Report (1st Day)

Part of Modern Slavery Bill – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 23rd February 2015.

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Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 3:30 pm, 23rd February 2015

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for her welcome for the amendment which I shall move later. I appreciate it as it gives me an opportunity to respond and to speak to all the amendments in this group. I reiterate what I said in correspondence, which is that this Bill has been an exemplar of the legislative process. A Bill was published, it was given pre-legislative scrutiny and, following that detailed scrutiny, a revised Bill was published which went through its stages in another place. Let me be generous to the other place and say that sometimes things go through at a bit of a speed and without careful scrutiny to the level that we would like to see, yet this Bill received that level of attention, such is the interest that we all have in seeing the changes made.

Many changes were made in the other place. Between consideration in the other place and here, the Government added the new clause on the supply chain and during the detailed process we went through in Committee, 23 amendments were tabled. There was then an extensive period of meetings with interested Members of the House of Lords. The level of engagement, not only from Peers but from NGOs and charities that work in this area and have deep concerns, was incredibly impressive and helpful. They brought their expertise, and we were able to hear from the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, who gave us an insight into how he sees his role. As a result, the Government have tabled a record number, I think, of amendments—72—which we will go through. I set that out as context to show that there is cross-party commitment to see this legislation on the statute book as soon as possible to make sure that victims are protected and that law enforcement agencies have the powers they need to be able to tackle people who are guilty of these crimes.

I now move to the amendments in this group. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hamwee and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for their amendments and for this opportunity to debate Clause 1. It sets out the offence of slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour. This group of amendments, which includes the amendment I shall move, relates to the circumstances the court can consider when assessing whether an offence has taken place. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Hornsey, for tabling and speaking to Amendment 7, which is to ensure that committing modern slavery offences does not benefit offenders or third parties who either benefit from these crimes or look the other way when they are committed.

One of the improvements the Government have made to the Bill following pre-legislative scrutiny is to make clear that the court can consider all the circumstances when assessing whether a Clause 1 offence has been committed, including the vulnerabilities of the victim. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hamwee for testing through her argument whether this provision is drawn widely enough to cover all possible forms of vulnerability. After looking carefully at it, I am confident that it does.

Amendments 1 and 2 aim to ensure that characteristics intrinsic to a person can be considered by the court in determining whether a person is a victim of the Clause 1 offence. I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hamwee for so effectively testing the Government’s approach. However, I assure your Lordships’ House that the term “circumstances” is broad enough—even as defined by the

Oxford English Dictionary

—to cover any relevant characteristics of the victim. That is made clear by the non-exhaustive list of vulnerabilities that can be considered which are set out at Clause 1(4), and which includes mental or physical illness and whether the victim is a child.

Amendment 3 seeks to include disability in the list of personal circumstances which may make a person vulnerable at Clause 1(4). I assure the noble Baroness that the list of circumstances simply gives examples. The court may consider all circumstances that may make a victim vulnerable, which include disability.

On government Amendment 4, tabled in my name, we had a very healthy debate on child exploitation in Committee, and I have reflected on those exchanges carefully, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, reminded us that I said I would. We will have a full debate on child exploitation in a moment. The Government are determined to give law enforcement the powers needed to tackle child exploitation, and exploitation more broadly.

I have not brought forward a separate offence after taking the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, the national policing lead for modern slavery Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, and the National Crime Agency, which argue that there is no gap in the law and that a new offence would make prosecution harder. That point was underscored again in the letter which Kevin Hyland circulated to many Peers ahead of this debate.

However, I share noble Lords’ concerns that we need to make sure that we have effective offences in the Bill which tackle serious exploitation. That is why I brought forward government amendments in Committee to ensure that the Clause 1 offence fully reflected the specific vulnerabilities of child victims. The House will recall that we amended the Bill to make it clear that consent by the victim does not prevent a conviction. We also made it explicit that the vulnerability of a child victim can be considered.

Having reflected on our Committee debates, I will address a different concern, about the range of conduct that can be covered by the Clause 1 offence. I know that there are real concerns that it might not be possible to use that offence in relation to a victim, particularly a child, who is forced to beg or pickpocket. However, we can see that the breadth of the offence may not be well enough understood, including by front-line professionals dealing with these cases. That is why I have tabled government Amendment 4. It clarifies that, for the Clause 1 offence of slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour, the court can consider any work or services provided by the person, including work or services provided in circumstances which constitute exploitation within Clause 3. That deals in particular with the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and the example she helpfully gave us, and it will help law enforcement, prosecutors and the police understand the breadth of that offence better. The court will be able to look at exploitation in Clauses 3(5) and 3(6) and understand that conduct captured there such as begging and pickpocketing is capable of being work or services for the purposes of the forced or compulsory labour offence as set out in Clause 1.

We also need to strengthen the knowledge and awareness of the front-line professionals who come into contact with vulnerable victims and make decisions about investigations and prosecutions. My noble friend Lady Doocey will speak to that subject later, which she feels passionate about. Those professionals need to understand the behaviour they are seeing and the offences they can use to tackle areas such as child exploitation. That is why I am pleased that the Director of Public Prosecutions and the national policing lead have agreed to work together to drive up awareness among front-line professionals of their powers to tackle child exploitation and build stronger cases together.

We all share the determination that the criminal law should protect the vulnerable, including children. The Government are determined that the Bill should achieve this, which is why we have already made a number of important changes to the offences in the Bill, and have gone further in that regard today.

On Amendment 7, in Committee we had an excellent debate on how the Modern Slavery Bill will ensure that committing modern slavery offences does not benefit the offenders or third parties who benefit or look the other way when these crimes are committed. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment to provide further scrutiny of our approach. It would make it an offence for persons, including legal persons, to benefit from modern slavery when the offence was committed for their benefit, and their lack of supervision or control enabled the commission of the offence. As I explained in Committee, we believe that it is absolutely right that companies that profit from modern slavery can be held responsible, as well as individual perpetrators. That is why the offences in the Bill can be committed by all persons, including legal persons. This means that they can be committed by companies, providing that the usual legal principles of corporate criminal liability apply. This extends to aiding and abetting in an offence. Companies can also be held liable under the civil law, such as negligence and proceeds of crime legislation, when they benefit from modern slavery committed for their benefit. So companies that make money as a result of modern slavery committed for their benefit can be deprived of those profits and pursued for damages by their victims, which is what we all want.

In Committee, I committed to keep this subject under review. Having looked closely at the debate, we remain confident that currently, and under the Modern Slavery Bill, we are fully compliant with the requirements of the EU trafficking directive around liability of legal persons. The UK Government are fully compliant with the directive and committed to fulfilling its reporting obligations. Given the extensive positive changes being made to the UK’s response to modern slavery through this Bill, which we are still in the process of, the national referral mechanism review and the implementation of the modern slavery strategy, the UK Government will make a full report on progress shortly, once these legislative processes have been completed. That will enable us to more fully demonstrate the UK’s activity in this area. We are working to agree this approach with the EU anti-trafficking co-ordinator.

On the assessments from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Clause 1 offence can be used against anyone who holds a person in slavery, servitude or subjects them to forced or compulsory labour. This includes someone who aids or abets an offence—for example, by arranging or facilitating the victim’s exploitation. Today’s government amendment does not change that point.

I want to set this compliance in the context of some of the wider action that we are taking in this area. As noble Lords are aware, we are also taking action in the Modern Slavery Bill to require large businesses to disclose what they have done to ensure that their supply chains are slavery-free. We believe that the resultant transparency will encourage others who have not yet taken decisive steps to take action. We will discuss ensuring that this provision is effective later on in the Report stage. I also want to reassure noble Lords that we are committed to ensuring that we recover the ill gotten gains of slave-masters and traffickers. That is why Clause 7 subjects those convicted of slavery and trafficking to the most robust available asset recovery regime.

Given the House’s concern to tackle exploitation, I ask noble Lords to consider supporting my amendment, which makes it clear that the courts can look at exploitation to help them understand the breadth of the Clause 1 offence. I hope, given my assurances that they are not needed, that noble Lords feel able not to press their amendments.