My Lords, I find the last speaker a very difficult one to follow, with the experience that she has related to the House. I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McColl, on bringing forward his Private Member’s Bill on human trafficking and modern slavery. I note that many of his previous proposals were adopted by the Government in the Modern Slavery Act, which is testimony to his success. I fully support his new Bill. My own experience of navigating a Private Member’s Bill—now the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland)—through the Northern Ireland Assembly is that listening to the experiences of victims of trafficking is vital in developing appropriate legislation.
I said on Report on the then Modern Slavery Bill that the objective of the victim support section in my Bill was,
“to ensure that victims of human trafficking who have entered into the NRM process have a statutory right to access support”.—[
I am still of the same opinion that it is vital for the provision of assistance to be set out in statute. It makes it crystal clear what victims are legally entitled to. It gives victims and support agencies the ability to challenge the actions of the state if it has failed to provide effective support. It also ensures that the support provided to victims cannot be withdrawn or restricted by government if, for example, it faces budgetary challenges or if international legal obligations change, which they no doubt will after Brexit.
The call for assistance and support to be mandated by the Modern Slavery Act has been comprehensively set out by the noble Lord, Lord McColl. I am left asking myself: why have the Government failed to address these deficiencies to date, and have sought to justify the much weaker legislative position on victim care in England and Wales? I am grateful for the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner’s support for the legislation in Northern Ireland. He said, earlier in the year, that Scotland and Northern Ireland have legal frameworks that,
“provide much more flexibility to the organisations managing the NRM support provision … This allows them to provide a holistic approach offering individually tailored support to victims of human trafficking. As the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, I believe it is essential to ensure consistency across the whole of the UK, following the good practice of Northern Ireland and Scotland in supporting victims”.
The anti-slavery commissioner used the word essential. I hope the Minister will be able to agree that it is indeed essential.
There is a further convincing argument for why the Government should support the noble Lord’s Bill—in a word, Brexit. I am an advocate of Brexit. However, I also was a strong advocate of ensuring that the EU human trafficking directive was fully incorporated into UK law. Indeed, it was a prime objective of my Bill to do so. So, while I stand for Brexit, I also stand for victims of modern slavery and am committed to ensuring that victims receive the best support and assistance that the UK can give them.
Until the EU directive came into force, victims had no legal rights to seek redress if the necessary support was not provided. In its recent briefing on Brexit and trafficking, the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group said:
“As a Directive, its provisions can have direct effect in national law when they are unconditional and are sufficiently clear and
An example can be given from the significant 2015 case of AK v Bristol City Council, which raised questions regarding the UK’s obligations under the directive. The claimant was a Lithuanian national and a confirmed victim of trafficking. As an EEA national, she had not applied for leave to remain, but was deemed ineligible for benefits and became destitute. On going to court, Bristol City Council, initially unwilling to provide support, agreed to provide short-term accommodation.
This court case raises two important points about the status of victims after Brexit. The first is that the clarity that has been provided by the directive about what support and assistance should be provided to victims before and after an NRM decision will be lost without anything to replace it: at the moment, there are no government regulations or guidance to give any certainty for victims in England and Wales. Secondly, the ability of victims to seek redress through the courts will be lost. No one, least of all victims themselves, wants to see victims having to go to court to secure access to support, but we must acknowledge that the lack of consistency and transparency about what support should be available to victims in England and Wales, especially in the period following the NRM, has made it necessary to rely on such rights in court.
We have a situation where the services offered beyond the NRM vary from case to case and where local authorities are unclear about their responsibilities—something picked up by the 2016 Haughey review into the Modern Slavery Act. It is time for the Government to act to give long-term certainty to victims in England and Wales, to fill the gap that exists in the Modern Slavery Act.
Let me say, for the information of the House, that the section of my Bill on victim support was supported unanimously by the Northern Ireland Assembly. I hope that it will be able to be said of this House too that it supports the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord McColl, unanimously. It may be proper, in advance, for me to offer an apology to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord McColl, and your Lordships’ House, because when I look at my boarding pass and my times, I think I may be away before the Minister speaks. I trust that she will understand and I look forward to reading what she has said.