Emma Little Pengelly (Belfast South) (DUP)
I do not intend to speak for long because I follow a hugely comprehensive, detailed and valuable speech from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Many extremely detailed issues have been articulated in an excellent way. Although this has been a relatively short debate, with few speakers, it has certainly not lacked detail and substance, and I welcome that. A number of important questions have been asked and I look forward to the Government’s response.
First, let me offer huge congratulations to Lord Morrow and the team. In previous contributions, I have indicated my dismay and sorrow about the situation in Northern Ireland, which has experienced 1,000 days without a devolved Assembly, but when we reflect on this Act, we realise that we have something to celebrate in relation to our Northern Ireland Executive. The Executive and the Assembly have often been criticised, perhaps with some cause, but the Act is an excellent example of Northern Ireland’s leading the way. It took a lot of inspiration and hard work by those behind the scenes, who lobbied and received a warm and receptive response from Lord Morrow. That team helped him to produce a private Member’s Bill that was an innovative piece of legislation which has led the way not just in the United Kingdom, but globally.
I welcome the fact that over the last few days and weeks there has been a significant investigation of human trafficking. I understand that there have been a number of arrests. That is a welcome example of the success of the legislation and the action of the police, and I commend the teams in the police and other agencies who work so hard to identify and to try to stamp out the absolute scourge that is modern slavery.
The report is, of course, very specific. It relates to the support that is given to those who come forward, or who are suspected of being trafficked. I will not go into too much detail—I had a number of questions to ask, but many of them have already been asked by Members on both sides of the House—but I want to touch on a couple of technical issues.
The report focuses on section 18 of the Act, which provides assistance and support for adults during the process of determining whether a person is a victim of trafficking. That process is known as the national referral mechanism, or NRM. It specifies a period of 45 days. As has already been pointed out this evening, the legislation very much led the way. At that time, the 45-day period involved some flexibility, with the understanding that it might be sufficient, but this matter has moved on. I want to focus on that flexibility, and on what consideration the Government have given to extending it and adopting a more needs-based approach to support. I understand that they are engaged in ongoing discussions about the report and about the possibility of a 12-month period, which would certainly provide more flexibility. Important questions were posed in the original amendment which requested the report. We should analyse the experience in Northern Ireland up to this point.
I agree with other Members that, unfortunately, the report is somewhat scant in relation to the information. There is a bit of detail in there. I accept the Government’s view—there are small numbers involved—that we do not want people to be identifiable from that, but I feel that there would have been a way in which to provide a great deal more detail and analysis of the situation without contravening anything or compromising anyone. This legislation pertains to Northern Ireland, so it is worrying if the Department of Justice and other agencies in Northern Ireland do not hold or analyse that data.
There has been a huge drive in public policy making, including in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has been leading the way on evidence-based and outcomes-based accountability. Government policy making is very much at the heart of that, and I argue that the policy development work of Committees and this House should be also be based on evidence. We have the potential to collect and analyse that valuable data and to evolve, amend or change the law in accordance with our experience over the past three years. References to the data not being held are, therefore, worrying. There is an old adage in public policy making and Departments that what is not measured does not get done. If the data is not being measured, how are we evaluating and analysing information relating to the evolution and development of policy?
The Act broke new ground, in that there was an awareness that we would have to assess, improve and develop. That was discussed at the time. The Act is a really good example of innovative policy work and legislation breaking new ground and taking risks. I welcome that because it is important, but we must also carefully monitor and measure. The most worrying thing is what happens to those people when they move off the system. The Home Office arrangements mean that every MP has a case load of people and we liaise regularly with the Home Office. We know how stressful it can be to navigate the system, and if people are told that they have to leave and are at risk of being lifted at any time and are unsuccessful in getting the right to remain. People who have come through terrible experiences may face that situation, but we do not know because apparently that data is not held by the Department of Justice.
I can only imagine the terrible and unfortunate circumstances in which people who were trafficked found themselves in their countries of origin or perhaps in a country to which they travelled and from which they were trafficked onwards. I can only assume that at the heart of each of those individual stories is a very tragic and unfortunate set of circumstances, perhaps going right back to their childhood. It is deeply worrying to think that some of them are being sent back and about where they are being sent back to. I hope that that is not the case and that, with a little more analysis, the Minister will be able to confirm in due course that they have the necessary support, that they are able to stay and that they are being protected, because it is care for the human and those people who have been through such difficult circumstances that is at the heart of this compassionate legislation. There are a number of questions for the Minister to answer.
I also want to ask about the guidance. I have had the benefit of seeing Lord Duncan’s letter to Lord Morrow in response to a number of queries. I know that they have been answered, so perhaps that letter could be placed in the Library for the benefit of Members who have asked questions. Although a number of questions have been answered, it is important to get additional clarity, particularly on the guidance given on the extension and the discretion involved. I understand that there is a very small number of cases. The Government’s argument is that they are dealt with on a case-by-case basis and that there is absolute discretion. I fear, however, that that discretion is not necessarily operated fairly or consistently; it depends on who applies it. It would be helpful if transparent guidance could be set down so that Members and others, including victims and members of the public, can be assured about the circumstances in which support can be extended and that the right support mechanism is in place. Many Members across the House would like that additional information, to ensure that that support mechanism is in place for these very vulnerable people if, indeed, the current legislation is not operating as envisaged.