Clause 35 - General functions of Commissioner

Part of Modern Slavery Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:45 pm on 9 September 2014.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 5:45, 9 September 2014

As drafted, clause 35 sets out the general functions of the commissioner. It does that in paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (1), which state:

The Commissioner must encourage good practice in—the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of offences under sections 1, 2 and 4; the identification of victims of those offences.”

That is the extent of the function of the commissioner. Amendment 50 would add a paragraph (c) and a paragraph (d) to that subsection. Paragraph (c) states

“the support offered to victims, including but not limited to, the operations of any Government agency and support offered in accordance with section 41 and section 42” and paragraph (d) states

“any other area which the Commissioner feels is relevant to identifying and preventing human trafficking in the UK or elsewhere.”

We tabled the amendment because we feel that the current function as set out is too narrow and we need to widen it for the anti-slavery commissioner to have real effect. Paragraph 158 of the Joint Committee’s report states:

“Several of our witnesses called for the Commissioner’s role to go beyond simply encouraging the prosecution of specific offences and for it expressly to be extended to representation of, and advocacy for, victims of modern slavery.”

The Modern Slavery Bill evidence review recommended that the commissioner

“should represent and give a voice to the concerns and best interests of victims and survivors of modern slavery.”

It made reference to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who concurred, arguing that such an extension would be an important step in the fight against trafficking. Again, it is important for the Committee to pay regard to what the Joint Committee said about the functions the anti-slavery commissioner should have.

I agree with the Minister that we all want there to be more prosecutions and more convictions for human trafficking and slavery offences. However, it is quite clear from examining all the evidence that we need to work with and alongside victims to encourage them to be witnesses, so as to enable prosecutions to succeed. All this is connected together. The evidence that both this Committee and the Joint Committee heard shows that, and that is why we have tabled amendment 50.

We have also tabled amendment 111, which is similar to amendment 50. Amendment 111 is a probing amendment, because we wanted to test with the Minister the commissioner’s role in implementing the UK’s responsibilities under the trafficking convention, the anti-trafficking directive and other international obligations, including the Palermo protocol. We tabled amendment 111 to ensure that the commissioner would deal with those international obligations.

Clause 35(2) sets out all

“The things that the Commissioner may do in pursuance of subsection (1)”,

which include

“making reports…making recommendations…undertaking or supporting…the carrying out of research…providing information, education or training…consulting people”.

Because of the very narrow way in which subsection (1) is drafted, the commissioner may end up having to put off or curtail work that they wanted to carry out, because doing that work would be outside the tight remit set out in subsections (1)(a) and (b). That is why widening the remit, as set out in amendment 50, would help the commissioner to do the best job possible.

I turn to amendment 51, which would omit the words “permitted matter” in clause 35(2). That is important because a “permitted matter” means a matter that the Secretary of State has authorised the commissioner to report on, or a matter that has been approved by the Secretary of State in the current strategic plan. Again, that is too restrictive, and the amendment suggests a better wording. It would insert the expression:

“matter pertinent to the prevention of human trafficking and forced labour”.

That would widen the commissioner’s remit, so that they could deal with the many issues and matters that may arise. We know that this is a very fast-moving area, and what has been agreed with the Secretary of State about what is a “permitted matter” may change quickly if new forms of trafficking, slavery or forced labour are discovered. It should be open to the commissioner to have the discretion to examine, as amendment 51 sets out, whatever matter is

“pertinent to the prevention of human trafficking and forced labour”.

The amendment aims to widen the commissioner’s remit in that way.

Amendment 52 would amend clause 35(3) by inserting a new subsection (3) that reiterates the independence of the commissioner in terms of their “activities”, “timetables” and “priorities”—that is, prioritising the issues they feel are important. That is also vital to ensure that the commissioner’s role functions properly.

Amendments 119 and 120 are grouped together, and are about the role of the commissioner in collecting data. Both, particularly amendment 119, would be helpful in that regard. It is vital that we know numbers and how trends are developing around slavery or forced labour. That will help us work out where resources and assistance need to go to secure prosecutions.

Paragraph 161 of the Joint Committee’s report states:

“We note that the draft Bill includes no clear or specific mention of data collection. Our evidence suggests that this is a weakness: we heard of how the long-run statistical reports produced by the office of the Dutch national rapporteur had enabled authorities to make an informed assessment of the changing nature of modern slavery.”

The Joint Committee was keen that that issue was addressed. Paragraph 164 says:

“Accurate and comprehensive data is an essential element in the prevention of modern slavery.”

That fits with the first requirement of the function of the commissioner, which is about prevention. The report adds:

“It can also play an important role in prosecution by identifying trends in modern slavery crime. An independent Commissioner is ideally placed to act as a focal point for the collection, compilation, analysis and dissemination of information and statistics. The Commissioner’s functions should reflect this.”

That supports amendment 119. Amendment 120, on working with civil society, is a sensible amendment that would assist the commissioner.

New clause 20, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle, is excellent. It sets out everything that we are concerned about comprehensively to ensure that the anti-slavery commissioner can do their job. It is well drafted and clearly covers all the areas where we think the clause is deficient. I support that new clause and look forward to hearing what he has to say. Overall, this group of amendments is about trying to improve clause 35 to give a wider remit to the anti-slavery commissioner to cover everything that would be useful for that person to have regard to in making that job a success.