How long have you been focusing on modern slavery in Somerset?
Roughly four years ago, we were one of about six dioceses to start working with The Clewer Initiative. We started with several events in Wells Cathedral aimed at schools, the Church and Diocese, local politicians and people of influence and power in the local area.
Can you tell us a bit about modern slavery in Somerset? What sorts of numbers and businesses are we talking about?
We have directly encountered or heard reports of most types of modern slavery. This includes a couple of cases which, while not strictly slavery (in theory a person could leave), were in effect, domestic servitude with side issues of “lending” identity documents or work in a catering business as well as childcare. The most common form of slavery in the county is labour exploitation. The industries affected have included food processing and the care sector and we have been aware of a few international cases as we have a significant port. County lines is also an increasing issue – in the last six months, it has reached endemic proportions.
Officially, 62 people from the Diocesan area (which Includes North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset (BANES)) entered the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) up until March 2020. However, national figures show that probably 90-95 per cent of potential victims do not wish to enter the NRM when offered the opportunity to do so. We believe the real number of victims in the Diocese is nearer 850-900.
What is your vision for your role? What do you believe is possible?
I originally thought I would run a few Hidden Voices courses and this would be “job done” in terms of getting the word out about modern slavery. Instead, it is now clear that each community area above around 12,000 people (e.g. a small market town and its satellite villages) could benefit from an intensive process over about a year to enable communities to build resilience to the issue. We have a long way to go, but paid resources are limited in terms of continuing the roll out – we need to train more people to deliver the Hidden Voices material and then act as local coordinators.
Our ultimate focus is to increase the number of people identified and supported and to develop alternatives to the NRM. Ultimately, knowing many people cannot stay near their place of enslavement, I would like to see a reciprocal version of the Underground Railroad – with us supporting people in Somerset who come from elsewhere and vice versa.
We want to do more in terms of smaller rural communities, where there is a need for different types of communication but the market town/larger village model could help deliver this. The issue is everywhere – a cannabis “gardener” in a small rural hamlet was identified by someone wanting to welcome the new neighbours.
What have you done over the last four years in terms of raising awareness?
Hidden Voices has been an amazing tool – we have run it in three locations and we had three more in planning, prior to lockdown. This has led to many opportunities to talk to groups, local leaders, the voluntary and statutory sector and most importantly, members of our communities.
Although supported by The Clewer Initiative in multiple ways as a Diocese, we have also worked as an ecumenical programme and loose network called “Hidden Voices Somerset (HVS).” Our third Hidden Voices’ group included members of the wider community beyond the church including some local Councillors and the local Mayor.
What have you done over the last four years in terms of working with business?
Prior to lockdown, we had started work on “Slavery-free Sedgemoor” as a prelude to “Slavery-free Somerset.” We plan to aim it at SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises) who are based in our area – rather than big national firms who mostly have their headquarters elsewhere. It involves a series of commitments and a “joining” by businesses.
We were also hoping to start engaging with farmers and local agricultural businesses at Sedgemoor Livestock Centre – a regional market for the South West and beyond. We would like to consider this, once we are fully out of lockdown.
What have you done over the last four years in terms of victim support?
As the reputation and work of our Hidden Voices group grows, people start telling us about situations they are concerned about. After consultation and COVID delays, Hidden Voices Somerset is being funded by the Home Office to begin a victim support project for victims of slavery and exploitation or people at risk of being so, within Somerset and North Somerset. We especially want to help those victims who do not (initially) wish to enter the NRM.
What challenges have you faced?
The combination of COVID and not enough resources to fulfil the potential of this work has been a massive challenge. Sometimes people attend a Hidden Voices course to find out about modern slavery but they don’t want to continue into the active phase. While understandable, this can be discouraging. Sometimes people are surprised that modern slavery is happening on their doorstep rather than 50 miles away in a big city like Bristol. In cases of exploitation when victims are being paid £2 an hour in a car wash, I have sometimes encountered the attitude “well at least they are getting something.”
What would you say to a church or individual who was hoping to pioneer anti-slavery work in a rural setting?
There is an incredible opportunity to take a full/whole community approach – I would recommend contacting all the homes and businesses with leaflets and using places where people gather, to talk about modern slavery. Offer to talk to any group that is willing to have you, whether this be via the church or other means. Where possible link with other villages or your nearest market town. Be careful not to “point the finger” at any one type of business – talk in general terms recognising that employers do not often know they are employing slaves.
What are your hopes for the next year?
I hope the victim support pilot meets a need, and that we start many more Hidden Voices Groups. We would like to focus more on county lines resilience by piloting “door to door” contact with communities at risk.