Examination of Witnesses

Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:01 pm on 23rd September 2021.

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Siobhán Mullally and Dame Sara Thornton gave evidence.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 2:32 pm, 23rd September 2021

We will now hear from Siobhán Mullally, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, and Dame Sara Thornton, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. We have until 3.15 pm, so slightly longer than the last session. Would the witnesses please introduce themselves for the record?

Dame Sara Thornton:

Good afternoon. I am Sara Thornton, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner for the United Kingdom.

Siobhán Mullally:

Good afternoon. I am Siobhán Mullally, Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Thank you to both of our witnesses. On part 4 of the Bill, on modern slavery, I think we can all agree that securing prosecutions against the perpetrators of trafficking and modern slavery has to be a priority. With that in mind, do you think that the Bill will improve our ability to secure prosecutionsQ ?

Dame Sara Thornton:

It is not for me to have a view on most of the provisions, but part 4 and its impact on modern slavery is my particular focus. One of my concerns about the Bill is the unintended consequences, in particular of clause 51, on disqualification from protection. That is probably my gravest concern about unintended consequences.

In my view, we currently prosecute far too few traffickers and criminals for those offences, and I am concerned that the Bill could unintentionally undermine that. I say that because in defining the public order exemption, the bar has been set low and the net has been cast wide—whichever phrase you want to use. It has the potential to reduce support for a considerable number of victims of modern slavery through the national referral mechanism, which matters because, if victims are not supported through the national referral mechanism, they are put in a very difficult position in terms of supporting police investigations and prosecutions. That is my concern.

I was trying to be helpful and think what it is about clause 51 that is a particular problem. Clause 51(3) defines the public order exemptions; I have been looking at paragraphs (b) and (f) in particular. Paragraph (b) is where the list of offences is from schedule 4 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. That list was passed by Parliament six years ago for a very different purpose. It was about which offences were excluded from the protection of the statutory defence. The first question I have had is about whether we are actually going to use that list for a very different purpose.

The second issue is clause 51(3)(f), where the definition of a foreign criminal from the UK Borders Act 2007 is used. Again, that is a very low bar because all it requires is for somebody to be sentenced for 12 months, and sentenced not just in the United Kingdom but anywhere in the world. My concern is that it sets quite a low bar. I have been speaking to colleagues in law enforcement and from charities that provide support for witnesses, and their concern is many people who have given witness evidence in the Crown court would be caught by this, and they would not necessarily be provided with support in the NRM. That is my concern. My other suggestion might be considering an amendment saying that if a victim is supporting a police investigation or a prosecution, then perhaps they should be exempted from this provision.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q Thank you. Before I bring in Ms Mullally, with your concerns around clause 51 in particular, do you think it is incompatible with some of the protections in section 45 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015?

Dame Sara Thornton:

I do not think it is necessarily incompatible. My main point is that clause 51(3)(b) uses the schedule 4 list of offences passed by Parliament in schedule 4 of the Modern Slavery Act for quite a different purpose. I would hope that somebody has spent some considerable time thinking, “If we use this for a purpose other than that for which it was intended, can we model the consequences?” At the moment, the number of prosecutions is in the hundreds per year. My concern is that if we remove support from victims and witnesses, we will reduce that even more.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q Thank you. Ms Mullally, do you think the Bill will help us secure prosecutions?

Siobhán Mullally:

Thank you very much for your question. My role as UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons is to ensure that the highest standards are met in terms of protecting the human rights of victims of trafficking, as well as combating impunity for trafficking in persons by ensuring effective investigations and prosecutions. That is critical to a human rights-based approach because we need to combat impunity, ensure accountability and protect victims of trafficking.

The protection of victims enables us to be effective in investigations and prosecutions. As it stands, with my mandate as UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, I have specific concerns around clauses 46 to 51 in particular as not complying with international law, international human rights law and with the state’s positive obligations to identify, assist and protect victims of trafficking without discrimination. That in itself will hinder effective investigations and prosecutions and hinder the goal of combating impunity for trafficking in persons and ensuring accountability.

I have very specific concerns about those provisions in relation to the state’s positive obligations under the European convention on human rights, in particular articles 4 and 6, and under the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, as well as very specific concerns in relation to the rights of child victims of trafficking, as protected under the UN convention on the rights of the child and many other human rights instruments.

I can talk a little bit more about those specific concerns, but as it stands I would have concerns that the Bill does not comply with the state’s obligations under international human rights law.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q That is incredibly helpful. On the point about children entering the NRM, Dame Sara, I know that in your written correspondence with the Home Secretary, you have identified concerns about a lack of detail and provision for children that is cause for concern with this piece of legislation? Given that last year 47% of referrals to the NRM were from those exploited as children, what sorts of provisions would you expect to see in this legislation to protect children?

Dame Sara Thornton:

Last year in 2020, nearly half of the potential victims referred into the NRM were children, but in this part 4 on modern slavery there is only one mention of children. I have some specific suggestions: on clause 53, which is about the granting of limited leave, there were real concerns about the way that the requirement to consider the best interest of a child appears to be ignored. The best interests of a child goes back to the UN convention on the rights of a child; it is in the Children Act 1989, and it is also in the European convention against trafficking, that decisions should be taken in the best interests of the child. Looking at clause 53, and thinking about where there is a positive conclusive grounds decision that the child has been trafficked, and that they were under 17 at the time they were referred into the NRM, there really should be a presumption for the Secretary of State that leave to remain is given in the child’s best interests.

Clause 53 is one example. I am now going out of part 4 into clauses 14 and 15. The equality impact assessment published by the Government last week committed to mitigating the adverse impact on unaccompanied asylum seeking children by exempting them from the inadmissibility process. I do not think that is anywhere in the Bill. I think that it is important that something that has been identified as a problem for children is considered in legislation.

There are two other areas: in clauses 46 and 47, which are about the traffic information notices, there is no comment about whether they would apply to children. It would be really good to have clarity about whether children are going to be given these traffic information notices and asked to respond in a set period. Lastly, I have just covered clause 51 and the exemptions from protection; again, it is not clear whether those would apply to children. I think experts in the rights of children would argue that there are several international legal frameworks that suggest this is not appropriate and not in the children’s best interests.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q Thank you very much. Ms Mullally, I ask you the same question about what specific protections for children you would expect to see in this legislation?

Siobhán Mullally:

First and foremost, it is for the best interests of the child to be the primary consideration when addressing the rights of children under all aspects of the legislation. The convention on the rights of the child is almost universally ratified, and that is a core principle of the convention.

To go back to clauses 46 and 47, in particular: with regard to both adult and child victims of trafficking, there is no attention given to the impact of trauma on victims of trafficking. It is well recognised that this can lead to delays in disclosure of information. The impact that the experience of trafficking has on the disclosure of information and the reporting of the harms that have been endured has also been documented in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights—for example, in Elia in Greece, and Essen in Croatia. That is even more heightened with children.

In the recent judgement of V.C.L. and A.N. v. the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights emphasised again that it is a positive obligation on the state to identify and ensure assistance and protection to victims of trafficking. It is not an obligation on the victim to self-identify or report, and certainly not within any specific timeframe. It is a positive obligation on the state. As the European Court of Human Rights said in V.C.L. and A.N. v. the United Kingdom—with regard to the two Vietnamese boys in that case who were in an even more vulnerable situation—because of children’s vulnerability, they have a right to international protection. It is critical that that informs all elements of the Bill. I am picking out those two because they have a specific impact, in terms of recognising the impact of the experience of trauma on a victim of trafficking. It is a core commitment of the United Kingdom to combat the trafficking of persons, and modern slavery, both at home and abroad. It is critical that we see best practices being incorporated here.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Thank you very much, I will leave it there, unless there is time at the end.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

Q I wondered if I could follow up on clause 48—a clause you did not mention—and the proposals in the Bill that would, effectively, increase the threshold for initial identification for a reasonable grounds decision through the national referral mechanism. Do you think the threshold is currently set too low? Are there risks associated with setting it higher in the way the Bill does?

Dame Sara Thornton:

There are two schools of thought on this. Many in the sector will argue that the current, very low bar is appropriate, but I know colleagues in law enforcement think it is too high. The Bill is suggesting that we use the wording in the European convention against trafficking, or reasonable grounds to believe that an individual is a victim of modern slavery and human trafficking. On balance, I think that is appropriate.

Reasonable grounds is a pretty low threshold that people understand. It is more than a hunch or a suspicion, but it is not as much as a balance of probabilities. There needs to be some sort of objective information to base that reasonable grounds decision on. The obvious thing to say is that the guidance given to staff in the competent authority will be key, but it is not an unreasonable proposal—not least because the current legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland uses the word “is” and, as far as I understand, the competent authority uses the same test across the United Kingdom. I do not think it will make that much difference, and to be consistent with the European convention is a reasonable proposal.

Siobhán Mullally:

A concern here would be the possible impact of changing the threshold in terms of potential victims of trafficking accessing support and assistance and in processes of identification. Is it likely to have a negative impact? Is it likely to increase difficulties in identifying victims and referring them in a timely way for assistance and protection? That would be a concern if it is a regressive measure from where we are now; in terms of human rights law, you want to ensure non-regression in the protection of human rights of victims of trafficking.

I have concerns about the impact of that and whether it will increase the difficulty of timely and early identification of victims, because early identification is critical to ensuring effective access to protection. There is a question about how it will be implemented in practice and what the fallout will be in its implementation.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I thank the witnesses for their evidence so far. If I may start with Dame Sara, in answer to Holly Lynch’s questions earlier about clause 51 you expressed concern about the range of offences that might end up excluding people from access to the NRM. Are there concerns that some of the offences created by the Bill might also have that effectQ ?

Dame Sara Thornton:

That links to a comment I made in my correspondence with the Home Secretary. If the penalty for illegally entering the country is increased to four years, we could have a situation where, as a matter of course, if somebody had been prosecuted for that they would not be able to access the NRM. It is a risk that probably exists more on paper than in reality, because most of the time immigration enforcement does not use the law to prosecute; it tends to use administrative processes.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Q Something to be aware of, then. On disclosure, you have both expressed concern about the traffic information notices, particularly in relation to children. More generally, how awkward is it to have that sort of system and deadline in place when you are talking about victims of trafficking and their ability to disclose information about their experiences in a timely manner?

Siobhán Mullally:

As I said, clauses 46 and 47 pose serious difficulties with regard to both adults and children in terms of the state’s compliance with international human rights law on the protection of victims, because of the particular difficulties a victim of trafficking may have not only in disclosing information, but even in identifying as a victim of trafficking. It is not the obligation of the victim to self-identify, but we know that where the context is new, where there may be a distrust or lack of familiarity with officials within a state, where there may be language barriers or delays in accessing legal assistance, or where there may be fears of reprisals for the victims or their families, that can lead to delays.

The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly addressed that in terms of not properly taking account of the delays that can occur, the inconsistencies that may arise and the trauma that is endured by victims. That is not appropriate in terms of ensuring the fullest protection of the rights of victims of trafficking.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Q Dame Sara, have you anything to add?

Dame Sara Thornton:

Briefly. Siobhán has explained the issue of trauma, what we know about its impact on the brain, the way it affects memory and the way people recall with inconsistencies. We know that in practice that is very often the case with victims, and until they form trusting relationships you do not get a narrative that starts at the beginning and ends at the end; it is very piecemeal. As people trust and become more open, they might disclose more. That is a really big consideration. If we are not careful, these two clauses disregard that. Secondly, I have come across cases where victims are more able to disclose labour exploitation, for example, but it might take several years for them to disclose the most awful sexual exploitation because they may be embarrassed or ashamed about it. That is a concern. Also, of course, we know that some victims just do not identify as victims. They do not see that the awful things that they have endured mean that they are, in fact, victims.

I have been thinking about whether any amendments could acknowledge this issue about trauma. We have slavery and trafficking care standards, which are all about trauma-informed care. Is there a potential amendment that says that when you are doing this process it has to be done with those sorts of standards and principles in mind?

Similarly, the Bill does not talk at all about how long people might be given to respond to a trafficking information notice. Again, I would be really worried if that were just a matter of a few days. Colleagues have looked at arrangements in some asylum cases. It may be 20 days. I think this might be more complex, so you might think about 30 days. Is it worth thinking about putting in the Bill what sort of time period might be appropriate?

Lastly, colleagues have suggested that you might even want to define in the Bill what might be a good reason for disclosure, because at the moment it is left very much open. It could be open to guidance, but one aspect would be to list—whether it is trauma, mistrust of authority, or a threat from traffickers—all the sorts of reasons that could cause late disclosure, and perhaps, as I say, have them in legislation rather than just relying on guidance.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Q Thank you. In your correspondence with the Home Secretary you query the idea behind the Bill that deterrence is an effective strategy. You also express concern that differential treatment of refugees based on the nature of their arrival may serve only to exacerbate vulnerability. Can you say a little about those two points?

Dame Sara Thornton:

I will start with the second first. The earlier witnesses gave evidence about the two-tier approach. The concern would be that that creates vulnerability for people who are in this country in that situation because they have fewer protections, and no recourse to public funds unless they are destitute. I know from my work that people in that situation are driven by desperation to take exploitative work. It is a real concern that it could create vulnerability, which criminals and traffickers would exploit.

On the second point, I referred to material that was in a House of Commons Library report that suggested that when you look at the reasons why people choose or choose not to come to a country, there are many other factors that they consider. There is better evidence that they consider other factors than the nature of the law and the situation when they get there—the policy and practice of the country. My concern would be that you risk making more people vulnerable, because they live lives of precarity anyway, with a hope that this will deter. I completely understand the Government’s position that this is a very dangerous way for people to come to this country and we need to stop it, but I am concerned about the extent to which there is evidence that suggests that it might be effective, given that I think it could increase vulnerability.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Q A final question: what are your thoughts and views on the proposals in the Bill to reduce the recovery period?

Siobhán Mullally:

Again, it is disappointing to see that reduction in the recovery period. It is a regressive measure in terms of current standards and protections, so I would have concerns that it is moving backwards the human rights protections of victims of trafficking. There have been previous examples of regressive measures, in terms of attempts to reduce assistance levels to victims of trafficking. Again, it breaches the principle of non-regression in human rights protections, so I would have concerns around that and the longer-term impact, in terms of ensuring effective protection of victims of trafficking and trying to break the cycle of re-trafficking and vulnerability to exploitation.

Dame Sara Thornton:

I really welcome the fact that it is going to be in statute, because it was not in statute in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. I acknowledge that the current guidance is 45 days and that this is only 30 days, but 30 days is what is set out in the European convention. The other thing that is worth saying—I do not know whether Members are aware of this—is that the wait from reasonable grounds to conclusive grounds is very, very long. In 2020, the average was 465 days. We have a big debate about 45 days versus 30, but the reality is that when I meet victims and survivors, most of them have a sense of waiting a very, very long time. They are being provided with support, but they feel that their lives are on hold.

I have a couple of other thoughts about the time period. Of course, if people are being supported for a long time, there is some benefit to that, but there is also a disadvantage, particularly when cases are related to criminal proceedings, the courts are waiting for decisions and the system is grinding very slowly. One particular issue might seem very tactical and technical, which maybe it is, but it is important. One of the weaknesses of the current national referral mechanism is that, historically, all the decisions have been taken by the Home Office—the competent authority. I think a lot of the decisions about whether somebody has been trafficked are best taken locally by local safeguarding partners, and I am really pleased to say that the Home Office established a pilot early this year in 10 local authority areas, whereby local safeguarding boards are making those decisions. You have the right people around the table, and they have a much fuller picture of what has been going on.

Those pilots are going very well. One of the things they are able to do is that, when they meet to discuss what has happened to a child, they are able to take both the reasonable grounds and conclusive grounds decisions at the same meeting—you might imagine how that speeds things up. I would not want anything in the legislation to undermine the really good best practice that is currently being developed, which means that decisions about children’s trafficking are being made locally by the people who are best qualified to do them, and it is happening so much more speedily. I would hope that the Bill does not undermine that good practice.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Q Thank you. To push you a little, imagine that we lived in a country where things moved a bit more efficiently, there was not a 400-odd day wait and, generally speaking, these decisions were made timeously. Would you have concerns if the recovery period had been reduced from 45 days to 30 days, if that was the reality?

Dame Sara Thornton:

If it was the case that that meant that people were getting just 30 days’ support, it would have a negative impact. If you think about providing people with counselling and helping with their medical support and legal advice—a whole range of things— 30 days is not very long. I am just saying the reality in the UK at the moment is that it is taking so much longer that the difference between 45 and 30 is less significant.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I have not seen anybody indicate, so yes.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Q Dame Sara, another thing that you mentioned is the consultation process. You had some concern that there had not been enough involvement with survivors or people with lived experience of trafficking. Can you say a bit more about that?

Dame Sara Thornton:

The period between the new plan for immigration in March and the publication of the Bill in July was very short. We are aware that groups involved in asylum were much more involved in the consultation process than some of the groups that support victims of slavery and trafficking. It is too late now, but it would have been good to see more involvement of survivor groups particularly, so that people could give their views about what this would mean on a personal level, from that survivor perspective.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

DameQ Sara, you just mentioned the 10 pilots that the Home Office is undertaking on local safeguarding boards and you said that you would not want to see good practice that is being developed there being undermined by this Bill. Can you please be more specific and say what the Bill could do to undermine other Home Office work—important work?

Dame Sara Thornton:

This Bill specifically refers to a minimum of 30 days between the reasonable grounds decision and the conclusive grounds decision, and what I am saying is that, in these pilots, with some cases—not in all cases, but in some cases—the decisions are being taken on the same day, and I would not want that to be undermined. Presumably you would have to say, “Well, today we will make the reasonable grounds decision. We have got to come back after 30 days and make the conclusive grounds decision.” Actually, they are able to do both at the same time.

Of course, it matters a lot for children to get these decisions made, particularly when quite a lot of these cases are cases of child criminal exploitation and there are related proceedings in the courts. So it also helps the courts. As you know, there is an issue with backlogs in courts, so the more those decisions can be made in an effective and efficient fashion, the more that helps the courts, as well as being in the best interests of the child, in my view.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Q Thank you. You mentioned some exemptions in the more recent equality impact assessment that you would like to see for children. What are those specific exemptions that you would like to see in the Bill?

Dame Sara Thornton:

This is taken from the equality impact assessment, which I think was published on Friday last week and which talked about the Government continuing to mitigate adverse impacts on vulnerable people. One of the examples given is that it says the Government will mitigate the risk of adverse impacts on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children by exempting them from the inadmissibility process, which I think is set out in clauses 14 and 15. So that was a very specific issue referred to in the equality impact assessment. I do not think there is any kind of read-across to the Bill at the moment.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Q Ms Mullally, you also mentioned some specific cases where you fear this Bill could contradict existing case precedent—you mentioned a Greek case and a Croatian case. If it has not already been supplied, would you please put in writing to the Committee the detail of those cases?

Siobhán Mullally:

Yes, certainly. I will make a written submission, but those are well-established cases from the European Court of Human Rights: L.E. v. Greece, and S.M. v. Croatia. Then, of course, there is V.C.L. and A.N. v. the United Kingdom—the judgment on that was final earlier this year. They are all quite specifically relevant in terms of clause 51, in particular the implications on non-punishment, victims of trafficking, rights of access to the courts and right to a fair trial. V.C.L. and A.N. v. the United Kingdom found the state to be in violation of articles 4 and 6 of the European convention on human rights, read in conjunction with the Council of Europe’s convention on action against trafficking.

L.E. v. Greece and S.M. v. Croatia are particularly important with regard to recognising the trauma endured by victims of trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation and the need for that to be taken account of in terms of identification processes, referrals for assistance and protection by the state; and recognising that it is a positive obligation on the state, as stated again in the V.C.L. judgment by the court, to ensure effective protection.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Q In your opinion, are there clauses in the Bill that need to be completely removed for it to be compliant, or are you able to suggest amendments or tweaks that could make it in some way more amenable?

Siobhán Mullally:

I think that part 4, as it is currently drafted, is not in compliance, as I said, with international law. It is not in compliance with the state’s obligations under the ECHR, the Council of Europe’s convention on action against trafficking or the UN’s protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children—the Palermo protocol.

So I think that that part of the Bill, in particular, raises very serious questions and concerns. In particular, I would point to clause 51 but also to other clauses—clauses 46 to 51. Other provisions in the Bill raise other concerns. I am speaking particularly about those areas, because they raise very specific concerns in relation to my mandate on trafficking in persons, especially women and children.

Photo of Neil Coyle Neil Coyle Labour, Bermondsey and Old Southwark

That is very clear and helpful. Thank you.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

Q It has been put to me by a police officer working on the frontline in this area that, because we have British citizens and migrants entering the NRM, if somebody goes missing from it, it is dealt with primarily in terms of immigration compliance rather than safeguarding concerns. Do you think that is a fair assessment? What are your thoughts on that? Dame Sara, first.

Dame Sara Thornton:

This has become quite a topic of discussion in law enforcement. The problem has been that practice has varied from force to force as to whether missing person reports were completed or whether there was a report to immigration enforcement. I know that some interim guidance has been put out by the National Police Chiefs’ Council setting out what needs to happen, but to give you an example from June this year, about 140—I think—Vietnamese migrants who had come across in small boats were put in hotels in a variety of cities across the UK, and within 24 hours they had all disappeared. My view is that that was because they were clearly under the control of traffickers. They got sucked into the asylum system; that would not be the plan of the traffickers. As I say, they were gone in 24 hours. The reason I am aware that there has been some debate is that the forces were all then saying, “What’s going to be our response? What should we be doing in terms of investigating what has happened?”

One of the difficulties, if I may, is that when people go missing in that situation, we have no biometric data on them, so it is very difficult to ever work out whether you have found those people or not, with all the issues of language and difficulty with names and dates of birth. It is a live and current operational issue at the moment.

Siobhán Mullally:

The state has very specific obligations to protect victims and potential victims of trafficking, and there are very specific provisions under the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings with regard to missing children, whether those are foreign nationals or not. Internal trafficking is a very serious concern that is often not recognised sufficiently in many jurisdictions, not exclusively the United Kingdom.

A concern was raised previously by the Council of Europe group of experts on action against trafficking, the treaty monitoring body under the convention on action against trafficking, about children going missing in the UK—particularly unaccompanied, separated asylum-seeking children, but also child victims of trafficking internally. Of course, there are very serious obligations on the state to provide protection to all children without discrimination.

One concern with regard to the trafficking context can be that sometimes the child victims and adult victims go outside of the ordinary protection mechanisms and are not treated with the same urgency that they ought to be, but there are very specific obligations on the state to try to respond effectively and in a timely way to prevent that, and to ensure protection.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Q Just a few questions for Dame Sara, if I may. As you will know, we are bringing in more staff as decision makers, and we have brought in the new modern slavery victim care contract. For the benefit of the Committee, can you describe what the principal drivers of the pressure on the national referral mechanism are, from your perspective?

Dame Sara Thornton:

Thank you, Minister, and I very much welcome the new staff who are being recruited into the single competent authority, because I have raised the need to speed up decision making with your predecessors on many occasions.

The biggest cause of difficulty, I think, is the increased numbers. Although 2020 was similar to 2019, with about 10,600 referrals into the NRM, that number has doubled in three or four years, so there is substantial pressure. The other thing that is happening, as I mentioned earlier on, is child criminal exploitation and the cases of children. Those decisions need to be made quickly, because there are often related proceedings. Having been to the single competent authority and spoken to the staff, what tends to happen is that all those priorities keep going to the top of the pile and then there are an awful lot of cases in the backlog. On the whole, it has been about increased demand, and the resources just have not been able to keep up with it. So I welcome the fact that there are new staff. It will take a while for them to be trained and to be competent, but that is a good thing.

The second thing, which is identified in a report I published last year, is that one of the difficulties for the decision makers in that competent authority is that they do not always have all the information. They have some information, but they are often having to make decisions on partial information. They might have asked local authorities, they might have asked police forces or they might have asked Border Force. They do not always get the replies and therefore they are having to do the best in difficult circumstances. Staff have been under huge pressure and I hope we can begin to bring those averages down and bring the weight down.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Q Are there challenges around bringing clarity to victims about precisely what their rights are and around how the processes themselves work? Is there more that needs to be done to boost awareness in that area? Does that act as a barrier?

Dame Sara Thornton:

There are difficulties. Colleagues might be aware that the process is that you have first responders, who are police officers, members of Border Force, immigration enforcement and local authority staff, who have the ability to refer a potential victim into the national referral mechanism. One of the difficulties, and it is constantly reported on, is that the staff who are doing that do not understand how the national referral mechanism works. They do not understand enough to give good advice. So report after report recommends that there needs to be more training of first responders, and the Home Office recently published some more training.

I am getting to the position now where I wonder whether it is a sensible to expect that every police officer should be able to deal with this—every member of Border Force, every member of a local authority—and whether you might want to have specially trained points of contact who deal with it. If you think about it, even though the numbers have been going up, most police officers in the course of a year will never deal with these situations. I do think there is an issue about that, and we need to think very seriously about the model we have for first responders.

Photo of Tom Pursglove Tom Pursglove Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

Q Obviously, the Government are very clear that we want to send an unequivocal message to those responsible for people smuggling that what they do simply will not be tolerated and that the punishment for that will be harsh. We are proposing through the Bill to introduce life sentences for people smugglers. Is that something that you welcome, and what would you observe about that and the difference that it might make?

Dame Sara Thornton:

I think that people who smuggle fellow human beings, or indeed traffic them, are committing a most heinous crime. Think about the 39 people who lost their lives in Essex two years ago. Whether they were smuggled or trafficked is a matter much debated, but the callous way that those criminals treated those victims, in my view, needs the harshest punishment. The only thing I would say is that, as a former police officer, I am on the whole in favour of harsh punishments, but you have life sentence as an option from the Modern Slavery Act 2015 for slavery and trafficking. It has never been used. So there is the point that, I guess, it has a deterrent effect, but there is also an issue about whether, if those powers exist, they really need to be used to be a really effective deterrent.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

I see no further questioners. I thank the witnesses for their evidence. We will move on to the next panel.