Why the NRM for modern slavery urgently needs resourcing

By Andrei Savitski - 08 November 2023

The Home Office has recently published the latest quarterly data pertaining to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for Modern Slavery. We are concerned by what it shows. For individuals referred into the NRM, decision-making timeframes have increased significantly throughout 2023, while the rate of positive reasonable grounds decisions plummeted. This carries serious risks for victims and calls for urgent resourcing of the system.

What is the NRM and how does it work?

The NRM is a “framework for identifying and referring potential victims of modern slavery and ensuring they receive the appropriate support” (NRM guidance). Government bodies (e.g. Home Office or local councils) and a small number of organisations designated as ‘First Responders’ can refer consenting adults directly into the NRM.

The Mechanism is underpinned by a complex process. Following receipt of an online referral, the relevant Competent Authority within the Home Office, whether the Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority (IECA) or Single Competent Authority (SCA), has five working days to decide whether there are ‘reasonable grounds’ that the individual is a victim of modern slavery, which in turn gives potential victims substantive rights, such as access to accommodation in a safe house and weekly financial support. Notably, for migrant victims, this also includes temporary protection from removal from the UK. 

A positive reasonable grounds decision was made in 44% of adult cases in Q3 2023. A positive reasonable grounds decision sets off a 30-day Reflection and Recovery period, following which a ‘conclusive grounds decision’ should be made as soon as possible. For victims with precarious or no immigration status in the UK, a conclusive grounds decision provides a possibility to regularise their status and receive further support. 

Most NRM referrals are for migrants

Overall, there has been little change in referral numbers in the past year. A total of 4,138 referrals were made in Q3 2023, with adults (aged 18+) constituting roughly half of these (see Figure 1). Labour exploitation was the most frequently cited reason for referrals, figuring in 53% of all adult referrals to the NRM.

Furthermore, 89% of all adult referrals in Q3 2023 were for non-British nationals (Figure 2). Many of these individuals are likely to have some form of precarious immigration status. 

Decisions are taking too long

The number of days to make a ‘reasonable grounds’ decision has spiked for both the Immigration Enforcement (IECA) and Single Competent Authorities (SCA). Between Q1 2023 and Q3 2023, the median number increased from 7 to 24 days for the IECA, and from six to 56 days for the SCA. 

The respective figure for ‘conclusive grounds’ decisions has also jumped, from 354 days in Q1 2023 to 510 days in Q3 for the IECA, and remained high at 585 days for the SCA. 

Both figures fall well short of the standard the government set, and the situation is rapidly deteriorating. 

Delays in decisions can cause re-exploitation

The delays in ‘reasonable grounds’ decisions are preventing thousands of modern slavery victims from accessing basic levels of support (e.g. accommodation). This is particularly concerning for victims who do not have the right to work and rely on subsistence support under the NRM to survive. 

Delays in ‘conclusive grounds’ decisions are also preventing migrant victims from regularising their status and, crucially, from acquiring the right to work. As competent authorities are taking well over a year to make that decision, there is a risk that victims are forced back into black-market work situations, where they are vulnerable to re-trafficking or repeated exploitation.

Many identified victims refuse an NRM referral

Under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, First Responders also have to tell the Home Office when they suspect modern slavery is taking place, even when the individuals they identify do not consent to an NRM referral. This is called a ‘Duty to Notify’ (DtN) and is, in effect, an anonymous report, which provides little by way of redress for victims, but can help the authorities gauge the breadth of modern slavery in the UK. In this case, the victim is always an adult, as First Responders don’t need children’s consent to refer them. 

This past quarter First Responders made 1,317 DtN reports, the second-highest on record (see Figure 3). In other words, nearly two in five of all potential adult victims identified by First Responders refused a referral to the NRM. 

The reasons behind these refusals are complex. In January 2023, the Modern Slavery Statutory Guidance introduced a “higher threshold of proof” for those seeking a positive reasonable grounds decision. While this change was reversed in June 2023, following a legal challenge, after just a few months of implementation we saw a halving in positive initial reasonable grounds decisions issued for adults in Q3 2023 compared to one year earlier, from 87% to 44% (see Figure 4). Though short-lived, the changes in the Guidance and the hostility of discourse which accompanied this policy decision is likely to have dented victims’ trust in the system as a whole. 


Specialist organisations have also pointed to the psychological difficulty of viewing oneself as a victim, as well as the lack of trust in governmental bodies being First Responders, and the NRM as a system. Coupled with the low, subsistence-level financial support offered in the NRM, the absence of an immediate grant of right to work, and the extremely long waiting times, it is deeply concerning, but not surprising, that some victims of slavery might refuse a referral.

Adequate resourcing and safe reporting are key

The most recent NRM data make it clear that we urgently need a well-resourced, inclusive system that can issue decisions in a timely manner. Under-resourcing doesn’t just create an ever-growing administrative backlog. It harms victims' welfare and can contribute to undermining the credibility of the NRM as a whole. 

In the long term, we need a system that allows for safe reporting, provides stronger protections of individuals’ rights, and leaves victims in no doubt about the value of their coming forward. 

The NRM is part of a complex picture of enforcement, at the intersection of employment and immigration. To learn more, sign up for our newsletter, to receive our upcoming research publications which document the issues, and the reforms needed, to widen access to employment justice for migrant workers and disadvantaged Britons.

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