Darrell Simester is a British national who was captured and enslaved on a farm in Wales for 13 years, working 16 hours a day of forced labour and living in bare, squalid conditions. His family persistently tried and failed to get help from the police and were eventually forced to find and rescue him themselves, aided by a social media campaign. Although a welcome, rare conviction was secured against his traffickers, Mr Simester has not yet received compensation, and it appears he is now suffering “a second betrayal” in what the Committee has previously called the “inexcusable” failures of the welfare system to support victims of slavery.
Accounts of "shoddy, error-ridden reports"
Mr Simester is now facing the difficulties with the disability benefits system the Committee documented in its major inquiry into PIP and ESA Assessments. The inquiry heard thousands of accounts of the “shoddy, error-ridden reports” produced by private contractors for DWP to base benefits decisions on, and concluded that the PIP, ESA trust deficit fails claimants and the public purse – with particular concerns about the assessors’ capacity in relation to mental health issues. After his most recent Work Capacity Assessment Mr Simester’s benefit was reduced, leaving him £400 worse off a year.
The inquiry found the assessment problems compounded by a protracted and distressing appeals process that sees unacceptably high levels of decisions eventually overturned, often with no new evidence being presented. It was recently reported that one man’s family had only finally obtained “justice” in his ESA appeal seven months after he’d died - again, on the basis of the initial evidence. The Committee recently wrote to DWP alarmed at information that GPs are being advised by the Department not to issue the Fit Notes ( PDF 220 KB) ESA claimants need to claim the “assessment rate” of ESA while their claim is being considered.
Rt Hon Frank Field MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said:
“Slavery is a crime against humanity, and one which is alive in Britain now. We have already, by definition, failed the thousands of victims of slavery in the UK today once. It is a bitter and inexcusable second betrayal for them to escape slavery and turn to our social “safety” net, and find instead humiliation and hardship.
Mr Simester is now trapped a second time in this shoddy, error-ridden system of assessment for disability benefits. Our front-line response to slavery must be equipped to recognise and fight for, not against, the victims of a vile injustice.”
10,000 - 13,000 estimated victims of slavery in the UK
Latest estimates are still that there are between 10,000 and 13,000 slaves - victims of modern slavery - in the UK, but the current mechanism for identifying and supporting them out of slavery means that victims, once identified, have no automatic formal rights and are often faced with a total lack of understanding or even recognition of their situation.
The Committee heard testimony of one victim, Client M, who "escaped from his traffickers but it took four years before someone recognised that he was a potential victim of modern slavery … the adviser in the Jobcentre [who knew his story] did not pick up on that … he lost four years before someone finally offered him the help and pointed him where he should go further".
The Committee heard direct, private evidence of frontline JCP staff totally unprepared to deal with victims of modern slavery. One woman recounted how, when trying to obtain a National Insurance Number, her description of her situation was greeted in the JCP by her adviser saying, clearly audibly through the public room: "Oh my God, you were trafficked. Oh my God, I’ve only seen that on the television."
Front line support is weak and uncoordinated
In 2017 the Committee reported on victims of modern slavery concluded that failures in the UK’s system for dealing with modern slavery are allowing the “inexcusable scenario of victims reduced to destitution while their abusers go free because they are not adequately supported’. The Committee found that front line support is weak and uncoordinated, with instances where a person was re-trafficked not even recorded, helping to explain the UK's appalling conviction record.
The Committee heard that DWP staff were ill equipped to respond to the needs of victims, with 'very limited or even no knowledge and understanding of modern slavery and the impact it has on its victims.' DWP have said they are treated as victims of crime, and advisers and work coaches can use their discretion to tailor support, but the Committee heard shocking evidence of insensitive and uninformed responses in JCPs, to people who may not themselves understand that they have become a victim of modern slavery.
The Victims of modern slavery inquiry was instigated at the request of the UK's Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, who wrote to the Committee expressing his concerns that the support on offer to someone conclusively determined to be a victim of modern slavery was "inadequate", while Baroness Butler-Sloss has said that the outcome of the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) process is "nothing but a piece of paper" to victims. The inquiry built on the pre-legislative work done by the Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill - UK Parliament , also chaired by Frank Field.