“(1) The Children Act 1989 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 22, after subsection (3C) insert—
“(3D) In respect of a suspected child victim of trafficking who is looked after by the local authority, the duty of a local authority under subsection (3)(a) to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child shall include in particular a duty to consider and take all reasonable steps to ensure that arrangements of accommodation and support to meet the child’s needs and takes account of and addresses the child’s safety with a view to preventing the risk of re-trafficking.”
(3) In section 22, after subsection (4)(d) insert—
“(e) independent guardians (within the meaning of Section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015) as a relevant person who the local authority shall, so far as is reasonably practicable, consult with before making any decision with respect of a child who they are looking after and who is entitled to an independent guardian.”
(4) In section 22C, after subsection (7)(c) insert—
“(d) where accommodation is arranged for a suspected or identified child victim of trafficking, due regard shall be paid to the potential risks of harm and re-trafficking and the child’s safety shall be a primary consideration.””—
This new clause seeks to provide child victims with a safety plan to prevent retrafficking.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
In the same spirit as new clauses 43 and 44, new clause 51 sets out the duty for local authorities to make arrangements for child victims of modern slavery, with a view to prevent their retrafficking, by amending section 22 of the Children Act 1989. As things stand, an unaccompanied child will become looked after by the local authority if they have been accommodated by the local authority for 24 hours under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. This will mean that they will be entitled to the same local authority provision as any other looked-after child. The Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010 set out duties regarding care leavers and require that those duties are fulfilled with regards to the child’s circumstances and needs as an unaccompanied or trafficked child. The regulations apply to all children, regardless of their immigration status, nationality or documentation.
As we have heard previously, child victims of modern slavery are at increased risk of going missing and being retrafficked. In 2017, as many as one in four identified trafficked children were reported as having gone missing. The average missing incidents for each trafficked child have increased from an average of 2.4 times to 7.4 times between 2014-15 and 2017. The new clause therefore seeks to bring clarity to the duty on local authorities to protect victims, particularly those at risk of retrafficking. Subsection (2) highlights that there is a need to ensure that accommodation is a serious consideration for child victims. We know that concerns have been raised about the lack of agreed safety standards for accommodating child victims of trafficking, which can include the use of residential homes, shared flats and houses, bed-and-breakfast emergency housing and foster care.
“limited availability of specialist provision” and
“a lack of resources and specialist knowledge within local authorities and partner services.”
The report identified the placement of non-EEA migrant children in “semi-independent accommodation”, such as
“supported accommodation and/or shared housing”,
as being a cause for concern. Since the report was published, the Government have outlawed the provision of accommodation without care and supervision for under-16s, but they have continued to allow such provision for 16 and 17-year-olds.
A recent serious case review has further highlighted the problems of local authorities arranging inappropriate placements for children, and the impact of failing to conduct full risk assessments for both the needs of the child and the accommodation itself. Sarah was a looked-after child in the care of Worcestershire social services, and she died in independent accommodation away from her home borough in June 2019, at the age of 17. From an early age, Sarah had suffered from epilepsy, which had been managed by medication. In 2017, Sarah became a looked-after child under a voluntary agreement between the local authority and her parents, which meant that both Sarah’s parents maintained parental responsibility. Sarah became looked after and was accommodated with foster carers, but when these placements broke down, she resided in residential accommodation and then had semi-independent living arrangements.
Over a period of time, there were numerous occasions where Sarah was reported as missing from the placements. There were concerns regarding Sarah’s vulnerability and the effect of her medical condition. There were also concerns regarding Sarah’s relationships with older men, particularly her relationship with one man. Sarah was considered to be at risk of being criminally and sexually exploited. Sarah tragically died, having suffered a seizure at the home address of the older male in question in 2019, aged just 17. It is an incredibly sad case study and serves as an example of what can happen if the needs of vulnerable victims are not thoroughly assessed.
Currently, there is statutory guidance that outlines a local authority’s duties, such as the Department for Education’s guidance for local authorities, which was updated in 2017, entitled “Care of unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery.” It states that:
“Local authorities have a duty to protect and support these highly vulnerable children. Because of the circumstances they have faced, unaccompanied migrant children and child victims of modern slavery, including trafficking, often have complex needs in addition to those faced by looked after children more generally. The support required to address these needs must begin as soon as the child is referred to the local authority or is found in the local authority area. It will be most effective where this support is provided through a stable, continuous relationship with the child.”
We unequivocally support the sentiments and measures incorporated in the guidance, but it should be strengthened through the adoption of the new clause, which would create a duty for local authorities to consider the risk of retrafficking and safeguard against children going missing. I have already made the case for the need, highlighted in subsection (3), for local authorities to work closely and consult independent guardians before making decisions on behalf of the child.
There is a clear, urgent need for the new clause, given the vulnerability of such children. There is also a practical requirement, given that, for multiple local authorities, missing, trafficked or unaccompanied children account for a significant proportion of the children they look after—in the case of one local authority it was as high as 15%. The new clause seeks not only to raise awareness of the needs of child victims but to provide greater definition on the role of local authorities in meeting such needs.
As this is likely to be the last time that I will be on my feet in the Committee, with your permission, Ms McDonagh, may I put on record my sincere thanks to the Children’s Society, ECPAT UK, the British Red Cross, the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, the Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, and all the hard-working, dedicated frontline police officers disrupting modern slavery? I am eternally grateful for all their expertise. Finally, I thank Isabelle Bull from my team, who has worked like a trojan in preparation for the Bill, as well as the incredible Clerks of the House.
I, too, am grateful to the hon. Lady for the constructive way in which she has gone about her work on the Committee. I know how passionate she is about these issues.
Support for potential victims, including children, is a fundamental pillar of our approach to assisting those impacted by the horrendous crime of trafficking and modern slavery and reducing the risk of such victims being retrafficked. As the Committee may be aware, independent child trafficking guardians are an independent source of advice and support for potentially trafficked children, irrespective of nationality, and they can advocate on a child’s behalf. So far, the Government have rolled out the service to two thirds of local authorities across England and Wales. We have developed detailed policy for the provision of the service, which is set out in the interim independent child trafficking guardians guidance published under section 49 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The guidance is kept under review through consultation with stakeholders.
Within the guidance, the Government are already clear that acting in the child’s best interests must always be a primary consideration for the independent child trafficking guardian service. We are also clear that independent child trafficking guardians must be invited and provided with the opportunity to take part in all agency meetings and discussions that relate to and impact on the children that they are supporting. That is the correct place for detail on the function of the independent child trafficking guardian service. By keeping that detail in guidance—rather than putting it in legislation, as the new clause would—the Government can respond flexibly to best practice and victims’ needs.
Local authorities are responsible for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of all children in their area, including child victims of modern slavery. The “Working Together to Safeguard Children” statutory guidance is clear that the individual needs of children, including the risk of re-trafficking, should be taken into account when determining their recovery needs. That is to ensure that safeguarding processes and multi-agency support can be put in place to protect and prevent harm to children at risk of a range of exploitation harms and abuse. The approach enables us to focus on a range of exploitation harms, whereas the new clause would stipulate that we focus specifically on the risk of retrafficking. Although I am sure that that was not the new clause’s intention, prioritising safeguarding against the risk of retrafficking could consequentially lead to the prioritisation of action against specifically the risk of retrafficking in place of other risks, which would inherently pose a risk to individuals whose risk of retrafficking may not be the primary consideration. With that, I encourage the hon. Lady not to press her new clause.