Modern slavery victims who have escaped their abusers are being drawn back into exploitation as a means of survival following cuts to their financial support, The Independent can reveal.
Asylum-seekers believed to have been trafficked to the UK have had their weekly subsistence rate reduced from £65 to £37.95. The reduction is set to be rolled out to all modern slavery victims “in due course”.
Lawyers said victims whose support has been reduced struggle to afford basics such as food and travel, placing them at high risk of being re-exploited financially, sexually and emotionally.
A court hearing earlier this month was told that a victim of sex trafficking, who contracted HIV as a result of her exploitation, was left unable to afford the appropriate diet for her medical treatment and was at “real risk” of being re-exploited.
The hearing forms part of an ongoing case in the High Court challenging the government’s decision to cut subsistence rates. The judge in the hearing on 4 October said he was “very concerned” by the situation.
Caseworkers told The Independent concerns about the detrimental impact of the cuts had “fallen on deaf ears” because charities subcontracted by the government to care for victims were reluctant to speak out against the Home Office.
The government identifies and supports victims of trafficking through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which requires the Home Office to provide support to aid recovery and house them in “safe house” accommodation if required.
The support provided to victims during this period is arranged through the Victim Care Contract, currently held by the Salvation Army, which sub-contracts to 12 other charitable organisations.
The Home Office said plans to cut subsistence rates to the £37.95 per week received by all asylum-seekers had not yet been implemented. But the Salvation Army said there had recently been “changes to the way rates for victims of modern slavery seeking asylum were processed”.
Kevin Hyland, the former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, wrote to the home secretary in June raising concerns about a reduction in the subsistence allowance.
He warned that the changes were brought in with “no formal advanced warning” and were having a “detrimental impact on victims’ wellbeing and recovery, potentially increasing their vulnerability to further exploitation and reducing support in prosecutions”.
“Without adequate support during this recovery period, these victims of crime are at risk of further exploitation, including re-trafficking, as they struggle to meet their essential needs,” the letter said.
A former caseworker who was employed by Hestia, one of the charities subcontracted under the Victim Care Contract, said asylum-seekers rescued from labour exploitation were falling back into illegal work such as nail bars and cash-in-hand takeaways as a result of the subsistence cut.
The caseworker, who did not want to be named, said: “They struggle to afford food and basic items. They are lacking a lot of things that would really help to assist recovery. A lot of the appointments they need to attend, like therapy or charities, require travel money.
“I know of people who went back to working illegally after the cuts because they didn’t have any money. It was a difficult one because you can only tell them that our guidance is not to do illegal work, but you have to understand that people need to work to live.
“When they’re in this position where they’re reliant on both their support workers and perhaps other people for money, they’re still in a kind of head space of exploitation. It’s a continuation of poor treatment.”
The caseworker said he “got nowhere raising concerns” within the charity. He added that he raised it with managers but it fell on “deaf ears”.
“They just said it was out of their control,” he said. “As a subcontractor we just have to follow what the Salvation Army say to us.
“The problem is it’s not our money to give out. It’s the government’s money, so if they say to give out less, we haven’t got any choice. And it is definitely a case of ‘We shouldn’t be saying anything negative about the Home Office’.”
The court hearing heard that the sex-trafficking victim, whose HIV treatment requires a balanced diet, had struggled to afford the food necessary to meet her medical needs.
The woman, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, was recently assessed as being at high risk of suicide and self-harm. Her mental health had deteriorated because of having to miss therapy sessions due to not being able to afford to pay for travel, the court heard.
Having previously been sexually exploited in circumstances where she was destitute and desperate, the woman was at “real risk of being re-exploited”, according to a clinical psychologist’s report submitted to the court.
Nusrat Uddin, a solicitor at Wilson’s Solicitors LLP who is representing the woman, said the cuts to subsistence rates “undermined” efforts to tackle modern slavery by making victims “even more vulnerable at this crucial period when they are recovering from their trauma”.
She added: “The Home Office knew that our client was HIV positive, having contracted this as a result of her sexual exploitation and she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to her experiences.
“They had comprehensive evidence of her vulnerabilities and yet paid no regard to her circumstances when a decision was made to cut her weekly subsistence monies by 40 per cent.
“The government made a commitment to protect victims and support their recovery, yet the recent cuts to victims’ subsistence tell an entirely different story.”
Vernon Coaker, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for modern slavery and human trafficking, said the issue of cuts to subsistence rates had been made to the government, but that so far they had “failed to listen”.
“It is causing very real hardship to victims of this awful crime and could lead to re-trafficking. The cut is both cruel and unnecessary and needs change now,” he added.
Addressing the issue of caseworkers being feeling unable to speak out, Mr Coaker said: “The responsibly of caseworkers is to advocate for trafficked people in their service and safeguard their best interest.
“If there is evidence that caseworkers feel unable to speak out on behalf of those in their care we would be failing the victims who have come forward for help.
“This is why there needs to be clear minimum standards of care, transparency and independent inspection of provision within all services for trafficked people.”
Responding to the reports that caseworkers have felt unable to voice concerns, Kathy Betteridge, director of anti-trafficking and modern slavery at the Salvation Army, said the charity worked in “close partnership” with both the Home Office and its subcontractors.
“Our overriding concern is to ensure the best possible outcomes for the people in our care and as such we are in continuous dialogue offering constant and, where necessary, robust feedback on the impact of any contractual changes to our clients’ wellbeing.”
Ms Betteridge added: “At the same time we are all seeking new ways to improve access for victims of modern slavery to the support they need and deserve.”
A spokesperson for Hestia said they felt “very able” to have an open dialogue with both the Home Office and Salvation Army and that they had done so on the subsistence-cut issue.
“Poverty is a real barrier to recovery and risks forcing survivors into new situations of exploitation,” they said.
“We are hopeful that these new insights into the changing landscape of modern slavery in the UK will influence the Home Office’s review of the National Referral Mechanism.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Modern slavery and human trafficking are abhorrent crimes and this government is committed to helping survivors recover from their exploitation and rebuild their lives.
“The government has listened to key partners and is trebling the period of time confirmed victims will receive financial support as they reintegrate into local communities and the most vulnerable victims – pregnant women, and those with children – will receive more money than under the previous system.
“By changing subsistence payments, the overall funding available for survivors will remain the same, but it will be used to provide support for a longer time period, and when their needs are most acute, to further prevent the risk of being drawn back into exploitation.
“Modern slavery victims will continue to receive specialist support, including free accommodation, legal aid, and access to counselling and medical care.”