Wednesday, 12th August 2020

ECPAT UK and The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, have today launched a review examining what works in existing multi-agency decision making frameworks to help inform future thinking on potential pilots for local decision making for child victims of trafficking within the UK's National Referral Mechanism (NRM).

Each year, referrals into the NRM - the UK's system for identifying victims of trafficking - are increasing. In 2019, 4,550 children were referred into the NRM representing over 43% of all referrals. While this increase may indicate increased awareness of the NRM among professionals coming into contact with children, the increase in referrals has highlighted fractures within the current system including:

  • concerns about the quality of NRM decisions
  • the timeliness of decisions and the impact of this delay on safeguarding actions
  • a disconnect between the NRM and local safeguarding processes
  • continued examples of agencies working in silos and gaps in knowledge among professionals about the NRM and what it means for children.

Since the NRM was introduced in 2009, there have been multiple attempts to propose and pilot alternative decision making models for both children and adults.

The review identifies existing models currently used in multi-agency decision making frameworks for safeguarding adults and children. Recommendations for UK government and local safeguarding partners in line with potential plans to pilot devolved NRM decision making call for:

  • a devolved NRM decision making model that is intrinsically linked to local safeguarding structures
  • sufficient funding for local safeguarding partnerships to meet the demands of contextual safeguarding interventions for children and young people who have been trafficked and exploited within their overall safeguarding duties, as well as funding for any additional resource required to make NRM decisions locally
  • all decisions to be made to attain the best interests of the child; facilitating the voice of the child by ensuring that children's wishes and feelings are understood and are taken into account.

Dame Sara Thornton, Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, said

“This timely review provides practical insights to influence potential pilots on devolved National Referral Mechanism decision making for child trafficking victims. We have seen a dramatic rise of children identified as victims of modern slavery and trafficking over recent years, with 4,550 child potential victims referred into the NRM in 2019. I am deeply concerned that the current system is not working and that we are not providing the wrap-around care that young people desperately need. We need to look at this urgently to ensure we are supporting these children to a safer future, and preventing further harm and re-exploitation.

This was a welcome opportunity to work with ECPAT UK, a leading charity in the field working to protect children from trafficking, abuse and exploitation, and placing child-centred decision making at the heart of policy making. This was a true collaboration from the outset and I look forward to progressing this work with all partners in local and national government to improve the system of support for child victims of modern slavery and exploitation.”

Patricia Durr, CEO of ECPAT UK, said

“ECPAT UK has consistently raised concerns about how the National Referral Mechanism works for child victims of trafficking. Our biggest concern is to ensure an integrated approach to children's rights and needs for protection so that children who have been trafficked are provided with specialist care to help them overcome the trauma of exploitation and prevent re-trafficking and other forms of abuse. We are so pleased that the Commissioner is committed to this goal too and to have had the opportunity to work collaboratively on this review.

Children's best interests must be at the heart of any decision making and without an approach that is truly joined up with local child safeguarding structures and processes, it is hard to see how this can be achieved. Working together we can all do better to improve decision making, increase understanding and improve practice so that we keep our focus on supporting and protecting children and young people - which is our collective goal, after all.”

Update: We have now released responses to the questions raised during our launch event on the 12th August. You can view them here.


Press contacts

Sinead Geoghegan, Communications and Media Manager, ECPAT UK, [email protected], 07402 985 113

Katherine Lawson, Communications Officer, Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Comissioner, [email protected], 020 3513 0477


  • A launch event for the review was held on the 12th August 2020 - you can watch a recording of the event here and download the slides here.
  • Part 4 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 created the role of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. The Commissioner has a UK-wide remit to encourage good practice in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of slavery and human trafficking offences and the identification of victims. ECPAT UK successfully campaigned for the introduction of an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner as part of its Three Small Steps campaign.
  • The Commissioner is given an annual budget with which to appoint staff and carry out her duties. She is accountable through her strategic plan and annual reports, which the Secretary of State lays before Parliament, setting out the extent to which objectives and priorities are achieved. Her Strategic Plan 2019 – 2021 was launched in October 2019.
  • Dame Sara Thornton was appointed as the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner by the Secretary of State following consultation with the Scottish Ministers and the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland. She took up post at the beginning of May 2019 and her appointment is for three years.
  • Every Child Protected Against Trafficking (ECPAT UK) is a leading children's rights organisation working to protect children from trafficking and transnational exploitation. ECPAT UK was set up 25 years ago as the UK member of the ECPAT International network of 118 organisations in 102 countries working to end child exploitation. We produced the UK's first research into child trafficking in 2001 and an ongoing programme of research, training, youth participation and advocacy informs our campaigns. We work directly with young victims of trafficking, having set up the UK's first and award-winning peer support group for victims of child trafficking.