Clause 49 - Identified potential victims of slavery or human trafficking: recovery period

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 Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office) 9:25, 2 November 2021

I beg to move amendment 1, in clause 49, page 43, line 33, leave out “30” and insert “45”.

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.