Iain Duncan Smith calls on Government to back the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill

27th March 2019

Iain Duncan Smith leads a debate on modern slavery and specifically on the need for victim support and the lack of a clear pathway for victms to move from exploitation to recovery. He calls on the Government to support the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill which would put into law victims’ entitlement to support during the period of evidence gathering and introduce a statutory duty to provide victims with ongoing support and leave to remain for a period of up to 12 months.

Modern Slavery and Victim Support

I beg to move,

That this House has considered modern slavery and victim support.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Betts. The debate is on an important subject and I am pleased to see that the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), is here, as well as my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), ready to engage us with speeches about what it is right to do. I thank them for attending.

People are often surprised to learn that modern slavery exists in the UK. When I talk to them, it is quite peculiar that they do not quite recognise it. However, once they are aware of it, they are surprised to learn it is not happening out of sight. There is a disconnect between the sense—mostly historical—of what slavery is, and surprise at the idea that 136,000 men and women in the UK are the victims of what we would term modern slavery. The victims are in full sight, not hidden from us. It is just that we do not see them. They are the women in suburban salons, who are beaten to get them to do work they are not paid for, the men who work 20 hours a day in unlicensed car washes where illnesses from chemicals can result in death, or those whose families back home are regularly threatened so that they will stay to do the work.

Some years ago, the Centre for Social Justice, which I set up, produced a report called “It Happens Here” and, I am pleased to say that, in that wake of that, the United Kingdom became a world leader with the passing of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. I believe that it was the gold standard for legislation to eradicate human trafficking. However, that does not mean we can afford to be complacent. I was proud of the Government when they passed the Act, and I remain proud that we are the nation that has given the lead, but I believe that if we are not careful there could be a tendency to believe that what we have done is enough, and that there is nothing more we can or should do to improve on it.

I want today to focus on victim support, which I think is the weakest element of the 2015 Act, although others’ views may differ. The Act does not establish a statutory framework for care services. Nor does it provide a clear pathway for victims to move from exploitation to recovery. In England and Wales the Government provide victims with a limited period of care on a non-statutory basis while the authorities decide whether the person is a victim—but then the support ends. To address those weaknesses Lord McColl and I are sponsoring the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill. It has passed all necessary stages in the House of Lords as well as its First Reading in the Commons. Unfortunately, it is still awaiting a date for Second Reading. I remain frankly perplexed as to why the Government will not, in general terms, think about adopting the measures in the Bill and in doing so reaffirm the UK’s position as the world leader in the fight against modern slavery.

The Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill would amend the 2015 Act in two crucial ways. First, it would put into law victims’ entitlement to support throughout the critical period when evidence to ascertain whether modern slavery has taken place is being collected. That is an important point. The provision would give people a sense of security. Secondly, the Bill would introduce a statutory duty to provide victims with ongoing support and leave to remain for a period of up to 12 months.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate on an issue that we should not forget. Does he agree that if we provide more support for the victims of slavery over a longer period, there will be an opportunity to gain more intelligence, leading to the further prosecutions that are so vital to stamping out this evil practice?

That is absolutely right. It is a matter of balance—it is not only about supporting someone but ascertaining who has done what, and making sure that there are prosecutions. As my hon. Friend points out, we must ensure that practical and effective victim support is in place to prevent re-trafficking, while redoubling efforts to prosecute traffickers.

To be fair, over the past two years the Government have matched commitment with action, allocating the necessary resources, but I believe that they are not getting value for money, owing to restrictions in the 2015 Act. In 2017 a report by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions concluded that although the Act was a great step forward it did not establish a pathway for victim support. The National Audit Office noted:

“The Home Office has no assurance that victims are not trafficked again, potentially undermining the support given through the NRM”.

The national referral mechanism is the gateway for adult victims to receive support, and the NAO makes an important point about what is happening to people, and whether it happens to them again and again. It is vital for us to establish that. There is significant evidence of victims with a positive conclusive grounds decision being left homeless and destitute, and therefore at risk of being re-trafficked at the end of the NRM process. Not only are victims at risk of re-trafficking, but limited support creates a barrier to increasing conviction rates for traffickers. If we want to get after them, we need to reduce those barriers.

A Cabinet Office report has concluded that the lack of sustained support for victims is a key factor affecting the bringing of successful prosecutions, so I would like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister what steps are being taken to respond to that report. It is not the view only of the Cabinet Office. Many police forces will say the same. I accept that the Government have recognised some of these challenges and they announced new plans for victim support in October 2017. However, having talked to those involved in supporting people who have been trafficked, I believe that the proposals do not address the primary problems.

The extension of the move-on period following a positive conclusive grounds decision from 14 days to 45 days still leaves insufficient time for victims to establish a stable foundation for the future. In particular, it is not long enough to enable non-UK nationals to apply for and be granted discretionary leave to remain, which in turn gives victims access to housing, benefits and other services for a period of 12 to 30 months. The Government have stated that rather than a period of leave being provided to all victims, leave to remain should be provided only on a discretionary, case-by-case basis. However, there is evidence that victims fall through the gaps. A victim who is later granted leave to remain can even become homeless while waiting for a discretionary leave decision to be made, because the 45 day move-on period is not long enough to bridge the gap.

I do not want to seem ungrateful, because I believe that the Government’s heart is in the right place. However, the extension to 45 days will in all likelihood just postpone the point at which a victim faces homelessness, and not prevent it. If prevention is what we are after, we should try to achieve it. I therefore ask the Minister what information she has about the length of time taken for a discretionary leave application to be processed and how she proposes to guarantee that no victim will fall off the edge of support while waiting for a decision.

I understand that there are plans to offer up to six months’ access to drop-in services and improve local authorities’ response to victims. That appears on the surface to be helpful, but I am none the less concerned that it will meet the needs only of victims with a right to stay in the UK. That will leave an awful lot of people without such protection. Importantly, charities that support victims and that have left the NRM have told the Home Affairs Committee that drop-in services

“will not be sufficient for somebody who has more complex needs, who needs much more intensive intervention”.

I saw the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group nodding at that. It is a fact that there is now strong evidence coming in from the charities involved in this.

I have a third question for my hon. Friend the Minister. Can she explain, when she has the opportunity, what types of support the drop-in services announced in October 2017 will provide, and whether they will be open to those victims who do not have leave to remain in the UK? That is a critical question.

The Government have, I believe, expressed concern that offering all confirmed victims leave to remain for 12 months could create what they called a “pull factor”, increasing false claims and potentially creating a loophole in the immigration system. I have sympathy for my Government’s view, yet I believe those fears are well overstated. After all, victims cannot refer themselves in to the national referral mechanism; that can only be done by a designated first responder, which is an accountable organisation. It is also the role of the two-stage national referral mechanism process, as specified, to filter out any false claims that are not immediately identifiable by first responders.

The Government have also cautioned that false claims may be made by foreign criminals to avoid deportation. Yet, surely, if one really thinks about it, anyone seeking to avoid deportation by claiming to be a victim will be able to enter the NRM, irrespective of what support is or is not available after the NRM process. That argument does not seem to stack up when one considers it.

In the case of confirmed victims who also have criminal records, it is important to balance their vulnerability as a victim with the need to protect the public. That is precisely what the victim support Bill does, through an exception that excludes serious sexual and violent offenders who pose a genuine and immediate threat from receiving leave to remain. That is made clear in the Bill that Lord McColl initiated in the Lords and that is still sitting without, I think, much chance of a Second Reading in the Commons.

The suggestions that people will game the system mask the sad truth—this is perhaps the most dangerous part of what I am saying—that many victims are very reluctant to disclose their genuine circumstances or identify as a victim because of threats from their traffickers. We should not underestimate that: those threats and that fear and the system making them worried mean that they will not disclose those things to the authorities.

The Home Office is aware of that. After all, as I understand it, it has been made explicitly clear in the guidance provided to frontline staff, which is an interesting point. Surely the far greater problem is the sizeable number of people identified as potential victims who do not consent to enter the NRM each year. That must be the giveaway as to where the problem arises. Persuading victims to provide the police with information about their traffickers is often difficult, with a perceived lack of long-term protection as a key factor.

Of all that I am saying today, this is the bit that worries me the most; we are forcing many people to dive down again, back into that black place, because they are genuinely scared of what will happen and they believe the protections are simply not there. It is our purpose in this place to speak for them.

A support service that leaves people at risk of further trafficking cannot be cost-effective. The National Audit Office highlighted this in its 2017 report, saying the Home Office has

“no assurance that victims are not trafficked again, potentially undermining the support given through the NRM”

That is an important point; the NAO is basically opening up the question of whether this really works and, if it does not work, how it can be cost-effective.

I genuinely welcome the digitised NRM system that is being introduced—it is a good move—but recording that victims have been re-trafficked is only a start and cannot be a proper answer to this problem. The issue is ultimately one of prevention, ensuring they are not vulnerable to re-trafficking, stopping that as early as possible and giving them that assurance.

To conclude, although I understand that time is running out for the victim support Bill to receive a Second Reading in the Commons during this parliamentary Session—time is running out for quite a lot of other things as well, it must be said—the legislation is none the less incredibly well suited to inclusion in the Queen’s Speech later this year. I would love nothing more than for the Government to look to adopt the provisions and recommendations in the Bill. It is not a single-party issue but a cross-party one, as I hope will be reflected in the comments made by my colleagues on both sides of the House.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give this matter serious consideration. Such a Bill would show a genuinely compassionate Government, as I believe them to be, who have every right to be proud of their record but none the less seek to reaffirm their commitment to eradicating modern slavery. I hope she will also make time to meet me to discuss the proposed section 50 regulations prior to their being tabled.

I am committed to ensuring that the necessary steps are taken to ensure that the Modern Slavery Act is effective and offers victims the support they very much need. We have made a good start, but we should not sit back. We must to recognise that all we have done is to expose the problems that exist within the system. If we exist for anything in this place, ultimately, we exist to be the spokespeople for the most vulnerable, who have nobody else to speak for them. That is why I asked for this debate.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) for securing this important debate on support for victims of modern slavery. I thank all right hon. and hon. Friends and Members for their collaborative contributions and for challenging me, the Minister, as they are right to do. I thank them for the tone of the debate; it was as is usual in this arena, particularly with Members who are committed to and interested in this subject.

We all agree that modern slavery is a heinous crime, and protecting victims of modern slavery is a responsibility that the Government take extremely seriously. Colleagues have been kind enough to describe the Modern Slavery Act 2015 as a landmark piece of legislation—it is—but we do not rest on our laurels, and we are always looking to improve on it. I hope colleagues understand that a host of measures support the implementation of the Act. As proof, if it is needed, colleagues can take our decision earlier this year to commission an independent review of the Act. The final interim report was published last week. The reports have been extremely interesting and useful, and I will talk later about one in particular.

I am keen to mention the Prime Minister’s call for action at the United Nations. She challenged the rest of the world to pay the same attention to modern slavery as we do, and to join us in our efforts to tackle it. She has set the ambitious target of ridding the world of modern slavery by 2030. Sadly, we all recognise that modern slavery is a crime that knows no international or geographical boundaries.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) rightly challenged me on the transparency of supply chains, as set out in section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. He may be interested to know that after the debate I will be dashing to another part of Westminster to open the 2019 international conference on tackling modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking in public sector supply chains. At the recent G20 meeting, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would become the first country to publish a modern slavery statement for central Government. We will be publishing that statement later this year, and it will cover work done by all central Government Departments. That is a significant step forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) challenged us to look at our own supply chains, whether in car washes or nail bars. He was right to mention car washes. I have on my phone the app “Safe Car Wash”, and a very useful app it is too, although I confess I clean my car less frequently than I get my nails done. The hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) is right to ask questions as her various beauty treatments are performed. Funnily enough, when I was talking to our new independent anti-slavery commissioner, we discussed nail bars. As the beauty industry may or may not know—I do not know whether the letter has gone out—I will be challenging it to ensure that the products employed in its name are used in salons that meet our expectations for the way they treat their members of staff, and the efforts they make to tackle modern slavery.

Similarly, I had the pleasure of visiting Paris just before Paris fashion week for a conference hosted by our British ambassador. The world’s fashion industry, from haute couture all the way through to wonderful high-street brands such as Zara, was in the room to talk about how it can ensure that its supply chains are transparent. As a result, a number of British businesses are designing apps that can help consumers decide whether to purchase an item of clothing, depending on what the app tells them about the transparency and compliance of supply chains in the business that made it. All sorts of things are going on to enable us, as individuals, to do our bit to ensure we do not inadvertently support modern slavery.

Colleagues have rightly and understandably mentioned Lord McColl’s Bill, and I thank Lord McColl for his continued vital work in this arena. I understand that he is supporting the review with his expertise, and I am delighted to hear that. I am sorry to say to Members present that the Government do not support the assertion that victims should be automatically granted leave to remain for 12 months. Consideration of whether an individual is a victim of modern slavery and any decisions as to their immigration status are, and must remain, separate. Such decisions are made on an individual, case-by-case basis, and modern slavery is a broad umbrella term that covers a wide spectrum of crime. As we have heard, victims can have very different experiences and needs, so it is right that our approach to granting discretionary leave takes account of that.

We have concerns that a blanket policy of discretionary leave to remain risks incentivising individuals to make false trafficking claims, diverting support and time away from genuine victims. Indeed, on occasion, caseworkers hear very similar stories from victims, which lead them to think that a claim may not be legitimate. However, we are concerned with ensuring that the immigration system runs alongside the national referral mechanism as efficiently as possible. Non-EEA nationals will receive a conclusive grounds decision at the same time as their discretionary leave decision, unless they are claiming asylum; if they are, they will be considered for asylum before they are considered for discretionary leave, because asylum has its own different forms of leave. All victims are supported until they receive a conclusive grounds decision, regardless of how long that takes—the minimum is 45 days, but it may be longer—and confirmed victims get a further 45 days after that. Non-EEA nationals will receive a conclusive grounds decision and a discretionary leave decision, and they will then have 45 days of support.

Hon. Members rightly and understandably raised concerns about re-trafficking, which is one of the great fears of those who work to support victims, whether in the charitable, third sector or law enforcement space. A number of the reforms I will speak about aim to reduce the risk of re-trafficking. For example, we have extended move-on support from 14 days to 45 days so that victims have more time to transition out of NRM support. We are also testing six new approaches with six local authorities, of which Nottinghamshire is one, to identify best practice in linking victims with local services at the end of the NRM process. That is to increase resilience and guard against further exploitation.

I thank the Minister for the contribution she is making, and I ask her to reflect on whether it is possible for us to collect data on what happens to people when they leave the system after 45 days. At the moment, that data is not collected, so we are unaware of what is going on and what happens to people in those circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman has raised that point with me before; I take his point, and I am alert to it. The process will be complex, but that is not a reason for not doing it, so I am looking into that issue.

There have been reforms to the national referral mechanism, and we have already begun to improve the support that victims receive. As I have said, we extended the period of move-on support in February. Victims now receive 45 days of move-on support, in addition to the minimum 45 days of support received during the recovery and reflection period.

The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) challenged me about the statutory guidance under section 49 of the Act. Guidance is in the process of being drafted, and it has been shared with NGOs. I am keen to get this done as quickly as possible; the hon. Gentleman asked me whether we could have a wider consultation, but frankly, I think we need to get this done. We have shared that draft guidance with NGOs for their feedback, but I am also mindful of the judgment in the case of K & AM v. Secretary of State for the Home Department. I would rather get this done than wait three months, or however long a public consultation takes. However, if colleagues have any observations about the guidance, that would be welcome and gratefully received.

We are identifying more victims than ever before. Last week, the National Crime Agency released the 2018 NRM statistics, which were chilling: 6,993 potential victims were referred to the NRM in 2018, representing a 36% increase since 2017. We are obviously pleased that there is greater awareness of the NRM and how we should treat victims of modern slavery, but it leaves us with the great challenge of how hidden this crime is and the need to help the many thousands of victims who are coming forward. Sadly, we also know about the impact that the phenomenon of county lines is having in this area, which is a subject that many Members have raised. I will address that issue when I come to talk about children.

During proceeding’s on Lord McColl’s Bill and in subsequent conversations, the Home Office has consistently referred to pull factors as the reason why it cannot make some of the recommended changes. When I was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, that argument was constantly used, but I was never able to track down the evidence for how those pull factors work; quite often, assumptions are made. I wonder whether, if there is evidence of pull factors, the Minister would be prepared to publish it.

The difficulty I have is that, frankly, there are parts that I cannot publish for operational reasons. There is also emerging evidence of people being trafficked into this country to commit benefit fraud; I recently had a discussion about that with the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton). We are conscious, as well, that this is an emerging typology, which we are looking into with the help of the National Crime Agency.

When I was Secretary of State, I went on operations related to that issue—it was in existence even then—and I do not recall that it was cited as a pull factor. Benefit fraud is about people being trafficked, with their families back home being threatened. They are brought through for their names and their details, then dumped into prostitution without any details, and claims are made on their behalf. Those people are forced to come over here, and therefore they do not declare or anything like that. That issue was never used as an example of a pull factor; it is clearly a criminal activity, and we have to crack down on the gangs that are doing it. I do not quite see the pull factor for this relatively small number of people, compared with other matters.

Caseworkers are going through cases, and there are strands of applications coming in with very similar stories. I am limited as to what I can say on this occasion, but I will write to my right hon. Friend within the confines of operational matters.

I am also very sceptical about the pull factor argument. Even if we were to accept that there is a pull factor, is the key point not that safeguards are in place? People cannot self-refer, and a decision has to be made about whether they are a victim before they get any automatic leave. Is that not sufficient to protect against abuse? Why should we be building the system around fear of abuse, rather than the needs of genuine, recognised victims?

We are not building the system around abuse. We are building the system around the fact that, as has already been mentioned, the largest cohort of referrals to the NRM are British. Modern slavery exists in and of itself, and it sits separately from the asylum system. We must ensure that we have support for victims of modern slavery, as we do through the national referral mechanism. Questions of immigration are in addition to the support they will get through the national referral mechanism. Not every victim of modern slavery or human trafficking is a non-EEA national. The statistics, sadly, show that very clearly.

We are launching a digital system later this spring to help to make our delivery of support much more efficient, and that will help first responders to ensure that victims get into the system as quickly as possible. We are seeing faster decision-making times than ever before. We have more than doubled the number of caseworkers working on the NRM. The single competent authority launched in its shadow form in January 2019 and is on track to be fully launched in April. That single, expert unit will make all NRM decisions, regardless of the potential victims’ nationality. That will be a significant step forward, and I hope it will help victims once they are in the system.

In this part of her speech, will the Minister say something about the review process of the Modern Slavery Act 2015? Deliberations are complete and will be with the Government, including measures or recommendations about victim support. For the benefit of the debate, does she know what the consideration of that will be, when the Government expect to respond and whether that response will be published for Parliament so that we can all look at it and discuss it?

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has helped the review with his expertise. I cannot recall the date off the top of my head, but we have been considering the interim reports as they have been published. We do not want to rush; we want to get it right. Alongside the work on the statutory guidance we are drafting, I am clear that we want a response in good time. We are not going to hang around, but we want to get it right. I very much want to publish it, because Members will want to look at our response.

I must thank the reviewers—the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and Baroness Butler-Sloss—and the secretariat for their work in formulating the reports, which have been incredibly thoughtful and focused in their recommendations. I am considering each interim report. I do not know whether the reviewers want to tie all the reports into one big report at the end, but we will be responding soon.

We are conscious of the responsibilities to ensure that the next victim care contract meets the expectations of everyone involved in tackling modern slavery. It will include landmark reforms such as places of safety, which will provide up to three days of immediate support to victims rescued out of a situation of exploitation by law enforcement. It will include an inspection regime for safe houses. We are working with the Care Quality Commission to develop that, and it will be underpinned by the slavery and trafficking survivor care standards. I am grateful to the sector for its work in drawing that together. In providing support to victims, we must remember that every victim’s journey is different. I visited a safe house recently, and that point was re-emphasised to me by every person and resident I spoke to there.

I reiterate the question I asked the Minister about the re-crediting of national insurance contributions to British citizens who have been victims of modern slavery so that they do not lose out on a full pension. I understand that she may well not have the answer now, but will she please write to me and place a copy of that letter in the Library of the House to let us know where negotiations with the Treasury have got to on that matter?

I thank my hon. Friend for that observation. If I may, I will write to him about that. He raises an important point.

In terms of post-NRM support, the new victim care contract will include drop-in services, which victims will be able to access for up to six months after leaving the NRM, and weekly signposting on health and wellbeing services. I am conscious of the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green posed about indefinite leave to remain, but I am afraid that I cannot comment because of the outstanding case going on at the moment. We are piloting new approaches with six local authority areas to identify best practice in such support.

Many colleagues spoke about the perilous situation that child victims find themselves in. County lines are very much a factor in the increase in children being referred into the national referral mechanism. We have rolled out independent child trafficking advocates to one third of all local authorities in England and Wales, in line with the commitment I made in July last year. We have adapted the system to reflect the fact that children of British nationality who are members of county lines often have different needs from children who perhaps do not speak English and have come from overseas.

I am conscious of the time. I very much welcome the findings of the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act on ICTAs, in particular. The recommendations in the report are child-focused. We are considering the recommendations for improvements that we can make to the service. I confirm that the Government are committed to rolling out that important additional support nationally.

Colleagues mentioned prosecuting offenders. Those were important comments, but I make a slight plea. I know that Members will bear with me if I make the observation that one reason why the withdrawal agreement is so important is so that we have the implementation period—[Interruption.] I have to say it. In the implementation period, all our law enforcement partnerships will continue, and that is so important in tackling modern slavery. Apologies to everyone who thought they were going to escape the ‘B’ word.

I am grateful for colleagues’ contributions, and I look forward to continuing to work with them on this important topic.

I have only a very short time, so I will try to speed through the two points I want to make. I will not follow my hon. Friend the Minister and talk about the provisions of the withdrawal agreement; I simply want to focus on the debate and two issues that it raised.

The 12 months of support proposed by the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill will surely give victims greater support and stability. It is interesting—my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) raised this point—that unlike someone granted asylum, someone who is confirmed to be a victim of modern-day slavery has no automatic entitlement to ongoing support and residency. Almost the most important point is that we are therefore not able to check that they are safe. They will not come forward to give evidence, we will not get prosecutions and by not coming forward, they are more likely to slide back into being re-trafficked.

I simply thank my hon. Friend the Minister for her response. I hope that we can continue to engage, and I hope that we will continue to make the case that there is more to be done, including with the new Bill. I hope that she will adopt many of the provisions from Lord McColl’s Bill into the Queen’s Speech, as requested. I would be happy to discuss that matter with her.

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