This was a collaborative project that exposed extensive inadequacies in the UK’s response to modern slavery more than five years on from the introduction of landmark legislation. It was anchored on a number of data-driven pieces and built upon by searching news pieces and features from an eight-strong team of reporters located in newsrooms across the UK. We put together a comprehensive article pack to share with our local newsrooms across JPIMedia, containing exclusive FOI findings and open data analysis with data organised to allow titles to localise their coverage to their own police force or council areas.
The UK’s landmark modern slavery legislation was purportedly designed to send “the strongest possible message to criminals that if you are involved in this disgusting trade in human beings you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted and you will be locked up”. Our reporting showed the opposite is true. The vast majority of cases investigated by police have seen no charges brought – our analysis found that UK police forces had failed to bring charges in more than 19,000 modern slavery offences since 2015, 19 out of 20 cases – while the CPS had lost four out of five of the small number of cases that make it to court, with suspects waking free and even those found guilty often escaping with nothing more than a fine. Our findings were clear – despite strong rhetoric from politicians, not only are slavery offences taking place on a vast scale in every corner of the UK, the perpetrators are going largely unpunished.
Freedom of Information Act requests also exposed how the UK may be breaching its international obligations to ensure victims of modern slavery have access to compensation – the 2015 legislation having reiterated the importance of such compensation to victims’ recovery and introduced new measures such as Slavery and Trafficking Reparation Orders. The figures we obtained showed the vast majority of applicants to Government-sponsored programmes of redress are unsuccessful. Figures also suggest courts are failing to impose compensation orders when convicting people of offences, despite their mandatory-by-default nature. This was the first time the failure to enact this part of the legislation was brought to light. We also were able to draw attention to the data gaps that exist through a failure to properly monitor the legislation’s impact.
We carried out analysis of open data on police recorded crime from the Home Office to analyse the outcomes of around 20,000 modern slavery offences recorded across England and Wales since 2015, finding around 19 in 20 cases were closed by police without any charges being brought. We also analysed open data on court records from the Ministry of Justice to trace the outcomes of the few modern slavery cases that make it to court, calculating conviction rates and average custodial sentences to highlight the relatively soft penalties faced by those convicted when compared with the tough approach promised in the legislation. This analysis was carried out with Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets. We created user-friendly databases to share via Sheets with non-data specialist reporters in JPI’s local newsrooms, so they could localise our stories to their area. We also used Freedom of Information Act requests to gather similar data for Scotland and Northern Ireland, where a weaker open data culture meant these figures were otherwise inaccessible.
Analysis of Home Office figures on the National Referral Mechanism also allowed us to build victim profiles for police force areas across the UK to give local titles an insight into the situation in their area, and calculated changes in volume of victims identified over the initial Covid period.
Finally, where the data analysis is concerned, we submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to plug data gaps on victims’ access to compensation, finding that the vast majority of applications for compensation to CICA in England and Wales had been rejected, while no compensation applications in Northern Ireland had been successful.
Flourish was used to create data visualisations with localised filters, that could be used in all coverage, both national and regional.
What was the hardest part of this project?
If there is one thing our investigation into the Modern Slavery Act 2015 came up against time and again, it was a lack of reliable data – and this is something we sought to highlight. The 2015 Act brought in a range of measures to protect and support victims, alongside creating a new umbrella offence with tougher penalties for perpetrators.
This included Slavery and Trafficking Reparation Orders – compensation orders that courts must consider making whenever they convict someone of slavery offences, to redistribute the proceeds of their crimes to their victims. But the Ministry of Justice has failed to collect any data on their use. It rejected our freedom of information request asking how many had been issued and the values awarded, saying only individual courts have that information.
There is also no data collected on the use of a new statutory defence the Act created, to give victims who have been coerced into criminal activities through exploitation a defence in court. An independent review of the Act in 2019 raised concerns that there was “limited understanding” of this defence among police and lawyers. It recommended the Government collect data on its use, alongside that of compensation orders.
Our project was therefore shining a light in areas where data gaps seemed almost by design to be preventing effective scrutiny.
It was also challenging to gather data for each of the devolved UK nations that could rival that available in England and Wales, to track how slavery and trafficking is being tackled in each country. We overcame the challenge through Freedom of Information Act requests however care was needed when combining each country’s figures due to differences in data collection and definitions.
What can others learn from this project?
Other journalists could learn from our collaborative approach. While the data work in this project was done by one data specialist (Harriet Clugston), the project was brought to life by a series of searching features, explainers, survivor testimony and non-data driven news pieces from a team of reporters. The local knowledge held by some of the team – for instance of the pressing issue of sex trafficking in towns in the North West of England – also shaped our focus. We also worked with audiovisual producers to create video content and a podcast to repackage our findings to new audiences.