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Statistics Regulator reprimands Home Office for modern slavery claims

The Home Office has been reprimanded by the UK statistics watchdog for claiming that a rise in trafficking referrals meant that confirmed victims were ‘gaming’ the system. 

In response to a sector-wide letter, voicing concerns around the Home Office’s claims, the Office for Statistics Regulation yesterday said that the available figures did not support the claim that people were ‘abusing’ the UK’s framework for recognising trafficking survivors. 

The Director General, Ed Humpherson, confirmed that Home Office officials had been unable to provide any specific evidence for its claims. Instead, the watchdog said that rising trafficking cases were more likely to indicate growing awareness of the system among ‘first responder’ organisations like the police. 

In a separate letter to the Home Office, Humpherson stated that the proportion of referrals deemed by the Home Office to be ‘genuine’ cases of modern slavery has risen year by year from 58% in 2016 to 91% in 2021, and that “does not suggest in itself that gaming [of the system] is a growing problem.” 

The Office of the Statistics Regulator asked the Home Office to clarify its sources in future to “avoid the risk of misleading people”

The original complaint raised concerns regarding data integrity, after the Home Secretary told Conservative Party Conference in October that “modern slavery laws are being abused by people gaming the system. We’ve seen a 450% increase in modern slavery claims since 2014”.

The OSR was responding to a complaint from the non-profit organisations After Exploitation and the Centre for Public Data, along with more than 20 researchers and organisations, which welcomed the findings.

Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation, said: “We welcome work by the Office of National Statistics’ Regulator, Ed Humpherson, investigating the sector’s concerns around the misuse of modern slavery data. This will act as some modest form of vindication for survivors of modern slavery, who have been subjected to harsh rhetoric and restricted support in recent months.”

Anna Powell-Smith, director of the Centre for Public Data, said: “We’re pleased to see the Office for Statistics Regulation shares the sector’s concerns about data quality and the use of statistics. We hope that the Home Office will now work with anti-slavery organisations to improve the quality of evidence available to strengthen the system and support victims.”

The organisations’ complaint also raised concerns about a number of occasions on which the Home Office told MPs that it did not collect data on modern slavery, but similar data was later shown to be available.

The letter highlighted an example in April 2019, where an MP asked how many known modern slavery victims were subsequently removed from the UK under immigration rules, and was told the Home Office did not collate this data. However, a month later, the Home Office supplied the same data in response to a Freedom of Information request.

In its response to the organisations, the Office for Statistics Regulation agreed that “the Home Office could have been more transparent” about why it did not disclose data to Parliament.

Notes:

Contacts:

Maya Esslemont, Director, After Exploitation, info@afterexploitation.org
Anna Powell-Smith, Director, Centre for Public Data, Anna@centreforpublicdata.org

Longer quotes:

Maya Esslemont said: 

“We welcome work by the Office of National Statistics’ Regulator, in investigating the sector’s concerns around the misuse of modern slavery data. A wide variety of stakeholders will be heartened to see these concerns addressed, as charities, legal professionals, academics and journalists remain reliant on the Government for accurate information on exploitation. The Regulator’s acknowledgment that “NRM statistics do not support the claims that people are “gaming” the modern slavery system” will also act as some modest form of vindication for survivors of modern slavery, after a number of Government speeches and press releases have portrayed in a negative light since 2021. Instances in which statistics have been misused in public relations resources and speeches by consecutive Home Secretaries are non-exhaustively listed in the sector’s complaint, now available here.

“We hope to see proactive monitoring of the Home Office’s use of modern slavery statistics, and concerns around claims made to the detriment of victims. We look forward to continued work with stakeholders, to keep raising the need for statistics on support outcomes, such as the number of counsellors, safe house spaces, and caseworkers made available to human trafficking survivors.”

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