New Clause 43 - Independent Child Trafficking Guardians

Part of Nationality and Borders Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:15 pm on 4 November 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office) 3:15, 4 November 2021

Before I start, I draw hon. Members’ attention to the Red Box article written by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, and published in The Times today. Entitled “Rushed borders bill will fail victims of modern slavery”, it is damning. Against that backdrop, I will have another go at mitigating the worst elements of part 4 with new clause 43. I start by paying tribute to ECPAT UK and the Children’s Society, which have shared their insight and invaluable expertise in helping us to shape these new clauses.

New clause 43 would amend section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, to ensure that an independent guardian was provided for all child victims of trafficking and separated children. For clarity, I point out that when I refer to “separated children”, I am referring to migrant children who are unaccompanied. The independent guardian would be a central part of a child’s life, acting as a connection to all the support services that they required, having the ability to instruct solicitors on their behalf and representing their best interests throughout. These guardians would be experts on trafficking and modern slavery, whose purpose was to safeguard and improve the wellbeing of trafficked children, as well as ensuring that statutory services could function more effectively, securing a route both to recovery and to prosecution of those ultimately responsible for their abuse. As specified in the functions laid out in the new clause, an independent guardian would ensure that the child was informed of any relevant legal proceedings, clearly communicate the views of the child and promote the future welfare of the child based on what was in the child’s best interest.

I have cited the numbers previously, but I will remind the Committee. In 2020, 47% of referrals to the national referral mechanism were children, and of the referrals for UK-based exploitation only, 57% were children. It was the case that 51% of the referrals of children were for child criminal exploitation. According to the National Crime Agency, the increase in referrals to the NRM of British children has been driven largely by so-called county lines criminality.

A great deal of the provision in new clause 43 should already be happening and be provided for between international laws, including the UN convention on the rights of the child, the EU trafficking directive of 2011 and the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings, as well as domestic provisions. However, the measure has been only partially adopted across the UK. The Children’s Society has supported calls for it to be enshrined in statute, stating that a guardian’s role should be independent from the state, have legal authority and have adequate legal powers to represent the child’s best interests, as well as being respected by an existing regulatory body.

As the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner highlighted in her annual report for 2020-21, despite clear evidence of good practice she remains extremely disappointed that six years on from the Modern Slavery Act 2015 the independent child trafficking guardian service is not yet a national provision.

There has been very much a staggered approach to roll-out, with the service still not in operation across around a third of all local authorities, several years after it was adopted in three early adopter areas in Greater Manchester, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. That shows a real lack of urgency on the Government’s part and we echo the statement by the anti-slavery commissioner that

“access to this specialist support for children should not be a postcode lottery”.

In the year ending June 2021, the UK received 2,756 applications for asylum from unaccompanied children. The majority of unaccompanied children are cared for on a voluntary agreement under section 20 of the Children’s Act 1989, rather than under a section 31 care order, whereby the local authority has full parental responsibility for the child.

Although I pay tribute to the dedicated social workers up and down the country, in reality many social workers will not have received training on the asylum and immigration system, and may lack the skills to aid children with their immigration applications. Therefore, the new clause will provide much needed consistency and security for children who have had some of the worst possible starts in life, supporting them towards recovery and through their relationship with the relevant agencies, in the hope that we can secure child victims a degree of restorative justice, which would be a service for both migrants to the UK and UK nationals.

The report conducted by the Home Office evaluating independent child trafficking guardians supported the argument that they provide a sense of stability and continuity:

“Investing time in trafficked children’s lives by a single trusted, well-informed, reliable adult became a distinct early feature of the ways child trafficking guardians stood out from other professions.”

This is demonstrated by one young person who responded to the evaluation. Speaking about their guardian, they said:

“She is so amazing... I don’t know if they’re all like that, but for me it was different, because I told her things that I haven’t told my social worker and that was beneficial. I think that’s because of her personality...she seems really open, I can talk to her about anything.”

Police offers working to combat exploitation and help young people told me recently that they were becoming aware that the drive to keep young people out of police cells for all the right reasons had led to instances where children were arrested in possession of, say, drugs and cash. Rightly, the police would have taken those items from the children before they were released, pending further inquiries, but before proper consideration of their circumstances could be made.

Officers identified that children and young people were having to go back to serious criminals to inform them that they no longer had their drugs or cash, without any of the risks to them having been identified and without safeguarding support having been wrapped around them. Thankfully, those officers were working through the best practice alternatives, but those are the types of scenarios where guardians would be able to play an invaluable role.

It is notable that the devolved nations have been far more proactive in this area, with Scotland having made greater progress and Northern Ireland introducing a comprehensive independent guardians model, which provides an individualised service for all separated children. If we are to consider the UK a world-leader in combating modern slavery, I ask the Minister to put into primary legislation what should already be happening, as a means of addressing the gaps in provision, which will help us to do what is right for these children as well as assisting the authorities in identifying and apprehending perpetrators of some of the most heinous crimes.

New clause 44 would ensure that the provision of independent child trafficking advocates is subject to an inspectorate regime. As colleagues may be aware, the measure is currently not subject to an inspection framework, which is applied to other services for children under the Education and Inspections Act 2006. We believe than an inspection framework is necessary to ensure that Ofsted can inspect the quality and effectiveness of the service.

In conclusion, I find it hard to believe that any colleagues do not support the aims and objectives of the new clause, which builds upon the commitments in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. As the campaign group Every Child Protected Against Trafficking UK has highlighted, those who are eligible under new clause 43 may have had to flee their country due to conflict and may have faced exploited en route to the UK. Others may be British children in the care system, who have been let down by the adults around them. There is a breadth of vulnerability here and we believe that the new clauses better acknowledge and cater to all child victims’ physical and psychological needs. I hope that the Minister shares the ambition behind the new clauses and understands the need for all trafficked and separated children to be recognised and supported within primary legislation.