or if they have no recourse to public funds.

  • Care Act 2014: if modern slavery victims have care needs as defined by the Care Act they will be entitled to social care support.
  • Localism Act 2011: the general power of competence introduced in the Localism Act provides councils with the powers to act to meet local needs, so long as it is not prohibited by statute. Councils have been encouraged to use this power to provide support for victims of modern slavery who do not otherwise have entitlement to access local services and/or to avoid breaching the wider international obligations.

We have long been calling on Government for further clarity on how the UK’s international obligations regarding modern slavery should be supported at the local level. The UK has signed up to different conventions with different obligations, including the European Convention on Human Rights, Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings 2005 and EU Anti-Trafficking Directive. Some of these international commitments could be interpreted as going beyond the domestic legislation.

It is therefore important that domestic law is aligned to the international duties the UK is bound by, and the case law relating to it, to give local partners clarity on what support should be provided to victims of modern slavery and by whom. This will help improve the consistency of support that victims of modern slavery receive. Specifically, it should be clear when/whether a person should be provided with local (rather than MSVCC) support for being a victim of modern slavery, or whether they have to meet normal thresholds outlined in other existing legislation. It is vital that Government addresses these issues within the previously announced Modern Slavery Bill.


Councils have never received dedicated funding to support victims of modern slavery. Consequently, they are experiencing real challenges in supporting victims of modern slavery without additional capacity, particularly in already under-pressure services such as housing and social care.

There are particular challenges with the provision of pre-NRM accommodation for adult victims, who are destitute/ineligible for council support and/or unable to access support elsewhere. Some local areas have provided their own emergency pre-NRM/ interim accommodation. For example, the West Midlands Anti-Slavery Network ‘SafePlace’ project, funded by the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner, provides male survivors with safe accommodation for up to 10 days post exploitation/pre-NRM. This allows survivors to access emergency support needs, access information on their rights and entitlements, and to make a decision on whether to enter the NRM. However, not all councils are able to provide this service if they do not have budget to commission emergency accommodations and there are significant shortages of housing stock and suitable temporary accommodation.

An increasing number of councils have also appointed modern slavery lead officers and voluntarily participate in local anti-slavery partnerships. This has proven to be effective at improving victim support. However, not all councils have been able to financially support a modern slavery team or dedicated lead officer, and the role is often absorbed on top of an existing full-time role. This lack of capacity can affect the extent of the support councils can provide.

There are many parallels between the traumatic effects of their experience and type of support that victims of domestic abuse and victims of modern slavery often require. Under the Domestic Abuse Act specific funding was made available to councils to provide accommodation-based services for victims of domestic abuse. The LGA would like to see a similar approach to supporting victims of modern slavery.