I beg to move,
That the Immigration (Guidance on Detention of Vulnerable Persons) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 184), dated
On behalf of my party, let me say that it is entirely right that we have the opportunity to debate in the House of Commons the incredibly serious changes proposed in this motion. Quite frankly, it is remarkable that the Government sought to introduce these changes as a negative statutory instrument—through the back door without any opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny at all.
This statutory instrument will remove protections in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 that sought to prevent potential victims of trafficking from being held unnecessarily in immigration detention. The changes are due to come into effect on
The consultation, which did not seek to engage with any trafficking survivor groups, was described as “poor practice” by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Given that the changes are being made alongside those outlined in the Government’s new plan for immigration, published last month, we are gravely concerned by the Government’s desire to erode the rights and protections for victims of some of the most heinous examples of exploitation.
To be clear, the proposals will amend the adults at risk in immigration detention statutory guidance by removing paragraph 18 on trafficking cases. That means that, from
A range of immigration factors is considered as part of the decision-making process and those factors go far wider than public order. They can include a history of offending, but additionally whether the person’s immigration history includes having entered the country irregularly, not having claimed asylum immediately, or having failed to comply with Home Office reporting requirements.
Often, having been a victim of trafficking leaves such individuals unable to satisfy those requirements. Being subject to coercive control commonly results in an individual entering the country outside approved routes or being unable to claim asylum immediately. Furthermore, to benefit from a stronger protection against detention once brought under the adults at risk guidance, potential victims of trafficking with a positive initial reasonable-grounds decision will now need to provide additional professional evidence demonstrating not only that they are an adult at risk, but that detention is likely to cause them harm. Therefore, the primary impact of the changes will be that potential victims of trafficking are detained, and detained for longer. That is the view not only of the Opposition and various specialist stakeholders, but of the Government.
In response to concerns raised, the Home Office admitted that some individuals might, as a result of the changes, be more likely to be detained or have their detention continued. Why, therefore, do the Government continue to press ahead when they are well aware of the damage and distress that will cause, particularly considering that they seek to deliver the changes through a statutory instrument considered under the negative procedure—deeming them unworthy of debate and scrutiny?
I thank Richard Fuller, who secured a Westminster Hall debate on this very issue just yesterday. That demonstrates that there are serious concerns about the proposals across the House. I listened carefully to the Minister’s response to the debate, and it seems that the Government seek to justify the changes by saying that a similar protection will be provided through casework guidance and training, which we have not yet seen and can only trust will be published in due course.
We also expect that changes will be made to the caseworker guidance, such as the increase in requirements for medical evidence, which will further weaken the protections for victims of trafficking. For example, there are plans to introduce quality standards for external medical evidence in the adults at risk policy, including proposals to limit the weight of remote assessment, and a stipulation that healthcare professionals should have all the immigration documents and medical records relating to conditions, which a potential victim might not be comfortable disclosing or be able to disclose.
Yesterday, the Minister emphasised his pride at this country’s leading role in identifying and protecting victims of modern slavery, but he also stressed that a rebalancing is required—if I have understood correctly—between protections for victims and immigration controls. He identified what he said is, by design, an “extremely low threshold” for a reasonable-grounds modern slavery decision whereby there is a requirement only to suspect, rather than to prove, someone is a potential victim of trafficking, and explained that the Government are looking to make adjustments to that, as set out in the new plan for immigration.
I am sorry to say that all that is delivering a downgrading of those protections, which we could have been proud of. That is an erosion of existing safeguards and it will undoubtedly increase the risk of vulnerable individuals being retraumatised in detention.
We are concerned not only by the implications of this statutory instrument but by the way in which the Government have sought to circumvent good practice and due diligence in their processes. The consultation period lasted just two weeks during the summer of last year, without the presence of specialist stakeholders and organisations. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has aptly described the consultation as “poor practice”. Shockingly, the Government did not consult the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner or her office on these proposals. I very much hope that the Minister has read Dame Sara Thornton’s letter dated
As many will already be aware, survivors of modern slavery are at increased risk of long-term depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide attempts and health complications. Last week, the Royal College of Psychiatrists published a statement saying that it believes that detention centres are likely to precipitate a significant deterioration in mental health in most cases, greatly increasing both the suffering of the individual and the risk of suicide and self-harm. In 2017 the Government promised a scheme called Places of Safety to allow survivors to access their rights soon after being identified in settings such as police raids or labour inspections. That would have given survivors an opportunity to access legal representation and advocacy while at their most vulnerable, as well as increasing the number of successful trafficking referrals to decision makers. Sadly, the Places of Safety scheme was never delivered, and as a result thousands of suspected slavery survivors were identified but never referred for support or decision making. I would very much like to know what has happened to that scheme, so will the Minister clarify that? An additional concern is the Government’s decision to cancel the pilot schemes exploring community alternatives to detention. I hope the Minister can also give some clarity to that crazy decision.
These changes represent a significant downgrading of the protections against detention currently given to potential victims of human trafficking. The Government say they want to introduce this statutory instrument so that the adults at risk policy can be used as the single mechanism for vulnerable individuals, in order to clamp down on the policy anomaly that currently exists. To perceive such legislative change purely in terms of fixing a policy anomaly fails to acknowledge the devastating impact it will have on vulnerable victims and represents this Government’s concerning approach to wider immigration policy.
The Government have previously stressed that a reduction in the number of people in detention is a key aspect of the series of reforms they are making across the detention system, yet this statutory instrument will achieve the exact opposite. Regrettably, it represents the Government’s failure to offer a solution that is compassionate, fair and deserving of vulnerable victims of human trafficking.
Let me start by reiterating the Government’s commitment to tackling modern slavery. The UK has led the world in protecting victims of this heinous crime. We will continue to support those who have suffered intolerable abuse at the hands of criminals and traffickers, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that perpetrators face justice. In a further demonstration of our commitment to supporting victims of modern slavery, the new modern slavery victim care contract went live in January this year, with an estimated whole-life cost of £379 million over its five-year lifetime. It will deliver a better service that it is needs-based and will do even more to look after individual victims.
It is worth mentioning that last year there were about 10,000 claims by victims of modern slavery and we made about 10,000 positive reasonable grounds decisions. That is, I think, one of the highest numbers, if not the highest, in Europe, and it is many times higher than in comparably sized European countries. So there is no question but that the United Kingdom leads Europe in its work on protecting victims of modern slavery. We have also embarked on an ambitious national referral mechanism transformation programme to do even more work than we are doing already. We have, moreover, launched a review of the 2014 modern slavery strategy that will allow us to build further on the progress made.
Although our commitment to cracking down on these appalling crimes remains undiminished, being recognised as a potential victim of modern slavery does not and should not automatically result in being granted immigration status in the UK or immunity from immigration proceedings. There may be potential victims or victims of modern slavery who have no lawful basis to remain in the UK, some of whom will be dangerous foreign national offenders, and about whom we are faced with decisions about using detention lawfully as a means of securing their removal. That is especially true when other options, including voluntary return, have been exhausted. Where we are faced with these decisions it is important that they are made in a way that is consistent, fair and balanced.
The shadow Minister mentioned detention, and it is worth saying that the use of detention for immigration purposes has been reduced significantly. The number of people in immigration detention in December 2019, before the pandemic started, was about half the level reported in September 2017. Moreover, of those entering immigration detention in 2019, I believe, from memory, that 39% spent only a week and about 75% spent less than 28 days in immigration detention. It is used sparingly and only where necessary to deliver our immigration rules properly.
The rules we are discussing today rectify an anomaly in the existing policy to bring detention decisions for potential victims of modern slavery within the scope of the adults at risk policy. That is the policy we use to make detention decisions for vulnerable people, including those with serious physical or mental health disabilities. At present, the adults at risk policy requires detention decisions for potential victims of modern slavery to be made with reference to separate Modern Slavery Act 2015 statutory guidance. That guidance does not steer decision makers in how to balance a person’s vulnerability against other considerations when making detention decisions, but makes reference only to public order, as the shadow Minister said.
We believe that the adults at risk policy, which already caters to all kinds of other very serious vulnerabilities, is the appropriate framework for detention decisions for potential victims of modern slavery. It allows for a nuanced and balanced assessment of detention decisions to be made, which the current policy does not allow. It also supports our desire for a clear and consistent approach to safeguarding in immigration detention decision making and will enable decisions for potential victims to be made in line with those for other categories of vulnerable individuals. To be absolutely clear, the vulnerability and risks associated with potential victims of modern slavery will categorically continue to be fully accounted for and fully considered.
Let me be clear: these regulations will not weaken the protections afforded to potential victims of modern slavery. The adults at risk immigration detention policy is well-established—it has been in place for at least five years. It enables officials to identify vulnerable adults and make decisions about the appropriateness of their detention, balancing all relevant considerations. The adults at risk policy strengthens the presumption in immigration policy that a person will not be detained where they may be particularly vulnerable to harm in detention.
Moreover, we do recognise and will continue to recognise the specific protections afforded to those in receipt of a positive reasonable grounds decision, in accordance with the European convention on action against trafficking in human beings. All those protections will, of course, be respected, and I can also assure the House that caseworkers and other Home Office staff will receive the appropriate guidance and training so that they are able to properly take into account those special protections for potential victims of modern slavery. We fully accept that those specific considerations exist. We recognise that in some circumstances an individual’s history may have been influenced by their trafficking or their previous modern slavery experiences, and that will most certainly be reflected in guidance and in subsequent decision making. Let me also be clear that every decision is taken individually, on a case by case basis, and there is a presumption against detention where there is particular vulnerability to harm. Those two things should give the House a great deal of reassurance on these points.
In conclusion, as I have set out, modern slavery is a despicable crime. The UK is leading Europe in identifying and protecting victims and going after perpetrators. The changes we are contemplating today make use of a well-established, effective policy for protecting vulnerable people and enable a rounded and balanced decision to be taken in these difficult cases.
Scottish National party MPs are fully behind this motion to revoke, and I support the arguments that the shadow Minister has set out. As well as thanking Richard Fuller, who secured yesterday’s debate, I want to thank John McDonnell for his work on this, and I pay tribute to all survivor groups and others working in this field who alerted MPs to the significance and consequences of these regulations. These might be short regulations, but they are also deeply worrying regulations that could have severe impacts on trafficking survivors, and the so-called consultation on them was a pretty abysmal exercise altogether.
As we have heard, the goal of the statutory guidance on adults at risk in immigration detention is that it will, in conjunction with other reforms, lead to a reduction in the number of vulnerable people being detained, and a reduction in the duration of detention before removal. However, these regulations will have the opposite effect, because they remove crucial protections provided to those with positive reasonable grounds decisions. No longer will the detention of potential victims of trafficking be considered with reference to the separate Modern Slavery Act 2015 statutory guidance; instead, the process is to be merged into the overall adults at risk system. This means a serious dilution of the protections against detention currently afforded to potential trafficking victims. Potential victims are, and should continue to be, entitled to a proper recovery period during which they cannot be removed and therefore cannot generally be detained, thanks to the Modern Slavery Act guidance.
Unless these regulations are revoked today, other immigration considerations will potentially be prioritised. An irregular immigration history, which many victims of trafficking will have, may mean a victim being locked up, and the standard of evidence of potential harm in detention required of them will be ramped up. In short, more victims of trafficking will be detained and more will be detained for longer—something the Government do not even seem to dispute. That means more potential victims suffering real and serious harm to their mental health. That is utterly against the Government’s stated objective in the guidance, and it is against their obligation to assist victims in their physical, psychological and social recovery.
In response to these very serious arguments, the Government seem to provide two arguments of their own. The first seems to justify the regulations on what amounts to little more than tidying up or administrative convenience: why burden officials with two systems of statutory guidance when one will do? The Government point out that potential victims of trafficking are the only group of people for whom such a special provision exists, and they call that a policy anomaly requiring correction, but these additional protections are absolutely justified, given what we know and understand about trafficking and the potential consequences of detention for such people. This is not a policy anomaly but a perfectly reasonable, proportionate response to the specific dangers that face trafficking victims. If anything requires correction, it is the mainstream adults at risk policy into which the Government want to throw trafficking victims. We know that it is overly burdensome and fails too many adults at risk. Let us fix that system, not meddle with the additional protections offered to trafficking victims.
The other Government argument appears to assert that there has been some evidence of abuse of the system, through false claims of trafficking designed to avoid detention. The answer to that it is not to make genuine victims suffer, as these regulations will, but to tackle the abuse head-on. It is the Home Office itself that assesses who is a victim of trafficking, and the answer is to invest in doing that better and faster. Why is it taking 456 days for potential victims to get positive grounds decisions? That is where the Home Office should look to weed out any abuse, rather than throwing victims under a bus.
Even if the Minister does not accept our analysis of the system as it stands, at the very least he should accept that if we are going to put everyone into one system, we should have a wide-ranging consultation and debate on how that system is working, what needs to be changed and what a better system could look like. However, instead of proper debate and consultation, we have had “poor practice”, as the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said. After two years of Home Office policy development, a small group of stakeholders had two weeks during the August summer holidays to feed back. The whole process was hush-hush, with those involved not allowed to share the proposals beyond a select few. Those lucky enough to participate were largely ignored. This so-called targeted engagement failed to consult relevant groups, including, as I understand it, the Government’s own modern slavery strategy implementation group or the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. Wendy Williams’ Windrush review demanded that consultation on changes to policy should be
“meaningful, offering informed proposals and openly seeking advice and challenge.”
The consultation did nothing of the sort, and a bad piece of secondary legislation that will harm victims of trafficking is the result. That is why these regulations should be revoked.
I find it hard to believe that we are having this debate today, and that this delegated legislation has been introduced at all. Emotionally, many Members of the House will find it hard to take, especially those of us who have taken any interest in detention, and specifically modern slavery and trafficking, over the last two to three decades.
After all the years of campaigning to expose modern slavery and trafficking, and after Parliament’s achievement of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which we are all proud of, this is like stepping back in time. It is a hugely retrograde step. After the exposure of trafficking and the recoil from the policies of the hostile environment, I thought we would never see this sort of legislation again. It is shameful that it has been brought before us. Have we learned nothing about the suffering that trafficking imposes on people? I urge the Minister and hon. Members not to support the motion, and to go back and look at some of the reports and investigations that led us to put in place extra protections for trafficking victims.
In 2017, Rahila Gupta—a member of Southall Black Sisters and now a famous author in my local community—wrote the book “Enslaved: The New British Slavery”. It was reported extensively at the time, and it shook many of us to the core with its descriptions of trafficking and the impact on our fellow human beings. Many other reports then followed, and we learned something of the scale of trafficking and its consequences in this country.
Yesterday, in Westminster Hall, the Government seemed to claim that the reason for this legislation was that the system was being abused somehow. No evidence for that claim has been published by the Home Office, and we have seen no independent assessment of the claim or data that the Government may want to bring forward to argue this case. What we do know, however—this is on the basis of research backed by the Home Secretary and undertaken in 2020 by Justice and Care and the Centre for Social Justice—is that there are estimated to be more than 100,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. In 2020, only 3,000 people were positively identified as survivors of slavery in the second stage of the decision-making process.
I contend that the Government’s main worry should be their failure to identify and make safe the vast majority of people who have been trafficked into this country. The Government should concentrate on that, rather than on unsubstantiated allegations of abuse in the system. With no data published to prove it, the Government have argued that over the last 12 months, there has been a surge in foreign national offenders claiming to be victims of trafficking to disrupt immigration proceedings. That represents a complete failure to understand everything that we have learned about how many of those who are convicted are convicted of crimes that they were forcibly trafficked to commit in this country. I cite the recent examples from many of our constituencies of the Vietnamese young people who have been trafficked into cannabis farms in the UK. Many of those who are trafficked and then convicted of crimes lack access to legal advice and support even to explain their circumstances and case.
The Government appear to be arguing that the threshold of reasonable grounds for determining whether someone has been trafficked is too low. Under the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking, the threshold was deliberately set low to ensure that people are identified. I believe we have an international obligation to uphold that standard under the convention. People who are referred into the system are referred, as the Minister knows, by first responders, who are professionally trained and authorised by the Government. In detention, virtually all the referrals come from the Home Office itself. As the Minister said, the Government have offered us revised casework guidance. That has not even been published, yet we are expected to vote into law this statutory instrument—a leap in the dark.
If the consultation had been adequate, no Government could have reasonably brought forward this statutory instrument. As other Members have said, the consultation was extremely limited, in both who was consulted and the timescale. Consulting for only two weeks on something so significant is a dereliction of the Government’s duty, particularly on openness, transparency and the consideration of all reasonable factors. As others have said, the Home Office admitted to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that more people will be held in detention if the instrument is approved. It will mean more people going into detention, but it will also be more difficult for people to get out of detention.
We need to recall the people we are talking about. These people are trafficked, exploited and abused, physically, sexually and mentally. They are extremely vulnerable. They are isolated and confused, often even lacking the ability to speak English, and they are suspicious of authority. Often, they have been emotionally abused to the extent that they are traumatised, and many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. These are the people that this statutory instrument will increasingly force into detention. And let us be clear: we know now that, in detention, there is little access to legal advice or to emotional or health support, so it is often very difficult for these people to communicate their circumstances and their case.
What does detention mean? Well, this is the reality of detention. I have two detention centres in my constituency: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. I have been visiting Harmondsworth for more than 30 years. Years ago, it was a couple of Nissen huts, with no more than about a dozen people detained there. Now we have what are, effectively, two prison-style buildings housing anything between 800 and 1,000 detainees.
These detention centres are notorious. Detainees have died, with accusations of neglect, lack of care and abuse. Perhaps the Minister will remember the 83-year-old man who was taken from detention to Hillingdon Hospital and died still in handcuffs. On two occasions, riots have broken out, with Harmondsworth being burned down.
Detainees get lost in the system, too, with examples of some being detained for long periods, trapped in detention. The irony is that most will eventually be released and allowed to settle, becoming valuable members of our community. The moral of this story is that we detain too many people unnecessarily and in unacceptable conditions. I believe that, in years to come, people will look back on this system with incredulity but also disgust.
I believe that this legislation, in addition to increasing the number of victims of trafficking in detention, will deter victims from coming forward. It will be used by traffickers to discourage victims from escaping. If the SI is passed, traffickers will say to victims, with some accuracy, “If you try to escape, you’ll be locked up anyway in a detention centre or prison.”
I believe that, if this House allows the statutory instrument to go on to the statute book, it will be seen as a disgraceful act of inhumanity. To attack some of the most vulnerable people, living in fear in our community, is a new low for this Parliament. I thought that we had all moved on. I thought we had moved forward. I hope that sufficient Members of this House still have the humanitarian instincts to reject this appalling measure.
I thank the Minister and all the contributors to the debate. This is an issue of great importance to me. I recognise that the Minister does his utmost in the capacity of what he is responsible for, and I believe in all honesty that he understands the issues that all of us are raising. The regulations, which will come into force on
I declare a particular interest in this matter. As the Minister and other Members will know, I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. One of the things that burdens my heart is those who are persecuted due to their faith and religion or because they belong to an ethnic minority. In this House, we have been trying over the years to ensure we have a system that enables those people to be considered for asylum and relocation. I have done it before, but it is important in these debates to give credit and thanks for jobs that are done. The Syrian resettlement scheme was brought in by this Government, and all of us in the House supported it.
In my constituency of Strangford, we were able through the scheme to relocate four Syrian families, who have been there for almost five years. I met one of them just last week to discuss a housing issue. I had not seen them in person for that period, but it was wonderful to see that they were settled, they had work and they had their families. The lady had a second baby. She said to me, along with some of the people from the churches who have helped out, “This is now my home.” Our Government made it possible for people to have their home in my constituency and, indeed, in many constituencies across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is life changing. That is what we can do when we get it right. I wanted to put that on the record, because I got the opportunity last Friday to meet that lady again. Her family went through terrible things and faced upheaval just because they were Christians; that is a fact of life. We were able to help, and I thank my Government and my Minister for that on behalf of them and myself.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are currently 79.5 million forcibly displaced persons around the world. I have raised this issue on many occasions and cited that some of these are the most vulnerable people from the most difficult backgrounds; it burdens me when I hear about them. Many countries detain asylum seekers in detention centres while their applications are processed or following a decision to refuse them protection. At present, the total number of third country nationals held in immigration detention in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the year ending June 2020 is 698. I understand that the last year has been an incredibly difficult time, and that number is undoubtedly affected by the impact of covid-19 on the Home Office’s ability to release detainees. However, the United Kingdom has yet to reintroduce its resettlement programme. I am not sure whether the Minister is in a position to respond to this, but I am keen to know whether there is any intention to do again what the Government have already done well. We must ensure that that happens as soon as possible.
It is important to recognise that vulnerable persons detained in immigration centres have already experienced severe trauma. Many of them have seen things that we would never in a million years be able to envisage, understand or even contemplate. Many have PTSD and severe mental health issues associated with their pre-migration experiences. Prolonged detention—on top of all the trauma that they have had to go through—without sight of resettlement heightens those issues, and we need to do better for those people. What protections will the regulations provide to ensure that the detention of vulnerable persons is a limited process, instead of indefinite and non-reviewable mandatory detention? Is the updated guidance able to stand in the post-covid world that we find ourselves coming into, with the problems that we have?
I thank all the Members who have contributed to this discussion. I particularly thank Jim Shannon for his well-considered and thoughtful comments on the issues we are debating. I thank him for his remarks about the resettlement scheme, from which his constituents have benefited. That demonstrates the Government’s unshakeable commitment to protecting vulnerable people around the world.
The resettlement programme to which the hon. Gentleman referred has resettled 25,000 people over the past six years, which is more than any other European country. That is clear evidence of the Government’s compassionate commitment to those in genuine need. He referenced in particular persecuted Christians, of whom there are many around the world. In fact, following a speech that I heard him make in a debate in the Chamber a year or so ago, he will notice that the new plan for immigration expressly references persecuted Christians around the world and the need to offer them sanctuary here in the United Kingdom. Where Shannon led the way, the rest of the United Kingdom will, I hope, follow.
The hon. Gentleman asked for an assurance that the resettlement programme will continue. Yes, it will. In fact, it is already continuing. We recommenced a few weeks ago, so I can give him the assurance for which he asked. On the question of indefinite detention, we do not detain people indefinitely for immigration purposes. About 75% of people in immigration detention are there for 28 days or less. It is used as a last resort. The Hardial Singh principles strictly set out the circumstances in which it can be used, and at any time anyone in detention can apply for immigration bail.
Most importantly of all, it is categorically not true and is not the case that we will be turning our backs on victims of modern slavery. On the contrary, we have done more than any Government in history to look after them. Indeed, we are doing more than any Government in Europe to protect and look after victims of modern slavery. The change that we are discussing today does not alter that fact. I can assure the House that decision makers will continue to take careful account of vulnerability, risk and the experience of modern slavery victims—or potential victims—when making these decisions. That will be fully taken into account, and balanced with other considerations. Victims will be respected, treated carefully and looked after, as they have been in this country for many years. We have a proud record on this topic, and that will continue for many decades to come.
I am afraid that we are not at all satisfied with the Minister’s contribution. This is a shameful downgrading of essential, hard-won protections for those who have been subject to some of the worst forms of exploitation and abuse. The Minister says that we lead in Europe on modern slavery, but he uses that as a justification for downgrading protections, which means that we will trample all over that sense of leadership and welcome progress on this issue. We will no longer lead in this policy area, which is much more about humanity than it ever will be about practicalities.
The Minister suggested that only one other colleague attended the Westminster Hall debate yesterday, but he did not clarify the fact that it was a 30-minute debate. As such, there were no contributions from other parties or other Members. The early-day motion praying against the statutory instrument has secured 77 signatures, and is a more appropriate reflection of colleagues’ interest in this important matter.
My right hon. Friend John McDonnell made some incredibly powerful points, and I thank him for his leadership on this issue. We do not have the confidence to support the Government on proposed guidance that is yet to be published. I thank Jim Shannon for his typically powerful contribution as well.
The protections currently in place represent far more than a policy anomaly. There is a strong case for them to be in place and we want to see those protections extended. We seek to divide the House to revoke these proposals.