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, 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.