Moved by Baroness Butler-Sloss
4: Clause 3, page 3, line 32, at end insert—“( ) The report under subsection (1) must include a report to be published on or before
My Lords, in moving Amendment 4 I will speak also to Amendment 10, which is consequential upon it. I declare my interests as in the register, which include my position as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery.
There is a good Northern Ireland Act on modern slavery, human trafficking and exploitation, but it does not include one aspect of the Modern Slavery Act 2015: that is, the child trafficking advocate, popularly called the independent guardian. It seems an odd omission because, following the research done by Bedfordshire University, the Government accepted that the independent child trafficking advocates are doing a good job. A number of pilot schemes are out across England and Wales—there is a similar system in Scotland —and the Government are committed to putting this right across the country in due course. So it is highly desirable and seems entirely uncontroversial that there should be similar independent guardians to look after those children brought into Northern Ireland from abroad, who have been slaves and who need the support of a mentor as they go through a process equivalent to the NRM and through the general process of coping with having been a slave and having emerged from that.
Having had a discussion with the Minister, I understand that there are some practical difficulties in Northern Ireland with a lack of guardians. The short answer to that, it seems to me, is that more guardians should be appointed. I do not wish to embarrass either the Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom Government by pressing this amendment to a vote, but I do ask the Minister to keep this under review and see that, as soon as the Executive and Assembly are up and running—which I am sure we in this House all hope will be relatively soon after this very long gap—we will have more guardians, who should become part of the system in Northern Ireland. I beg to move.
My Lords, I would like to make some brief comments on this modest amendment. It provides an excellent companion report to that already required by the Bill regarding the support offered to victims of human trafficking in Northern Ireland, after they have been confirmed to be a victim by the national referral mechanism known as the NRM. I look forward to the report that will be produced on the progress made to implement the provision enabling extended support, and the debate that will, of course, follow as a result.
Similarly, I support Amendments 4 and 10 because here also there is much that could be learned for England and Wales from examining the independent guardian service in Northern Ireland. This service is designed to provide separated migrant children and children who have been trafficked with someone who will support, advocate for, represent and accompany them as they try to find their place in our communities while dealing with complex immigration processes, unfamiliar schooling and child protection systems, as well as, sometimes, police investigations.
Northern Ireland is ahead of England and Wales here, in that Section 21 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 that provides independent guardians is in force, with a duty for such support to be provided across the whole of Northern Ireland. Regrettably, in England and Wales, the equivalent section of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 regarding the similarly named independent child trafficking advocates has not yet commenced, and support is available thus far in only one-third of local authorities.
However, at present there is no published assessment on the implementation of the legislation on independent guardians in Northern Ireland, or on whether all the necessary powers or resources are in place for the role to be effective. I believe that that would be very useful for professionals in Northern Ireland, and for what can be learned in the rest of the UK, especially with regard to those aspects which go beyond what is provided in England and Wales, such as support beyond the age of 18.
I hope that the Minister shares my perspective and will join me and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in supporting these amendments. They will provide information that will have a positive impact on the support provided to child victims of trafficking in Northern Ireland and in England and Wales.
My Lords, I will comment briefly on this issue. It is a very important one, but there are some difficulties. Before I get on to those, I hope that the noble Lord will support my amendment later this evening about unaccompanied child refugees in Northern Ireland. At the moment, because Stormont is not in action, it is impossible for unaccompanied child refugees to be referred to Northern Ireland, although I know the very hospitable people there would like to see this happen. There is a blockage at the moment because of the impasse at Stormont.
Having said that, I will turn to the substance of the argument about guardians. I talk not only about young people who have been trafficked and exploited but about child refugees generally. The idea of a guardian is a good one, because these people face a whole range of issues, having gone through appalling experiences, and nobody is there to pull everything together. Social workers may do some of this, but the range of issues is wider than might be susceptible to social worker intervention. That is where guardians come in, who take a holistic approach to the needs of the individual young person and can then intervene, help and mobilise other agencies. So I think it is a good idea.
The difficulty is this. As I understand it, there are some guardians in Northern Ireland and some in Scotland. They tend to be social workers with at least five years’ professional experience. These people are pretty hard to come by. I have talked to local authority leaders in London, who say they would love to do this, but they do not have enough qualified social workers with the right experience to take on that responsibility. I am aware of the difficulty. It is a good idea. If we can find a way of dealing with resourcing difficulties, fine. We could start with young people about whom there is evidence that they have been trafficked or exploited more than most child refugees. I would like the Minister to be positive about child refugees in Northern Ireland generally later on.
My Lords, this is an example of the fact that a number of things which would normally be dealt with by the Executive have become sufficiently urgent to be considered. This seems to be a sensible idea—and, as I understand it, the Minister is going to produce appropriate warm words.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for her brief introduction, and other noble Lords for their remarks, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Dubs.
Ensuring that victims of human trafficking receive the support and care they require is an important issue, which this Government take seriously. It is important that the right safeguards and checks are in place to protect this group of people. This is also true in Northern Ireland, where independent guardians must be qualified social workers with at least five years’ post-qualifying experience of working with children and families, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said. Our approach in this space needs to be guided by the principle of ensuring that we do not expose these vulnerable people, or the excellent individuals who care for them, to harm.
As I said in Committee, noble Lords will be aware that these are matters for which responsibility in Northern Ireland has been devolved, therefore falling outside the responsibilities and scope of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In line with the principles of devolution, it is the Government’s view that those Northern Ireland departments charged with responsibility for these matters should be accountable not to Westminster but to the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, the Government acknowledge that if it is the will of Parliament that the Secretary of State should report on these issues, the Northern Ireland Office will engage with relevant Northern Ireland departments to ensure that she is able to do so, as far as possible, in a meaningful way, where information is available. I hope this provides a degree of reassurance for the noble and learned Baroness.
I also wish to advise on the limitations of the Secretary of State’s capacity to report comprehensively on matters of devolved competence, and to emphasise that it may not always be possible to make available the required information. We must approach these issues carefully, and with heightened sensitivity. Releasing information in relation to the number of children supported by an independent guardian could, given the very small number of individuals involved, compromise their identities. Clearly, this is not the intention of this amendment, but it is a risk we must be aware of and mitigate.
We can accept Amendment 4, on the introduction of a requirement to report on the work of independent guardians in Northern Ireland for victims of human trafficking, noting, as I said, the need to approach sensitively. We should not cut across devolved powers but, given the importance of this issue, it is reasonable for the Secretary of State to provide a report to Parliament. However, I ask the noble Lord not to press Amendment 10, on debating the report. I am happy to meet the noble and learned Baroness or the noble Lord to discuss the report when it is published. It would be most unusual for obligations to debate reports to be placed on the Government by primary legislation. As this is a devolved matter, I am happy to facilitate a meeting between the noble and learned Baroness and Northern Ireland’s Department of Health for a detailed discussion of its work in this area, as its staff are the experts in this devolved work. Based on that explanation and commitment, I hope the noble Lord and the noble and learned Baroness will feel unable to put this to a vote.
I am very grateful to those who have spoken in this short debate, and to the Minister, who I spoke to briefly before we started. I entirely understand the issues he has raised. As I said in opening, I do not intend to divide the House on this issue. I am, however, concerned that a system of child trafficking advocates in this country is working well and will eventually come straight across the country, and the Government are committed to that. Consequently, it would be highly desirable for there to be enough guardians in Northern Ireland for this to be provided for those children who are as vulnerable in Northern Ireland as they are in this country. However, having had assurances, together with the generous offer to discuss this with the Minister and the Minister for Health, which I and the noble Lord, Lord McColl, will be glad to take up, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.