Clause 7 - Confiscation of assets

Part of Modern Slavery Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 9 September 2014.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 9:45, 9 September 2014

I have some questions about this group of clauses, which we all welcome, as they represent a sensible way forward. We want human traffickers to lose all their assets, if at all possible, so we support clause 7. Nevertheless, I want to press the Minister on a number of points.

What assets recovered under clause 7, if any, will be retained by the police to provide further resources to fight human trafficking? We know that the confiscation of major criminals’ assets has so far been far from satisfactory—a lot more can be done. The Labour party has been working with the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer, on a review of the current situation with a view to tabling a series of amendments in the other place, where another Bill is currently being examined. Depending on what happens in the other place, we might wish to revisit clause 7 on Report and table some amendments to improve it.

Will the Minister comment on the need to improve the court’s power to get full disclosure of assets, particularly in relation to third-party claims, and on the role of international co-operation? Human trafficking obviously involves many countries—not only in Europe, but around the world—so will she say what more she thinks must be done to allow UK courts to restrict the disposable assets of foreign nationals and demand that liquid assets be returned to the United Kingdom? Will she  also comment on the need to improve—if she thinks such improvement is appropriate—the mutual assistance arrangements with other countries, notably EU partners?

Turning to clauses 8 and 9, the Opposition fully support compensation for victims wherever possible, but I want to press the Minister on why clause 8(1) says that the Crown court “may” make

“a slavery and trafficking reparation order against a person”.

Will she explain why it does not say that the Crown court “shall” make such a reparation order?

When we were discussing clause 3, I gave an example of a case in Lincolnshire where 25 victims were rescued from forced labour, of whom 12 gave witness statements. If the CPS could take those 12 individuals’ cases to court and it was found that human trafficking and forced labour had taken place—bearing in mind that there were 25 victims, but only half had their cases taken to court—would it be possible under this Bill for all 25 victims to receive compensation, even though the court had reached findings on only those 12 cases? I want to be clear about whether that would be possible, or whether compensation will only ever be for victims in cases where there is a specific conviction.

Clause 9 is about the court having to consider a defendant’s means to pay a reparation order. Will the Minister tell us how we can be sure that, whatever means the individual has to pay, compensation for the victim is prioritised? The Bill already says that compensation will take precedence over fines, but could she go further and say how she will ensure that the highest priority is given to the victim?

When a court considers fines and confiscation of assets, it normally protects assets that it considers are necessary for the defendant to continue with their livelihood. That presents us with some interesting problems, particularly around the issue of a business using forced labour. I am particularly thinking of a farm, or cases such as the Rooke case, which I referred to earlier, or the cases that were also referred to earlier of gangs of labourers being moved around the country to tarmac people’s front drives. Can the Minister set out her thinking about how assets in such cases—I guess they would include a van, a piece of land or a building—could be dealt with, in terms of protecting the defendant’s livelihood?

With these orders, a defendant will normally produce evidence about their means. Will the CPS challenge what the defendant says? Will it go on some kind of fact-finding mission to establish whether what the defendant says about their assets is correct and that full disclosure has been made? If the CPS is not responsible for doing that work, who is? Will victims be able to make representations and challenge the evidence that a defendant presents about their assets? As we have discussed, many victims of trafficking and forced labour are vulnerable, and a court can be a very intimidating place for them, so will legal aid be available to assist them to pursue or challenge compensation orders?

Earlier, I made the point that there are people who are victims but whose case has not been tried in court. Will they be able to take action to challenge any compensation order made in court? Will they be able to  access lawyers or legal aid, or will such access be restricted to victims in cases where there has been a conviction? Is there any opportunity for an order to be made at a later date?