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Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:11 pm on 8th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative 2:11 pm, 8th September 2017

My Lords, this Bill is an essential addition to the Modern Slavery Act, a measure which has already been a great success thanks to the support of many people, not least the Prime Minister herself. I shall begin with a brief overview of what my Bill does before moving on to explain why I believe these new measures are necessary.

My Bill would amend the Modern Slavery Act with two primary effects. First, proposed new Section 48A would put into law victims’ entitlement to support during the reflection and recovery period, while the competent authorities are deciding whether there is evidence that they have been a victim of modern slavery. Secondly, new Section 48B would create a statutory duty to provide confirmed victims of modern slavery with ongoing support and leave to remain for a period of 12 months. New Section 48C sets out the main types of assistance and support that would be provided to victims, and stipulates key aspects of how that support is to be provided.

In April, the Home Secretary wrote:

“We must be better at getting immediate support to victims when they are at their most vulnerable. Otherwise they just slip through the net, to be abused all over again, and we lose any opportunity to gain information on the criminals who exploited them in the first place … We also want to make sure that victims are able to rebuild their lives. Our aspiration to help these people is in the right place—but at present, the provision of support may yet not be”.

With this, I agree entirely. My Bill provides a way to make these aspirations a reality by putting the principles for victim support into legislation.

The UK is a signatory to the Council of Europe convention and EU directive which require us to provide support when a victim is first identified, during the so-called reflection and recovery period. My Bill ensures that there is no doubt that victims should receive these international rights by creating a legal framework with minimum standards. This will provide certainty for victims and for the organisations that support them.

The treaty-monitoring body for the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking, known as “GRETA”, urged the UK Government,

“to enshrine in law … the right to a recovery and reflection period”,

in its first report on the UK in 2012 and repeated this recommendation in October 2016.

Victim support rights are also included in the EU directive. Your Lordships will remember, possibly, that I was a strong proponent of the EU anti-trafficking directive when it was being developed. I was pleased when the Government opted into the directive, and more so when the Modern Slavery Bill was introduced. However, although the Modern Slavery Act has brought into national law most of the directive’s provisions, it does not include the measures which guarantee support for victims. It is uncertain at present what the status of the directive will be once the UK has left the EU; presumably, its provisions will no longer have effect. This lack of clarity creates risks for victims which should not be entertained.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have introduced a legal duty to provide support to victims while the NRM decision is being made. It cannot be right that victims in England and Wales have fewer protections than those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. My Bill will create equality of access by setting out a clear approach to caring for victims in England and Wales through Brexit and beyond.

My Bill will also ensure that we have consistent standards of support. New Section 48C sets out clearly what support and services victims should have access to and establishes standards for their provision. For example, assistance should be provided only with a person’s consent and should be based on the individual’s particular needs. These minimum levels of support are all drawn from our international obligations.

I turn now to an issue which has come to prominence over the past year: the support available to victims following a positive conclusive grounds decision. Front-line agencies are advising us that the current system is not meeting our objectives to recover victims and protect them from further exploitation. As the anti-slavery commissioner has said:

“Supporting a potential victim until the conclusive decision is made and then ceasing support so abruptly could be damaging for the victim and negatively affect their recovery”.

Ending support just 14 days after the NRM decision without establishing access to services and suitable housing for the following period puts victims at risk and interrupts their recovery. Research by the Human Trafficking Foundation found that,

“the current options for housing and support in the post safe house period are not sufficient for survivors of modern slavery. If there is no effective strategy to prevent re-victimisation then generational cycles of abuse and exploitation of vulnerable people may continue unabated.”

Front-line support agencies have highlighted cases where confirmed victims are destitute and sleeping on the streets, are refused access to welfare benefits or housing, and have then engaged in prostitution because they were not entitled to any form of support. The anti-slavery commissioner raised these concerns with the Work and Pensions Committee in another place last year. The committee inquiry report which followed highlighted that despite its other achievements, the Modern Slavery Act did not secure a pathway for the victims’ recovery. The committee went on to recommend that,

“all confirmed victims of modern slavery be given at least one year’s leave to remain with recourse to benefits and services … this would allow time for victims to receive advice and support, and give them time to plan their next steps. This would not prevent those who wish to return home from doing so”.

A similar recommendation has been made by the GRETA report, which urged the UK authorities to,

“make further efforts to ensure that all victims of trafficking are provided with adequate support and assistance, according to their individual needs, beyond the 45-day period covered by the NRM”.

The committee recognised that not only is there a moral case for providing longer support, but that doing so also benefits the criminal justice system, because providing support can help to bring the perpetrators of these terrible crimes to justice. The anti-slavery commissioner told the committee that victims are often the best source of intelligence and that they would be deterred from even coming forward and making accusations against their abusers if they believed they would not be supported.

Victims are vulnerable, often fearful of reprisals from their traffickers and anxious about the future. If they are not given guarantees of housing and food, and access to other support, how can we expect them to feel secure enough to provide information about the people who abuse them? Yet without their input, it may be impossible to bring successful prosecutions against the criminals who perpetrate these horrible crimes.

The Government will no doubt wish to highlight that there are options for longer-term support through the existing discretionary leave to remain, which I shall refer to as DLR, for which confirmed victims of modern slavery can apply. However, there is significant evidence that many victims are falling through the gaps of this scheme, because of three key problems.

First, DLR is available only in three narrowly defined circumstances, one of which, known as “compelling personal circumstances”, is given a much narrower interpretation than that in the Explanatory Note to the Council of Europe convention. In all, just 123 of the victims positively identified as victims of trafficking in 2016 were granted discretionary leave to remain.

Secondly, because DLR is not automatically available for every victim, a separate process must be instigated, which can begin only after the conclusive grounds decision. The anti-slavery commissioner has said:

“This significantly delays the process, and ultimately pushes victims onto the streets while they await a decision on their DL application”.

Although safe houses can ask for an extension to the victim’s stay pending this decision, that extension is not always granted. This cannot be acceptable.

Thirdly, the process of applying for DLR varies for different victims and in different circumstances, which leads to confusion of course. Where the application is being made because a victim is helping police with their investigations, the police must make the application. Sadly, it seems not all police forces are aware of this responsibility. One charity told the Work and Pensions Committee:

“Investigating police forces are not well versed in immigration matters and often do not know what DL means let alone how to apply for it or that they are responsible for this application”.

Even if forces are aware, processing the application takes time away from the investigative role that the police are uniquely tasked with. I suggest to the Minister that we would do better to relieve the police of that responsibility by giving all victims the option of a limited period of leave automatically, as my Bill does.

I will take a moment here to stress that my Bill provides only a limited period of leave. It does not provide an automatic grant of indefinite leave to remain. Indeed, I would not support such an open-ended commitment. The Bill provides a 12-month period for victims’ rehabilitation, not permanent residency. The possibility and length of any extension is at the discretion of the Secretary of State.

I know the Government have expressed concern that giving all confirmed victims automatic DLR would create a “pull factor” for traffickers or false claims. However, the Work and Pensions Committee rightly said:

“It is not clear … how such a pull factor would operate”,

and that it is,

“unsubstantiated by evidence”.

Traffickers do not exploit people with the aim that they should escape and receive benefits.

Moreover, the NRM is designed to filter out such fraud, and it is expert at so doing. The suggestion that automatic DLR might lead to a greater number of false referrals to the NRM forgets that a victim cannot self-refer. It is not in the interests of the professional first responders who make NRM referrals to knowingly making false referrals. I do not believe making support available after the NRM period would lead to such unprofessional conduct.

The Government have also expressed concern that an automatic entitlement would lead to victims with criminal records being allowed to remain in the country. I share the Government’s concern to protect the public from anyone who poses a threat, which is why I have included an exception for such people in my Bill. However, we must be cautious about assuming that everyone with a criminal record poses a risk. A criminal record can be one of the factors that makes a victim vulnerable to exploitation. A balance needs to be struck between protecting the public and denying help to a vulnerable victim simply because they committed an offence in the past.

Yes, the Bill will increase the number of victims who receive DLR and access to benefits and housing, but it will also help more victims on to the path to recovery. Some will not want to take up the offer of longer support and will return home before the end of the 12 months. Most victims do not want to live on benefits but want to regain their place in society by accessing training, education or jobs. It is just that they need help to do so. Here I must make a brief mention of the Bright Future partnership between the Co-op and charity City Hearts, which is an example to businesses who want to offer work experience to victims.

I have set out the case for further reform to benefit the well-being of victims of modern slavery. In doing so, I remind your Lordships that the Government should be applauded for setting the foundations for this next step and commended for the great strides forward that have been taken in tackling this crime over the past few years. Today I offer my Bill as a next stage in the development of the Modern Slavery Act so that we can lead the world in addressing this crime. I very much hope the Government will see in the Bill a great opportunity, and that they will embrace it and make it their own. I beg to move.