Modern Slavery Bill — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:22 pm on 17th November 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Conservative 7:22 pm, 17th November 2014

My Lords, other noble Lords have already referred to William Wilberforce; 181 years after his death it is utterly horrifying that slavery continues to exist. As he once said:

“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know”.

I am pleased to add my voice to the many others welcoming this Bill on modern slavery, and I commend the Home Secretary and the Government for bringing it forward. It is a hugely positive and important step in trying to combat this horrendous crime. I also pay tribute to the many campaigners and organisations that work and campaign so tirelessly in this area.

Modern slavery is indeed a most heinous practice, inflicting immense suffering and misery. As the director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, says:

Trafficking in persons is a grave human rights violation and a serious crime”.

As we have already heard, while accurate statistics are unknown, the National Crime Agency recently estimated that nearly 3,000 people were trafficked for exploitation in the UK last year—a 22% increase on 2012. Meanwhile, the conviction rate of traffickers is astonishingly low. I am told that only eight were convicted in 2011, 12 in 2012, and 19 last year. Perhaps the Minister can confirm whether those figures are accurate.

As has already been discussed, people are being trafficked here for a variety of reasons, from forced labour and domestic servitude to sexual exploitation and forced marriage. I agree with other noble Lords that, as vital as it is to apprehend and prosecute the traffickers, it is of equal importance that we support the victims and help them restore their lives; one cannot begin to imagine what these people have suffered. I hope that the Bill, when finalised, will robustly address both these approaches.

The charity Eaves, which works to address exploitation of women, states that very few victims of trafficking are willing to get involved in prosecuting their traffickers due to threats to themselves or their family back home if they talk to the police, as we already heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy. I hope that this House can look further at ways in which support can be given to victims to address that, because traffickers need to be brought to justice.

Victims of trafficking often face what can be described as a double trauma—being enslaved; and, upon release or escape, finding themselves prosecuted for crimes that their traffickers forced them to commit or that they committed in an attempt to escape. I emphasise my support for the measures in Part 5 which provide a statutory defence for victims of slavery and trafficking. It is important that the level of evidence must not be too burdensome on the trafficked victim, who may well find being interrogated by the police intimidating, only adding to their trauma. A general principle of non-prosecution of victims except in extreme circumstances might be considered.

As other noble Lords have mentioned, in the wider sense I would like to see the Bill go further in making support provisions for victims. The current model of assistance, which has already been referred to, through the national referral mechanism, provides only 45 days of shelter and legal and medical assistance. After that time they must leave and are in effect abandoned. What happens to them then? They are all alone in a strange country, maybe not speaking the language and without any money. I was recently told by the Human Trafficking Foundation of widespread suspicions that they often have to fall back on the original perpetrator through lack of other support. Assets recovered can perhaps be deployed towards compensating and helping those victims. We simply must do more to help those people rebuild their lives and return home if they want to.

As was already discussed, the establishment of an anti-slavery commissioner will be absolutely pivotal, and it is extremely important that he can oversee and cohesively draw together the work of the various agencies—the police, border officials, health workers, local authorities, third-sector organisations and others—involved in preventing and penalising slavery. I agree that this will lead to a more efficient and effective system, which will ultimately result in increased numbers of prosecutions. I also support the view that this role creates an opportunity to provide better support and protection to victims. The office can provide a central resource for best practice, as well as gather data and information, monitor trends and the impact of policies and legislation, and develop protocols on dealing with victims. It must also ensure that UK measures against trafficking comply and co-ordinate effectively with those already in place in Europe and internationally, including CEDAW and UN conventions.

Without doubt, prostitution is one of the main drivers of women and girls being trafficked. While the Bill does not deal with the laws on prostitution—rightly—I very much hope that the commissioner will make a thorough review of those. It is considered important that this commissioner is independent, but can that truly be the case if that role sits in the Home Office as well as being appointed by and accountable to the Home Secretary? One can look at similar roles in other countries. I understand that the Joint Committee that looked at the draft Bill took evidence from the Dutch national rapporteur on trafficking in human beings, who emphasised that her role’s long-term success lay in its statutory independence, and there is a similar situation in Finland. I hope that that aspect will be examined again as the Bill passes through your Lordships’ House; the Minister could comment on that.

Much has already been said about children, but it is utterly shocking that some victims of trafficking are children. As has already been identified, it is particularly important that the Bill works to protect them. The introduction of child trafficking advocates will, I hope, provide child victims with better safety and support. As we have already heard, there has been a significant increase in the number of children involved in trafficking in recent years; apparently at least 10 children are trafficked every week in the UK. It must be such a terrifying experience for a child, and we must ensure that they are always treated as victims and not perpetrators.

UNICEF told me the story of a girl named Katja. Katja was trafficked into the UK as a teenager and was forced to work on a cannabis farm. When found, she was taken into custody and then into care. She soon escaped, disappearing back into the hands of her traffickers. She was then sexually exploited and became pregnant. She was found again in hospital, alone and unable to deal with the pregnancy.

Katja’s story is frighteningly common. Over 60% of trafficked children taken into care go missing. Most fall back into this life of exploitation and abuse through desperation and lack of support. Children such as Katja need somebody whom they can trust and who will keep them safe and make sure that they get the support they need.

It is crucial that these advocates are able to act in the child’s best interests, and I welcomed the recent government amendment to that effect. It is also widely felt that these advocates must be wholly independent and, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said, that they must have significant authority in their supervision of the child, including legal powers, as is the case in the Netherlands. This will provide appropriate support, especially in criminal proceedings, where they can instruct solicitors on the child’s behalf, thus ensuring the child’s best defence in court. And surely child trafficking should always carry particularly heavy sentences.

Above all, wherever possible, we need to help these children return to their homes. Life in care is not a satisfactory outcome, as demonstrated by the fact that so many children want to escape.

I think we all recognise how complex a problem modern slavery and trafficking is. This Bill will go a long way in helping law enforcers to target traffickers but it can go further to improve support and protection for victims. As others have already said, this must be a world-class Bill.

Longer-term education and awareness-raising are also crucial, and we must continue to work with businesses and other countries to tackle the problem at its source. This includes understanding the factors that increase people’s vulnerability to trafficking and, in particular, the specific needs of women and children.

I conclude by quoting again the UN Women executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, speaking on the first World Day against Trafficking in Persons:

“We must redouble our efforts to stamp out trafficking in persons, to return hope to those who have suffered this injustice and to build a future where these crimes no longer threaten any person, anywhere”.