One Pump Court’s response to press release by the Home Office and Home Secretary headed ‘Alarming rise of abuse within modern slavery system’, 21 March 2021

29 Mar 2021

One Pump Court’s response to press release by the Home Office and Home Secretary headed ‘Alarming rise of abuse within modern slavery system’, 21 March 2021[1]

On 21 March 2021, three days before Priti Patel made a speech to parliament introducing her new asylum plans, the Home Office issued a Press Release alleging abuse ‘within’ the system designed to identify and protect victims of trafficking and modern slavery.  We at One Pump Court find it necessary to put on record our deprecation of the press release.

We object for three reasons:

  1. The heading and contents of the press release aim to create the impression that there has been an ‘alarming rise of abuse’ of the UK’s system for identifying victims of modern slavery and human trafficking, although it presents no evidence whatsoever that this is actually true;
  2. The press release demonises ‘failed’ asylum seekers and people referred to the UK’s system for identifying victims of modern slavery; and
  3. Use of government resources to further nakedly polemical aims, as in this press release, contravenes constitutionally important principles of public policy

The alleged rise of abusive claims

The system in question is known as the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).  It is important to understand that people cannot self-refer to the NRM.  Anyone who encounters a person showings signs of being a potential victim of modern slavery or human trafficking may draw them to the attention of a designated First Responder, who will then refer them to one of the Competent Authorities appointed by the NRM to assess such referrals.  The Competent Authority will then make an initial ‘reasonable grounds’ assessment. This assessment is a gateway: if it is positive, the subject’s case will become subject to a more rigorous examination and investigation; if it is negative, the case is rejected.On 31 July 2016 the then Prime Minister, Theresa May published an article headed ‘Defeating modern slavery’.  In it she noted ‘a 40% rise in the number of victims identified by the State’ and went on to say, ‘It is hard to comprehend that such sickening and inhuman crimes are lurking in the shadows of our country. But the most recent estimates suggest that there are between 10,000 and 13,000 victims in the UK alone.’

The evidence quoted in the 21 March 2021 press release shows that referrals to the NRM doubled in the period 2017-2020 from 5,141 to 10,613.  In 2019, we are told, 89% of those referrals had a positive ‘reasonable grounds’ assessment. On the face of it, this would seem to indicate that Theresa May’s policy aim of tackling modern slavery was being taken seriously and meeting with some success.

Instead—and without presenting one iota of evidence to justify the assertion of any abuse of the system, let alone a rise in such alleged abuse, still less an ‘alarming’ one—the press release speaks of an ‘alarming rise in people abusing our modern slavery system by posing as victims in order to prevent their removal and enable them stay in the country.’

The fact that only a designated First Responder can admit a person to the NRM is an important protection against abuse of that system: it ensures that individuals and those who represent them cannot clog it up with hopeless or vexatious claimants ‘posing as victims’.  The assertion, therefore, is demonstrably untrue.

Asserting an alarming rise in abuse without evidence is propaganda not public information.

Demonisation of people referred to the NRM system for identifying victims of modern slavery and human trafficking

The suggestion of an ‘alarming rise’ in people ‘posing as victims’ of modern slavery appears under the sub-heading ‘Major increases in child rapists, people who threaten national security and failed asylum seekers clogging up modern slavery system.’  Not only does the press release contain no evidence of any such ‘major increase’, it demonises people referred to this system in two ways: it asserts without evidence that a significant proportion of referrals are ‘posing as victims’; and it lumps ‘failed asylum seekers’ together with ‘child rapists, people who threaten national security’ and, in the body of the press release, ‘serious criminals’.

Child rapists, people who threaten national security and serious criminals are all people who have demonstrably posed a serious danger to the public in some way. ‘Failed’ asylum seekers are not remotely comparable as a class.  Even the use of the word ‘failed’ to refer to people who have had their most recent asylum claim rejected is problematic, as it is by no means unusual for asylum claimants who have previously failed to persuade the state that they are at risk of persecution to succeed after lodging a fresh claim.

Lumping ‘failed’ asylum seekers in with people who pose a serious danger to the public is scurrilous polemic not public information.

Contravention of constitutional principles of public policy

In his preface to the Ministerial Code[2] (Cabinet Office, August 2019), the Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, ‘The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document – integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest – must be honoured at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.’  A similar and related point is made in Government Communication Service Propriety Guidance[3] (Cabinet Office, April 2014):

The following basic criteria have been applied to government communications by successive administrations.

The communication… Should be objective and explanatory, not biased or polemical… Publicly funded government communications cannot be used primarily or solely to meet party political objectives.

While it is a core duty of the Civil Service to assist the government of the day to deliver its policy objectives, that duty remains uncontroversially subject to those principles, as articulated through the Civil Service Code.

This is a matter of constitutional significance.  We all know and recognise the place that polemic and political spin have in political campaigning.  The public does not have an expectation that the pronouncements of campaigning politicians should necessarily be taken literally, at face value.  But there is a legitimate expectation that we ought to be able to trust the factual content of announcements made by government departments.  This trust is an important part of what enables us to tolerate and even rely on government by politicians with whom we do not agree.  We are entitled to expect Ministry press releases to stick to the facts, even while they are promoting policies we may not like.

This press release does not stick to the facts.  As described above, it crosses the line into polemic and propaganda.


For those reasons, we at One Pump Court and a considerable number of colleagues in other sets of chambers have made a formal complaint to the Home Office that the 21 March 2021 press release breached the Civil Service Code core duty to act with ‘integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality’.

The full text of the complaint can be accessed here.





Back to News