A modern approach to modern slavery

10 May 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Jun 2019

Photo by Nahid Hatamiz on Unsplash
Photo by Nahid Hatamiz on Unsplash

The last Stormont mandate was abandoned before it got into stride. However, it still made changes to local policy, reflected in the new Modern Slavery Strategy.


More people are living in slavery today than at any point in human history. Some of these people are in Northern Ireland – perhaps in your town, or your street, or next door. We do not know how many.

Slavery comes in many forms but is about abuse, exploitation, the denial of rights – and an attempt to ignore or repudiate someone’s core humanity.

That there are more slaves today than at any point in the past is a widely-accepted estimate. A huge part of this is because the population of the world is larger than ever before.

Nevertheless, this remains galling given there were periods in our history when slavery was a key pillar of major economies and the slave trade a large part of intercontinental commerce.

So, what do we do about it?

The Department of Justice recently published its Modern Slavery Strategy 2019-20, its third annual strategy for dealing with this scourge that can destroy lives.

Reading the DoJ publication it is impossible to ignore how much it owes to Stormont’s last draft Programme for Government.

The Assembly mandate might have run aground thanks to a raft of DUP-Sinn Fein disagreements in general, and the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal in particular, but not without leaving an impression.

Our last government was committed to a new outcomes-based approach to policy: identification of targets; of statistical indicators that can measure these targets; policies designed to try and change these measurements; using statistical changes over time to decide what policies to keep and what to change.

It might seem like any policy development might work that way – but that has not always been the case. But, even if politics ultimately faltered, the civil service had already determined to press ahead with an outcomes-based future – “with no plan B”.

Pursue, Protect and Prevent

The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) is the UK’s referral mechanism for identifying and supporting victims and potential victims of modern slavery.

First Responders – including police, health trust workers, officials from the Gangmasters Labour Abuse Authority, border officials and immigration officials - are responsible making referrals in appropriate cases.

The strategy outlines a variety of statistics for the years 2015-16, 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 in relation to modern slavery in NI, including the number of people referred via the NRM (59, 34, 36 and 59, respectively), as well as the number of screening assessments carried out, arrests made, people charged for related offences, and other relevant operational figures.

Per the strategy: “The 2015 Act [the Modern Slavery Act 2015] and the consequent introduction of new offences have resulted in greater focus and improved partnership-working in the fight to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking. Since the Act 8 was introduced, much good work has taken place and is now embedded in our normal processes.”

The DoJ says its latest strategy has three key themes: Pursue, Protect and Prevent.

Pursue is about “detecting, investigating, disrupting and prosecuting modern slavery offenders.”

According to the department, success in this area will mean: victims of modern slavery identified and brought to safety; the prosecution and conviction of modern slavery offenders; the disruption of criminals and organised crime groups responsible for modern slavery.

Protect is about “reducing the harm caused by modern slavery by improved victim identification and support.”

Success will mean: more victims of modern slavery are identified; victims are provided with appropriate and effective support and protection to help them recover.

Prevent means “reducing the threat of modern slavery by reducing vulnerability and demand and by raising awareness.”

Success will mean: fewer offenders will engage in modern slavery crime; fewer victims will become entrapped by modern slavery; reduced demand through increased awareness.

Turning a curve

While it is interesting to see such a commitment to an outcomes-based approach in this area of policy, outcomes-based thinking has worked its way across policy in a broad sense and is now part of NI civic life.

What makes this case more noteworthy than most is a particular wrinkle which makes its application difficult.

Modern slavery is largely hidden. The relationship between identifying the existence of modern slavery and stopping it are intimately related.

This means it is very tough to accurately estimate much about ongoing modern slavery – meaning that the statistical indicators, which are crucial in an outcomes-based approach, are by necessity unreliable.

The DoJ’s strategy talks about this:

“It is important to clarify that these measures, whilst valuable, are open to interpretation and so caution should be applied when using them as measures of effectiveness or ineffectiveness. For example, whilst an increase in the number of victims referred to the NRM could be interpreted as indicating an increase in the scale of modern slavery, it might equally be as a result of higher levels of awareness leading to increased identification of victims and reporting of suspected cases. However, over a longer period of time, if our actions are being effective, we would expect to see an eventual decline in referrals.

“Equally, since we are a small jurisdiction in terms of both geography and population, with relatively low numbers of victim referrals, the nature of an individual case in Northern Ireland can have a significant impact on how these referral figures fluctuate year by year, for example, where multiple victims are recovered in a single, large operation.

“For the same reasons, the nature of the offences encountered in Northern Ireland can also fluctuate from year to year, with more labour offences in one year and more sexual exploitation cases detected in another year.

“Similarly, the number of people charged with an offence or prosecuted and convicted might rise or fall depending on whether a large criminal gang has been successfully dismantled, or a small criminal gang which nonetheless had multiple victims, or indeed on the willingness of the victims involved to co-operate with criminal justice proceedings.”

This all appears to be sensible and realistic, but it does represent a difficult and maybe insoluble problem for lawmakers and justice officials.

While the strategy also includes a number of indicator measurements that are not unreliable because their true extent is hidden – such as training sessions delivered to target audiences, or measuring “media reporting of operational successes” – these are not related to the core aspects of modern slavery, like the number of victims or the number of perpetrators.

Then again, if a problem is truly insoluble, the best thing to do is find a way to work successfully around it.

The DoJ also notes that its NRM figures should become more relevant over a longer period of time, which is encouraging regarding the department’s commitment to long-term strategic approach to dealing with these horrible matters.

It is a modern approach to deal with the modern manifestation of an ancient problem. Let’s hope it works.

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