I am delighted to take part in today’s debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee and particularly Vernon Coaker, who led us off so powerfully, for providing us with the opportunity to debate the implementation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. There have been many fantastic contributions from both sides of the House, including by my hon. Friends the Members for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald). I also thank Jess Phillips for sharing her extraordinarily powerful experiences of working in this sector. The debate is better for her participation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East said, we sometimes allow ourselves to believe that human trafficking and exploitation takes place in some other country, in some other culture and in some other time and place. However, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston, it is happening throughout our communities, and we all have a role in ending this exploitation.
The perfectly laudable Modern Slavery Act aims to rid the world of modern slavery, including commercial sexual abuse, forced unpaid labour, domestic servitude and organ removal. We are shocked when we hear about those crimes on the news, but we are deeply wrong and misguided if we allow ourselves to believe that human trafficking and exploitation do not take place here at home.
Two thirds of trafficking victims are women. However, human trafficking is committed against men, women, boys and girls, and it does not take account of a person’s nationality or citizenship. Indeed, travelling from one place to another is not a required action for there to be an offence of human trafficking in Scotland, and it does not matter whether the victim has consented.
Statistics from the National Crime Agency report that 3,805 potential victims were submitted to the national referral mechanism—the framework for identifying victims of trafficking or modern slavery—in 2016. As the hon. Member for Gedling said, that was a 17% increase on the previous year. Of those 3,805 victims in 2016, 150 were from Scotland, 123 from Wales and 33 from Northern Ireland. Behind those damning statistics are horrifying stories of lives being destroyed, of women being abused, of children being sexually exploited and of workers being forced to work without pay through fear of the consequences if they refuse.
Unfortunately, despite the implementation of the 2015 Act, the National Crime Agency warns about the scale of modern slavery and has stated that it is “far more prevalent” than previously estimated, with alleged victims as young as 12 being sold and exploited. However, the police seem to be failing or are unable to tackle the issue. I can accept the police in England and Wales are under Government funding pressures, but I am concerned that police forces are failing to recognise the crimes that make up modern slavery. That is leaving victims unprotected from the actions of those who would take advantage of them.
As has been mentioned, a recent report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary states rather bluntly that victims of modern slavery are being let down at every stage. The police are not investigating cases quickly enough, allowing the prolongation of abuse, with some referred victims also being dismissed at the start due to assumptions about their citizenship. I cannot believe that when a case of slavery is suspected, the authorities’ first response is to check the victim’s passport and immigration status, rather than providing a helping hand to stop the abhorrent abuse.
Cases of slavery or suspected slavery are also being closed without inquiries being made, and in some cases detectives have not even spoken to victims. Wendy Williams, the inspector of constabulary, spoke on this issue:
“We found inconsistent, even ineffective, identification of victims and investigations closed prematurely. As a result, victims were being left unprotected, leaving perpetrators free to continue to exploit people as commodities.”
That is simply not good enough. We are failing those who need our help the most.
The Prime Minister previously vowed that Britain would lead the world in ridding the problem of modern slavery. How close are we to achieving that admirable aim when, first, the problem is increasing and, secondly, we fail to take action when modern slavery is reported to the appropriate authorities? Although the Government’s intention to rid the world of modern slavery is laudable, we should be concerned that the implementation of that vision is failing.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the white ribbon campaign, I take pride in being part of an international movement that stresses the important role that men can play in ending the abuse that too many women and girls face on a daily basis. Gender-based violence, including the abhorrent acts of trafficking and exploitation, affects every society, and we all have a moral responsibility to create a society where it is consigned to the history books.
Unfortunately, a rapid Brexit, particularly a no-deal Brexit, may have consequences for the Government’s ability to protect people from being the victim of modern slavery practices. A report by The Independent suggested that Brexit could dramatically curtail efforts by the police service to tackle slavery and human trafficking. Tamara Barnett, from the Human Trafficking Foundation, says that many lawyers working in this field make use of the EU to defend victims of trafficking because of the lack of safeguards provided in the Modern Slavery Act. Brexit will also make it harder for the UK to work with other EU partners to resolve the crimes that take place across national boundaries.
The 2005 convention on action against trafficking in human beings was a great example of European countries working together to protect people from being caught up in trafficking. Ryan Mahan, of the campaign group Every Child Protected Against Trafficking, has spoken about the importance of this law:
“Almost every significant trafficking victim-protection provision we have in law and policy in the UK has been implemented as a direct result of the Convention.”
Brexit will undoubtedly make it harder for us to tackle this issue, so, as other Members have mentioned, the Prime Minister has to guarantee that that security co-operation will continue following our exit from the EU. This must be a crucial part of the negotiations.
In Scotland, we are also taking seriously our responsibility to seeing a world free from modern slavery. The Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015, whose overarching objective is to consolidate and strengthen the existing criminal law against human trafficking and exploitation and to enhance the status of and support for its victims. The Act also strengthened the penalties that can be passed down, adopting a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Earlier this year, the Scottish Government published their “Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy”, which sets out how our country intends to eliminate this abhorrent crime from our society. It was developed in partnership with support groups and those who have survived human trafficking offences and aims to identify and support victims; detect perpetrators and disrupt activity; and address the conditions that foster trafficking. By listening and learning from victims themselves, the Scottish Government have been able to capture the physical and psychological damage caused by trafficking. This new strategy has been welcomed by important stakeholders, including Lord Advocate James Wolffe, who said:
“We welcome the publication of the Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy. Human trafficking is a serious and complex crime that presents unique challenges to investigators and prosecutors. This strategy will work hand in hand with the tools we have at our disposal to tackle this abhorrent trade”.
As Alex Norris said, the Scottish Government have also recently announced that the period of support for victims of trafficking in Scotland will be doubled to 90 days, demonstrating that Scotland is again leading the way in protecting the most vulnerable members of our society. The victims of human trafficking have been calling for that, and I encourage the UK Government to follow Scotland’s lead.
In conclusion, this has been a consensual yet challenging debate. One of the scandals of the modern age is that we have to debate this at all. Everyone—children, women and men, UK national or not—can be affected by these sick and abhorrent crimes. We should all be deeply concerned that this is still happening and furthermore that the problem is actually growing. Our response to helping those who are being abused is coming up short. Today’s debate should serve as a wake-up call for us to do more to rid our society and, indeed, the world of modern slavery.