Amendment 81

Part of Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill - Committee (4th Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 16th September 2020.

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Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative 5:30 pm, 16th September 2020

My Lords, I speak in support of Amendment 81 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow. The noble Lord is to be commended for the work he did in the Northern Ireland Assembly to bring about new legislation on human trafficking and modern slavery. In particular, I greatly admire his determination that his legislation should include measures to protect and support victims, something that is sadly lacking in our Modern Slavery Act for victims in England and Wales.

I support Amendment 81 to ensure that any future changes that are made to the Immigration Rules using the powers in Clause 4 should be assessed for their impact on victims of modern slavery, in large part because it appears to me that, thus far, there has been insufficient consideration of the impact of the changes to the immigration system on victims of modern slavery.

As I said on Day 1 in Committee, any changes as part of the Brexit process that result in victims of modern slavery having fewer protections than they had prior to 1 January 2021

“would damage the integrity of the Brexit project in a way that is unthinkable.”—[Official Report, 7/9/20; col. 615.]

In introducing this important amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, spoke very movingly of how changes to free movement could lead to more exploitation for potential victims of trafficking, unless the Government are proactive in addressing this issue. It is indeed ironic that the current proposal means that a significant portion of EEA nationals who are victims of modern slavery would lose access to the very thing that, as recently as July this year, the Centre for Social Justice pointed out is of central importance to victims’ recovery, namely recourse to public funds.

In approaching Amendment 81 and the concern about the erosion of the rights of victims of trafficking on 1 January 2021, it is important to pick up the issue by reflecting on the Minister’s response to my Amendment 7, which addressed concern about the loss of rights on 1 January 2021. That response will help us to see the true significance of Amendment 81, for reasons that I shall explain.

In his response to that amendment, the Minister made it plain that the Government are unable to say precisely which directly effective rights under the anti-trafficking directive will be retained as part of domestic law and which will be lost on 1 January. On reading Hansard, I now recognise—contrary to what I said in response at the time—that this means it is still entirely possible that on 1 January there will be a reduction in the number of directly effective rights available to confirmed victims of human trafficking in the United Kingdom. I find it disturbing that the Government should acknowledge the fact that, in some respects, the rights of victims may be lost in such a way when we could use our sovereignty to ensure that there is no loss of rights.

Amendment 81 would help us to avoid such a situation in future by requiring the Government to make a specific assessment of the impact on victims of modern slavery of any further changes to the Immigration Rules. This will simply provide a check on the development of future regulations that might make the present situation worse. Knowledge that any such regulations will be checked against this standard—namely that they should not undermine the rights of victims of trafficking—creates a positive incentive proactively to develop legislation in favour of the best interests of victims of human trafficking. Indeed, subjecting ourselves to this discipline would give particular legitimacy to efforts to develop regulations that will offset some of the negative consequences of what will otherwise happen to victims of modern slavery on 1 January 2021.

In the absence of Amendment 81, it is as yet unclear what immigration status will be available to victims of modern slavery from the EEA and what access they will have to benefits, housing and other support services once they have exited the NRM. Unless they are among the lucky few to be granted discretionary leave, it seems likely that they will no longer have the access to these services that they have today. In 2015, just 12% of victims were given this special discretionary leave to remain. Unfortunately, despite submitting a Written Question in March, I have been unable to obtain up-to-date statistics from the Home Office.

I have also been advised that in the next few months there is something of an impossible choice for victims of modern slavery as to whether to apply for pre-settled status, which may in the long run provide greater support but in the short term does not give full access to benefits and other services and can prevent them being able to apply for special discretionary leave. It is these sorts of negative consequences that Amendment 81 seeks to avoid, which is why it has my support.

Rather than viewing the present situation as a great problem, we should see it as an opportunity. I encourage us to look beyond merely identifying risks and seek to set a bold new direction for supporting victims of modern slavery. The Government have the opportunity to inaugurate the post-Brexit era by asking Parliament to use its sovereignty to create a legal framework whereby we reject the possibility of victims having lesser legal protections than they do today—and indeed the notion that we should simply ensure that the legal rights of victims under Brexit are identical to the legal rights under the EU—and to enhance the rights of confirmed victims by adopting the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill that I sponsored with the right honourable Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

This Bill, which amends the Modern Slavery Act, is particularly important in the context of England and Wales, for which there is no statutory obligation in the Act to provide support for victims. Among other things, it is developed to prevent retrafficking and to foster an environment that makes it easier for victims to give evidence in court, in the interests of increasing convictions. The Bill offers all confirmed victims in England and Wales a minimum of 12 months’ support to help them rebuild their lives.

This would demonstrate that Brexit is something with a moral purpose, something of which we can be proud and that enables us to shape the future and lead the world, in line with previous expressions of our sovereignty in abolishing the transatlantic slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself in 1833—achievements that have been generative of modern British identity.

Rather than viewing the present situation as a great problem, we should see it as an opportunity. I encourage us to look beyond merely identifying risks and seek to set a bold new direction for supporting victims of modern slavery. The Government have the opportunity to inaugurate the post-Brexit era by asking Parliament to use its sovereignty to create a legal framework whereby we reject the possibility of victims having lesser legal protections than they do today—and indeed the notion that we should simply ensure that the legal rights of victims under Brexit are identical to the legal rights under the EU—and to enhance the rights of confirmed victims by adopting the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill.

My Bill passed very quickly through this House in the last Parliament with the help of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, who was a tremendous support. There is no reason why it should not do so again and pass through the Commons, if the Government seize this strategic opportunity that now presents itself. I hope that at the very least, the Government might agree to meet me and Sir Iain to discuss the Bill’s merits in the context of what will otherwise happen to victims of modern slavery on 1 January.