What the NRM reforms mean for children and why they are still lacking

The Home Office recently announced a series of long-awaited reforms to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the UK’s main framework for identifying and protecting victims of trafficking. However, despite some key developments, for children, the reforms remain surface level and fail to address children’s fundamental safeguarding and protection needs.

In recognition of its weaknesses, and in answer to a strong civil society call for change, the Home Office announced a series of changes to the NRM. The main thrust of these changes is to create a new Home Office unit responsible for decision-making about victims of modern slavery, as well as to review some negative decisions by independent experts. There will also be a new digital system created to support the NRM. Specifically for children, the Government also re-stated its commitment to rolling out the Independent Child Trafficking Advocate (ICTA) scheme nationally, as well as announcing it will look into making the NRM more ‘child friendly’.

Aspects of these changes indicate a step in the right direction for children. For example, the new Home Office team will no longer be directly linked to immigration officials. This is a welcome move, noting the unnecessary focus on immigration concerns of trafficking victims and evidence of discrimination against non-EU nationals within the system. The fact that some negative decisions will be reviewed by a panel of independent experts adds an additional layer of scrutiny to a process which currently has no appeals process and has often proved insensitive in dealing with children.

But looking more closely at the changes, there are significant questions left unanswered and problems left unresolved. The new unit created will still be part of the Home Office, based in central-Government, far removed from the child and without full independence from immigration decisions. Also, the independent decision-making panels will only review ‘conclusive grounds’ decisions (the second stage decision in the process). ECPAT UK has seen many instances of poor decision-making at the ‘reasonable grounds’ stage (the first stage decision) – even cases where the social workers directly supporting the child believe they are trafficked but the Home Office has given a negative decision on paper. The ICTA scheme, which has showed huge benefits for children, was already a Government commitment in the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. With the timeframe for its rollout still unclear, perhaps not until beyond 2019, the lack of urgency is concerning. And a more ‘child friendly’ NRM sounds promising, but what will this mean in practice for children seeking protection?

Children represent about a third of potential victims of trafficking entering the NRM system. These victims are particularly vulnerable and they face specific risks, for example age assessments or going missing from care. They also have specific rights, for example to have best interest assessments undertaken by competent professionals but this is still not the case. Despite these needs, the way in which decisions are made in the current system is largely the same as for adults. Decisions about the future of these children are made by Home Office officials and national police, usually who have never met the child. This is ultimately a decision about child abuse, yet it is now set to be made by policy-makers in Westminster.

A recent report of a survey undertaken by ECPAT UK of frontline professionals showed that the majority of frontline workers who are tasked with protecting child victims of trafficking do not believe that the current NRM is working effectively for children. Only 7% of respondents believed that the system should remain as it currently is. As those with first-hand knowledge of how the system is working, their perspectives must be listened to. Amongst the changes they identified to improve the system were to make it closer to the children affected, more multi-agency and part of the existing child protection system, as well as provide better specialist support for those who have been trafficked.

This reflects ECPAT UK’s long-held view, and current campaign for structural reform to the NRM to truly reflect children’s needs. In our view, the Government should create a model based at a local or regional level with trained multi-agency child protection actors (such as in a Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub, or equivalent). The decision to assess if a child has been exploited should be undertaken by skilled child protection professionals, working together in a multi-agency setting with assistance from specialist civil society actors – as is proven best practice. A ‘hub’ setting could also provide intelligence on trafficking locally and nationally, and would ensure that each child who has been a victim of modern slavery receives specialist support based on their individual needs, where their best interests are situated at the heart of all decisions.

Child victims of trafficking are children first and foremost and should be treated as such within the well-established parameters of the child protection system. The Government should recognise this and create an NRM designed around meeting these children’s’ specific needs.

                                   

By Catherine Baker, Policy and Campaigns Officer at ECPAT UK