I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
First, may I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I thank Mrs Grant and all the other colleagues who have helped to bring about this Backbench Business debate. I also thank the Minister for her attendance. As Members, we are all united by our desire to do as much as we can to tackle the scourge of modern slavery.
Over 200 years ago, politicians described slavery as an activity
“so enormous and horrible, that there was no parallel to it in the annals of the world.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 9, c. 133.]
Wilberforce said it was
“our duty to put a stop as speedily as possible to the traffic and sale of our fellow men”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 9, c. 139.]
Yet, here we are in 2017, and slavery still exists in our country. That horrible reality demands more than our emotional outrage; it demands even more action on our part.
Just 15 years ago, many MPs would have suggested that slavery perhaps did not exist, but thanks to the campaigning of many people in this House, including our former colleagues Anthony Steen and Fiona Mactaggart, much has changed in our approach to the issue. Referrals to the Government’s mechanism for identifying victims—the national referral mechanism—rise year on year, with a 17% increase in 2016. The number of prosecutions also rises annually. We have a Parliament and, to be fair, a Prime Minister with a genuine desire to tackle this issue. We have what was regarded as—and what is, to be fair—a trail-blazing Act, which offers life sentences for traffickers and provides a statutory defence against criminality for victims. We have additional funding going to the police, as well as international aid and safe houses.
The commitment of all of us who work in the House, and indeed of those who work in the Home Office on this issue, cannot be doubted. However—I hope the Minister will accept this in the spirit in which I mean it—it is important that we challenge where we are and look at the things that still need to be done if we are to take this issue forward. Too often, what we say does not happen in practice.
Many traffickers are not getting caught, and, in many circumstances, those who are caught receive minimal sentences. Many slaves are not being freed, and when they are, many are lost, and that includes children, as the Minister knows. So the challenge, first, is for us to try to find the victims, and more potential victims are being identified. Some 3,805 were identified in 2016, and I should point out that 1,227 of them were children—in our country, in 2017.
However, that is still a long way, as the Minister will know from her office’s estimates, from the 10,000 to 13,000 slaves in this country. We have to ask why that is and why victims are not coming forward. First, some of the people who should identify them, such as the first responders, often do not recognise them. Local authorities have a duty to identify, but many do not, and there has been little funding to train their staff. As the 2016 National Crime Agency data shows, many local authorities find no one at all.
The second reason is that we often have little to offer victims when they are found. We ask them to stop living under a trafficker’s roof—risking repercussions, threats or violence—and then to enter the system. If adults do consent to enter the system, they face time-limited support, fears as to their immigration status, and long-term uncertainty, even if they are found to be victims at the end of the process. Should we be surprised, therefore, at the small numbers? And if we are not surprised, what are we going to do to increase the numbers?
At its heart, the national referral mechanism relies on traumatised people, who have often known only betrayal, immediately agreeing to go into a Government system. If they do not, they have to fend for themselves. A small minority may be supported by non-governmental organisations, but the rest receive no support. One NGO outside the national referral system found that three fifths of survivors will go into the national referral mechanism if they are given a preliminary period of support of, say, six weeks. Will the Minister therefore recognise that we need to do more to ensure that victims feel safe and secure entering the national referral mechanism, and what does she propose to do?
However, there are other problems. The statutory national referral mechanism recovery and reflection period of support is 45 days, but that is not adequate. Frequent delays mean that, on average, the process is actually 95 days. It can take longer than that just to access legal or health support. Safe, suitable accommodation is not a given. There is no minimum standard. Section 50 of the Modern Slavery Act provides powers to introduce regulations and support, but those powers have not yet been implemented. Entire families could be housed in one room, sometimes hours away from any of the services they need. There is not enough specialist accommodation, and not just for those with children. Traffickers often target those with learning difficulties or addiction issues, and yet our services for survivors oddly do not. Will the Minister give us her thoughts about extending the amount of safe house provision for those with specialist needs? Would she consider introducing care standards along the lines of recommendations published by the Human Trafficking Foundation and supported by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner to guarantee that survivors receive high-quality support? The lack of support is a real challenge for the system.
The Minister will know that the UK has no data on what happens to victims beyond the 45-day period, and no system to ensure that survivors do not fall back into exploitation. We spend £10 million each year on providing short-term support, only to end the support once the decision is made on whether the person was actually trafficked. The Modern Slavery Act, unlike other Acts, does not explicitly place a duty on the state to provide support or state the victim’s entitlements. Rather, section 49 says that these will be set out in guidance. Can the Minister say when that guidance is set to be published?