Modern Slavery Bill — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 17th November 2014.

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Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench 7:00 pm, 17th November 2014

My Lords, I wish that I had not been involved with the issue of domestic slavery for so long and with particular reference to London. This goes back to 1990 and, later, to a Private Member’s Bill that I took through your Lordships’ House. Like my noble friend Lord Alton, I regret that more progress has not been made in all these years.

We know that foreign visitors may now bring domestic workers with them for up to six months, while foreign diplomats may import such workers for up to five years. Both categories must have visas and contracts of employment, but I must ask the Minister: when the visa is issued, does anyone check that the previous employment outside this country was not abusive? Are the contracts of employment scrutinised to see that they comply with British practice?

Clause 1(4) provides for vulnerable people. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, I submit that all foreign domestic workers coming into this country are ipso facto vulnerable because they are tied to one employer for the duration of their stay and mostly live on the employer’s premises. I agree with the Joint Committee on the draft Bill that public agencies and NGOs should be able to remove a domestic from an abusive employer and to recover their passport. I point also to its recommendation that diplomatic domestics should have contracts directly with the embassy or consulate. Decisions of our courts or employment tribunals should be made enforceable against the embassies concerned—thus, I admit, limiting full diplomatic immunity.

How many complaints have been received in recent years about diplomats and embassies? The Home Office appears to think that foreign domestics are all unskilled workers. In fact, often they are highly skilled in childcare and cooking. Lest your Lordships should think that abuses are trivial, I will give brief details of the wrongdoing observed over many years and continuing to this day. It is common for employers to withhold upon arrival the passports of domestics and to confine them to their houses. This cuts off access to citizens advice bureaux, legal advice, employment tribunals and the police, not to speak of friends and recreation. The non-payment of wages or the payment of less than the national minimum have often been reported, together with physical and sexual violence. Normal contract terms are often breached—for example, no time off or paid holidays; no privacy or own room; being forced to sleep in a corridor or bathroom; and excessive hours without overtime payments. It is a disgrace that such things have been allowed to happen, despite questions and debates in both Houses and despite the evidence collected by trades unions and voluntary organisations, some of which was presented to the Joint Committee.

Such things cannot be allowed to continue. I therefore ask the Minister to assure the House that the Bill covers all the abuses complained of. There has been general impunity up to now. Will abuses now be rigorously prosecuted? Will the Government accept amendments dealing with foreign embassies and help with their drafting? On the question of children, I must ask: how will the Bill, the proposed independent commissioner or the child trafficking advocates help to prevent children in local authority care being lured away or kidnapped? Over the years many have disappeared, and better prevention is urgently needed. The Bill has good intentions and is a step in the right direction, but I am sure that it can be improved and I hope that it will be, with all-party support.