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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 8th September 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Immigration) 4:03 pm, 8th September 2017

My Lords, the number of speakers in today’s debate seems to tell a story as far more of us are present in the Chamber than was the case during the passage of the Act. Some noble Lords will recognise that comment. That, I think, reflects the increasing awareness of the importance of uncovering and addressing what the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, called a scourge.

I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord McColl, and the many organisations and their dedicated staff and volunteers who work with and for the victims of slavery. They will have contributed to the Bill both directly and through their work. However, let me add that the noble Lord is a role model for us all in his quiet, effective persistence.

It is a mark of the importance of the 2015 Act that it has prompted the arguments advanced for further proposals. I know that the noble Lord, Lord McColl, is, rightly, engaging in the art of the possible, so let us get the Bill enacted. Then we can turn to further issues, ranging from a name change for the national referral mechanism, mentioned by the independent commissioner, to perhaps a single-stage process, to which he also referred, to a specific actionable tort to enable compensation to be awarded to victims. The latter is constrained at present. In a recent report entitled Human Rights and Business, the Joint Committee on Human Rights said that the Government’s approach is,

“weakest in the area of access to remedy”.

Clearly, discussion must be had and action taken with regard to children.

As a society that has failed to see slavery in its midst—or perhaps seen it but failed to recognise it—we have a responsibility to its victims that extends well beyond the point of release. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, this is a moral and ethical issue. Modern slavery demands modern standards of support and protection and an up-to-date understanding and application of a trauma-informed approach.

We have just had six weeks’ recess, so it must be fresh in our minds how little 45 days is—I am in no way making an analogy with our situation. The term “reflection” in this context is so inappropriate for most victims. Processing traumatic events and adjusting to a new life demand a very different lexicon. I doubt that in many cases it would feel as though recovery had even begun within 45 days. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, said that “the words have a long journey behind them”. I might plagiarise that description. Without effective support, 45 days is certainly too short. The uncertainty which victims experience must do its own damage, both intrinsically and because, I suspect, it adds to the distrust of officialdom which I am sure some victims feel.

The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group briefed noble Lords, and said of the current situation regarding discretionary leave that while it is,

“theoretically available to victims, there have been consistently low numbers of victims who have successfully applied for it”.

It talked about the,

“lack of clarity and consistency on what is deemed to be ‘particularly compelling personal circumstances’”— the term used in the guidance—

“and uncertainty felt by some organisations regarding whether individual victims of trafficking should be applying for”,

discretionary leave. Anything that reduces the workload of the Home Office, which has to consider discretionary leave, must be a good thing, because it seems to be impossibly overloaded at the moment.

There is a very big mismatch, too, between the numbers who go into the NRM and the convictions of perpetrators. I have been critical of the use of the term “hostile environment” by the Home Office, but I would be entirely happy to see a more hostile environment for perpetrators—which should mean a benign environment for victims.

Consistent support and certainty will help victims, who need time to tell their story. It would also help the police, who currently seem, from discussions I have had with those involved in the system, to be forced into taking statements too soon. The fact that a victim changes his story does not necessarily mean that what has been reported is a deliberate falsehood. A statement given before a victim is really able to give it can be gold dust for the defence, which will pick up inconsistencies. Support for the police in the process may be for another day.

There is also the issue of a victim remaining in the UK to give evidence. That decision should, to my mind, be quite separate from whether a victim, as a victim, should have “assistance and support”, as described in proposed new Section 48B. That term is defined in proposed new Section 48C, and I wonder—although I am not expecting an answer today; it might be an issue to be explored in Committee—whether that extends to re-establishing contact, and indeed relationships, with the victim’s family.

On the detail of the terminology, the term “necessary” intrigues me. I know that it is used in the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, where Article 14 requires a residence permit to be issued to a victim where,

“the competent authority considers that their stay is necessary owing to their personal situation”.

I am not entirely sure what that means. It is certainly less restrictive than personal circumstances being “particularly compelling”, as in the Home Office guidance, but I wonder—again, perhaps for later in the passage of the Bill—whether the term “necessary” has been developed in case law or otherwise. I mention that because I am concerned that proposed new Section 48A(7) may be more restrictive than we thought it to be.

Before I leave the question of support and the term “support”, although it is not a matter for legislation, we should not ignore the importance of support for the organisations and individuals who do the supporting.

The briefings that we have received—and I think also the Commons DWP Select Committee and certainly its chair—have been rightly dismissive of the notion that what the Bill envisages could be a “pull factor”. I admit that I am not particularly imaginative but I simply cannot begin to imagine how allowing a year’s leave to remain, with some entitlements dependent on a conclusive-grounds determination of slavery, could “pull” somebody into slavery in order to access that leave. The organisation Hope for Justice points out that the more generous visas—more generous than in this country—granted by other countries have not done so.

I have referred to society’s responsibility to the victims of slavery. The shortfalls in the current system give rise to a lot of concern about victims’ vulnerability to being retrafficked. What a failure on the part of society is retrafficking. Our responsibility is extensive and it must extend to restoring to victims support and dignity. From these Benches, we give our wholehearted support to the Bill.