Before the Prime Minister parrots his prepared answer about increases in the number of people accessing our modern slavery system, let me educate him and everyone else in this House, that the biggest increase in the last ten years has been from the huge increase in British adults and children trafficked for sex and crime within Britain.
Just to correct the Honourable Lady, it is actually now a minority of people in our modern slavery referral system that are from the UK.
The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak clashed with Labour MP and shadow home office minister Jess Phillips at last week’s PMQs, with each presenting a different claim about the modern slavery statistics and then appearing to contradict what the other had said.
In a question to the PM, Ms Phillips claimed that the biggest increase in the last ten years in people accessing the modern slavery referral system was “from the huge increase in British adults and children trafficked for sex and crime within Britain”. Mr Sunak then said he would “correct” her, claiming it is “now a minority” of people referred who are from the UK. Ms Phillips later rejected that claim in a tweet, saying that “British people are not the minority in the modern slavery figures”.
In fact, neither of the original claims made by Ms Phillips and Mr Sunak appear to be incorrect, though it depends on exactly what definitions they were using, and there are some unknowns in the data.
Ministers and other politicians should use statistics and data transparently and responsibly, and quickly correct misleading claims when they are made. It is also important they do not accuse other politicians of misusing data if the figures they’ve used may in fact be accurate.
Honesty in public debate matters
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What’s driven the rise in modern slavery referrals over the past 10 years?
Ms Phillips and Mr Sunak were both referring to data on the number of potential victims of modern slavery (which includes any form of human trafficking, slavery, servitude or forced labour as set out in the Modern Slavery Act) referred into the National Referral Mechanism, or NRM.
NRM data is recorded by nationality of the person referred, as well as separately by the location of exploitation (recorded as “UK” only, “overseas” only, or both).
Whether Ms Phillips was right to claim the biggest increase in the last ten years in people accessing the modern slavery referral system was “from the huge increase in British adults and children trafficked for sex and crime within Britain” depends on how you interpret the data.
Full Fact asked Ms Phillips for the source of her claim and she responded by pointing to the fact that in 2022, the Home Office said: “This was the first year since 2016 that UK nationals were not the most commonly referred nationality to the NRM; nonetheless their number was the highest since the NRM began.”
She also referred us to the NRM data for the last 10 years, and said that since 2016 there had been a huge growth in UK nationals referrals, adding: “In many of the years in the last decade the increase in UK national referrals outstrips the overall growth in referrals from all nationalities.”
To consider this claim, we looked at the available NRM data between 2012 and 2022.
In 2012, UK nationals represented just 3% of the total 1,178 referrals. By 2022, Brits were 25% of the almost 17,000. So it’s definitely true that UK national referrals have increased markedly, both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the total.
If we add up the total number of referrals for each nationality over the past 10 years, then the picture is more complex. UK nationals have the highest total number of referrals in the years between 2012 and 2022 inclusive (17,749) followed by Albanians (14,335). But if we just compare the years 2012 and 2022, there has been a slightly higher increase in the number of Albanian referrals (4,485) than in the number of UK national referrals (4,151).
Looking at it another way, the increase in UK national referrals still accounts for a relatively small proportion of the overall increase—most of the increase in referrals over the last 10 years has been non-UK nationals.
Overall, there were 15,760 more referrals in 2022 than in 2012. Of that increase, 4,151 more were UK nationals and 11,609 were not. And in all the years between 2012 and 2022 inclusive, there have been 75,271 referrals, of which 17,749 were UK nationals and 57,522 were not. People from the UK didn’t enter the top three most referred nationalities until 2016.
Crucially, none of this data tells us about the final bit of Ms Phillips’ claim—that the increase in referrals has been driven by a rise in trafficking of UK nationals “within Britain”. The data on NRM referrals records nationality and location of exploitation separately, so while it shows how many UK nationals were referred, and how many referrals relate to trafficking within the UK, we’ve not been able to see how many UK national referrals relate to trafficking within the UK.
What about Mr Sunak’s claim?
Mr Sunak stated in his response to Ms Phillips that “it is actually now a minority of people in our modern slavery referral system that are from the UK”.
Although Ms Phillips later disputed this claim, what Mr Sunak said was correct according to the latest published data for 2022. It shows that in that year UK nationals were the second-most referred nationality (25%) after Albanians (27%).
However, looking back to previous years, UK nationals were the most-referred single nationality between 2017 and 2021.
Image courtesy of Nick Page