Home Office urged to improve 'disjointed' work on modern slavery

Immigration inspector finds "little evidence of a plan" to address flaws in work
Photo: PA

Home Office work to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking is too disjointed and too little is being done to crack down on the criminals responsible for it, the immigration watchdog has said.

In a highly critical report, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, David Bolt, said work to “identify, investigate, disrupt and prosecute the perpetrators of modern slavery and human trafficking” by three of the Home Office’s operational directorates was disjointed and unlikely to change any time soon.

It found that operational activity overall had increased at Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and UK Visas and Immigration – the three directorates make up the border, immigration and citizenship system, or BICS – had increased since the Modern Slavery Strategy was published in 2014.

However, work of the three directorates and of the Home Office at large “remained siloed and disjointed, with little evidence of a plan to address this”.

While BICS has had “some success” identifying and safeguarding victims through its national referral mechanism, the inspector said further work was needed, especially at the border.

And the directorates are "not doing enough to combat the criminals who perpetrate, enable and exploit MSHT, and opportunities to do so are being missed", he said.

In the report, which was sent to the home secretary in September, Bolt has put forward three recommendations to “reset” the BICS report to modern slavery and human trafficking.

Firstly, he said the director general of the Serious Organised Crime Group and the Modern Slavert Unit should lead a review of the three BICS directorates’ roles and responsibilities, in relation to each strand of the modern slavery strategy.

The Home Office accepted the recommendation, although it stopped short of agreeing to Bolt’s call to share results of the review on its intranet, Horizon. Instead, it said the findings would be “communicated as appropriate”.

The department also accepted a second recommendation, to produce BICS-specific guidance on identifying, reporting and pursuing perpetrators of modern slavery and human trafficking; and conduct a skills-gap analysis to identify where more staff training is needed.

Thirdly, the report said the Home Office should create a cross-BICS and Serious and Organised Crime Group governance board to oversee the department’s input to the “pursue” strand of the modern slavery strategy – which focuses on prosecuting and disrupting the work of criminals. Members should be directors or deputy directors and be accountable to the director general of the SOCG, it said.

The board should be responsible for agreeing a performance and delivery plan; holding the directorates to account for their performance; and reporting on performance to the Home Office executive committee.

In its response, published alongside the report yesterday 24 weeks after receiving it – well outside the eight-week window recommended by Home Office guidance – the department said only “partially accepted” the call for a new board.

The response set out the existing governance structure, and said it had set up a cross-BICS modern slavery steering group in May 2020 – after Bolt’s inspection but before the report was compiled – that oversees the BICS contribution fo the National Crime Agency modern slavery threat group.

It said the steering group was made up of assistant and deputy directors, and that it was “content” this was the right level for decision making.

However, it did acknowledge “more can be done” to develop indicators of performance and that the steering group would work on this.

In comments accompanying his report, Bolt noted that the Home Office’s response to the third recommendation “simply quotes” an earlier statement on the issue it made in November. At the time, it said it would take ICIBI’s findings fully into account alongside the findings of an independent review of Serious and Organised Crime. It said it would provide details of the review – which reported to the home secretary more than a year ago – “in due course”.

“It is unclear what progress it has made in the intervening four months,” Bolt said.

“While the necessary improvements in capabilities and capacity will take time to implement, it would have been more encouraging to see reference to some specific actions and deadlines.”

The report is a result of the watchdog’s inspection of Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and UK Visas and Immigration between October 2019 and 2020. The three directorates make up the border, immigration and citizenship system, or BICS.

It follows on from a 2017 report, and a re-inspection a year later, on Border Force’s identification and treatment of potential victims of modern slavery.

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