My Lords, I am delighted to be taking part in the debate on this Bill and I congratulate my noble friend Lord McColl on introducing such a wonderful piece of legislation. He has been an ardent campaigner on behalf of the victims of modern day slavery and I pay tribute to his tenacity and resolve in seeking to eradicate this terrible crime. The Prime Minister has described modern slavery as,
“the great human rights issue of our time”.
I agree with that sentiment. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 is a huge step forward in tackling this pernicious crime. It sends a clear message that in the UK, modern slavery, human trafficking and exploitation in all forms will not be tolerated.
None the less, it has become abundantly clear to many of us that sadly, this legislation does not go far enough. While it strengthens the criminal justice response to the criminality that underlies modern slavery, it falls short in protecting victims and supporting them as they recover from their ordeal. There is so much more that we need to do before we can honestly stand up and say that we are providing all such victims with the care and support they truly deserve. By care, I mean robust and professional support that gives them a pathway from being a victim to becoming a survivor.
My colleague Kevin Hyland, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, has done much to tackle this crime, but even he suggests that the estimates may be the tip of the iceberg. The head of the Metropolitan Police’s anti-slavery unit has said that the number of suspected victims in London alone is expected to leap by 60% this year. We are looking at victims who have come through the process already and who have been to hell and back: destitute, having suffered terribly at the hands of their captors, and so traumatised that their emotions are held behind a brick wall to protect them.
This debate shines a light on the victims who are going through or have gone through the national referral mechanism, which I think sounds cold and feels very mechanical to the victims. Of course, we in this Chamber are well versed in what entitlements a victim should receive. These include support, housing, counselling and medical assistance. Once they are formally recognised as having been “trafficked”, they have just two weeks before they must leave their safe house and fend for themselves. I have been told that this is described as “falling off a cliff-edge”. It is totally unacceptable on both the emotional and the practical level to feel like this because it severely undermines the work of those responsible for bringing the abusers to justice.
I stand here as someone suffering personally from trauma and anxiety, so to hear all this is truly shocking. The stark reality is that victims will often be grappling with shock, anxiety and uncertainty about what happens next. Ongoing counselling and emotional support is a very long process. It is not like the buzzwords that we hear about 45 days being needed for “recovery” and “reflection”. Those two words have a long journey behind them.
As the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, I travel around the country speaking to victims because only then do I get a true picture of what they are going through daily. I want to finish by reflecting their voices, because we are here today to make it better for these victims and help them survive what they have gone through. I met a beautiful young girl from Albania who was very quiet and wanted to talk to me on my own. As the mother of three daughters, what I heard over the next 10 minutes broke my heart. This young lady, whose name I will not repeat for security purposes, was born in Albania. She was born disabled and ostracised by her community and hidden from her own people. She was trafficked, brutally attacked and severely raped. She went to the police, who listened to her account but did not believe that the rape had taken place, so she signed a form which she did not understand, because she wanted to get away from there.
She managed to get through the mechanism and she is now in a house where she thinks she will be safe. She has already been bullied by people from different countries. She needs specialist care and when I met her she was struggling to walk after having had an operation. She is sharing a single room with someone else and has been told that she must put up and shut up. This should never happen in our society today. She is beautiful and disabled, and she needs care and support, but we are commissioning landlords who do not understand. She was told to shut up, and that they do not work at the weekend. It was okay to ostracise her in another community that had nothing. As a mother, listening to her story broke my heart, so I went back and spoke to the person who commissioned her care—I will not say who it was.
It is important to note that we are talking about support for a lifetime. We get these victims over one hurdle, the trial in court, but their journey begins only once they are in a safe house in a healthy environment. My noble friend has brought forward an important piece of legislation, and we need to do more.