Clause 36 - Strategic plans and annual reports

Modern Slavery Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 12:30 pm on 11 September 2014.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 12:30, 11 September 2014

I beg to move amendment 113, in clause 36, page 25, line 29, at end insert—

‘(1A) When preparing the strategic plan the Commissioner must give consideration to any proposal submitted to the Commissioner from any Parliamentary Select Committee. If the Commissioner does not accept the Committee’s proposal the Commissioner must write to the relevant Committee explain the decision.”

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment 114, in clause 36, page 26, line 4, leave out “Secretary of State” and insert “Parliament”.

Amendment 107, in clause 36, page 26, line 12, at end insert—

‘(8) An annual report can also include observations and recommendations as to the adequacy, efficacy and co-ordination of measures, policies and performance of relevant services including public authorities as specified in Clause 37 section 5 or under relevant devolved powers.”

Amendment 115, in clause 36, page 26, line 13, leave out subsection (9).

Amendment 116, in clause 36, page 26, line 18, leave out “Secretary of State may” and insert “Commissioner must consult with the Secretary of State and”

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

This group of amendments again relates to strengthening the role of the anti-slavery commissioner and Parliament’s role in looking at the  work of the anti-slavery commissioner and suggesting what work they might do. Amendment 113 would require the commissioner to give consideration to proposals by any Select Committee on work that it believes the commissioner should undertake. If the commissioner felt that such work was not appropriate, he or she should explain why not. Amendment 114 is designed to strengthen the role of Parliament by requiring the commissioner to lay his or her annual report before Parliament rather than before the Secretary of State. Amendment 115 would therefore remove the requirement for the Secretary of State to lay the report before Parliament. Amendment 116 is designed to deal with the situation that we discussed in our debate on the previous clause, whereby a report might contain matters related to national security, the safety of an individual or an ongoing investigation. The amendment would tidy up the provision by requiring the commissioner to consult the Secretary of State if such matters need to be addressed before the report goes to Parliament.

As I have said, the amendments are designed to strengthen the role of the anti-slavery commissioner, and to strengthen the role of Members of Parliament in looking at the work that is carried out. In recent times—certainly since I entered the House of Commons in 2005—the role of Select Committees has been beefed up by the election of Chairs, and the Committees have carried out important scrutiny of what is going on. At times, they come up with sensible suggestions and requests to Government about changes that should be made in legislation or policy. Over the past few days, for example, the Home Affairs Committee has been investigating the report on child sexual exploitation in Rotherham and recent events there, and it has already started to make recommendations.

If an important Committee, such as the Home Affairs Committee, comes across information or evidence that it believes to be important for the anti-slavery commissioner to look at, it should have an opportunity to request that the commissioner consider it. Out of respect to Parliament, if the commissioner decides not to investigate or put together a report, they should convey to Parliament the reasons why they have decided not to take any action. The amendments fit with our belief, which I think is shared by almost all Members of the House of Commons, that the power of Members of the House to deal with problems that come up must be strengthened. Members of Parliament should be able to ask commissioners and other bodies to investigate matters of concern. That is why we have tabled the amendments.

I emphasise the need, which the Bill already reflects, for Parliament to have access to the commissioner’s annual report at the end of each year. I believe that that report should be laid before Parliament. What does the Minister think about the fact that, according to the Bill, the annual report will be given to the Secretary of State and subsequently laid before Parliament? What does she believe will happen to the report? Will a Minister press the usual channels to ensure that it is debated on the Floor of the House? Does the Minister expect the Home Affairs Committee to hold evidence sessions about the contents of the report? I simply want to be clear about what the Minister thinks the report will receive in terms of parliamentary time and scrutiny, because that is important.

I also wanted to note that when the Joint Committee looked at the area of reports, it recognised that, as I referred to earlier, the Government were concerned that certain information that might cause problems—whether for national security, the safety of an individual or an ongoing investigation—should not be put into reports. However, in its report the Joint Committee referred to the fact that other jurisdictions deal with that issue in a different way; for example, in Australia, it is left to the anti-slavery commissioner to redact information that could cause issues for national security, and so on, and there is no need to go through the Secretary of State. Will the Minister comment on that?

Will the Minister also comment on what the Joint Committee said about the role of the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation? He or she can report on whatever they feel is appropriate without the need for a power for the Secretary of State to redact, like the one set out in the Bill. The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration can also put into their reports whatever they feel is appropriate and necessary.

I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the situation in Australia and the powers of the two independent officials I have mentioned. I am also interested to hear what she thinks Parliament will do with the reports, what options there will be for effective scrutiny and in particular whether Select Committees will be able to ask the anti-slavery commissioner to investigate matters of concern.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove

Briefly, I wish to ask the Minister what the scope of the strategic plans will be. For me, the two words that are relevant here are “permissive” and “exclusive”. It a obviously good idea that the Secretary of State and the commissioner should have an agreed strategic plan of action and that that should be public and shared; there is a great deal of common sense in that and it is surely unexceptional. The question is whether the strategic plan can take account of changing circumstances and emerging factors that the commissioner may feel need either urgent attention or attention that is critical of the Government, if it appears that some aspect of policy is not delivering in the way that it should.

I hope I will get an assurance in the Minister’s response that the strategic plan is not intended and will not be used to limit the effective scope of the commissioner, if the commissioner sees the need to reach beyond what is written in the plan for that year.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I support the lead amendment, which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North. Making provision for matters referred to the commissioner by Select Committee seems to me to be exactly in keeping with the spirit of future-proofing that the Minister talked about in response to the previous group of amendments. As she said, our understanding and knowledge of this crime and the necessary responses to it are going to change, and the fields of interest of Select Committees, whether as they are constituted now or as they may be in future, could bring aspects of the problem of modern slavery to their attention.

The Government have committed to making sure that all the arrangements work much better on a cross-Government basis; the amendment would ensure that  the parliamentary arrangements and input on these issues would match that commitment, so that the perspectives, interests and different angles of vision of Select Committees could be part of the cross-Government view, rather than that relying on what is decided or spotted by relevant Ministers and officials within different Departments. I therefore support the amendment.

Building in references to Parliament would add a dimension of independence. The Minister has seemed reluctant to concede that independence in other wording. We have previously considered amendments that would have inserted the word “independent” into earlier clauses. In the last group of amendments, subsection (8) of new clause 20, which I tabled, specified issues to protect the obvious working independence of the Commissioner. I know that in the past the Minister has said, “Well, we have to be careful about using the word “independent” in ways that might be difficult”, but I do not accept that argument. The more that we can point to dimensions of independence, and input and interest other than just that of the Secretary of State, the better; that is key.

We cannot anticipate the debate that we will have on subsequent amendments that address the issue of supply chains, for instance. However, regarding the principle of independence and showing that these things will not just be controlled by Government, it is important that we do not have a future situation under this Bill and the work of the commissioner’s office—particularly if that office is going to scope itself out in the way the Minister suggested it would be able to do, even under the Bill—whereby Ministers are approached by particular companies concerned about how some issues are being handled, discussed, or reviewed, or even by particular countries, which might find themselves being named and dealing with issues and questions of enforcement and other practices in their jurisdictions, on the assumption that because this is a matter of law and is under Government control and the apparent control of Ministers, they can use Ministers to ensure that issues are not opened up in a way that would be uncomfortable for them.

If Ministers are approached in that way, the more that they are able to say that this matter is handled independently, that there are other dimensions of independence and that it is not for them to deal with, because these things are not under their choke lead, the better. And I say that not just in relation to amendment 113; it seems to apply to the other amendments that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North has tabled.

Amendment 107, which I tabled, is basically trying to ensure that the annual report that it is envisaged the Commissioner will produce will also include observations and recommendations about the adequacy, efficacy and co-ordination of the measures, policies and performance of relevant services, including not just the public authorities specified elsewhere in the Bill but public authorities that could be specified under relevant devolved powers.

The amendment recognises the need for us to ensure that the work of the commissioner is not simply confined to England and Wales, and Departments and agencies dealing with England and Wales, but rightly recognises the locus of the devolved authorities in determining what other agencies’ work and performance might be considered by the commissioner. And of course it is not necessarily saying that the commissioner would directly  look at exactly what is being done within Northern Ireland by any given agency. It is cast in a way such that the commissioner would look at the co-ordination of services between jurisdictions, and the issues of performance between jurisdictions, because those are areas where problems arise in other respects.

Those engaged in this crime are cynical and sophisticated enough to use and abuse various jurisdictional sensitivities, so that the patterns, features and facts of their crime are not fully or properly countered or detected by law, and of course we want to ensure that the commissioner is equipped to trace and track that criminal activity, and to exhort all improvement and effort against it.

This matter is also important, given the kind of things we have heard this week. Depending on what happens in the vote in Scotland next week, if we are talking about supersized devo-max for Scotland and additional devolution for Northern Ireland and Wales, we might find that there are even more services in which border issues arise in relation to jurisdiction and scope of effort. We want to ensure that the commissioner is properly able to address those issues sensibly as and when they arise. In our consideration of previous amendments, the right hon. Member for Delyn raised the position of the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland, and the Department of Justice for Northern Ireland has proposed to meet those concerns by ensuring that the NCA’s work will be properly Patten-proofed. The Department makes provision for the NCA to work with the permission of the Chief Constable—in other places, the NCA has the power to direct chief constables. The proposal qualifies the question of constabulary power, and so on.

The commissioner will be able to look at the work of the NCA, as an enforcement agency, in relation to these matters, but the fact is that some of the NCA’s work on trafficking and other aspects of modern slavery in Northern Ireland will be contingent upon the NCA having the agreement and prior consent of the Chief Constable and the various memorandums of understanding that go with it. If that is how we seek to make progress on the issue, we need to ensure that we properly account for it in the legislation so that the NCA does not say, “Sorry, but we cannot answer that bit in our reply to the commissioner because we are not doing it under our own light. When we are in Northern Ireland, we are only doing it under someone else’s light, and therefore we cannot say so.” The commissioner might find themselves limited in what they can observe or recommend in that instance, so it is simply about ensuring that we are not giving planning permission for loopholes that we will later regret.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 12:45, 11 September 2014

I am grateful to hon. and right hon. Members for tabling the amendments that we have debated this afternoon. The amendments before the committee seek to amend how the anti-slavery commissioner will develop and lay plans and report. The Bill contains provisions to enable the commissioner to produce strategic plans and to report in a way that will make a real difference in the fight against modern slavery. Those provisions are important and necessary aspects of the role.

Clause 36 sets out the requirements relating to strategic plans and annual reports to be produced by the anti-slavery commissioner. Once appointed, the commissioner must,  as soon as reasonably practical, prepare and submit a strategic plan to the Secretary of State for approval. The plan will set out how the commissioner intends to carry out his or her functions for the period of the plan. The strategic plan may cover a period of between one and three years. The period of the plan has been extended following a recommendation by the Joint Committee.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

On the wording of the approval that is required from the Secretary of State, why was “agreement” not included in the Bill? Why does it have to be “approval”?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will come to that in a moment.

Before the end of the period to which a plan relates, the commissioner must prepare a further plan for the period immediately following the current plan and submit it to the Secretary of State for approval. In practice, any plan submitted to the Secretary of State by the commissioner will be discussed between the two parties and agreed before being laid in Parliament. That will ensure that the commissioner and the Secretary of State have a clear understanding of the priorities of the role and how the commissioner intends to undertake their functions. The purpose of the strategic plan is to set out the commissioner’s objectives and priorities for the period of the plan, to state any matters on which the commissioner proposes to report under clause 35(2)(a) and to state any other activities that the commissioner intends to undertake during the period of the plan in exercise of their functions. The commissioner will provide an annual report to the Secretary of State on the matters included in the strategic plan.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove asked about changes to the plan. The commissioner may submit a revised plan to the Secretary of State at any time. That could be if they believe that alternative activities need to be undertaken to, for example, deal with an emerging threat. The plan can be revised under clause 36(3), as circumstances change. The requirement for the Secretary of State’s approval of the plan is to encourage and ensure a genuine partnership between the Secretary of State and the commissioner. If the commissioner feels that they should investigate a matter, the Secretary of State will typically agree to it, but it is important that the Secretary of State and the commissioner work to a joint agenda to make a real difference to the fight against modern slavery. Any plan or report must be laid before Parliament by the Secretary of State as soon as it is reasonably practicable after approving the plan or receiving the report. We listened to the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee and included that provision to ensure that any plan or report is laid in good time.

The shadow Minister asked about parliamentary scrutiny of the report. That would be like any other document presented to Parliament; it could be scrutinised in normal ways, which could be through a statement or an urgent question. The Select Committee could scrutinise it. I would not wish to suggest what the Home Affairs Committee should scrutinise; I am sure that the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee would be most cross to discover a Minister trying to do that. Opposition day debates, Back-Bench debates and Westminster Hall debates could be used. There are a variety of ways in which Parliament could scrutinise the report and I do not wish to dictate how that should be done.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I understand what the Minister is saying but, in the light of the fact that, annually, parliamentary time is given to a debate on the Floor of the House on the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and as so many Members are interested in trying to deal with this matter, does she think that a yearly parliamentary debate on the anti-slavery commissioner’s annual report would be appropriate?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

As a former member of the Procedure Committee, I know that it is not a good idea for Ministers to dictate how parliamentary business may or may not be used. Certainly, it would be like other debates and I am sure that the Backbench Business Committee and the Opposition day debates will be well used if it is felt that that is an appropriate use of time.

Before laying an annual report, the Secretary of State may redact any material that they think

“would be against the interests of national security; might jeopardise the safety of any person, or; might prejudice the investigation or prosecution of an offence.”.

That is not to constrain the commissioner, but to build in the right checks and balances to ensure that national security is not compromised and individuals are not put at risk. The commissioner will be entirely independent and able to report freely on their findings, with the exception of redactions limited to those specific grounds. It is important that the commissioner has a clear work plan and reports on their activities regularly so that we can review progress and ensure that the role is adding value in our fight against this horrendous crime.

Amendment 107 aims to ensure that the commissioner includes in their reports any recommendations on the

“adequacy, efficiency and co-ordination of measures, policies and performance of relevant services including public authorities”.

The amendment would ensure that the commissioner can report on areas where public authorities may need to improve their services to victims of modern slavery. In practice, that is exactly what the commissioner would be expected to do. The general functions set out in clause 35 allow the commissioner to promote good practice in

“the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution” of modern slavery offences and the effective identification of potential victims of modern slavery. All public authorities have responsibility to identify and support potential victims, and law enforcement authorities should make investigation and prosecution of modern slavery offences a priority. As the commissioner already has the ability to influence public authorities and make recommendations about how they could improve their service to potential victims, we do not believe that amendment 107 is necessary. I do not want to replay the devolution arguments that we discussed at length previously, suffice to say that I am committed to respecting those settlements and not amending the Bill at this point. With respect to the devolved Administrations and circumstances where an agreement is needed first, we are conducting extensive discussions to ensure that we can make the necessary changes as agreed by all devolved Administrations. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 113 seeks to ensure that the commissioner considers any proposal submitted to them by any Select Committee. I agree that a Select Committee may identify  an important issue of public interest in the remit of the commissioner. The commissioner already has the autonomy to consider what activities they should include in their strategic plan, taking into account representations and proposals from partners, including parliamentary Committees. I am sure the commissioner would take representations from parliamentary Committees seriously. Formally requiring them to consider any proposal put forward by any parliamentary Select Committee is simply not needed. Given that clarification, I hope right hon. and hon. Members will feel able to withdraw that amendment.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat, Hazel Grove

The Minister has made a sound point. Can she pick up my point about the exclusiveness of the strategic plan and the capacity to take on matters that arise?

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. I talked earlier about the ability to change the strategic plan, but may I come back to his specific comments later?

Amendments 114, 115 and 116 seek to change the way the commissioner will report by requiring them to report to Parliament while, as far as possible, removing the role of the Secretary of State. Before turning to the detail, I would like to highlight that it is right and proper that the Secretary of State has a role in ensuring that the commissioner’s plan reflects the agreed aims and objectives to enable the fight against modern slavery to be successful. It is also right that the Secretary of State ensures that reports do not put individual safety, the success of a prosecution or national security at risk. Once the plan is agreed, the commissioner will be entirely independent and able to report freely on his or her findings with the exception of redactions limited to specific grounds, such as where material would be against the interests of national security. The Secretary of State has a critical role responding to any report to ensure that real change happens at the front line.

Amendment 114 removes the requirement for any annual report to be provided to the Secretary of State before being presented to Parliament. That is not necessary. If we compare it to the Dutch rapporteur, which has been referred to previously, they submit annual reports to the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands and the Government then respond to the report and inform Parliament of their conclusions. We envisage that here the report would be submitted to the Secretary of State, they would take on board those comments, and we would ensure that redactions in the interests of national security and victim protection would be made. The report would then be laid directly before Parliament without the time or a Government response being prepared. Therefore, there would be a quicker response to a report to Parliament than there perhaps is under the Dutch system that we have heard about.

The shadow Minister asked about the commissioner redacting information themselves. The Secretary of State has a role in ensuring that national security, individual safety and prosecutions are not jeopardised. That is why it is for the Secretary of State to ensure any report does not contain such information. It is an important safeguard and mirrors protections relating to the chief inspector of borders and immigration.

Amendment 115 is consequential to 114. Amendment 116 amends clause 36(10) by placing the onus on the Commissioner to consult with the Secretary of State on redactions rather than the Secretary of State directly removing material. That is the point we have just discussed. During the pre-legislative scrutiny process the Committee raised concerns about the breadth of the Secretary of State’s powers to redact material from reports. The provisions in the Bill changed to narrow the test so that redaction would only apply where it would be against the interest of national security, might jeopardise an individual’s safety or might prejudice the investigation or prosecution of an offence. Given the limited circumstances in which material may be redacted,  the Secretary of State has an important role in ensuring that the role of commissioner does not have entirely unwanted, but potentially serious impacts on, for example, an individual’s safety. On that basis, I hope right hon. and hon. Members will feel able to withdraw their amendments.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Damian Hinds.)

1.4 pm

Adjourned till this day at two o’clock.