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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:42 pm on 8th September 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Conservative 2:42 pm, 8th September 2017

My Lords, I pay the warmest tribute to my noble, and very longstanding, friend Lord McColl, for his tremendous work in preparing for this Bill. He has a long track record of social responsibility and enlightened policy-making, and a real commitment to the vulnerable. Everyone in this House hugely respects and admires him.

Modern slavery is a brutal form of organised crime, in which people are treated as commodities and exploited for criminal gain. It takes a number of forms, including sexual exploitation, domestic servitude and forced labour. In many ways, it has come upon us as a great shock. It is rather like when we first uncovered the breadth and depth of child sexual abuse. Many of us had worked in this field for many years, in welfare organisations and the churches, but nobody really understood how insidious, widespread and covert this was, as a real social ill of the modern world. Modern slavery is a similar threat and scourge.

I am proud of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and proud that the Prime Minister gave it such personal commitment. Great strides have been made. This is a world first: we should be proud of that but continue to work on what we have achieved. As the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, said, we should see the international context more fully.

The work of the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, is really showing results in such a short space of time. The report, Victims of Modern Slavery, by my first boss, Frank Field, the chairman of the DWP Select Committee, is hugely influential. As he says:

“The Modern Slavery Act was a pioneering piece of legislation that proved the UK’s commitment to eradicate the horror of modern slavery. The Act established new protections for recognised victims but what it did not do was establish a pathway for their recovery”—

I agree with the right reverend Prelate’s emphasis on the word “recovery”.

“The journey from being a victim to becoming a survivor is unique for each individual and without the right support in place, it is a journey many individuals cannot make”.

The challenge now is for the Government to think as imaginatively as possible. Without doubt, my noble friend has given the Government an agenda for action and the criteria that need to be addressed. Whether this is done through primary legislation, secondary legislation or regulation, I am happy to debate, but the direction of travel has been forcefully identified.

The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, referred to the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation. Having been the chancellor of the distinguished University of Hull for 11 years, I reinforce the comments he made about Hull’s link with the campaign against slavery, William Wilberforce’s birthplace, the institute next door to his home and the Wilberforce House Museum. It is a remarkable institute and I am delighted that last year it won the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research into slavery. It draws together experts in the humanities, law and social services. Kevin Bales, who has done the pioneering work on the meaning and measurement of contemporary slavery, was present at the ceremony along with many others. They were closely involved in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and looked particularly at another pioneering aspect of legislation whereby UK companies with a turnover of over £36 million must report annually on the steps they have taken to ensure that modern slavery does not feature in their supply chain or business. That is a new requirement and the efforts to deliver that in practice and ensure that companies address it in the most effective way rather than simply signing off a certificate is work in progress—more can be done.

The noble Lord referred to the conference on eradicating contemporary slavery to be held in two weeks’ time. I hope that the Minister will pass on her best wishes to the Home Secretary who will speak at that conference—the Wilberforce World Freedom Summit—in two weeks’ time, as will the President of Ghana, so perhaps the noble Lord can catch up on the River Volta and other matters when he is there. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland—the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth—will speak at the conference, as will the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, who will talk about what employers can do. This is an exciting and ongoing programme which is very much part of today’s discussions.

It is clear that there are real inadequacies in the provision for survivors of modern slavery. People are vulnerable and are left homeless, without access to public funds, often in a city they do now know. Destitution makes people once again susceptible to the offers of traffickers, who claim that they can find them employment or housing when they are in desperate situations. We have to keep people safe and benefit in due course from their commitment to society.

I was delighted that my noble friend mentioned the Co-op because this is a shining example of an enlightened employer making a practical difference, with 30 placements this year for victims of slavery, with support with a buddy leading to paid employment. This is surely what Section 172 of the Companies Act is all about—how businesses can play their part. The latest estimates are that there are 21 million victims of slavery in the world, with 13,000 in the UK. The right reverend Prelate suggested that that was an underestimate.

Wilberforce said:

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

We do know, and it is the job of legislators, public bodies, philanthropic bodies, the faith community and employers to work together to rid us of this appalling scourge.