There can be no doubt that reforms to the asylum system are desperately needed. The tragic events in the Channel over recent weeks have made that clear. The Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which is being debated in the House of Commons this week, has a chance to be tough on people smugglers and those exploiting the system while at the same time giving support and stability to vulnerable people who are confirmed victims of modern-day slavery. To that end, it should be supported.
Yet what is little known is that one third of all possible modern slavery victims identified are British nationals and are being exploited and enslaved right under our noses. That’s why immigration control alone won’t be enough. Unlike smuggling, modern slavery is not primarily about moving people from one place to another. It is a serious and organised crime based on making a profit from the exploitation of human beings for criminal, sexual or forced labour purposes.
The only way to bring an end to modern slavery and to prevent more people being victimised is to cut through the business model of the exploiters. For too long modern slavery has been an attractively low risk but high reward option with just a handful of offenders ever prosecuted.
The National Crime Agency estimates that there are between 6,000 and 8,000 offenders involved in modern slavery in the UK. More than 8,000 slavery crimes were recorded in the year 2020/21 and there were more than 3,000 live slavery investigations as of August this year. Yet only a fraction of these offenders are ever convicted for modern slavery. The Government reported recently that in 2020 just 49 people were convicted under the Modern Slavery Act and even pre-pandemic in 2019 there were only 72 convictions.
Modern slavery investigations are complex but one of the primary reasons police and prosecutors give for the low prosecution rates is the lack of victim engagement.
Victims, like a young woman I spoke to recently, hold vital information key to uncovering the activities of their exploiters and bringing them to justice. Exploited in a brothel after being lured to the UK with the promise of a legitimate job, this young woman spoke of her shock when she was handcuffed by the police and explained she had felt unable to speak to anyone for days after the raid. Yet this young woman went on to tell me how, with the support of a charity worker, she began to build trust and was able to speak out, sharing with the police what she knew about her exploiters.
As a result, a number of suspects were arrested and many of other victims were found and offered help. Victims of modern slavery hold the key to successful prosecutions. It was the testimonies of two victims who escaped and provided evidence to the police that led to the dismantling of the largest-ever modern slavery ring uncovered in the UK where 400 victims had worked for as little as 50 pence a day in squalid conditions.
To dismantle criminal gangs we need to enable more victims to share their intelligence with the police. The best way to do that is to give those who have been confirmed by the Home Office as victims of Modern Slavery consistent support.
The Nationality and Borders Bill is an opportunity to create the supportive environment that will enable more victims to engage with investigations and prosecutions – however, in its present form, it will fall short of its own aspirations. Confirmed victims, those who have gone through the Investigatory National Referrals mechanism, are often frightened of falling back into the hands of their abusers. To overcome this and provide the confidence and stability needed to help them rebuild their lives and engage with police investigations, a period of safe stability is needed. Evidence from organisations, including the police, shows that a minimum period of 12 months of support with temporary leave to remain if they have irregular immigration status would give them that.
The low prosecution rate shows us that the current non-statutory arrangements for support and leave to remain for confirmed victims is not working. Putting victim support and temporary leave to remain in the Borders and Nationality Bill is welcome but does not give victims sufficient confidence about the future to enable them to play their part in bringing slavery gangs to justice. A new clause that I have tabled would do just that.
We must, and with this Bill we will, tighten the rules on asylum to address the loopholes and delays. But we must also provide appropriate support and protection to those people the Home Office has assessed to be genuine victims of modern slavery – only then will we have a chance of dismantling the criminal gangs who wreak havoc in the lives of vulnerable people.