This amendment would increase the recovery period for victims of slavery or human trafficking from a minimum of 30 days to a minimum of 45 days.
This amendment would ensure that victims of modern slavery continue to receive a recovery period of at least 45 days, bringing this provision in line with current statutory guidance. We strongly welcome the inclusion in domestic law of a recovery period with support for victims, and we support this decision. However, the reduction of the minimum recovery period during which victims in England and Wales receive support from the current 45 days to 30 days is a worry.
The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner said in her written correspondence with the Home Secretary that the average length of time it takes for a conclusive grounds decision to be made in 2020 was 465 days. It is therefore difficult to understand why the Government are seeking to reduce the timescale from a target they are already significantly failing to meet. Their focus should be on increasing the efficiency of decision making, rather than reducing the already short recovery time to which victims are entitled.
In its written evidence to the Committee, Hope for Justice highlights that the explanatory report on the European convention on action against trafficking in human beings clearly states that the purpose of the recovery and reflection period is to allow victims to recover and escape the influence of traffickers. A reduction of this period therefore represents a step backwards in our ability to offer effective protection to victims of trafficking.
The assistance and support that should be provided during this recovery period is essential and wide-ranging, and it may include mental health support and counselling, legal advice, secure housing and access to social services. It also allows the police time to gather evidence during their investigation and to establish a working relationship with victims, strengthening their ability to secure a prosecution. It is estimated that there are between 6,000 and 8,000 modern slavery offenders in the UK, yet there were only 91 prosecutions and 13 convictions in England and Wales last year for specific modern slavery offences as a principal offence, and only 267 prosecutions for all related crimes.
Both sides of the Committee can agree on our desire to see more perpetrators of human trafficking and slavery brought to justice. This clause is a disappointing backward step away from the appropriate period necessary to break the bonds of slavery and to allow victims to establish a relationship with the relevant agencies in order to support their recovery and secure a prosecution.
Justice and Care has highlighted that many victims already decline to enter the national referral mechanism. As we have heard, Care UK says that 2,178 adults referred by first responders declined entry into the NRM last year. We have discussed the barriers that some might experience, including not recognising that they are, in fact, a victim, but it can also be because it is not immediately obvious what support the NRM provides for victims. This reduction in the recovery period certainly is not going to help.
I anticipate that the hon. Member for Calder Valley is about to tell me that under the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, the current threshold is set at 30 days. However, the minimum of 45 days in the UK, which was established in 2009, was a clear distinction that we could be proud of, and it is unclear why the Government are seeking such a change. Victims in Northern Ireland and Scotland are entitled to longer periods of support—the recovery period in Scotland is actually 90 days. I ask the Minister to outline how the change will have a positive impact for victims in any way. Amendment 1 would ensure that victims are protected and that we do not undermine the progress that has been made so far by reducing the recovery period further.
I will speak to clause 49 more broadly. I draw the Minister’s attention to subsection (2), which states:
“A conclusive grounds decision may not be made in relation to the identified potential victim before the end of the period of 30 days beginning with the day on which the positive reasonable grounds decision was made.”
I welcome the sentiment, but I wonder whether he could address the concerns raised by Dame Sara Thornton, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, that there are pilot schemes under way to test approaches to devolving national referral mechanism decisions for children to local safeguarding partners. As part of the pilots, conclusive grounds decisions are being taken at the same time as reasonable grounds decisions, where the evidence is strong enough to do so. I hope that the Minister will join me in welcoming that approach, and although I am worried about the clause’s intended consequences, I also hope that he will recognise that this could be an unintended negative consequence, which we can hopefully all agree would be wholly regrettable. The clause is relatively simple and we do not support it standing part of the Bill.
I will be brief, because I fully endorse what the shadow Minister has said. I absolutely welcome the fact that the measure will be in statute, but I share her concern and astonishment that the Government have decided, for no apparent reason, to reduce the prescribed recovery period to 30 days. Yes, that is consistent with the trafficking convention, but equally so is 45 days. There is nothing in the convention to say that it cannot be done and, for all the reasons she outlined, that was a welcome additional safeguard in the UK’s approach.
What is the Home Office driving at here? What signal does it send by making this change? As the shadow Minister pointed out, it is completely artificial, given where we are with average decision times. In one sense, this is just about sending signals. What a signal it sends—that we want to reduce the support given to folk who are suspected of being victims and survivors of trafficking. I support the amendment and endorse everything that the shadow Minister said.
I thank both hon. Members for their contributions. Let me see if I can answer some of their questions. Basically, there is no need to amend clause 49 to provide a 45-day recovery period as that is already provided for in guidance. The guidance is the statutory guidance under section 49 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, where victims will still receive a 45-day recovery period unless disqualifications apply.
The hon. Member for Halifax is right when she quotes our obligations under the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, which require us to provide a 30-day recovery period or, as the legislation states, until
“the conclusive grounds decision is made.”
In 2020, the average time for conclusive grounds decisions was actually 339 days. That long period stems from pressures on the system, which we are working to reduce through our transformation project, to ensure that victims get certainty much more quickly. This period is notably much longer than the 45 days that the hon. Member is proposing.
With regard to how that impacts on devolved pilots, as set out in the new plan for immigration, the Government are also piloting new ways of identifying child victims of modern slavery that will enable decisions to be taken within existing safeguarding structures by local authorities, the police and health workers. This approach will enable decisions about whether a child is a victim of modern slavery to be made by those involved in their care and ensure that decisions made are closely aligned with the provision of local needs-based support and any law enforcement response. The Government will continue to monitor the consequences of this measure and whether it will reduce further flexibility around decision making.
On that basis, I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment and to support the clause as drafted.
I thank the Minister for his response. We have seen this approach at previous stages of the Bill. The Minister cites the realities of processing times, but the fact that it is 45 days in the statutory guidance shows why the Bill is an absolute nonsense and does not make the first bit of sense. We should ignore it and trust the guidance. There is a commitment to driving down the processing times anyway. I hope that the Minister can therefore see why the amendment was tabled. On that basis, I will press the amendment to a vote.