Amendment 292F

Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - Committee (10th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 11:00 pm on 22 November 2021.

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Lord McColl of Dulwich:

Moved by Lord McColl of Dulwich

292F: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—“Modern slavery through control of another's propertyIn Section 1 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (Slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour) after subsection (1)(b) insert—“or(c) the person occupies or exercises some substantial control over another’s home in connection with the commission of another criminal offence and the person knows or ought to know that the other person—(i) has not given consent,(ii) is unable to give free and informed consent, or(iii) has withdrawn consent.””Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would make exploitation through exercise of control over another person’s property without their consent an offence under Section 1 of the Modern Slavery Act.

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative

My Lords, over the six years since the Modern Slavery Act was passed, we have seen the criminals involved in modern slavery continuing to find new ways to exploit others for their own advantage. In particular, we have seen the rise in criminal exploitation of children and vulnerable adults in county lines drug dealing. Amendment 292F seeks to address the phenomenon of cuckooing, which is an example of criminal exploitation that has recently grown in prominence.

Cuckooing is the evocative name given to a situation whereby criminals take over a person’s home against their wishes and use the property to facilitate criminal activity. Most commonly, this occurs where drug dealers take over the victim’s home and use the premises to store, prepare and distribute drugs. Your Lordships may be unfamiliar with this issue, but just last month there was a national police week of action on county lines drug dealing during which the National Police Chiefs’ Council reported that 894 cuckooed properties were visited in just one week.

This is a crime affecting hundreds if not thousands of people. Victims of cuckooing are often quite vulnerable people, perhaps people with learning disabilities or mental or physical health challenges, survivors of abuse or people living with addiction. Their vulnerability is exploited by the criminals, who take advantage of them to control their home. None of us could accept that indignity, insecurity and wrongful intrusion into that most precious space, one’s home. That is what the victims endure.

It is important that the Government are tough on this area of crime. As David Cameron said in 2010, burglars

“leave their human rights at the door.”

An Englishman’s home is his castle, and if the law cannot protect him there, then who can?

Victims are targeted by criminal gangs and have their homes taken over for prolonged periods by sometimes dangerous people, putting them at significant risk of harm. One such victim was Anne. Anne had had a difficult upbringing and suffered many abusive relationships. After leaving an abusive marriage, she became a victim of cuckooing when she was given local authority housing in an area where there were many drug dealers. Due to alcohol and drugs, Anne’s physical and mental health deteriorated quickly. When the police entered her home they found a perpetrator, who was just 21 years old, lying on a sofa. He was in possession of drugs, weapons and some cash that the police found in the flat. Anne was in a very bad state but she saw the perpetrator as her protector who was keeping trouble out of the door, yet he himself punched and assaulted Anne, threatening her on multiple occasions. He told her to go to the streets to supply other dealers but she was not getting any money, just some drugs.

This is clearly a form of modern slavery. The victim’s home is taken over without their consent, and they are vulnerable and powerless to prevent it in the face of dangerous criminal gangs. Like Anne, victims are often physically and emotionally abused. Although police and prosecutors are aware of this phenomenon and determined to target the criminals, it seems that the law may not offer them adequate tools for the job. Cuckooing does not meet the definition of the human trafficking offence in Section 2 of the Modern Slavery Act because there is no travel involved. According to the CPS, however, neither does it fall within the definition of slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour under Section 1 of that Act unless the criminals demand labour or service from the victims in addition to occupying their home.

While it may be possible to prosecute these criminals for other offences, such as drug crimes, we cannot be satisfied with a situation that does not reflect the exploitation of a person at the heart of the offence. We must hold criminals to account for the harm done to victims of this exploitation and offer victims hope for a future free from this kind of control. There is a clear public interest in protecting the right of every person to their private and family life without having their home taken over against their will.

The vulnerable are often targets as they offer little resistance, are easily manipulated and may have a history that would make them poor witnesses. In these cases, the law must enable and encourage prosecutions to combat this cynical form of offending. A clear offence that makes unwanted occupation by somebody using property in connection with offending is needed; my amendment would do just that. I understand that the Home Office, the police and prosecutors are aware of the challenge in bringing criminal charges for cuckooing, but victims like Anne urgently need a solution.

There have been positive developments. The Sun reported recently that the Home Secretary is currently planning a new law to crack down on cuckooing. She has recognised that we must act for the sake of the potentially hundreds of victims currently being bullied, coerced and exploited in their own homes. This is a hidden crime quite literally taking place behind closed doors in private homes. It must remain hidden from the law no longer. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Paddick Lord Paddick Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 11:15, 22 November 2021

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, for raising the important issue of cuckooing. This is when criminals, mainly drug dealers, take over the homes of vulnerable people. It is a very serious and not uncommon problem, as the figures cited by the noble Lord gave witness to. I look forward to the Minister explaining why this amendment is not necessary or what alternative the Government propose.

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords)

I note the work that the noble Lord, Lord McColl, has done on modern slavery over many years, and thank him for it. It is right for us to acknowledge that in speaking to this amendment.

I want to draw particular attention to the section of the noble Lord’s amendment that covers something that is often not recognised to the degree it should be when it comes to county lines gangs’ operations and the way cuckooing works. Proposed new sub-paragraph (ii) talks about when a person

“is unable to give free and informed consent”.

That is the crucial bit. Too often, people are asked, “Why have you allowed this to happen? Why have you let them take over your property?” It is almost as though they have given their consent. But they are sometimes so frightened that they give their consent because, if they do not, the consequences will be such that they live in fear. Somehow, the law does not seem to recognise that.

Proposed new paragraph (c)(ii) refers to someone being unable to give “free and informed consent”. This is absolutely crucial to stopping the offence of cuckooing. People sometimes appear almost as though they have left a property of their own free will, saying, “Here you are. Come into my property. Use it for drugs and county lines operations.” Then, sometimes—not always, but sometimes—the police say, “Well, what did you do about it? Why didn’t you stop it?” That does not reflect the real world. People are terrified; they are frightened. They are told, “If you don’t let us use your property and get out of it, or if you tell anyone about it, we are going to do X, Y or Z to you or to your family.” That is sometimes not recognised, but it is the crucial part of what the noble Lord’s amendment gets at. If we want to stop cuckooing, we must understand that people are coerced into giving their consent; often, the law seems to treat them as though they have given their consent willingly. If we are to stop cuckooing, we must understand the context in which it occurs. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to reflect on that.

Photo of Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord Sharpe of Epsom Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord McColl for introducing this amendment which seeks to provide for a bespoke criminal offence to tackle what is known, as he pointed out, by the evocative name of “cuckooing”. I assure noble Lords that this Government take all forms of exploitation seriously and we are determined to tackle it. I fully sympathise with the intentions behind this amendment, as we recognise that these unscrupulous exploiters often target the most vulnerable in our society to control their homes and, as my noble friend argued most powerfully, against their will to perpetrate a range of crime types. This practice is often associated with drug dealing, which is a feature of county lines offending, but also encompasses other forms of exploitation types such as sex work, which not only devastates the lives of the victim but impacts the local community in which they live.

While I support the sentiments behind this amendment, we remain to be persuaded that a new offence is needed. There are existing powers that can be and are being used to disrupt cuckooing, including the use of civil preventive orders, such as closure orders and criminal behaviour orders, breach of which is a criminal offence. As to the criminal law, there are offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 which may be charged, specifically those under Section 4 relating to the supply of controlled drugs and under Section 8 relating to the occupier of premises knowingly permitting the production or supply of drugs from their property. The offence of participating in the activities of an organised crime group in Section 45 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 may also be relevant. That said, this is an area of the criminal law which we continue to examine.

Moreover, I am sure my noble friend would agree that were there to be a new offence, Section 1 of the Modern Slavery Act is not the proper place for it. That section deals with offences where a person exercises control over another person to hold them in slavery or servitude, or requires them to perform forced or compulsory labour. The focus is on controlling another person and not their property or belongings. Having said all that, we recognise the seriousness of this phenomenon, and we will continue to look into it and support law enforcement partners in their efforts to tackle this malicious crime. In the light of this assurance, I hope my noble friend will be content to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative

I thank the Minister for his reply and the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for being so supportive. The problem is that this is falling between two stools, and I do not quite understand how the present law is going to be used to deal with this problem. I would like some explanation; perhaps the Minister could write to me explaining exactly how the present law can and should be used. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 292F withdrawn.