Modern Slavery Act 2015

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:17 pm on 26th October 2017.

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Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 2:17 pm, 26th October 2017

I congratulate Vernon Coaker and his colleagues on securing this timely and important debate. I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part today for their thoughtful and powerful speeches.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the impressive International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, which powerfully, shockingly and bravely sets out the close links between that fantastic city and the abhorrent historical slave trade, with Liverpool ships transporting half the 3 million Africans carried across the Atlantic by British slavers. As we have heard, many would think that a museum is the only place that someone could still find slavery in the UK today, and if this debate has drawn attention to the ongoing existence of slavery, that is a good thing. I am sure that the painted nails of Darren Jones will certainly help in that regard. It is genuinely beyond despairing that, 210 years after this Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade, we must face down a new and modern forms of slavery and trafficking.

We have heard already that the estimate of 10,000 to 13,000 victims in the UK is likely to be a grave underestimation. As others have eloquently outlined, the effect on each of those victims is immeasurable. We all hope that 2015 will be looked back upon as a turning point and as the year in which three different Parliaments with competency in this area took up that battle by passing legislation: here, then Holyrood, and then Stormont. That legislation has been widely praised and includes clear new offences, stronger powers, including over sentencing, prevention orders, risk orders, independent child advocates—the Minister may want to address when they are to be rolled out across England and Wales—and the duty to notify. All that makes a solid legislative platform on which to build.

Yet again, however, we have a salutary lesson that legislation in itself is not enough—just as the Slave Trade Abolition Act 1807 was only one step on the long route to ending the slave trade and slavery. In her one-year review, Caroline Haughey described the 2015 Act as

“inevitably a work in progress”,

but she noted that the Act

“has already had a positive impact on the response to slavery, and that it could have a far greater impact if used to its full potential.”

That is undoubtedly true.

I commend those who secured the debate for focusing on implementation. They could not have timed it any better, with Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary publishing its report earlier this week. One frustration with that report is that it almost feels as though the Haughey review has sat on a shelf and been allowed to gather dust. Haughey suggested that there is a need for specialism in police forces and that, for example, they should have single points of contact. She also pointed to the importance of intelligence capacity at regional, national and international levels and the need for tailored training and, especially, for more frontline police and criminal justice staff. The HMIC report makes it clear that that is just not happening in far too many places.

Like Ms Haughey, the HMIC report found pockets of good practice—Tony Lloyd referred to the Greater Manchester police force, which was strongly praised—but, overall, its conclusions cannot be described as anything other than incredibly disappointing. Victims are being let down at every stage, and police services need to do much more before they can be satisfied that they are responding coherently and successfully to modern slavery and human trafficking.

The four chief constables who appeared before the Home Affairs Committee this week acknowledged that the HMIC report has to be seen as a wake-up call, and I detect a willingness to address modern slavery. Two reviews have now set out what exactly has to be done, and we also need the Government to provide the resources and strategy to make it happen.

A huge range of issues have been raised today and, in my remaining time, I will briefly focus on two. First, what happens with the immigration rules if victims are discovered? The Select Committee on Work and Pensions published a report earlier this year that made powerful points about the complexity and dubiety of victims’ immigration status and its effect on their access to support after going through the referral process. Some people are recognised as refugees; a smaller number are non-EEA nationals who have obtained discretionary leave to remain without having to apply; and a similarly small number are EEA nationals who have been granted discretionary leave to remain, but only after applying. For many, there is no stability and lots of dubiety, particularly for EEA nationals, who will almost certainly find it impossible to show that they are exercising treaty rights here, which has a knock-on implication for their attempts to access benefits and support.

As Baroness Butler-Sloss told the Work and Pensions Committee, the lack of any form of automatic entitlement for victims of trafficking while they take even basic steps to rebuild their lives is a “ludicrous situation”. The anti-slavery commissioner pointed out to the Committee that there is precedent in the two years’ leave given to victims of modern slavery who are here under the immigration rules as domestic servants. Against that background, the Committee recommended that all confirmed victims of modern slavery be given at least one year’s leave to remain with recourse to benefits and services. I fully endorse that approach.

Apart from anything else, if imminent removal is a remotely realistic result of coming forward as a victim of trafficking, we will struggle to find any victims to support or any traffickers to prosecute. More generally, a stronger firewall needs to be established between bodies that are enforcing labour market standards and those that are enforcing immigration checks. The two often require vastly different approaches, leading to inconsistency. That will be an important issue for the new director of labour market enforcement.

Secondly, the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for Erewash (Maggie Throup) mentioned supply chains and the statements required from companies with a turnover of more than £36 million—that is one of the few provisions in the 2015 Act that applies across the UK. It is clear that those statements need to be significantly strengthened. Even by Home Office estimates, less than a third of companies that should be publishing statements are doing so. There must be a requirement to file the statements with a public authority and much greater clarity on what is required. Nil returns cannot be acceptable; otherwise these provisions will prove to be barely worth the paper on which they are written.

The 2015 Act is a welcome start, but it is only a start. If it is to become the turning point that we all hope it can be, efforts, strategies and resources need to be stepped up.