Modern Slavery Act 2015 Debate

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Modern Slavery Act 2015

Helen Grant Excerpts
Thursday 26th October 2017

(4 years ago)

Commons Chamber

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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle)
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Before I call the next speaker, let me say what a pleasure it is to see Anthony Steen in the Lower Gallery for this important debate.

There is a seven-minute limit on speeches from now on. I call Helen Grant.

Helen Grant Portrait Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con)
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26 Oct 2017, 1:03 p.m.

I declare an interest as a trustee of the Human Trafficking Foundation.

First, I pay tribute to a group of mainly former parliamentarians and a former judge who remains a Member of the other place: Anthony Steen MBE, Baroness Butler-Sloss, the right hon. Clare Short, the right hon. Sir John Randall and the right hon. Fiona Mactaggart—not forgetting, of course, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who chairs the all-party group on human trafficking and modern slavery. Without their passion, foresight and commitment, we would not be in the position we are today in the cause of defeating human trafficking. I thank the Salvation Army and its partners for the incredible work they do at the coal face, looking after and supporting victims of this terrible crime.

For me, human trafficking is a scourge. It does not discriminate; it permeates across age, race, class and gender. It crushes self-confidence and self-esteem— prerequisites for aspiration, motivation and success. No civilised society should tolerate the exploitation of vulnerable men, women and children by predatory criminal groups. It creates victims who are often some of the most vulnerable members of society, separated from their families and friends, with no access to financial help or support.

As I speak today, I am reminded of a young man I met about three years ago, when I was the victims Minister. He dispelled many of the myths surrounding human trafficking: he was a man; he was British; and he was trafficked for forced labour. He bravely shared with me his story of absolute misery and how he was dehumanised and degraded. The meeting drove home to me just how important it is for the Government, local authorities and all our partners to work more effectively together.

Thanks to the efforts of many people, including our Prime Minister, some good progress has been made in combating trafficking. Indeed, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 is a landmark of success. We now have a wide range of laws to protect victims and a wide range of organisations to support them, but much more needs to be done. There must be far more focus on prevention by tackling the problem at source and working smarter at our borders. We must improve prosecution and conviction rates, improve data collection and deal with ongoing scepticism and the poor response still greeting victims when they try to report abuse. Sadly, that can come from people and organisations that ought to know better, such as the police.

The Government’s ambition is to eradicate all forms of human trafficking, and many millions of pounds have been spent on supporting victims. Our Home Secretary summed up the position well and candidly when she wrote in April:

“We must be better at getting immediate support to victims when they are at their most vulnerable. Otherwise they just slip through the net, to be abused all over again, and we lose any opportunity to gain information on the criminals who exploited them in the first place…We also want to make sure that victims are able to rebuild their lives. Our aspiration to help these people is in the right place—but at present, the provision of support may yet not be.”

Clearly, the Home Secretary recognises that more needs to be done. I will therefore focus my suggestions today on what can be done for a group of people the authorities accept are victims of human trafficking: those who receive a positive conclusive grounds decision.

First, the conclusive grounds decision must carry with it more status, weight and meaning. In my view, victims of trafficking fit into the same vulnerable group as refugees and victims of torture. It therefore seems right that conclusive grounds should carry with them the same 12 months’ residency permit. Not only would that provide the stability and assurance that victims need to begin to recover, but it would create a better environment for victims to assist law enforcement agencies in finding and prosecuting perpetrators.

Secondly, the paperwork received by victims with positive conclusive grounds must be recognisable and transferable. Frankly, the current form is flimsy, short and unhelpful. Instead, it should be recognised by other Departments and agencies and should allow access to appropriate services.

Thirdly, victims need advice from those who understand the system relating to accommodation, immigration and employment support—the system that, as a lawyer for some 23 years and now an MP, I often struggle to deal with. Victims with conclusive grounds should have access to caseworkers to help them to comply with the procedures and to access services.

Fourthly, victims need a roof over their head. I ask the Minister to consider introducing greater flexibility in the moving on of a victim from a safe house. The safe house, of course, should not be permanent, long-term accommodation, but the current cliff-edge approach of losing safe-house accommodation just two weeks after a conclusive grounds decision is failing and not satisfactory.

Human trafficking is a scourge. It is abhorrent and inexcusable, and every time I hear about an incident or meet a victim, I think, “What kind of world are we living in, and what can we do to make things better?” Every victim and witness of a crime needs to know that they will be offered all the help and support they need and deserve to move on in their lives and to bring perpetrators to justice. We can do better; we must do better.

Ann Coffey Portrait Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab)
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26 Oct 2017, 1:10 p.m.

Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, stressed this week that using children to transport and sell class A drugs in county lines operations is a form of modern-day slavery. He said that the police and other agencies were not seeing it for what it is: the use of children and young people as commodities by criminal gangs. He said that more and more county lines were being discovered each day but there was often a lack of sympathy for the victims. He was responding to the HMIC report, “Stolen freedom: the policing response to modern slavery and human trafficking”.

The criminal exploitation of children to sell drugs in county lines operations is the next big grooming scandal. It has many similarities to grooming in the early child sexual exploitation cases in places such as Rotherham and Rochdale. The National Crime Agency says that 83% of police forces have reported activity in their areas, and I have been told by a well-informed police source that there could be up to 1,000 county lines operating from major cities throughout the country that have well-established criminal gangs, including London, Liverpool and Manchester.

Although the exploitation of children by organised crime to carry and sell drugs is not new, there is a huge and growing problem of children being groomed to supply class A drugs—crack cocaine and heroin—around the country. That usually involves a gang from an urban area expanding their operations by crossing one police force boundary, or more, over to more rural areas, setting up a secure base and using runners to conduct day-to-day dealing.

A county lines enterprise almost always involves the exploitation of vulnerable children and adults. As more and more county lines are set up, more and more children are being targeted and groomed to carry and supply drugs. For the criminal gangs, it is a very successful business: new markets bring more income, and using children and young people reduces the gang’s risk of detection. For the children and young people, it often ends in drug and alcohol addiction, violence and sexual and other exploitation. The children become criminals and the groomers and exploiters of other children. The extent of county lines is very difficult to map, as data are collected by various agencies and there is very little sharing of those data.

This week, I was invited by Greater Manchester police to help launch an excellent new campaign called Trapped, to raise awareness of how children and young people can get drawn into county lines. Children as young as 11 have been ferried from inner-city parts of Manchester to Blackpool and Barrow to sell drugs. Only this week, the police found a young boy in Blackpool who they said was relieved to be locked up and whose face was green, as he had been so badly beaten.

The Trapped campaign aims to raise awareness of all forms of criminal exploitation by gangs of young people and vulnerable adults. Key to its approach is working with schools, youth centres and housing and drugs services to prevent young people from getting embedded, or further embedded, in criminal gangs and to provide them with safe people to talk to.

Some children are vulnerable to being targeted because of chaotic family relationships; others because they are looked-after children. Some may be younger children whose older siblings have got caught up in drugs, while others may have parents who have become complicit in the use of their children by gangs, to help feed their own drug habit. Methods of recruiting children include offers of cash and goods, coercion with threats of kidnap and young people having to work to pay back a drug debt owed to a gang member.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on runaway and missing children and adults, which is supported by the Children’s Society and Missing People. In March, we held a roundtable on county lines, taking evidence from victim’s parents, experts and agencies. May I thank the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) for attending that roundtable? The report we produced made clear that children from all backgrounds are at risk of being drawn into county lines. Indeed, the parents who gave evidence did not meet the profile of a chaotic family. Their sons had become involved through friendships with other young people who had associations with gangs.

Pressure on young people is huge, and at the time of transition from childhood to adolescence, they are particularly vulnerable to pressure from peers. Young people can get drawn into what initially looks like a good offer, in terms of cash and lifestyle, but end up being trapped and coerced by some terrifying people.

Looked-after children in particular are targets for grooming by criminal gangs. Those placed miles away from their home areas can be especially vulnerable. There are additional difficulties involved in keeping children safe when they are placed far away. It is hard for social workers to give support from hundreds of miles away. It is concerning that since March 2012 there has been a 78% increase nationally in the number of children being placed in children’s homes outside their borough.

Parents whose children have been exploited expressed to our roundtable their despair at the response the system often gave to their pleas for help. I am concerned that the response of the safeguarding system is increasing the vulnerability of young people. The parent who is not supported will leave the child more vulnerable. Placing a child or young person in a children’s home that is being targeted by criminal gangs increases their vulnerability. Failing to assess risk in missing episodes appropriately will increase vulnerability.

There needs to be a more joined-up response from the National Crime Agency and at a regional and local police level. Criminal gangs are making millions from the exploitation and degradation of children, and they are responsible for countless beatings, stabbings and murder. We need to disrupt the grooming of vulnerable children at a very early stage, while as prosecuting senior gang members. Preventing children from getting into gangs in turn prevents many more victims. We need to consider the better use of child abduction warning notices, and the national referring mechanism needs to be better understood, as it can be used to identify children as victims of exploitation, which in turn makes it easier to prosecute exploiters—who are hiding behind the children—under trafficking laws. That will also prevent prosecution of the child.

The exploitation of children by criminal gangs is increasing, and it is shocking that the message that organised crime is getting is that, provided that they use children and young people, we are powerless to do anything about it. We need to find better ways to work together and use available resources, and a better safeguarding response for children. Children should be our priority—