Modern Slavery Act 2015 Debate

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Modern Slavery Act 2015

Gavin Newlands Excerpts
Thursday 26th October 2017

(3 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
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26 Oct 2017, 2:17 p.m.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and his colleagues on securing this timely and important debate. I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part today for their thoughtful and powerful speeches.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the impressive International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, which powerfully, shockingly and bravely sets out the close links between that fantastic city and the abhorrent historical slave trade, with Liverpool ships transporting half the 3 million Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers. As we have heard, many would think that a museum is the only place that someone could still find slavery in the UK today, and if this debate has drawn attention to the ongoing existence of slavery, that is a good thing. I am sure that the painted nails of the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) will certainly help in that regard. It is genuinely beyond despairing that, 210 years after this Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade, we must face down a new and modern forms of slavery and trafficking.

We have heard already that the estimate of 10,000 to 13,000 victims in the UK is likely to be a grave underestimation. As others have eloquently outlined, the effect on each of those victims is immeasurable. We all hope that 2015 will be looked back upon as a turning point and as the year in which three different Parliaments with competency in this area took up that battle by passing legislation: here, then Holyrood, and then Stormont. That legislation has been widely praised and includes clear new offences, stronger powers, including over sentencing, prevention orders, risk orders, independent child advocates—the Minister may want to address when they are to be rolled out across England and Wales—and the duty to notify. All that makes a solid legislative platform on which to build.

Yet again, however, we have a salutary lesson that legislation in itself is not enough—just as the Slave Trade Abolition Act 1807 was only one step on the long route to ending the slave trade and slavery. In her one-year review, Caroline Haughey described the 2015 Act as

“inevitably a work in progress”,

but she noted that the Act

“has already had a positive impact on the response to slavery, and that it could have a far greater impact if used to its full potential.”

That is undoubtedly true.

I commend those who secured the debate for focusing on implementation. They could not have timed it any better, with Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary publishing its report earlier this week. One frustration with that report is that it almost feels as though the Haughey review has sat on a shelf and been allowed to gather dust. Haughey suggested that there is a need for specialism in police forces and that, for example, they should have single points of contact. She also pointed to the importance of intelligence capacity at regional, national and international levels and the need for tailored training and, especially, for more frontline police and criminal justice staff. The HMIC report makes it clear that that is just not happening in far too many places.

Like Ms Haughey, the HMIC report found pockets of good practice—the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) referred to the Greater Manchester police force, which was strongly praised—but, overall, its conclusions cannot be described as anything other than incredibly disappointing. Victims are being let down at every stage, and police services need to do much more before they can be satisfied that they are responding coherently and successfully to modern slavery and human trafficking.

The four chief constables who appeared before the Home Affairs Committee this week acknowledged that the HMIC report has to be seen as a wake-up call, and I detect a willingness to address modern slavery. Two reviews have now set out what exactly has to be done, and we also need the Government to provide the resources and strategy to make it happen.

A huge range of issues have been raised today and, in my remaining time, I will briefly focus on two. First, what happens with the immigration rules if victims are discovered? The Select Committee on Work and Pensions published a report earlier this year that made powerful points about the complexity and dubiety of victims’ immigration status and its effect on their access to support after going through the referral process. Some people are recognised as refugees; a smaller number are non-EEA nationals who have obtained discretionary leave to remain without having to apply; and a similarly small number are EEA nationals who have been granted discretionary leave to remain, but only after applying. For many, there is no stability and lots of dubiety, particularly for EEA nationals, who will almost certainly find it impossible to show that they are exercising treaty rights here, which has a knock-on implication for their attempts to access benefits and support.

As Baroness Butler-Sloss told the Work and Pensions Committee, the lack of any form of automatic entitlement for victims of trafficking while they take even basic steps to rebuild their lives is a “ludicrous situation”. The anti-slavery commissioner pointed out to the Committee that there is precedent in the two years’ leave given to victims of modern slavery who are here under the immigration rules as domestic servants. Against that background, the Committee recommended that all confirmed victims of modern slavery be given at least one year’s leave to remain with recourse to benefits and services. I fully endorse that approach.

Apart from anything else, if imminent removal is a remotely realistic result of coming forward as a victim of trafficking, we will struggle to find any victims to support or any traffickers to prosecute. More generally, a stronger firewall needs to be established between bodies that are enforcing labour market standards and those that are enforcing immigration checks. The two often require vastly different approaches, leading to inconsistency. That will be an important issue for the new director of labour market enforcement.

Secondly, the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Erewash (Maggie Throup) mentioned supply chains and the statements required from companies with a turnover of more than £36 million—that is one of the few provisions in the 2015 Act that applies across the UK. It is clear that those statements need to be significantly strengthened. Even by Home Office estimates, less than a third of companies that should be publishing statements are doing so. There must be a requirement to file the statements with a public authority and much greater clarity on what is required. Nil returns cannot be acceptable; otherwise these provisions will prove to be barely worth the paper on which they are written.

The 2015 Act is a welcome start, but it is only a start. If it is to become the turning point that we all hope it can be, efforts, strategies and resources need to be stepped up.

Gavin Newlands Portrait Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP)
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26 Oct 2017, 2:24 p.m.

I am delighted to take part in today’s debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee and particularly the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who led us off so powerfully, for providing us with the opportunity to debate the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. There have been many fantastic contributions from both sides of the House, including by my hon. Friends the Members for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). I also thank the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for sharing her extraordinarily powerful experiences of working in this sector. The debate is better for her participation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said, we sometimes allow ourselves to believe that human trafficking and exploitation takes place in some other country, in some other culture and in some other time and place. However, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston, it is happening throughout our communities, and we all have a role in ending this exploitation.

The perfectly laudable Modern Slavery Act aims to rid the world of modern slavery, including commercial sexual abuse, forced unpaid labour, domestic servitude and organ removal. We are shocked when we hear about those crimes on the news, but we are deeply wrong and misguided if we allow ourselves to believe that human trafficking and exploitation do not take place here at home.

Two thirds of trafficking victims are women. However, human trafficking is committed against men, women, boys and girls, and it does not take account of a person’s nationality or citizenship. Indeed, travelling from one place to another is not a required action for there to be an offence of human trafficking in Scotland, and it does not matter whether the victim has consented.

Statistics from the National Crime Agency report that 3,805 potential victims were submitted to the national referral mechanism—the framework for identifying victims of trafficking or modern slavery—in 2016. As the hon. Member for Gedling said, that was a 17% increase on the previous year. Of those 3,805 victims in 2016, 150 were from Scotland, 123 from Wales and 33 from Northern Ireland. Behind those damning statistics are horrifying stories of lives being destroyed, of women being abused, of children being sexually exploited and of workers being forced to work without pay through fear of the consequences if they refuse.

Unfortunately, despite the implementation of the 2015 Act, the National Crime Agency warns about the scale of modern slavery and has stated that it is “far more prevalent” than previously estimated, with alleged victims as young as 12 being sold and exploited. However, the police seem to be failing or are unable to tackle the issue. I can accept the police in England and Wales are under Government funding pressures, but I am concerned that police forces are failing to recognise the crimes that make up modern slavery. That is leaving victims unprotected from the actions of those who would take advantage of them.

As has been mentioned, a recent report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary states rather bluntly that victims of modern slavery are being let down at every stage. The police are not investigating cases quickly enough, allowing the prolongation of abuse, with some referred victims also being dismissed at the start due to assumptions about their citizenship. I cannot believe that when a case of slavery is suspected, the authorities’ first response is to check the victim’s passport and immigration status, rather than providing a helping hand to stop the abhorrent abuse.

Cases of slavery or suspected slavery are also being closed without inquiries being made, and in some cases detectives have not even spoken to victims. Wendy Williams, the inspector of constabulary, spoke on this issue:

“We found inconsistent, even ineffective, identification of victims and investigations closed prematurely. As a result, victims were being left unprotected, leaving perpetrators free to continue to exploit people as commodities.”

That is simply not good enough. We are failing those who need our help the most.

The Prime Minister previously vowed that Britain would lead the world in ridding the problem of modern slavery. How close are we to achieving that admirable aim when, first, the problem is increasing and, secondly, we fail to take action when modern slavery is reported to the appropriate authorities? Although the Government’s intention to rid the world of modern slavery is laudable, we should be concerned that the implementation of that vision is failing.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the white ribbon campaign, I take pride in being part of an international movement that stresses the important role that men can play in ending the abuse that too many women and girls face on a daily basis. Gender-based violence, including the abhorrent acts of trafficking and exploitation, affects every society, and we all have a moral responsibility to create a society where it is consigned to the history books.

Unfortunately, a rapid Brexit, particularly a no-deal Brexit, may have consequences for the Government’s ability to protect people from being the victim of modern slavery practices. A report by The Independent suggested that Brexit could dramatically curtail efforts by the police service to tackle slavery and human trafficking. Tamara Barnett, from the Human Trafficking Foundation, says that many lawyers working in this field make use of the EU to defend victims of trafficking because of the lack of safeguards provided in the Modern Slavery Act. Brexit will also make it harder for the UK to work with other EU partners to resolve the crimes that take place across national boundaries.

The 2005 convention on action against trafficking in human beings was a great example of European countries working together to protect people from being caught up in trafficking. Ryan Mahan, of the campaign group Every Child Protected Against Trafficking, has spoken about the importance of this law:

“Almost every significant trafficking victim-protection provision we have in law and policy in the UK has been implemented as a direct result of the Convention.”

Brexit will undoubtedly make it harder for us to tackle this issue, so, as other Members have mentioned, the Prime Minister has to guarantee that that security co-operation will continue following our exit from the EU. This must be a crucial part of the negotiations.

In Scotland, we are also taking seriously our responsibility to seeing a world free from modern slavery. The Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015, whose overarching objective is to consolidate and strengthen the existing criminal law against human trafficking and exploitation and to enhance the status of and support for its victims. The Act also strengthened the penalties that can be passed down, adopting a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Earlier this year, the Scottish Government published their “Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy”, which sets out how our country intends to eliminate this abhorrent crime from our society. It was developed in partnership with support groups and those who have survived human trafficking offences and aims to identify and support victims; detect perpetrators and disrupt activity; and address the conditions that foster trafficking. By listening and learning from victims themselves, the Scottish Government have been able to capture the physical and psychological damage caused by trafficking. This new strategy has been welcomed by important stakeholders, including Lord Advocate James Wolffe, who said:

“We welcome the publication of the Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy. Human trafficking is a serious and complex crime that presents unique challenges to investigators and prosecutors. This strategy will work hand in hand with the tools we have at our disposal to tackle this abhorrent trade”.

As the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) said, the Scottish Government have also recently announced that the period of support for victims of trafficking in Scotland will be doubled to 90 days, demonstrating that Scotland is again leading the way in protecting the most vulnerable members of our society. The victims of human trafficking have been calling for that, and I encourage the UK Government to follow Scotland’s lead.

In conclusion, this has been a consensual yet challenging debate. One of the scandals of the modern age is that we have to debate this at all. Everyone—children, women and men, UK national or not—can be affected by these sick and abhorrent crimes. We should all be deeply concerned that this is still happening and furthermore that the problem is actually growing. Our response to helping those who are being abused is coming up short. Today’s debate should serve as a wake-up call for us to do more to rid our society and, indeed, the world of modern slavery.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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26 Oct 2017, 2:33 p.m.

I wish to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on not only securing today’s debate, but the excellent way he takes a lead on this important issue. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) and for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on their excellent contributions today. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) for bringing the real-life consequences of the evil practice of slavery into the Chamber today.

When this House passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015 it was a landmark piece of legislation that provided leadership on a global scale. However, the lack of subsequent legislation has meant that it now risks becoming less effective on key issues of the fight against modern slavery. I will start by setting the scene: 45.8 million people are enslaved worldwide—this can mean anything from forced labour to forced marriage and forced sexual exploitation. In the UK, one of the most well developed countries in the world, an estimated 13,000 people are in modern-day slavery—that is far too many.

As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup), companies that have made statements under section 54 of the Act are in the minority; the majority have not done so. Where they have made a statement, the quality ranges from the very good—I would specifically name Marks & Spencer and the Co-operative here—to the almost worthless. Yet, Ministers have done nothing to address this, leaving businesses free to carry on and take no action, despite what this House legislated for. We must put into place a regime where this House can be confident that its wishes, as expressed, and the commitments in the Modern Slavery Act, will be fulfilled. So I ask the Minister: when will the Government publish a list of all companies that should be producing statements on their modern slavery policies?

We all acknowledge that the police do a fantastic job when they protect and rescue individuals from slavery, but the HMIC report published earlier this week was a stark reality check for us all. The report tells us that all too often the trafficker’s threats to the victims—that they have no means of escape, as they will not be believed—have sadly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The report’s biggest critique was that policing against modern slavery and human trafficking is reactive rather than proactive, so more must be done to support vulnerable people to ensure that they will not be placed in the hands of traffickers. It is vital that we learn how traffickers prey on their victims, so that we are able to be more effective with preventions and protections. Does the Minister agree that there is a real need to improve training for the police, to help them better understand how to identify victims and how best to respond to issues?

I want to move on to the problematic national referral mechanism. Adults are required to consent to their referral, but without appropriate funding, support and accommodation, and a suitable environment where they can get proper advice to allow them to make informed decisions, far too many turn to homelessness or, even worse, return to their traffickers. All too often, NRM forms are rushed, just to make sure that the person concerned has access to accommodation. That means that some forms are incomplete or contain inaccurate information, undermining the individual’s credibility. Legal advice and representation must be offered early to all potential victims, to support them in understanding their rights, and in giving them access to justice and a real opportunity to move on with their lives. Government support is withdrawn quickly after a conclusive groundwork decision is made, and non-governmental organisations are all too often having to pick up the pieces because of a lack of resources and awareness among local authorities. Safe house accommodation should be more flexible, with support diminishing gradually according to an individual’s needs; they should not just have the rug pulled from under them.

Not only is this lack of support detrimental to the individuals, but it makes it difficult for police and prosecutors to do their job. Police have spoken about losing survivors due to the lack of support, and NGOs have spoken about anxiety caused by an insecure immigration status and how that prevents survivors in dealing with their traumatic experiences. Victims are entitled to only 45 days of NRM support following rescue, and that is simply not enough. Regardless of how well organised that 45 days’ support is, it is still not enough. Many of those rescued want to regain control of their lives through schemes such as the Co-op’s “Bright Future” project, which gives them a pathway back to paid employment, but they cannot do so because either they have not had the support to get them ready for work or they do not have the legal right to work.

Victims continue to be denied access to the vital services that they need to recover and rebuild their lives. Authorities often prioritise immigration control over the safety of victims. That can leave adults and children vulnerable to going missing. Traffickers see these individuals as vulnerable, and they exploit the existing system using evil and despicable practices. I welcome the fact that the NRM is being reformed, but I hope that during the reform process organisations such as the Human Trafficking Foundation, ECPAT UK and UNICEF are listened to and their advice heeded.

Slavery touches our lives every day, whether we know it or not. No country is free from this horrific crime and no one is safe: women, men, youngsters and, worse still, children are vulnerable. Exploitation on any level is unjustifiable, but when it involves a child it is chillingly deplorable. I have a huge concern that no specialist support or accommodation for trafficked children is available under the NRM. I urge the Minister to address that as a matter of urgency.

We passed the legislation two years ago, but it has been left to go stale, through a lack of enforcement, additional legislation or desire. Victims of modern slavery and trafficking are still being criminalised for crimes they were forced to commit. There is no clear pathway or continuity of support for victims, and the inconsistent training and co-ordination of services that are in place to protect them can be a hindrance because of a lack of knowledge, appropriate training and funding.

We are dealing with the most vulnerable individuals. This is a modern scourge with historical roots. Too many people rely on us to protect them from danger and to offer them support, so we must make sure that the service we offer is robust, reliable and effective.