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I wish to concentrate my remarks on part 1 of the Bill.
Less than two years ago, in November 2013, the Home Secretary said that combating modern slavery was her top priority. It was an aim that won wide support on both sides of the House and it found expression in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, but this Bill risks undoing the progress made with that Act.
I am sure that the Government do not intend to undermine their own legislation so soon after it has become law, but all the evidence shows that the more vulnerable workers are, the stronger the hand of the gangmasters over them and the less likely they are to come forward and report their abusers. So what does this Bill do? It increases their vulnerability and strengthens the hand of the gangmasters. It does that by threatening exploited workers with 12 months in prison if they are deemed to have committed the offence of “illegal working” in clause 8.
Let us be in no doubt: many will think that they have committed that offence even if they have not. Some 78% of those the National Crime Agency says have been exploited for labour in the UK actually have the right to work here as European economic area nationals, but rights awareness among these workers is very low, and options are limited, which allows unscrupulous employers to hold the threat of removal, and now imprisonment, over them—even when it is not a real possibility.
The charity Focus on Labour Exploitation, which works directly with victims of trafficking and of which I am a trustee, has identified three drivers of labour exploitation: the feeling among migrant workers that they deserve less, or have fewer rights than UK citizens; the lack of checks on labour standards in the workplace, from health and safety to minimum wage enforcement; and a fear of officials, especially immigration officials.
On each of the three drivers, the Bill makes the situation worse. First, on the rights of migrant workers, it puts the focus on immigration status as a condition of asserting labour rights. On that note, it would be helpful to hear from the Minister why the definition of “worker” in the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 has not been used. The Bill criminalises the exploited worker who, whether they are committing the offence of illegal working or not, can be treated or threatened by a gangmaster as if they are.
Secondly, on labour market enforcement, it is deeply unfortunate that the review was published only today, meaning that we did not have the opportunity to consider it fully before the debate, and that the consultation will still close on
“on average, a firm can expect a visit from HMRC inspectors once in every 250 years and expect to be prosecuted once in a million years.”
Let us be clear that those of us who were calling for an extension of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority’s remit during the debate on the Modern Slavery Bill meant a genuine extension, building on the good work in the sectors where it already operates, and not the pick-and-mix approach with no additional resources suggested by the Bill and the consultation.
The third driver of labour exploitation is the overlap between labour market enforcement and immigration enforcement, which is at the heart of the Bill. The very decision to include labour in market enforcement measures in an Immigration Bill is hugely counter-productive, and the mistrust of immigration officials exists regardless of migrant status. The consequence will be that labour exploitation is not rooted out and that it will continue, contrary to all the wishes of this Government, to be a pull factor for migration.
In May, the Prime Minister set out the need for what he described as the labour market enforcement agency, of which the post of director suggested in the Bill falls far short. He set out that ambition to prevent exploitation and to stop migrants undercutting British workers.