My Lords, I want to raise an issue of great concern to many, that of victims of modern-day slavery. I welcome the commitments in the gracious Speech to continuing to work at an international level to tackle this terrible crime. However, I believe we must also continue to look for improvements in how we address this appalling abuse here in the United Kingdom. At the end of March, the National Crime Agency published figures for the number of potential victims referred to the National Referral Mechanism in 2016. There were 3,805 potential victims in total, an increase of 17% compared with the year before.
Such an increase is, I believe, a clear indication that the police, front-line services and even the general public are becoming more aware of the signs of trafficking and exploitation, and more aware of how they can help people to access emergency support. I was particularly encouraged to hear of NGOs training flight attendants around the world how to spot the signs of their passengers who might be being trafficked. I encourage the Government to look into how we can encourage such training for all airline staff who fly into the United Kingdom.
However, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. The number of potential victims identified in 2016 is still less than half, and possibly only a third, of the 10,000 to 13,000 potential victims estimated by the Home Office’s chief scientific adviser in the year 2014. This suggests that many more people are suffering extraordinary exploitation and abuse, who are not being offered help. Some, of course, will receive assistance from charities, and others may even be treated in the National Health Service or encountered by immigration officials or by the police. However, they may be either not recognised as possible victims of modern-day slavery or may be too afraid to come forward.
In April, just at the end of the last Session, a report was published by the Work and Pensions Committee which highlighted another key problem. What happens to victims after the initial period of emergency support while their victim status is assessed by the NRM? The report found:
“There is very little structured support for confirmed victims once they have been given a ‘Conclusive Grounds’ decision from the NRM that they are a modern slavery victim”.
It is simply unacceptable that our authorities can send someone a letter confirming that we recognise that they have been trafficked, yet from that point on they may be homeless. They may not even be eligible for benefits and they may be told that they have no right to remain in the UK. We can, and must, do better.
The gracious Speech reaffirmed the Prime Minister’s commitment to lead the fight against modern slavery. However, as the Minister knows, addressing modern slavery must go beyond just battling criminals who commit these terrible crimes. Leading this fight must also take seriously the need to support victims. Vulnerable victims are at risk of retrafficking, entering an ongoing cycle of exploitation. Moreover, victims who are supported on a pathway to recovery are much better placed to assist the police with investigations, which can only increase the chances of convicting the perpetrators. I echo the call of the Work and Pensions Committee report that,
“the Government must introduce a system that will help victims to start piecing their lives back together. Not only is there a moral case for doing this but it can help to bring the perpetrators of these horrendous crimes to justice”.
I was disappointed that the gracious Speech did not contain reference to plans to address the longer-term support and recovery of victims of modern slavery. I reassure the Minister that help is on the way, in that yesterday was the first reading of the Modern Slavery (Victims Support) Bill that I have brought forward to address this very issue. I hope that the Government will give it their support.
I was pleased to hear that the Scottish Government announced two weeks ago that they will be doubling the basic period of support provided to adult victims of trafficking, from 45 days to 90 days. I urge the Government to consider the need for victims in England and Wales to receive support for a longer period to prepare them better for their continued rehabilitation.
I close my remarks by seeking an assurance from the Minister that supporting victims of modern slavery will be a priority for the Government in the coming year.