My predecessors in this role worked hard to progress this issue in their historical work, but it is notoriously difficult. Most other counties in the UK have some sort of multi-agency modern slavery partnership made up of people that help each other to deal with the endemic and nebulous problem of exploitation and modern slavery. Its very terminology is difficult to pin down. ‘Slavery’ is a word that brings to mind images of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, ships and shackles and the awful legacy and scars. But many living in Cumbria are not clear what this might mean to them in their own daily lives and their own local communities.
In 2019 reporting from the Clewer Initiative tells me that 136,000 men, women and children were trapped in modern slavery in the UK. 5,087 adult modern slavery victims were reported, 70% were male, 30% female. The general nature of these cases was 32% labour exploitation, 18% criminal exploitation and 14% sexual exploitation. (The Clewer Initiative is the national work of the Church of England to combat modern slavery.)
A recent article in the News & Star by Joanna Morris on 17th May included a comment from our friend Cumbria Constabulary’s chief inspector Andrew Donnelly – the force’s lead for modern slavery who said:
“People may in the past have thought cases such as these don’t happen somewhere like Cumbria – but we have real examples which demonstrate this is an issue for this county as well as the rest of the UK.”
What does this look like? How can it be happening in Cumbria?
People are made vulnerable by all sorts of issues you will recognise: things like domestic abuse, homelessness, poverty, migration for whatever reason, mental health issues, etc. Such things make a person more open to being persuaded to work in ways and for people that are clearly unwise, criminal or dangerous. People are often groomed, treated well to begin with and then tricked into becoming dependent upon those who would exploit them. It could be the typical nail bars, car washes, crop pickers or other agricultural workers. It could be our own young people tricked into delivering packages of illegal substances in county lines. It could be the catering or tourist industry – who does clean those facilities? Who prepares the food? It could be sex workers in a pop-up brothel in a holiday cottage or rented house nearby, or construction workers. It can be criminal or really shady, it can be visible but unseen…and crucially, unreported.
Once reported, the pathways need to be organised for who deals with potential victims of modern slavery. Whose responsibility is it to care for these folk when they are discovered? Not just one group or department, but there are many complicated needs to address. The recommendations are that a victim of modern slavery is assessed and cared for in a similar way to a case of domestic abuse, where a MARAC (Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference) is convened and the different needs are assessed and distributed for attention accordingly. The government pathway for a victim of modern slavery is through what is called the NRM (National Referral Mechanism) where an individual is interviewed by a trained person who can listen to their story, try to assess the situation and offer options. There are complications that can mean the NRM is not necessarily a comfortable pathway, and then, who should conduct the interview? It’s better if that interviewer is someone who can be easily trusted, and even so sometimes the process is slow and bumpy due to over-subscription.
Frontline professionals in health, housing, social care, police, and other support agencies need to be pulled together, and who has the time and other resources to do that if the government does not adequately fund or hold bodies accountable for this?
And then there is the issue of poor awareness of this issue across the region, both in professional arenas and that of the general public…and what of within our churches? There is much to do in order for everybody to be aware of what to watch out for.
In conversations with new friends working with national modern slavery support agencies it was brought to my attention that one of the missing pieces in Cumbria might be that of a dedicated modern slavery partnership coordinator. Everybody has so much to do (too much) and too little to do it with. Everybody’s desks are constantly bombarded with issues that take precedence over this, even if only temporarily, and even with the best heart and will in the world this issue and the accompanying work can be overlooked. A coordinator has proved, in other areas of the country, to be a key to success in pulling different folk together to deal with this. It’s a messy issue and it’s never going to be dealt with perfectly, but is that a reason not to push onwards?
I am grateful to CTiC for their encouragement and support for me to investigate this possibility further. My current role has me speaking to many of the right people and groups for this work across the region, and even attending a fair share of the right existing meetings. Funding options for a role like this are being explored and I’m making many fantastic new friends in Cumbria and far beyond who are in conversation with us about how to best progress with this.
I believe there are current circumstances in Cumbria increasing the risk of exploitation and modern slavery in our county. These include recession and the growing number of people struggling with poverty, the after-math of Covid in various and complicated ways, the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers in the region and increased pressures on statutory services such as the NHS and local councils.
At its heart, this issue is about real people – men, women and children – living in our own communities and more often than we imagine from local roots, who are trapped in lives of exploitation. These people do soul-destroying work, get paid little or nothing, live in terrible conditions and in fear, often physically and emotionally abused. They may travel next to us on the train, be part of providing our food or providing services, they may be in the holiday cottage down the road, transacting business on our street corner…they are amongst us. And I believe that if some of the work I’ve described here can be undertaken, if the awareness and reporting pathways are created, I think we’ll find (as is the case in other areas) that this is unfortunately more prevalent in Cumbria than we think.
If you spot something, you can report it. Support is available from the Modern Slavery and Exploitation Helpline on 08000 121 700.
You can find out more here: https://theclewerinitiative.org/
Watch this video: We See You: Modern Slavery in the UK - YouTube
You can complete free training online through the Church of England safeguarding training portal. Safeguarding Training Portal (cofeportal.org)
Or you can contact me, Ecumenical Social Responsibility Officer firstname.lastname@example.org