Modern Slavery Act 2015

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:36 pm on 26th October 2017.

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Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley 1:36 pm, 26th October 2017

I thank hon. Members who brought this issue to the Backbench Business Committee—actually, I was on both sides; I just realised as I was saying it that I was thanking myself twice—as it is really important that we debate it.

Prior to coming to this House, I ran one of the services that operates safe houses and community-based support for victims of modern slavery. We largely focused our safe houses on women and children. I want to tell a few of the stories of the people I met while I was working there.

The vast majority of women now living in the safe accommodation provided through the national referral mechanism are there because they have been trafficked into this country for sexual slavery. It is not sex work; these people were slaves. I worked with women who forced to have sex with over 50 men in a day and were fed scraps from the table of their “honest Johns”. My hon. Friend Kerry McCarthy talked about our need for vigilance. The idea, in a modern system of sex work, that we have an “honest John” who is saying, “Do you mind if I ask you where you come from? Are you here out of choice?” is a total fallacy and something successive Governments have failed to tackle. We really, really need to be tackling it now, because the number of women from different countries and originally from the UK who are prostituted, exploited and trafficked around the country is absolutely phenomenal. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds have gone through the service I used to work for. If we do not tackle this head on we are letting down the victims of slavery, because some people maybe want to call it something more civilised, like sex work.

I also want to talk about some of the problems I found while working in that service. I worked very closely with the Home Office and, before that, the Ministry of Justice, which was originally responsible for this area. Everybody wanted success. There are still some major, glaring holes in how we treat the victim and how the victim goes on the journey. I wonder whether the Minister could feed back on the difference between those who are housed in safe houses and those who are housed in generic accommodation through the asylum system. Those who live in safe houses receive amazing service. Of course I would say that, because I ran up the curtains and made everything lovely: it was brilliant. However, there is a two-tier system for slaves in this country.

I remember visiting one woman who did not qualify for entry to a safe house because of her immigration status, and who was therefore in asylum accommodation. She was nearly nine months pregnant, but she looked considerably thinner than I was at that time. She was sleeping on a floor, and was being given one meal a day. I was there to offer her community support and give her some money. She wanted to move, and she was due to be moved to Nottingham that day, through the national referral mechanism. I said to her, “Normally I would kick off about this, because you are in the final stages of your pregnancy, you have had care, and you need to maintain the continuity of your care.” She cried, and begged me not to prevent her from being moved. As a practitioner who had a duty of care to a pregnant woman—a duty not to move her away from the continuity of care that she had been receiving from Birmingham Women’s Hospital—I found myself in a terrible dilemma. Instances such as that will have to be tackled.

My hon. Friend Vernon Coaker, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, raised the question of what happens after the end of the 45-day reflection and recovery period. I cannot say that I remember anyone needing only 45 days. The system allows people to apply for more days, and they always get those extra days, because the system is not mean in that sense. For those who are deeply traumatised because people have tried to take their organs, have enslaved them or have had sex with them 50 times a day, 45 days will never be enough. What happens to them afterwards, however, is of massive concern. They are lost from the services provided by organisations like mine, which was Black Country Women’s Aid. We tried to do all that we could to keep in touch with those outside on an informal basis, but such organisations do not have the necessary resources.

Those organisations are doing amazing and innovative things. I saw some of them at Speaker’s House last week, talking about the links between substance misuse and human trafficking. But, as part of the voluntary sector and with 178 people in service on a single day, they simply do not have the resources to be the system that follows those people afterwards. They deal with 8,000 people a year, across different services.

The Government must introduce a system to ensure that that drop-off does not happen. Sometimes it is due to repatriation. I think many people, especially those of us who deal with immigration cases, would be surprised at the number of people receiving human trafficking services who want to be repatriated, and that may be one reason for not being able to find people, and hoping that they are all right. However, it is necessary to tackle the trafficking of those who are still in the UK, and to aid their long-term recovery. The issue of criminal compensation must also be dealt with. A man who lived in slavery for 13 years, and whose aggressors were sent to prison for only two and a half years, is currently unable to gain access to compensation, which is a disgrace. He has also made no national insurance contributions.

We must look after people after the 45-day period, and create a system that works for all of them.