“(aa) the person was aged 18 or over at the time of the circumstances which gave rise to the first RG decision;”.
This amendment seeks to preclude those exploited as children from being denied additional recovery periods if they are re-trafficked.
Clause 50, as drafted, should not stand part of the Bill. The amendment would ensure that those exploited as children will not be denied additional recovery periods if they are re-trafficked or if additional periods of trafficking are disclosed. Children, in particular, who make up 47% of those referred to the national referral mechanism, are at serious risk of being trafficked and going missing from care. In 2017, one in four identified trafficked children were reported as going missing. The number of children referred to the NRM is also rising, with last year seeing an almost 10% increase compared with the previous year. The average number of missing incidents for each trafficked child has also increased, from 2.4 to 7.4 between 2014-15 and 2017-18. Therefore, amendment 180 is even more vital, considering the worrying trends we are seeing.
Every Child Protected Against Trafficking UK has warned that clause 50
“may severely impact child trafficking survivors” who are at high risk of going missing and being re-trafficked, particularly when
“they transition to adulthood and require access to support and protection through the NRM.”
To make that point, I want to share a real-world case study provided by ECPAT UK that demonstrates why our amendment is necessary.
Huang was referred to the local authority children's services at age 17, following a police operation in a nail bar. He was also referred as a potential victim of trafficking into the NRM and received a positive reasonable grounds decision. He was accommodated by the local authority. He told his support worker that he had been scared because his family back home were receiving threats to pay back his debt. Shortly after, he went missing. He was found by the police just after his 18th birthday and went on to develop trust with his lawyer, where he disclosed for the first time a significant period of exploitation in Vietnam, across Europe and in the UK, prior to being found in the nail bar. He remains in fear, and while the dangers facing his family back home persist, sadly, there is still a high likelihood that he will go missing again.
Without amendment 180, Huang may be unable to be referred to the NRM again, given the new disclosure of previously unknown periods of exploitation. As he is now 18, he would not be looked after by children’s services. Clause 50, as it stands, will place him at great risk of subsequent re-trafficking in the absence of access to safe accommodation and support through the NRM during his reflection and recovery period.
The increase in the number of British children in the NRM in relation to child criminal exploitation gives us further cause for concern. I recently met officers from the Metropolitan Police Service who are leading the response on trafficking, slavery and exploitation. They told me that it is becoming standard practice that when a child or young person is sent on their first county lines journey, their exploiter will arrange for them to be robbed of the drugs they have been instructed to sell. When they then have to come back and explain what has happened, they are immediately told they have to work off the value of the drugs. That traps them in debt bondage, even though the real criminal will have recovered the drugs, having arranged what can sometimes be a particularly violent mugging in the first place, so in reality there is no debt.
It would not be unusual for children in such vulnerable and exploited positions to be identified by the authorities but then go missing from the NRM because of the risks that persist. They must be treated as a safeguarding concern and not by way of immigration compliance, not least because so many of those children are British nationals. So I ask the Minister again: why are children subject to clause 50, given their particular vulnerabilities? Amendment 180 seeks to right that wrong. I am sure all colleagues will agree that a child rights-centred approach, which ensures children’s safety and their protection, must be a priority. I therefore hope the Minister will reflect on the points we have made and accept Amendment 180.
More broadly, clause 50 has the potential to exclude trafficked children and adults from being identified following re-trafficking, thereby leaving them unable to access the support they should be entitled to. I worry that with this clause the Government are suggesting that making repeat claims of having been trafficked undermines someone’s credibility. However, we also know that traffickers are increasingly coaching those they are exploiting on what to say should they be identified by authorities. An expectation is placed on the victim that they will return to their exploiters due to their perceived debt bondage, in order to avoid consequences for them or often their families.
Re-trafficking has increasingly become a part of a trafficker’s operating model, so why are we not responding to that? The changes negatively affect the victim and not the perpetrator of such crimes. It also appears to contradict the identified need for individual assessment and support, as required under ECAT. The Government have described the clause as necessary
“to prevent the recovery period being misused by those wishing to extend their stay in the UK and to remove unnecessary support and barriers to removal where these are not needed”.
Will the Minister present the evidence to support that claim? That explanation fails, not least, to recognise that the most common nationality of all referrals to the NRM for victims of modern slavery in 2020 was that of UK nationals, primarily referred for criminal exploitation. We know that children make up the lion’s share of those referrals. Does that not make the Government stop and think about what is in the clause?
There is a fear that the NRM is being misused by those wishing to extend their stay in the UK. Without amendment 180, the clause means that we are sending children, both migrant and British, back into the arms of their exploiters. We plead with the Minister to think again about the clause. We cannot see it stand part of the Bill.
I support the amendment and join the calls for the clause not to stand part of the Bill. I very much echo the comments of the shadow Minister. Like her, and as on previous occasions, I find myself not at all clear why the clause is necessary, and what problem it is driving at. Again, I find myself asking for evidence. I have not seen or heard about an issue with abusive additional trafficking claims sparking extra NRM recovery periods. I recognise that that could absolutely happen in theory, but we need much more by way of evidence before we enact such a clause.
Even though someone might be describing earlier events of trafficking, disclosure of that additional information and trafficking or slavery histories could have all sorts of significant implications for that survivor. It could, for example, mean a break from a controlling partner. It could give rise to other dangers for them or to new trauma. Furthermore, as the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has noted, survivors can feel more able to disclose their trafficking experiences relating to one particular form of exploitation than another, so forced labour can sometimes be disclosed earlier than sexual exploitation, due to feelings of shame or mistrust.
The fact that if the competent authority considers it appropriate in the circumstances of a particular case another recovery period can be granted is better than nothing, and it is good that that provision is in the clause, but that protection needs to be considerably strengthened to ensure that those who need it will have it. As matters stand, we have no idea how that analysis is going to be undertaken. What if the disclosure of this new information leads to new dangers or new trauma? Surely we would all agree that that should require a new decision and a new recovery period, but there is nothing in the Bill to say that that would definitely happen.
Perhaps the clause should be reversed—the Home Office might want to consider turning the presumption around, so that we assume instead that a new recovery period would be needed unless we are satisfied with a very restricted route for a very restricted range of reasons, and the reasonable grounds decision should not occur. The Home Office needs to explain its thinking here.
Finally, on the issue of trafficking, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and the Rights Lab at the University of Nottingham are conducting research on that subject at this very moment in time. I urge the Home Office to wait to see the evidence, rather than jumping in with two feet.
I would first like to clarify that the clause does not prevent individuals who have been re-trafficked from receiving a further recovery period. Rather, the clause introduces a presumption against multiple recovery periods where an individual has already benefitted from a recovery period and the further reported exploitation happened prior to the previous referral into the national referral mechanism and period of support. This is not a blanket disqualification from multiple recovery periods; it is focused on removing the presumption for multiple recovery periods where the period of exploitation happened before the original recovery period was provided.
The clause will provide further recovery periods where required—for example, where an individual has a second referral for an incident that happened before the first incident for which they were referred and have already received a recovery period. It may not be appropriate or necessary to provide the further recovery period. A discretionary element is included, underpinned by guidance, so that cases are considered on an individual basis.
I put to the hon. Gentleman the suggestion I made towards the end of my contribution: that he reverses the situation so that the presumption is that somebody does need an additional recovery period unless there are specific circumstances that mean it is not appropriate. Is that something he could pass on to his ministerial colleague, for when he takes the Bill forward?
As I have said, there is already a provision for the decision makers to amend the care and support package needed on a case-by-case basis. That is the case for recovery periods as well. On the matter of children, I recognise the complexity of children’s vulnerabilities, as well as those of other modern slavey victims. As a result, this clause has scope to consider an individual’s circumstances, even where the new referral for exploitation occurred prior to the previous recovery period. That is why, under this clause, individuals will be considered for more than one recovery period on a case-by-case basis, taking into account their specific needs and vulnerability. Safeguarding and ensuring the welfare of children will, of course, be taken into account as part of any decision to withhold a recovery period.
Further details of how to apply this discretionary element will be outlined in guidance for decision makers. This will ensure that victims of modern slavery who genuinely need multiple periods of protection and support actually receive it. It would not be appropriate to have a blanket approach to children, but our proposed approach ensures that their vulnerabilities are considered. I hope that, in the light of that explanation, the hon. Member for Halifax will be content to withdraw her amendment.