Victims of modern slavery are being offered a way out of the darkness through a pioneering education course at a specialist Yorkshire college. Chris Burn reports.
Wentworth Castle was built hundreds of years ago using the profits from the slave trade but the grand country house in the rolling Yorkshire countryside has now become the home to a ground-breaking new project to support survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking to rebuild their lives after liberation.
Now home to adult educational centre Northern College, the site on the outskirts of Barnsley has welcomed a group of new students in recent weeks who have been rescued from lives of servitude and provided with safe houses in Sheffield and Leeds while the Home Office assesses their cases.
The 10-week pilot course, which started last month and is running until July, sees students aged between 22 and 68 staying at the residential college between Wednesdays and Fridays and learning IT skills, as well as doing creative writing and history, in addition to learning more about workplace rights and working on improving their English skills.
Among the group of around 14 students on the course, who are mainly from Eastern Europe and Africa, is Victor (not his real name), a 34-year-old from Latvia who was ‘befriended’ by a man and woman in his home country who said they would help him to come England to find work.
But when he arrived, his passport and bank cards were taken from him and he was forced to work 60-hour weeks in a dairy, lifting and moving heavy loads from a freezer to a warehouse, for just £50 in cash. During this time, he was living in a terraced house with seven other men, sleeping on the floor as there was no bed or mattress made available to him.
He says that with no English language skills and no knowledge of the law in this country, he had no idea he was being exploited - a situation which continued for two years during which time he was subjected to threats and violence from the people he had initially considered as friends.
His escape only came about after police raided the house where he and his colleagues were being held. Now supported by a charity and living in a Yorkshire safehouse, Victor was one of the first people to be referred to the programme.
Course organiser Jane Williamson says the scheme is already having a beneficial effect for people who are ‘in limbo’ as they wait for decisions on their status and whether they will allowed to remain in the country.
“One of the problems that people who have been trafficked face is a lot of them are in a no-man’s land when it comes to their immigration status,” she says. “They have no recourse to public funding; they can’t access education, can’t claim benefits and can’t work. They are given an allowance from the Government called the National Referral Mechanism.
Under the NRM, it is a requirement of public authorities to offer support to suspected victims of modern slavery for ‘at least 45 days’ including accommodation and access to appropriate legal advice.
But Jane says decisions can often take much longer than 45 days. “It can take 100 to 200 days, there have been people waiting for decisions for over a year as the Home Office decides whether they have or haven’t been trafficked. If they get a yes decision, they can be given leave to remain or can be given assistance to go back to their country or origin.
“If they get a ‘no’, there is no right to challenge that, there is no right to appeal. A lot of people will make asylum seeker claims at the same time.
“I used to work in youth homelessness and though the benefit system there was complicated - but compared to immigration, it is incredible. Even after the trauma they have been through, people are left in this no man’s land waiting for a decision. It can have a lot of effects on people’s mental health.”
Jane says there is growing understanding of modern slavery; something reflected in the course’s title, Free Thinking.
“It was very hard to come up with a name. Support groups have grown up around sexual exploitation and as a result often have very feminine-sound names. We wanted something neutral and it is a 50/50 split; more and more men are trafficked for labour exploitation.”
Tutors have worked with Sheffield charities City Hearts, Snowdrops and Ashiana to help establish the project and there are plans for two further courses during its pilot year. “It is completely unique as far as we can tell. There are places that do training courses for these groups but nor residential and tend to be language-based,” says Jane.
The formation of the course came about following a chance meeting between the college’s head of community learning Chris Lamb and the Barnsley-based head of the UK’s anti-slavery agency Paul Broadbent at Doncaster railway station.
Chris, who is also a Barnsley councillor, and Mr Broadbent, who was a senior officer at South Yorkshire Police before becoming chief executive of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, had known each other previously and got chatting.
“When Paul found out that I was working at Northern College he asked if it would be possible for us to arrange to meet as there were a few things he wished to bounce off me,” Chris says. “A couple of weeks later we met at Northern College and Paul started to explain how there were so few opportunities for victims of modern slavery and felt that we could fill that void, particularly as we are a residential college.
“Paul subsequently arranged for the two of us to meet with the independent anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland. It is fair to say that Kevin was suitably impressed by the proposal and he therefore put us in touch with a number of individuals and organisations that he felt would be very useful partners in the development of and recruitment to the programme.”
Tragically, Mr Broadbent took his own life last December. Chris says the foundation of the course is a reminder of the wonderful work his friend did.
“Paul and I remained regularly in touch throughout the development of the program until his very sad and untimely death. Many of us at Northern College liked and respected Paul enormously and we hope that this program can be successful so that it is a part of the legacy of Paul’s work, enthusiasm and innovation.”
Staff don’t know the individual stories of the students but working with the charities, have done risk assessments on issues like mental health to ensure everyone is safe.
Jane adds: “There is a wide range of ability in spoken English, a lot of people who come on this course who’t even had formal education before. This is not an English language course, this is about building resilience and a wide range of wider skills for living and working in the UK.
“It is about finding the confidence to start a conversation with somebody, making friends outside the safe house and finding out about community stuff that is going on.”
Victor, who only completed three years of primary education in his own country, has seen his spoken English greatly improve in the short time he has been on the course. He says he hopes to improve his language skills enough to eventually find a good job and that, unlike his gruelling work in the nursery, one of the things he likes best about the course is ‘every day is different’.
Slave trade helped fund creation of Grade I-listed building
The former owner of Wentworth Castle, who built up its estate and grounds using money made from the slave trade, would be “turning in his grave” to see the new use the facility is being put to, says Jane Williamson.
Earl of Strafford Thomas Wentworth was Britain’s representative for the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which included an agreement for Britain to sell African slaves in the Spanish colonies. A statue of a slave still remains within the castle grounds.
In more recent years, the Grade I listed building has had a happier history. Following the Second World War, Barnsley Council bought the house and the 800-acre estate for £28,000. It was initially used as a ladies’ teaching college but has been an adult education college since 1978.