It is right for the Government to try and deter those who are at present paying huge sums of money to criminal gangs of traffickers in an attempt to get them to the UK. Sadly, their money leaves too many of them in craft that are not seaworthy, and many have died in the Channel as a result. Stopping the boats and their human cargo is about saving lives as much as blocking illegal migration. To that end I believe it is right for the Government to act.
However, there is one element of the Illegal Migration Bill which I believe is not necessary to achieve that objective.
As it stands, this legislation runs the significant risk of restricting the Government and the police’s ability to catch and prosecute those criminal gangs involved in the trafficking and blatant abuse of the vulnerable.
First of all, there is a genuine difference between those who are trafficked and arrive in the UK against their will and those who pay smugglers to bring them across in boats. In 2022, only six per cent of small boat arrivals claimed modern-day slavery. This is a very small proportion of the people who use this route.
Interestingly, some 60 per cent of claims on modern-day slavery are domestic claims, here within the UK, by people who have been trafficked into brothels or who are working in chain gangs. For too long, modern slavery has been an attractively low risk but high reward option, with few ever prosecuted originally.
Whilst accepting the need to stop the boats, we mustn’t lose sight of the requirement to give meaningful protection for those exploited here on our shores. Furthermore, once in protection it is those who have been trafficked who then give evidence to the Police, which leads to prosecutions. Such prosecutions ending in jail sentences mean that the criminals cannot traffic others.
At a late moment in the passage of the bill, a set of amendments were put down by the Government, giving the right to the Home Secretary to send those who were trafficked, even if they are giving evidence, to another country.
It is in this late change to the presumption power of the Secretary of State that the problem really arises. The presumption introduced by the Government in the Commons ensures that victims will not necessarily stay in the UK whilst cooperating with police investigations. The difficulty here is that most genuine victims know that if removed to a third country, they run a significant risk that they are more likely to be found by the criminals who trafficked them into slavery – with desperate consequences.
Such a fear is almost certainly going to lead to those worried about the repercussions becoming far less likely to give evidence – with that threat hanging over them. That in turn will lead to fewer prosecutions, with the inevitable consequence that such traffickers will be free to continue the terrible trade in human misery and death, so countering the Government’s objective.
The key to overcoming this problem which the Bill now throws up is to find a way to ensure that victims of slavery exploited in the UK can continue to receive protection from removal and support during the temporary, statutory recovery period. This will ensure that victims can still have confidence to come forward, report exploitation and bring offenders to justice.
The Government, I believe, understands that these arbitrary powers could end up creating unintended consequences, particularly such as the failure to cooperate by the victims because of their fear of what would happen to them. This recognition is why Ministers have offered up the addition of separate guidance that would make it clear that anyone who is given a positive initial referral decision is then given a 30-day period in which to co-operate with the police, during which they would not be subject to the provisions of the Bill.
Whilst I welcome the fact that the Government has moved during these last few days, it’s clear that legislation ultimately always trumps guidance. That is why the guidance offered, (although not published), needs to be put into legislation to have a real effect in protecting those cooperating with the police and giving evidence. This was the purpose of a Lords amendment to that effect. The Government has made it clear that it’s not viewed as a wrecking amendment.
I believe profoundly that the measures proposed in the amendment would lead to fewer criminal gangs and also meet the Governments objective, which I wholeheartedly share, for us to bring an end to this evil and dangerous trade.
The Conservative Government was the first to create the offence of modern-day slavery, and should now ensure that it remains capable of protecting those who are vulnerable, whilst cracking down on those who seek to abuse the rules.