Clause 48 - Identification of potential victims of slavery or human trafficking

Part of Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 2 November 2021.

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Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip, The Lord Commissioner of HM Treasury 9:25, 2 November 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under you, Sir Roger, but not particularly in this role. However, as always, it is a pleasure to be sitting on a Committee that you are chairing.

I thank the hon. Member for Halifax for her valuable contribution on this point. Decision making is of course central to our ability to support possible and confirmed victims of modern slavery. That is why, throughout the Bill, as she will know, we have discussed ways for that to be done as quickly and fairly as possible. It is in that vein that we have sought to clarify the reasonable grounds and conclusive grounds thresholds in primary legislation, to support that effective decision making. It is also why we are committed to reviewing the guidance that under- pins the reasonable grounds test to ensure that it best supports that.

Central to that work is the premise that the reasonable grounds decision should be made quickly. Currently, where possible, that is within five working days of referral to the national referral mechanism. That timeline enables us to quickly identify possible victims and ensure that they receive the appropriate support that they need. All decision makers receive robust training to support that process, and any negative reasonable grounds decisions will be reviewed by a second caseworker or a manager/technical specialist to ensure that all decisions taken are in line with the policy. An individual, or someone acting on their behalf, may also request reconsideration of a negative reasonable grounds decision by the competent authority where there are specific concerns that a decision made is not in line with the policy, or if additional evidence becomes available that would be material to the outcome of a case.

At the conclusive grounds stage, we already have a process whereby negative decisions are considered by those multi-agency assurance panels. That process is set out in the modern slavery statutory guidance for England and Wales, under section 49 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and non-statutory guidance for Scotland and Northern Ireland. We believe that that is the right place for the process, enabling us to adapt it in future to changing needs. To put in place the duty for multi-agency assurance panels to review all reasonable and conclusive grounds decisions would cut across that approach. It is not appropriate for that to be set out in primary legislation, as amendment 185 seeks to do, as that would remove the ability to change such a process to appropriate bodies and needs in the future.

Moreover, the amendment would add a new power whereby multi-agency assurance panels can overturn competent authority decisions, rather than the current approach of asking the competent authority to review a decision in specific circumstances. It is right that only designated competent authorities have a decision-making role. The current approach supports a culture of continuous improvement.

As I have set out, we do not believe that primary legislation is needed here. The current multi-agency assurance panels have been subject to an evaluation, and we will consider the conclusions and lessons learned in due course. If in the future we wished to consider multi-agency assurance panels at the reasonable grounds stage, or to change their remit, it would follow that that, too, would be a question for guidance.

Although I presume not intentionally, the amendment would also remove the provision that clarifies that the conclusive grounds threshold test is based on whether, on the balance of probabilities, an individual is a victim of modern slavery. That is the current test that is applied, in line with our obligations under the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings.