Modern Slavery Act 2015

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:33 pm on 26th October 2017.

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Photo of Carolyn Harris Carolyn Harris Shadow Minister (Equalities Office) (Women and Equalities) 2:33 pm, 26th October 2017

I wish to start by congratulating my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker on not only securing today’s debate, but the excellent way he takes a lead on this important issue. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) and for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on their excellent contributions today. I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend Jess Phillips and Hannah Bardell for bringing the real-life consequences of the evil practice of slavery into the Chamber today.

When this House passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015 it was a landmark piece of legislation that provided leadership on a global scale. However, the lack of subsequent legislation has meant that it now risks becoming less effective on key issues of the fight against modern slavery. I will start by setting the scene: 45.8 million people are enslaved worldwide—this can mean anything from forced labour to forced marriage and forced sexual exploitation. In the UK, one of the most well developed countries in the world, an estimated 13,000 people are in modern-day slavery—that is far too many.

As was mentioned by Maggie Throup, companies that have made statements under section 54 of the Act are in the minority; the majority have not done so. Where they have made a statement, the quality ranges from the very good—I would specifically name Marks & Spencer and the Co-operative here—to the almost worthless. Yet, Ministers have done nothing to address this, leaving businesses free to carry on and take no action, despite what this House legislated for. We must put into place a regime where this House can be confident that its wishes, as expressed, and the commitments in the Modern Slavery Act, will be fulfilled. So I ask the Minister: when will the Government publish a list of all companies that should be producing statements on their modern slavery policies?

We all acknowledge that the police do a fantastic job when they protect and rescue individuals from slavery, but the HMIC report published earlier this week was a stark reality check for us all. The report tells us that all too often the trafficker’s threats to the victims—that they have no means of escape, as they will not be believed—have sadly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reports biggest critique was that policing against modern slavery and human trafficking is reactive rather than proactive, so more must be done to support vulnerable people to ensure that they will not be placed in the hands of traffickers. It is vital that we learn how traffickers prey on their victims, so that we are able to be more effective with preventions and protections. Does the Minister agree that there is a real need to improve training for the police, to help them better understand how to identify victims and how best to respond to issues?

I want to move on to the problematic national referral mechanism. Adults are required to consent to their referral, but without appropriate funding, support and accommodation, and a suitable environment where they can get proper advice to allow them to make informed decisions, far too many turn to homelessness or, even worse, return to their traffickers. All too often, NRM forms are rushed, just to make sure that the person concerned has access to accommodation. That means that some forms are incomplete or contain inaccurate information, undermining the individual’s credibility. Legal advice and representation must be offered early to all potential victims, to support them in understanding their rights, and in giving them access to justice and a real opportunity to move on with their lives. Government support is withdrawn quickly after a conclusive groundwork decision is made, and non-governmental organisations are all too often having to pick up the pieces because of a lack of resources and awareness among local authorities. Safe house accommodation should be more flexible, with support diminishing gradually according to an individual’s needs; they should not just have the rug pulled from under them.

Not only is this lack of support detrimental to the individuals, but it makes it difficult for police and prosecutors to do their job. Police have spoken about losing survivors due to the lack of support, and NGOs have spoken about anxiety caused by an insecure immigration status and how that prevents survivors in dealing with their traumatic experiences. Victims are entitled to only 45 days of NRM support following rescue, and that is simply not enough. Regardless of how well organised that 45 days’ support is, it is still not enough. Many of those rescued want to regain control of their lives through schemes such as the Co-op’s “Bright Future” project, which gives them a pathway back to paid employment, but they cannot do so because either they have not had the support to get them ready for work or they do not have the legal right to work.

Victims continue to be denied access to the vital services that they need to recover and rebuild their lives. Authorities often prioritise immigration control over the safety of victims. That can leave adults and children vulnerable to going missing. Traffickers see these individuals as vulnerable, and they exploit the existing system using evil and despicable practices. I welcome the fact that the NRM is being reformed, but I hope that during the reform process organisations such as the Human Trafficking Foundation, ECPAT UK and UNICEF are listened to and their advice heeded.

Slavery touches our lives every day, whether we know it or not. No country is free from this horrific crime and no one is safe: women, men, youngsters and, worse still, children are vulnerable. Exploitation on any level is unjustifiable, but when it involves a child it is chillingly deplorable. I have a huge concern that no specialist support or accommodation for trafficked children is available under the NRM. I urge the Minister to address that as a matter of urgency.

We passed the legislation two years ago, but it has been left to go stale, through a lack of enforcement, additional legislation or desire. Victims of modern slavery and trafficking are still being criminalised for crimes they were forced to commit. There is no clear pathway or continuity of support for victims, and the inconsistent training and co-ordination of services that are in place to protect them can be a hindrance because of a lack of knowledge, appropriate training and funding.

We are dealing with the most vulnerable individuals. This is a modern scourge with historical roots. Too many people rely on us to protect them from danger and to offer them support, so we must make sure that the service we offer is robust, reliable and effective.