My Lords, as other noble Lords have done, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, on bringing his Bill forward and on securing such an early spot in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills. That certainly bodes well for the future. It is a good Bill. As we have heard from the excellent speeches today, there is considerable support across the House for it to become law, and I am delighted that that is the case. Every single speaker from every Bench today has spoken in support of it.
Like my noble friend Lady Thornton, I am a Labour and Co-operative Party Member of your Lordships’ House. The Co-operative Party and the Co-operative Group are fully supportive of the Bill and are ready to give the noble Lord, Lord McColl, any assistance they can in order to secure this legislation. A swift passage through this noble House will help the Bill enormously on its way to the statute book.
As we have already heard this afternoon, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 is an excellent piece of legislation. When she was Home Secretary, the Prime Minister brought the legislation into law. It has been welcomed in all quarters, and rightly so. The draft Bill, the Joint Committee and the consensual approach by the Government to the parliamentary proceedings were enormously helpful in securing that legislation. Having said that, the significant omission in the legislation is its response to victims, which my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea referred to.
The noble Lord, Lord McColl, was right when he told the House that the needs of victims must be at the forefront of efforts and we must work to restore the dignity, health and opportunities that abusers have taken from the victims. The noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, also referred to the need to develop a pathway for abused people to move from being victims into recovery. The noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, made a powerful case in support of victims, as she always does in this House. The noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, again spoke of the need to have a framework to help the move from victim to survivor.
In both Northern Ireland and Scotland, legislation passed at Stormont and Holyrood means that help and support to victims is provided during a reflection and recovery period, so the legislation in both Northern Ireland and Scotland is superior at least in that respect in comparison with what applies in England and Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, who is no longer in his place, spoke about the Bill that he took through the Northern Ireland Assembly and how that Act provides for victims’ care. I support his call for the legislation in England and Wales to be updated. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, also made that point in his contribution. The Bill corrects that and is very welcome. It brings England and Wales into line with best practice and delivers the equality of access that the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, referred to in his contribution.
The Bill will guarantee all confirmed victims of modern slavery a minimum recovery period with casework support. As we have heard in this debate, at the moment, once a victim has been confirmed by the competent authority, government-funded specialist support quickly ends. That position is unrealistic and potentially very damaging for the victims. Vulnerable people are left at risk of destitution or the nightmare of returning to the hands of the traffickers and being subjected to horrendous abuse in a vicious circle.
The Human Trafficking Foundation, in its excellent briefing, highlighted how the existing provisions are failing victims in legal cases where individuals have been found by the UK authorities to have been trafficked and were co-operating with the police but were then left destitute. There is also a case referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, where, in November 2016, Bristol City Council accepted that local authorities in England and Wales had a responsibility to provide welfare support to victims or would be in breach of their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on Action Against Trafficking and/or the EU anti-trafficking directive. The noble Lord, Lord McColl, referred to that when introducing the Bill. This came about after a trafficking victim brought legal action because she was only able to provide for herself by engaging in prostitution.
We have further heard about the findings of the Work and Pensions Committee’s inquiry into modern slavery, which was published earlier this year and is critical of the lack of support for victims. The committee recommended that all confirmed victims of modern slavery be given at least one year’s leave to remain with recourse to benefits and services. The committee was also very clear that it found no evidence that granting 12 months’ discretionary leave would create any sort of pull factor. It would be fair to say that it is just not plausible to believe that it would.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, spoke of the need for individuals to receive personalised support as they begin the process of recovery. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also made an important point about the risk of retrafficking and how important the 12 months’ support is.
The Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland, who was mentioned many times in the debate, has also called for more support for victims and has highlighted the fact that the present system is not serving them well. If it is not serving these victims, that is a major failing of our present legislation and must be rectified. When you consider the horrendous abuse and threats that the victims of modern slavery have endured, and the risk of threats and violence to them and their families, it takes great courage to come forward to the authorities. They put themselves at risk of further suffering and not being properly supported.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby rightly drew the attention of the House to the evidence-based policy that underpins the Bill following the work of the anti-slavery commissioner, the Work and Pensions Select Committee and those who work in the charity sector on behalf of victims.
The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, stressed the need to complete this unfinished business and properly support victims. I fully support him in that call.
The Bill would ensure that victims, when identified, would have guaranteed access to front-line specialist support that includes any necessary medical treatment, safe accommodation and further long-term support to take the victim through the next stage of the recovery process where understandably very serious and complex needs can be addressed.
I particularly want to pay tribute to the work of the Co-operative Group in helping victims through its Bright Future initiative. Along with other charities, the Co-op is supporting individuals who have been granted special leave under the present system by providing work placements in its businesses and helping to equip people with the skills they need. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, said in her contribution, the Co-op is an excellent example of what a good employer should be doing.
While I am on the subject, I commend the Co-operative Group on how it has worked to prepare its statement on modern slavery and the work it has done to ensure that its supply chains are free of this evil. I am proud to have been a member of the Co-op for 40 years, which is as long as I have been a member of the Labour Party. It has set an example of best practice for business and all should be aspiring to it.
The benefits of granting an automatic right to leave would, as I mentioned earlier, help with the long-term recovery programme and rehabilitation programme and would also prevent retrafficking. It also would further strengthen the original Modern Slavery Act and empower victims to co-operate fully with police investigations and help to secure convictions of the people involved in this evil crime. Victimless prosecutions are possible, but the testimony of victims can provide compelling evidence to put before a jury in order to help secure a conviction, as the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, told us, and as was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Redfern. There is the further argument that the automatic grant of leave would free up valuable resources to be used in other ways to deal with this horrendous crime.
My noble friend Lord Prescott referred to the international framework and how that affects modern slavery and the challenges that we are all seeking to combat today.
Every Bill before your Lordships’ House can of course be improved by amendment, and I have moved many amendments here. It is also widely accepted that Private Members’ Bills have an honourable tradition of dealing with issues that have widespread support but perhaps not always the support of the Government. They can also be narrow in their scope because they deal with particular issues. The process of going through Parliament is a precarious one for Private Members’ Bills without the active support of the Government, so I hope that amendments are tabled only if there is no other way of seeking changes; namely, that they cannot be delivered through regulation or another mechanism. The last thing anyone would want is for this Bill not to become law because it had been dashed on the rocks and lost through amendments in Committee or on Report. As my noble friend Lady Thornton said, piecemeal amendments would cause problems. People should think very carefully before they seek to move amendments to the Bill.
This has been an excellent debate on a truly important Bill that will strengthen an otherwise excellent Modern Slavery Act. I hope that when the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Trafford, responds to this debate imminently, she will be able to indicate that the Government are supportive of its aim and will give it their wholehearted support, and if necessary give it government time to secure it. As has everyone else, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McColl, for his campaigning, his tenacity, his compassion and his defence of the victims of this truly horrendous crime, and his steely determination to get this Bill on to the statute book.