Modern slavery: Support workers warned not to speak out about fears for victims

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Support workers for modern slavery victims are being prevented from speaking out against cuts to their allowances, The Independent can reveal – with lawyers and campaigners warning that this is blocking their access to justice.

Hundreds of people identified as potential modern slavery victims had their weekly government allowance – which is intended to aid their recovery – stopped without warning in August.

Support workers – who are employed by charities – assist survivors with many aspects of their lives and are often their first port of call for problems. But the workers were told “do not comment” if approached by legal representatives for trafficking victims, in emails sent by the Salvation Army and seen by The Independent. The Salvation Army is contracted by the government to support victims, and it subcontracts this work to 12 charities. 

Lawyers say the “do not comment” order has stopped them from gathering evidence to demonstrate to the courts how victims have been affected by loss of their allowance. Support workers fear they will be “penalised” for providing information and describe a “culture of silence” caused by their employment contract.

Campaigners and MPs said “gagging” caseworkers in this way “limited” the justice system. They called on the government to enable charities to address “systematic barriers” to support for modern slavery victims, rather than “deny evidence” that could allow them to access justice.

Among those affected by the allowance cut was a Kenyan woman believed to have been trafficked to the UK, where she was held in a brothel and forced to have sex daily. The loss of financial support meant she was unable to access toiletries, including sanitary pads and toothpaste, or top up her phone in order to contact her support worker and lawyers.

The government identifies and supports victims of trafficking through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), which requires the Home Office to provide support to aid recovery, and house them in “safe house” accommodation if required.

This support is arranged through the Victim Care Contract, currently held by the Salvation Army, which subcontracts to the 12 other charitable organisations to deliver care and assistance to victims.

An email from the Salvation Army to the subcontractors on 11 August 2020 ordered staff “not to discuss or publish anything in relation to legal cases naming either the Home Office, the Salvation Army or any subcontractors as defendants or as interested parties”.

The email read: “If you are approached by any outside organisation, including legal reps or members of the press, for comment or statements. DO NOT COMMENT.  Advice is to provide no comment or statement, either in writing or verbally, and instead direct them to address any comments or questions to the Home Office Press team.”

The email was sent days after it emerged that trafficking survivors had had their financial support cut without warning, and that lawyers were mounting a legal challenge against the decision.

A Salvation Army spokesperson said the email was sent “to remind [its] support staff that failing to maintain confidentiality could ultimately harm the people they are seeking to care for”. A Home Office spokesperson said the email was “not meant to prevent workers from supporting legal challenges against the Home Office on cases they have individually worked”, and that it was working with the Salvation Army to ensure this communication was “corrected”.

Support workers told The Independent there was a “culture of silence” in the contract due to the subcontracted charities’ fear that they would be decommissioned if staff criticised the Home Office.

One, who asked not to be named, said that any chance of speaking out about concerns they had about support for victims was “swallowed up” by the Salvation Army’s “control” over who they “can and can’t talk to”.

“They have a whistleblowing policy in place, which I’ve always taken to mean that completely swallows up the process of somebody speaking out, because we can’t automatically go outside the organisation to raise concerns and so who would we do that to?” the caseworker said.

Another support worker, who has now left their role and also asked not to be named, said: “There is a culture of silence and perceived threat system for subcontractors.

“Disciplinary is handed down swiftly to caseworkers who dare to challenge policy decisions that endanger or undermine their clients’ rights, and this is because of the threat of contractual termination from both the Salvation Army and the Home Office.

“But all of this is done quietly and passively with strict warnings that you should not be challenging the Home Secretary when she fails to discharge her duties to victims of trafficking.”

At the end of August, days before the legal action against the support cuts was due to take place, the Home Office made a U-turn, announcing changes to its modern slavery guidance. The trafficking victims who had lost their financial support would now continue to receive it, although at a reduced rate.

The lawyers who brought the case are now trying to argue that those who lost out on financial support as a result of the change should receive the correct amount in back payments – but said they were being “hindered” in their ability to obtain information on the number of people affected by the cut, due to support workers’ fear of speaking out.

Ahmed Aydeed, director of public law at Duncan Lewis Solicitors, said in a statement to the High Court that he had spoken to support workers who had expressed concerns that they would be “penalised” for providing evidence in legal cases concerning victims of trafficking.

“As a result, we have found it very difficult to obtain information from support providers. I am concerned that the Salvation Army may have forbidden support providers from speaking to us at the request of the defendant (who pays the Salvation Army for its services) in an effort to stifle our ability to prosecute this claim,” he added.

On 27 August, Mr Aydeed wrote to the Salvation Army requesting an urgent explanation as to why it had directed support workers not to provide any information to clients’ lawyers, warning that this meant they were unable to assist their clients in providing “important information that is helpful to their legal proceedings”. The charity has not responded.

Labour MP Paul Blomfield said: “These reports are really concerning; lawyers working on controversial, difficult cases must have all the information available, and support workers often have invaluable insights which could provide much-needed detail.

“Gagging them in the way that’s reported limits the justice system, by denying the information that could make the difference in a life-changing judgement.”

Maya Esslemont, founder of data mapping project After Exploitation, said charities must feel “emboldened” to advocate for survivors “without exception”. She called on the government to “stop denying evidence where it could allow individual victims to access justice, and enable the wider sector to address systematic barriers to support”.

She added: “We are horrified that the government is diverting resource into suppressing, rather than remedying, failures to support survivors.”

The Victim Care Contract itself states that subcontractors must “indemnify and keep indemnified and hold the contractor and the government harmless from and against all actions, suits, claims, demands, damages, expenses, legal costs (on a solicitor and client basis) and other liabilities”.

It goes on to state that subcontractors must take “reasonable care to ensure that in the performance of the services and its other obligations under the contract it does not disrupt the operations or affect the reputation of the contractor or the authority”.

Victoria Marks, director and solicitor at the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit, said the fear among support workers of speaking out meant survivors of trafficking and slavery were being “routinely failed by the very system that is intended to safeguard them”.

“Unfortunately, the nature of this contract means that the agencies tasked with ensuring that survivors receive the support they need are unable to speak out or support survivors to realise their rights when the Home Office fails to meet its legal responsibilities,” she added.

Rachel Smith, London project and survivor policy lead at the Human Trafficking Foundation, said any attempt to restrict access to legal help had a direct impact on survivors’ rights and was a “grave cause for concern”.

She added: “Access to legal support for survivors can mean the difference between a roof over their head and being street homeless in the immediate term and in the long term can determine the entirety of a person’s life.”

Major Kathy Betteridge, director of anti-trafficking and modern slavery for the Salvation Army, said the letter sent to employees in the Victim Care Contract was “to remind our support staff that failing to maintain confidentiality could ultimately harm the people they are seeking to care for”. 

She added: “The primary concern of the Salvation Army and our subcontractors is the welfare of the people we support through the Victim Care Contract. Not only are these people especially vulnerable, but they can require complex legal support.

“Our role is to ensure our clients have access to the best possible legal representation and key to that is maintaining confidentiality to ensure we do not prejudice any legal proceedings.”

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A Home Office spokesperson said they did not recognise the “culture of silence”, adding: “The email lacks context. It referred to support workers or other employees within the Victim Care Contract speaking to media or legal advisers about cases they had not personally been involved.

“It was not meant to prevent workers from supporting legal challenges against the Home Office on cases they have individually worked.”

They said the department was working with the Salvation Army to ensure this communication was corrected and to remind support workers of their role in supporting victims in legal matters.

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