Updated 21 April 2022: Independent: UK’s anti-slavery commissioner slams ‘lack of humanity’ in Rwanda asylum deal
Exclusive: Dame Sara Thornton expresses ‘significant concern’ about plans to ship asylum seekers to Africa
The UK’s anti-slavery commissioner has slammed the “lack of humanity” of the government’s plans to ship asylum seekers to Rwanda, warning trafficking victims sent there are likely to be deprived of support.
Responding to the controversial deal for the first time, Dame Sara Thornton told The Independent she had “significant concerns”, citing evidence the African country has detained thousands of potential trafficking victims without providing them with proper care in the past year.
Updated 6 April 2022: gal-dem: 10 years, no rights: why the Government must reinstate the pre-2012 Domestic Workers visa
Content warning: this article contains mention of abuse.
Phoebe Dimacali is a domestic worker from the Philippines and Chairperson of the Filipino Domestic Workers’ Association (FDWA-UK). Francesca Humi is the Advocacy and Campaigns Officer at Kanlungan Filipino Consortium providing immigration casework for undocumented migrants, including domestic workers.
Every year, around 20,000 Overseas Domestic Worker visas are issued to migrant domestic workers who enter the UK from outside the EU with their employers as sponsors for whom they work inside their households. 6 April 2022 marks a decade since Theresa May revoked the Overseas Domestic Workers (ODW) visa concession, removing hard-won rights for domestic workers – ushering in the start of the notorious hostile environment policy.
The concession allowed migrant domestic workers to switch employers, register these changes with the Home Office, and apply for extensions of stay and settlement. With the change to the visa in 2012, stays are limited to six months and migrant domestic workers have become tied to individual employers as sponsors, often compared to the kafala system prevalent in the Gulf region, which many workers face prior to arriving in the UK. Domestic workers on the ODW visa can no longer freely switch employers – even in cases where a worker is a victim of modern-day slavery or human trafficking – and have lost their right to long-term settlement in the UK.
Updated 5 January 2022: Guardian: Revealed: just 7% of trafficking victims given leave to remain in UK
Government accused of failing those at risk of falling back into traffickers’ hands in home countries
Only 7% of confirmed victims of trafficking from overseas have been granted leave to remain in the last five years according to new data disclosed to the Guardian.
A Home Office data shows that 447 out of 6,066 confirmed trafficking victims who requested leave to remain between April 2016 and June 2021 were granted it – 7%.
Meanwhile, 4,695 confirmed trafficking victims had their applications for leave to remain in the UK rejected, according to the response to a freedom of information response request by the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC). In the remainder of cases a decision is still pending.
5 January 2021: Hansard: Debate in the Lords regarding the Nationality & Borders Bill:
4.07pm Lord Rosser: This Government continue to be a Government of slogans. A Government of workable solutions they certainly are not, as this Bill all too clearly shows. The Government say that they are motivated by a desire to crack down on the criminal smuggler gangs but then produce a Bill with measures directed at the victims of those smugglers rather than at the gangs themselves. Despite promising safe legal routes as an alternative to dangerous journeys, the Government have cut safe legal routes for family reunion, refugees and asylum seekers in Europe, and have included no safe legal routes in this Bill.
The Government claim that the Bill will stop boats arriving and return people who travel in them. The reality though is that this Government have failed to get in place a single returns agreement with EU countries, and nothing in the Bill changes that. Just five people were returned last year. The Government claim that the Bill will mean pushbacks at sea, even though Border Force officials have said it is dangerous and unworkable. France has refused to agree to receive boats safely back, and so these pushbacks simply cannot happen in practice.
The Government claim that the Bill will mean offshore processing, even though no country has agreed and the cost to the taxpayer would be huge. The Government claim the Bill will fix the asylum system, even though it will add even longer delays to asylum cases being assessed.
The Government claim the Bill will stop trafficking gangs, even though they are cutting protection for modern slavery. In pursuit of the Government’s stated aim of preventing people using a defence of being a victim of modern slavery against deportation, the Bill removes a number of key protections for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, rowing back on crucial protections created under the Modern Slavery Act 2015. It will make the identification and protection of modern slavery victims more difficult.
Former top police officer and now anti-slavery commissioner, Sara Thornton, has raised concerns about the potential consequences the Bill may have on the ability to prosecute offenders. She said that watering down protection for modern slavery victims, including UK-resident children caught up in criminal exploitation and county lines, will
“severely limit our ability to convict perpetrators and dismantle organised crime groups.”
Mistakes are often made when people are ruled not to be victims of human trafficking or modern slavery. The Home Office’s own data shows that four out of five rejected human trafficking claims challenged in the UK last year were overturned. Out of 325 claims in the Home Office-run national referral mechanism scheme that were appealed, 255 were reversed.
The modern slavery provisions are particularly alarming for the impact they will have on children, including significant numbers of British children who are trafficked and exploited in the UK. Despite that, the Bill does not provide safeguards for children, does not recognise that children need different provisions and protections from adults, and does not make policy that acts in the best interests of the child.
Read more of the debate here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/lords/2022-01-05/debates/5565C246-FDC7-4A38-86E8-52825DE21125/NationalityAndBordersBill
Updated 16 December 2021: “A few weeks ago, I met with four victims of domestic servitude that had escaped from exploitation in private homes in London. Frequently hungry, subject to physical and sexual abuse and utterly exhausted by long hours and severe restrictions on their freedom, they were clearly victims of crime. “
Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton responds to the Low Pay Commission’s 2021 report
This week, the Low Pay Commission (LPC) published its 2021 report. As part of its remit for 2021, the LPC gathered evidence on the application of the live-in domestic worker exemption to minimum wage entitlements. This exemption was introduced in 1999 as part of the National Minimum Wage (NMW) regulations, intended to facilitate au pair arrangements.
As detailed in the report, the LPC found that the exemption is being abused not only in the case of au pairs, but also for live in workers, particularly those on Overseas Domestic Worker (ODW) visas. As well as cases of modern slavery, the LPC also identified far greater numbers of workers suffering lower, but nevertheless persistent levels of exploitation. In many cases, the exemption is being used by employers to justify paying less than minimum wage.
The LPC is recommending that the current exemption for live-in domestic workers should be removed. In the case that government does not repeal it, introducing instead a visa route for au pairs, the LPC recommends that the exemption is amended to give more legal clarity. It should clearly define the role for au pairs and the scope of their duties, and explicitly state that it cannot be relied upon by those employing workers on ODW visas.
Dame Sara Thornton, Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, said:
“Hidden from public view and highly dependent on their employers, domestic workers can suffer egregious abuses. Women, who make up the vast majority of domestic workers, will be disproportionately affected by the exploitation of this exemption.
“While initially intended to facilitate arrangements for au pairs coming to the UK, the LPC has highlighted how the exemption is currently providing a legal loophole for some of the most unscrupulous and exploitative employers.
“A few weeks ago, I met with four victims of domestic servitude that had escaped from exploitation in private homes in London. Frequently hungry, subject to physical and sexual abuse and utterly exhausted by long hours and severe restrictions on their freedom, they were clearly victims of crime.
“I am supportive of the LPC’s recommendation. Ending any doubt that live-in domestic workers should be paid the minimum wage could protect thousands from more serious exploitation.”
See this post: Unhelpful – Review of data sharing: migrant victims and witnesses of crime ‘Kalayaan is of the view that a complete firewall between police and Immigration Enforcement is the only model capable of ensuring confidence in the systems that migrant victims and witnesses of crime need put their trust in.’
Updated 12 November 2021: Independent: New Home Office policy risks ‘driving human trafficking victims underground’, experts warn
Government’s own modern slavery tsar says she is ‘extremely concerned’ about plans to grant immigration enforcement teams power to make decisions on trafficking cases
The government’s own slavery tsar has said she is “extremely concerned that the move risks “failing to identify potential victims” and marks a “step backwards” in Britain’s response to modern slavery.
In new guidance published this week, the department reveals that it has introduced a new decision-making body to deal with referrals to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s trafficking identification framework – specifically from people facing deportation from the UK.
This is an extract from the letter of 11 November 2021 from the Anti-Slavery Commissioner to Priti Patel , Home Secretary, mentioned above:
I am concerned about the way in which this decision was made and that these new arrangements risk failing to identify potential victims of modern slavery. There was no consultation about this proposal, and it was only announced on the day on which the change was implemented. While officials have sought to reassure me that this is merely an organisational change and that the decision-making frameworks will remain the same, I have reservations that this will be the case.
There is significant risk that those victims of modern slavery whose cases are assessed by
Immigration Enforcement will have their cases judged by considerations about their immigration status rather than their rights to protection as victims of serious crime.
[…] I am extremely concerned that by introducing the IECA and returning to a dual system approach, we are taking a step backwards in our response to modern slavery with considerable implications for victims. There will be a need to closely monitor the impact of this change.
Read the full letter here: http://www.antislaverycommissioner.co.uk/media/1695/letter_to_home_secretary_on_ieca_11_november_2021.pdf
4 November 2021: Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner:
Rushed borders bill will fail victims of modern slavery
Dame Sara Thornton, Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, writes in today’s Red Box section of The Times about her concerns with Part 4 Modern Slavery of the Nationality and Borders Bill. The op-ed highlights the bill’s potential to make identifying victims of modern slavery harder, and warns that the proposal that those sentenced to twelve months or more in prison should not receive support within the National Referral Mechanism could significantly undermine the ability to bring traffickers to justice.
Rushed borders bill will fail victims of modern slavery (The Times, 04/11/21)
You can read the full article here.
28 October 2021: Anti-Slavery Commissioner: IASC launch: Asylum decision times for potential victims of modern slavery
The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, has today published a briefing paper outlining her concerns about the length of time potential victims of modern slavery are waiting for decisions in relation to asylum claims.
The Commissioner consulted Sir Bernard Silverman, Professor of Modern Slavery Statistics at the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, who assisted with Home Office data analysis.
The following key conclusion has been drawn:
Considering cases resolved in 2018 and 2019, asylum decisions with an associated NRM referral are seven times more likely to have taken longer than 12 months than asylum decisions without an associated NRM referral.
In light of this the Commissioner wrote to the then Minister for Safeguarding, Victoria Atkins, requesting an examination of these processes. The Minister’s response is included in the briefing and can be read here.
Dame Sara Thornton, Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, said:
“The government’s Nationality and Borders Bill aims to make the system fairer so that those in genuine need of protection can be better protected. There is, however, nothing in the Bill to address the current backlogs in decision-making which disproportionately affect victims of modern slavery. Since being appointed as Commissioner I have been increasingly concerned about the length of time victims are waiting for NRM decisions.
“The interaction between the NRM and asylum systems is complex. However, cases with an NRM referral make up a relatively small proportion of overall decisions. It is therefore alarming that in recent years resolved asylum decisions with an associated NRM referral were seven times more likely to have taken longer than 12 months than those without.”
Read the full briefing here.
Updated 12 October 2021: Guardian: Trafficking victims should be granted leave to remain in UK, high court rules
Landmark judgment will apply to thousands who may otherwise have been sent back to home countries
Thousands of victims of trafficking who have been left to languish in the immigration system for years should be granted leave to remain, the high court has said in a landmark ruling.
Prior to the ruling, people the UK government accepted were foreign victims of trafficking could be sent back to their home countries, where they might be at risk of being trafficked again by the same criminals.
For that reason, many make claims for asylum or humanitarian protection in the UK. They then have to wait years in legal limbo before their applications to stay in the UK are processed by the Home Office and the courts.
During that time they cannot work, study or access mainstream benefits. Many say their emotional recovery from trafficking has to be put on hold while they wait, unable to move forward with their lives.
Tuesday’s ruling ordered that this group of trafficking victims who have asked for leave to remain in the UK be granted it en masse. This will apply to thousands of recognised victims of trafficking. If the Home Office decides to appeal it must lodge an application seeking permission to do so by 19 October.
Updated 21 September 2021: Mandates of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences; the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; and the Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children REFERENCE: AL GBR 6/2021 27 May 2021
We have the honour to address you in our capacities as Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences; Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants; and Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, pursuant to Human Rights Council resolutions 42/10, 43/6 and 44/4
In this connection, we would like to bring to the attention of your Excellency’s Government information we have received concerning changes made to the Overseas Domestic Worker visa in April 2012, amendments made to the Immigration Bill which in May 2016 became the Immigration Act 2016, and the consequences of these legislative changes, which are still in effect.
According to the information received:
Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner: About modern slavery:
The UK is both a country of destination, with thousands of victims arriving from other countries only to be exploited by criminals; and a source country with increasing numbers of British victims identified. Slavery takes many different forms and affects adults and children, males and females.
Those who are enslaved are exploited for the financial gain of their captors. The vulnerable are made to work in cruel conditions for long hours without pay. Examples include women and girls forced into prostitution for profit, young boys made to commit criminal acts against their will and men kept in slave-like conditions in factories.
Last year 10,627 potential victims of modern slavery were referred to the National Referral Mechanism; a 52% increase from 2018. The most common type of exploitation for both adults and minors was labour exploitation. Potential victims from the UK, Albania and Vietnam were the three most common nationalities to be referred in the NRM.
Human traffickers in the UK will coerce and control their victims, keeping them in slavery for weeks, months or years at a time. Individuals are often deceived into working in slave-like conditions, and then threatened in order to keep them there. Victims are moved from abuser to abuser and they are usually too afraid of their captors to risk escape, making slavery a hidden, complex crime.
For those victims who do escape or are rescued the UK has an established system of support, namely, the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). This was introduced in 2009. The NRM provides accommodation and other vital services for victims for a minimum of 45 days. The NRM exists outside statute, and many organisations also support victims of modern slavery before, during and after exiting the NRM.
Although modern slavery can involve the movement of people across an international border, it is also possible to be a victim within one’s own country.
28 April 2021: Immigration debate in parliament: Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)
I beg to move,
That the Immigration (Guidance on Detention of Vulnerable Persons) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 184), dated 23 February 2021, a copy of which was laid before this House on 25 February 2021, be revoked.
On behalf of my party, let me say that it is entirely right that we have the opportunity to debate in the House of Commons the incredibly serious changes proposed in this motion. Quite frankly, it is remarkable that the Government sought to introduce these changes as a negative statutory instrument—through the back door without any opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny at all.
This statutory instrument will remove protections in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 that sought to prevent potential victims of trafficking from being held unnecessarily in immigration detention. The changes are due to come into effect on 25 May, following an extremely limited consultation with a select few groups, which had just two weeks to respond.
The consultation, which did not seek to engage with any trafficking survivor groups, was described as “poor practice” by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Given that the changes are being made alongside those outlined in the Government’s new plan for immigration, published last month, we are gravely concerned by the Government’s desire to erode the rights and protections for victims of some of the most heinous examples of exploitation.
To be clear, the proposals will amend the adults at risk in immigration detention statutory guidance by removing paragraph 18 on trafficking cases. That means that, from 25 May, decisions about the detention of potential victims of human trafficking will be made without reference to the Modern Slavery Act 2015 guidance, which made it clear that potential victims of trafficking are automatically considered unsuitable for detention unless there are public order reasons that militate against that. As a result, a decision will now be assessed within the much broader adults at risk framework, which considers a range of vulnerabilities, with the latest figure suggesting that about 39% of those detained in immigration detention are considered adults at risk.
A range of immigration factors is considered as part of the decision-making process and those factors go far wider than public order. They can include a history of offending, but additionally whether the person’s immigration history includes having entered the country irregularly, not having claimed asylum immediately, or having failed to comply with Home Office reporting requirements.
Often, having been a victim of trafficking leaves such individuals unable to satisfy those requirements. Being subject to coercive control commonly results in an individual entering the country outside approved routes or being unable to claim asylum immediately. Furthermore, to benefit from a stronger protection against detention once brought under the adults at risk guidance, potential victims of trafficking with a positive initial reasonable-grounds decision will now need to provide additional professional evidence demonstrating not only that they are an adult at risk, but that detention is likely to cause them harm. Therefore, the primary impact of the changes will be that potential victims of trafficking are detained, and detained for longer. That is the view not only of the Opposition and various specialist stakeholders, but of the Government.
In response to concerns raised, the Home Office admitted that some individuals might, as a result of the changes, be more likely to be detained or have their detention continued. Why, therefore, do the Government continue to press ahead when they are well aware of the damage and distress that will cause, particularly considering that they seek to deliver the changes through a statutory instrument considered under the negative procedure—deeming them unworthy of debate and scrutiny?
I thank Richard Fuller, who secured a Westminster Hall debate on this very issue just yesterday. That demonstrates that there are serious concerns about the proposals across the House. I listened carefully to the Minister’s response to the debate, and it seems that the Government seek to justify the changes by saying that a similar protection will be provided through casework guidance and training, which we have not yet seen and can only trust will be published in due course.
We also expect that changes will be made to the caseworker guidance, such as the increase in requirements for medical evidence, which will further weaken the protections for victims of trafficking. For example, there are plans to introduce quality standards for external medical evidence in the adults at risk policy, including proposals to limit the weight of remote assessment, and a stipulation that healthcare professionals should have all the immigration documents and medical records relating to conditions, which a potential victim might not be comfortable disclosing or be able to disclose.
Yesterday, the Minister emphasised his pride at this country’s leading role in identifying and protecting victims of modern slavery, but he also stressed that a rebalancing is required—if I have understood correctly—between protections for victims and immigration controls. He identified what he said is, by design, an “extremely low threshold” for a reasonable-grounds modern slavery decision whereby there is a requirement only to suspect, rather than to prove, someone is a potential victim of trafficking, and explained that the Government are looking to make adjustments to that, as set out in the new plan for immigration.
I am sorry to say that all that is delivering a downgrading of those protections, which we could have been proud of. That is an erosion of existing safeguards and it will undoubtedly increase the risk of vulnerable individuals being retraumatised in detention.
We are concerned not only by the implications of this statutory instrument but by the way in which the Government have sought to circumvent good practice and due diligence in their processes. The consultation period lasted just two weeks during the summer of last year, without the presence of specialist stakeholders and organisations. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has aptly described the consultation as “poor practice”. Shockingly, the Government did not consult the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner or her office on these proposals. I very much hope that the Minister has read Dame Sara Thornton’s letter dated 19 April outlining a range of issues with the proposals.
As many will already be aware, survivors of modern slavery are at increased risk of long-term depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide attempts and health complications. Last week, the Royal College of Psychiatrists published a statement saying that it believes that detention centres are likely to precipitate a significant deterioration in mental health in most cases, greatly increasing both the suffering of the individual and the risk of suicide and self-harm. In 2017 the Government promised a scheme called Places of Safety to allow survivors to access their rights soon after being identified in settings such as police raids or labour inspections. That would have given survivors an opportunity to access legal representation and advocacy while at their most vulnerable, as well as increasing the number of successful trafficking referrals to decision makers. Sadly, the Places of Safety scheme was never delivered, and as a result thousands of suspected slavery survivors were identified but never referred for support or decision making. I would very much like to know what has happened to that scheme, so will the Minister clarify that? An additional concern is the Government’s decision to cancel the pilot schemes exploring community alternatives to detention. I hope the Minister can also give some clarity to that crazy decision.
These changes represent a significant downgrading of the protections against detention currently given to potential victims of human trafficking. The Government say they want to introduce this statutory instrument so that the adults at risk policy can be used as the single mechanism for vulnerable individuals, in order to clamp down on the policy anomaly that currently exists. To perceive such legislative change purely in terms of fixing a policy anomaly fails to acknowledge the devastating impact it will have on vulnerable victims and represents this Government’s concerning approach to wider immigration policy.
The Government have previously stressed that a reduction in the number of people in detention is a key aspect of the series of reforms they are making across the detention system, yet this statutory instrument will achieve the exact opposite. Regrettably, it represents the Government’s failure to offer a solution that is compassionate, fair and deserving of vulnerable victims of human trafficking.
Let me start by reiterating the Government’s commitment to tackling modern slavery. The UK has led the world in protecting victims of this heinous crime. We will continue to support those who have suffered intolerable abuse at the hands of criminals and traffickers, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that perpetrators face justice. In a further demonstration of our commitment to supporting victims of modern slavery, the new modern slavery victim care contract went live in January this year, with an estimated whole-life cost of £379 million over its five-year lifetime. It will deliver a better service that it is needs-based and will do even more to look after individual victims.
It is worth mentioning that last year there were about 10,000 claims by victims of modern slavery and we made about 10,000 positive reasonable grounds decisions. That is, I think, one of the highest numbers, if not the highest, in Europe, and it is many times higher than in comparably sized European countries. So there is no question but that the United Kingdom leads Europe in its work on protecting victims of modern slavery. We have also embarked on an ambitious national referral mechanism transformation programme to do even more work than we are doing already. We have, moreover, launched a review of the 2014 modern slavery strategy that will allow us to build further on the progress made.
Although our commitment to cracking down on these appalling crimes remains undiminished, being recognised as a potential victim of modern slavery does not and should not automatically result in being granted immigration status in the UK or immunity from immigration proceedings. There may be potential victims or victims of modern slavery who have no lawful basis to remain in the UK, some of whom will be dangerous foreign national offenders, and about whom we are faced with decisions about using detention lawfully as a means of securing their removal. That is especially true when other options, including voluntary return, have been exhausted. Where we are faced with these decisions it is important that they are made in a way that is consistent, fair and balanced.
The shadow Minister mentioned detention, and it is worth saying that the use of detention for immigration purposes has been reduced significantly. The number of people in immigration detention in December 2019, before the pandemic started, was about half the level reported in September 2017. Moreover, of those entering immigration detention in 2019, I believe, from memory, that 39% spent only a week and about 75% spent less than 28 days in immigration detention. It is used sparingly and only where necessary to deliver our immigration rules properly.
The rules we are discussing today rectify an anomaly in the existing policy to bring detention decisions for potential victims of modern slavery within the scope of the adults at risk policy. That is the policy we use to make detention decisions for vulnerable people, including those with serious physical or mental health disabilities. At present, the adults at risk policy requires detention decisions for potential victims of modern slavery to be made with reference to separate Modern Slavery Act 2015 statutory guidance. That guidance does not steer decision makers in how to balance a person’s vulnerability against other considerations when making detention decisions, but makes reference only to public order, as the shadow Minister said.
We believe that the adults at risk policy, which already caters to all kinds of other very serious vulnerabilities, is the appropriate framework for detention decisions for potential victims of modern slavery. It allows for a nuanced and balanced assessment of detention decisions to be made, which the current policy does not allow. It also supports our desire for a clear and consistent approach to safeguarding in immigration detention decision making and will enable decisions for potential victims to be made in line with those for other categories of vulnerable individuals. To be absolutely clear, the vulnerability and risks associated with potential victims of modern slavery will categorically continue to be fully accounted for and fully considered.
Let me be clear: these regulations will not weaken the protections afforded to potential victims of modern slavery. The adults at risk immigration detention policy is well-established—it has been in place for at least five years. It enables officials to identify vulnerable adults and make decisions about the appropriateness of their detention, balancing all relevant considerations. The adults at risk policy strengthens the presumption in immigration policy that a person will not be detained where they may be particularly vulnerable to harm in detention.
Moreover, we do recognise and will continue to recognise the specific protections afforded to those in receipt of a positive reasonable grounds decision, in accordance with the European convention on action against trafficking in human beings. All those protections will, of course, be respected, and I can also assure the House that caseworkers and other Home Office staff will receive the appropriate guidance and training so that they are able to properly take into account those special protections for potential victims of modern slavery. We fully accept that those specific considerations exist. We recognise that in some circumstances an individual’s history may have been influenced by their trafficking or their previous modern slavery experiences, and that will most certainly be reflected in guidance and in subsequent decision making. Let me also be clear that every decision is taken individually, on a case by case basis, and there is a presumption against detention where there is particular vulnerability to harm. Those two things should give the House a great deal of reassurance on these points.
In conclusion, as I have set out, modern slavery is a despicable crime. The UK is leading Europe in identifying and protecting victims and going after perpetrators. The changes we are contemplating today make use of a well-established, effective policy for protecting vulnerable people and enable a rounded and balanced decision to be taken in these difficult cases.
Scottish National party MPs are fully behind this motion to revoke, and I support the arguments that the shadow Minister has set out. As well as thanking Richard Fuller, who secured yesterday’s debate, I want to thank John McDonnell for his work on this, and I pay tribute to all survivor groups and others working in this field who alerted MPs to the significance and consequences of these regulations. These might be short regulations, but they are also deeply worrying regulations that could have severe impacts on trafficking survivors, and the so-called consultation on them was a pretty abysmal exercise altogether.
As we have heard, the goal of the statutory guidance on adults at risk in immigration detention is that it will, in conjunction with other reforms, lead to a reduction in the number of vulnerable people being detained, and a reduction in the duration of detention before removal. However, these regulations will have the opposite effect, because they remove crucial protections provided to those with positive reasonable grounds decisions. No longer will the detention of potential victims of trafficking be considered with reference to the separate Modern Slavery Act 2015 statutory guidance; instead, the process is to be merged into the overall adults at risk system. This means a serious dilution of the protections against detention currently afforded to potential trafficking victims. Potential victims are, and should continue to be, entitled to a proper recovery period during which they cannot be removed and therefore cannot generally be detained, thanks to the Modern Slavery Act guidance.
Unless these regulations are revoked today, other immigration considerations will potentially be prioritised. An irregular immigration history, which many victims of trafficking will have, may mean a victim being locked up, and the standard of evidence of potential harm in detention required of them will be ramped up. In short, more victims of trafficking will be detained and more will be detained for longer—something the Government do not even seem to dispute. That means more potential victims suffering real and serious harm to their mental health. That is utterly against the Government’s stated objective in the guidance, and it is against their obligation to assist victims in their physical, psychological and social recovery.
In response to these very serious arguments, the Government seem to provide two arguments of their own. The first seems to justify the regulations on what amounts to little more than tidying up or administrative convenience: why burden officials with two systems of statutory guidance when one will do? The Government point out that potential victims of trafficking are the only group of people for whom such a special provision exists, and they call that a policy anomaly requiring correction, but these additional protections are absolutely justified, given what we know and understand about trafficking and the potential consequences of detention for such people. This is not a policy anomaly but a perfectly reasonable, proportionate response to the specific dangers that face trafficking victims. If anything requires correction, it is the mainstream adults at risk policy into which the Government want to throw trafficking victims. We know that it is overly burdensome and fails too many adults at risk. Let us fix that system, not meddle with the additional protections offered to trafficking victims.
The other Government argument appears to assert that there has been some evidence of abuse of the system, through false claims of trafficking designed to avoid detention. The answer to that it is not to make genuine victims suffer, as these regulations will, but to tackle the abuse head-on. It is the Home Office itself that assesses who is a victim of trafficking, and the answer is to invest in doing that better and faster. Why is it taking 456 days for potential victims to get positive grounds decisions? That is where the Home Office should look to weed out any abuse, rather than throwing victims under a bus.
Even if the Minister does not accept our analysis of the system as it stands, at the very least he should accept that if we are going to put everyone into one system, we should have a wide-ranging consultation and debate on how that system is working, what needs to be changed and what a better system could look like. However, instead of proper debate and consultation, we have had “poor practice”, as the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said. After two years of Home Office policy development, a small group of stakeholders had two weeks during the August summer holidays to feed back. The whole process was hush-hush, with those involved not allowed to share the proposals beyond a select few. Those lucky enough to participate were largely ignored. This so-called targeted engagement failed to consult relevant groups, including, as I understand it, the Government’s own modern slavery strategy implementation group or the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. Wendy Williams’ Windrush review demanded that consultation on changes to policy should be
“meaningful, offering informed proposals and openly seeking advice and challenge.”
The consultation did nothing of the sort, and a bad piece of secondary legislation that will harm victims of trafficking is the result. That is why these regulations should be revoked.
I find it hard to believe that we are having this debate today, and that this delegated legislation has been introduced at all. Emotionally, many Members of the House will find it hard to take, especially those of us who have taken any interest in detention, and specifically modern slavery and trafficking, over the last two to three decades.
After all the years of campaigning to expose modern slavery and trafficking, and after Parliament’s achievement of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which we are all proud of, this is like stepping back in time. It is a hugely retrograde step. After the exposure of trafficking and the recoil from the policies of the hostile environment, I thought we would never see this sort of legislation again. It is shameful that it has been brought before us. Have we learned nothing about the suffering that trafficking imposes on people? I urge the Minister and hon. Members not to support the motion, and to go back and look at some of the reports and investigations that led us to put in place extra protections for trafficking victims.
In 2017, Rahila Gupta—a member of Southall Black Sisters and now a famous author in my local community—wrote the book “Enslaved: The New British Slavery”. It was reported extensively at the time, and it shook many of us to the core with its descriptions of trafficking and the impact on our fellow human beings. Many other reports then followed, and we learned something of the scale of trafficking and its consequences in this country.
Yesterday, in Westminster Hall, the Government seemed to claim that the reason for this legislation was that the system was being abused somehow. No evidence for that claim has been published by the Home Office, and we have seen no independent assessment of the claim or data that the Government may want to bring forward to argue this case. What we do know, however—this is on the basis of research backed by the Home Secretary and undertaken in 2020 by Justice and Care and the Centre for Social Justice—is that there are estimated to be more than 100,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. In 2020, only 3,000 people were positively identified as survivors of slavery in the second stage of the decision-making process.
I contend that the Government’s main worry should be their failure to identify and make safe the vast majority of people who have been trafficked into this country. The Government should concentrate on that, rather than on unsubstantiated allegations of abuse in the system. With no data published to prove it, the Government have argued that over the last 12 months, there has been a surge in foreign national offenders claiming to be victims of trafficking to disrupt immigration proceedings. That represents a complete failure to understand everything that we have learned about how many of those who are convicted are convicted of crimes that they were forcibly trafficked to commit in this country. I cite the recent examples from many of our constituencies of the Vietnamese young people who have been trafficked into cannabis farms in the UK. Many of those who are trafficked and then convicted of crimes lack access to legal advice and support even to explain their circumstances and case.
The Government appear to be arguing that the threshold of reasonable grounds for determining whether someone has been trafficked is too low. Under the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking, the threshold was deliberately set low to ensure that people are identified. I believe we have an international obligation to uphold that standard under the convention. People who are referred into the system are referred, as the Minister knows, by first responders, who are professionally trained and authorised by the Government. In detention, virtually all the referrals come from the Home Office itself. As the Minister said, the Government have offered us revised casework guidance. That has not even been published, yet we are expected to vote into law this statutory instrument—a leap in the dark.
If the consultation had been adequate, no Government could have reasonably brought forward this statutory instrument. As other Members have said, the consultation was extremely limited, in both who was consulted and the timescale. Consulting for only two weeks on something so significant is a dereliction of the Government’s duty, particularly on openness, transparency and the consideration of all reasonable factors. As others have said, the Home Office admitted to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that more people will be held in detention if the instrument is approved. It will mean more people going into detention, but it will also be more difficult for people to get out of detention.
We need to recall the people we are talking about. These people are trafficked, exploited and abused, physically, sexually and mentally. They are extremely vulnerable. They are isolated and confused, often even lacking the ability to speak English, and they are suspicious of authority. Often, they have been emotionally abused to the extent that they are traumatised, and many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. These are the people that this statutory instrument will increasingly force into detention. And let us be clear: we know now that, in detention, there is little access to legal advice or to emotional or health support, so it is often very difficult for these people to communicate their circumstances and their case.
What does detention mean? Well, this is the reality of detention. I have two detention centres in my constituency: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. I have been visiting Harmondsworth for more than 30 years. Years ago, it was a couple of Nissen huts, with no more than about a dozen people detained there. Now we have what are, effectively, two prison-style buildings housing anything between 800 and 1,000 detainees.
These detention centres are notorious. Detainees have died, with accusations of neglect, lack of care and abuse. Perhaps the Minister will remember the 83-year-old man who was taken from detention to Hillingdon Hospital and died still in handcuffs. On two occasions, riots have broken out, with Harmondsworth being burned down.
Detainees get lost in the system, too, with examples of some being detained for long periods, trapped in detention. The irony is that most will eventually be released and allowed to settle, becoming valuable members of our community. The moral of this story is that we detain too many people unnecessarily and in unacceptable conditions. I believe that, in years to come, people will look back on this system with incredulity but also disgust.
I believe that this legislation, in addition to increasing the number of victims of trafficking in detention, will deter victims from coming forward. It will be used by traffickers to discourage victims from escaping. If the SI is passed, traffickers will say to victims, with some accuracy, “If you try to escape, you’ll be locked up anyway in a detention centre or prison.”
I believe that, if this House allows the statutory instrument to go on to the statute book, it will be seen as a disgraceful act of inhumanity. To attack some of the most vulnerable people, living in fear in our community, is a new low for this Parliament. I thought that we had all moved on. I thought we had moved forward. I hope that sufficient Members of this House still have the humanitarian instincts to reject this appalling measure.
I thank the Minister and all the contributors to the debate. This is an issue of great importance to me. I recognise that the Minister does his utmost in the capacity of what he is responsible for, and I believe in all honesty that he understands the issues that all of us are raising. The regulations, which will come into force on 25 May 2021, are an attempt to update the legislation with the latest information. It is clear that that is essential, as the number of people forcibly displaced around the world as a result of persecution, conflict, civil violence or human rights violations has rapidly increased in the last five years.
I declare a particular interest in this matter. As the Minister and other Members will know, I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief. One of the things that burdens my heart is those who are persecuted due to their faith and religion or because they belong to an ethnic minority. In this House, we have been trying over the years to ensure we have a system that enables those people to be considered for asylum and relocation. I have done it before, but it is important in these debates to give credit and thanks for jobs that are done. The Syrian resettlement scheme was brought in by this Government, and all of us in the House supported it.
In my constituency of Strangford, we were able through the scheme to relocate four Syrian families, who have been there for almost five years. I met one of them just last week to discuss a housing issue. I had not seen them in person for that period, but it was wonderful to see that they were settled, they had work and they had their families. The lady had a second baby. She said to me, along with some of the people from the churches who have helped out, “This is now my home.” Our Government made it possible for people to have their home in my constituency and, indeed, in many constituencies across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is life changing. That is what we can do when we get it right. I wanted to put that on the record, because I got the opportunity last Friday to meet that lady again. Her family went through terrible things and faced upheaval just because they were Christians; that is a fact of life. We were able to help, and I thank my Government and my Minister for that on behalf of them and myself.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are currently 79.5 million forcibly displaced persons around the world. I have raised this issue on many occasions and cited that some of these are the most vulnerable people from the most difficult backgrounds; it burdens me when I hear about them. Many countries detain asylum seekers in detention centres while their applications are processed or following a decision to refuse them protection. At present, the total number of third country nationals held in immigration detention in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the year ending June 2020 is 698. I understand that the last year has been an incredibly difficult time, and that number is undoubtedly affected by the impact of covid-19 on the Home Office’s ability to release detainees. However, the United Kingdom has yet to reintroduce its resettlement programme. I am not sure whether the Minister is in a position to respond to this, but I am keen to know whether there is any intention to do again what the Government have already done well. We must ensure that that happens as soon as possible.
It is important to recognise that vulnerable persons detained in immigration centres have already experienced severe trauma. Many of them have seen things that we would never in a million years be able to envisage, understand or even contemplate. Many have PTSD and severe mental health issues associated with their pre-migration experiences. Prolonged detention—on top of all the trauma that they have had to go through—without sight of resettlement heightens those issues, and we need to do better for those people. What protections will the regulations provide to ensure that the detention of vulnerable persons is a limited process, instead of indefinite and non-reviewable mandatory detention? Is the updated guidance able to stand in the post-covid world that we find ourselves coming into, with the problems that we have?
I thank all the Members who have contributed to this discussion. I particularly thank Jim Shannon for his well-considered and thoughtful comments on the issues we are debating. I thank him for his remarks about the resettlement scheme, from which his constituents have benefited. That demonstrates the Government’s unshakeable commitment to protecting vulnerable people around the world.
The resettlement programme to which the hon. Gentleman referred has resettled 25,000 people over the past six years, which is more than any other European country. That is clear evidence of the Government’s compassionate commitment to those in genuine need. He referenced in particular persecuted Christians, of whom there are many around the world. In fact, following a speech that I heard him make in a debate in the Chamber a year or so ago, he will notice that the new plan for immigration expressly references persecuted Christians around the world and the need to offer them sanctuary here in the United Kingdom. Where Shannon led the way, the rest of the United Kingdom will, I hope, follow.
The hon. Gentleman asked for an assurance that the resettlement programme will continue. Yes, it will. In fact, it is already continuing. We recommenced a few weeks ago, so I can give him the assurance for which he asked. On the question of indefinite detention, we do not detain people indefinitely for immigration purposes. About 75% of people in immigration detention are there for 28 days or less. It is used as a last resort. The Hardial Singh principles strictly set out the circumstances in which it can be used, and at any time anyone in detention can apply for immigration bail.
Most importantly of all, it is categorically not true and is not the case that we will be turning our backs on victims of modern slavery. On the contrary, we have done more than any Government in history to look after them. Indeed, we are doing more than any Government in Europe to protect and look after victims of modern slavery. The change that we are discussing today does not alter that fact. I can assure the House that decision makers will continue to take careful account of vulnerability, risk and the experience of modern slavery victims—or potential victims—when making these decisions. That will be fully taken into account, and balanced with other considerations. Victims will be respected, treated carefully and looked after, as they have been in this country for many years. We have a proud record on this topic, and that will continue for many decades to come.
I am afraid that we are not at all satisfied with the Minister’s contribution. This is a shameful downgrading of essential, hard-won protections for those who have been subject to some of the worst forms of exploitation and abuse. The Minister says that we lead in Europe on modern slavery, but he uses that as a justification for downgrading protections, which means that we will trample all over that sense of leadership and welcome progress on this issue. We will no longer lead in this policy area, which is much more about humanity than it ever will be about practicalities.
The Minister suggested that only one other colleague attended the Westminster Hall debate yesterday, but he did not clarify the fact that it was a 30-minute debate. As such, there were no contributions from other parties or other Members. The early-day motion praying against the statutory instrument has secured 77 signatures, and is a more appropriate reflection of colleagues’ interest in this important matter.
My right hon. Friend John McDonnell made some incredibly powerful points, and I thank him for his leadership on this issue. We do not have the confidence to support the Government on proposed guidance that is yet to be published. I thank Jim Shannon for his typically powerful contribution as well.
The protections currently in place represent far more than a policy anomaly. There is a strong case for them to be in place and we want to see those protections extended. We seek to divide the House to revoke these proposals.
27 April 2021: Westminster Hall debate: Immigration Detention: Victims of Trafficking
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect of immigration detention on potential victims of trafficking.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and to welcome my hon. Friend the Minister, who has been extremely helpful to me with my questions about immigration over many months. It is a pleasure to see him here. The core of the issues I wish to raise relates substantively to the Immigration (Guidance on Detention of Vulnerable Persons) Regulations 2021, which make amendments to the guidance on adults at risk in immigration detention. In brief, the changes remove the special rules governing the use of detention for potential victims of trafficking and modern-day slavery where there is already a strong presumption against the use of detention. I note the prayer against this negative statutory instrument in the form of early-day motion 1696, tabled on 24 March 2021, which has attracted 77 signatures. I also note that, subsequent to Mr Speaker granting this debate, a further debate has been scheduled for tomorrow in the main Chamber, so the Minister will certainly be busy. Again, I am grateful to him for being here today.
One of the reasons I called for the debate is that Yarl’s Wood, which has been a detention centre for women, is in my constituency, and over the years I have worked closely with a number of groups related to the detention of women in particular, including Yarl’s Wood Befrienders and Women for Refugee Women. I would like to thank Medical Justice in particular for its help in putting together some points. I will fire a series of questions at the Minister, which I am sure he will not have time to respond to immediately—it is in the nature of these 30-minute debates—but, if he will commit to writing to me with responses on those he does not have a chance to address, I would be grateful.
Let me start by quoting from the explanatory memorandum accompanying the statutory instrument, which says:
“This statutory instrument brings into effect amendments to the guidance on Adults at Risk in Immigration Detention…The purpose of the statutory instrument…is to bring people who are potential victims of modern slavery and/or trafficking fully within the…AAR Statutory Guidance. This is intended so that detention considerations for potential victims of modern slavery and trafficking will be made using criteria consistent with those that apply to other categories of vulnerable people.”
The reason provided by the Home Office for the change is that it will bring those with a positive reasonable grounds decision through the national referral mechanism fully within the scope of the adults at risk in immigration detention statutory guidance. The Home Office describe it as a measure to amend a “policy anomaly” and the changes will come into effect on 25 May. That leads me to my first and fundamental question to the Minister: why does he want to make this change, which will make it more likely that victims of trafficking will be held in immigration detention?
The Minister will be aware that a Home Office report confirmed that, in 2019, of 1,949 individuals referred into the national referral mechanism after being detained, 89% received a positive reasonable grounds decision and 98% were subsequently released from detention. However, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner noted in her letter to the Minister:
“Having looked at the data on the AAR policy, between November 2017 and October 2018, the rates of rejection for detention by Detention Gatekeepers due to the person being an AAR fluctuated between 3.8% and 36.2%.”
She notes that that is a wide range, but it is substantially lower than the 89% to 98% rates under existing rulings. It seems to me that that is a significant difference, not just a policy anomaly. Can the Minister confirm that he expects more potential victims of trafficking to be detained for immigration purposes as a result of the policy change? What are his thoughts around that?
I understand that the Minister held a consultation on the statutory instrument before laying it. Can he confirm whether that is correct, state which organisations he has consulted with, and give a summary of their views and opinions? Why did the Home Office not include the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner in its consultation prior to making these changes? The Minister will be as aware as I am that it is important to get all expert advice prior to laying legislation before the House.
Let us spend a moment on concerns raised about the changes. Medical Justice makes two crucial points; first, that the
“new regulations…downgrade protections afforded to potential victims of trafficking held in immigration detention”,
and secondly that they
“run entirely counter to the government’s stated aim to protect victims of trafficking.”
Does the Minister accept that the statutory instrument will, in practice, downgrade protection for victims of trafficking? He may be aware that this week the Royal College of Psychiatrists released its report “Detention of people with mental disorders in immigration removal centres”, which includes the following paragraph—it is quite a long quotation, but worth listening to:
“It is the view of the Royal College of Psychiatrists that people with mental disorders should only be subjected to immigration detention in very exceptional circumstances…There is substantial and consistent research evidence that detainees with pre-existing vulnerabilities (e.g. mental health issues or survivors of torture and other forms of cruel or inhumane treatment, including sexual violence and gender-based violence) are at particular risk of harm as a result of their detention. Detention centres are likely to precipitate a significant deterioration of mental health in most cases, greatly increasing suffering and the risk of suicide.”
Does the Minister agree, or does he not, with the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ conclusions? Does he, or does he not, agree that the changes that the statutory instrument makes may go directly against its advice?
Guideline 6, paragraph 1, of the UN’s recommended principles and guidelines on human rights and human trafficking states that trafficked persons
“should not be held in immigration detention centres”
or other forms of custody. There is no a priori reason for the UK Government to agree with everything that the United Nations says on the matter, but does the Minister agree that this change risks being seen as a significant step back from the UK’s international reputation of playing a leading role against modern-day slavery?
The direct effect of changing this policy anomaly on victims of trafficking and modern-day slavery seems to me quite profound. The practical impact seems to be that after a person has already satisfied the Home Office that they were subject to trafficking or slavery, the Home Office now expects them essentially to re-live that experience so that they can demonstrate the harm they will suffer from further future incarceration or detention—this time by the Government. Why would the Government want to do that?
Let us take a moment to see whether the adults at risk policy is working sufficiently well to warrant its application to this particularly vulnerable group. There are substantial grounds to suggest that it is not proving suitable for the policy anomaly change; let me share some concerns with the Minister.
Women for Refugee Women has commented that a key reason for the continued detention of survivors of trafficking under the adults at risk policy is the lack of a proactive vulnerability screening mechanism before the decision to detain is made. Under AAR, a new detention gatekeeper was introduced
“which assesses vulnerability and provides challenge to decisions about who enters immigration detention”.
However, the gatekeeper looks only at information that the Home Office already holds on record to assess whether a person is vulnerable. There is no proactive screening process to identify vulnerabilities that the Home Office may not be aware of before the decision to detain is made.
Let me note some findings from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons on Yarl’s Wood, the detention centre in my constituency. Its reports have also highlighted how, while it was operating as the main detention centre for women, Yarl’s Wood consistently struggled to maintain an appropriate proportion of female staff, both those in direct contact with women and managers. Further, HMIP reports also identified a lack of understanding and knowledge among Yarl’s Wood staff about women’s specific experience of violence and abuse, including sexual exploitation and trafficking. I do not wish to cast any aspersions on the very capable staff at Yarl’s Wood in my constituency. My point is that, with this change, we are placing more reliance on individual case-based judgments and therefore on what might appear to be a rather more fragile decision process.
Let me note some more comments from the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton:
“Whilst I acknowledge the rationale for bringing all categories of vulnerability under the AAR policy, there are multiple factors that are specific to victims of modern slavery that are significant.”
“under Article 13 of ECAT potential victims of modern slavery with a positive reasonable grounds decision are entitled to a reflection and recovery period where they cannot be removed from the UK. I am aware that in order to detain there must be ‘a realistic prospect of removal within a reasonable timescale’. It is therefore important to highlight that in 2019, it took the Home Office Single Competent Authority an average of 452 days”
to make a conclusive decision. Does the Minister acknowledge the tension in timescales between a realistic prospect of removal and an average of 452 days to make a decision?
I draw attention to the Independent Chief Inspector of Border and Immigration’s report “Annual Inspection of ‘Adults at Risk in Immigration Detention’ (2018-19)”. The first inspection report, which was published in April 2020, noted that
“there is a lot more that the Home Office can and should do to make each component”
of the AAR policy “more efficient and more effective.” Further, the inspector said:
“I have set a deadline (31 March 2020) for the implementation of the recommendations that are specific to Adults at Risk”.
Can the Minister confirm whether the specific recommendations identified for implementation by 31 March last year have been accepted and implemented?
I understand the 2019-20 report is now in draft with publication due in September. Can the Minister advise whether the ICIBI has concluded whether their concerns have now been allayed? Or do those concerns remain, or have they risen? Even relying solely on the concerns raised in 2018-19 report, did they not give the Minister pause in making the changes? Can he, in his response, share what guided his thinking?
Finally, I want to touch on some comments in The Independent about the rationale so the Minister can clarify. The newspaper said:
“Ministers are planning to make it more difficult for trafficking survivors to be released from detention as part of plans to prevent serious criminals from taking advantage of modern slavery safeguards by using them to prevent their removal from the country.”
Essentially, this is a misuse of a provision. Is that the case? If so, what consideration did the Home Office give to improving the existing process rather than closing it down? What consideration has the Home Office given to managing a definition of a foreign national offender that will likely include actions that victims of slavery or trafficking were forced to undertake? Many survivors of modern slavery are forced to commit criminal acts, such as pickpocketing, drug cultivation or even fraud, as part of their exploitation. In 2020, potential victims were most commonly referred to in the national referral mechanism for cases related to purely criminal exploitation, which accounted for 34% of all referrals. I would be grateful if the Minister could just clarify this point, because it would be a shame if the references to foreign national offenders were getting caught up with the issue, whereby many people who are subject to trafficking are forced into crime as part of their victimisation.
May I just repeat how grateful I am for this opportunity to raise these points with the Minister today? There are issues with the adults at risk policy. I know that it was only introduced in 2016, but I think that both the Minister and I wish to see improvements to our immigration policies, to ensure that loopholes are not exploited by those who do not deserve the right to exploit those loopholes. Equally, however, I know that the Minister, the Home Office, the Home Secretary and I are committed to a system that is compassionate and that has eyes on that individual who might otherwise be lost in a very bureaucratic system. I am therefore very grateful for the opportunity to put these points to the Minister today.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray; I think for the first time, but I am confident not for the last.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) for raising the matter in this afternoon’s debate. As he said, we will have the pleasure of discussing it twice in two days. He is an assiduous campaigner on these issues and I am very pleased to have the opportunity to discuss them with him today, and, I am sure, on future occasions as well.
As a starting point, it is important to understand that the United Kingdom’s commitment to looking after victims or even potential victims of modern slavery is resolute. We enacted the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which has some very substantial protections for victims of modern slavery. We launched a modern slavery strategy back in 2014 and we are assiduous as a country in upholding our obligations under the ECAT treaty—the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings—to which my hon. Friend referred. Indeed, many more modern slavery claims are made and accepted in the UK than in comparable European countries; I think that we had around 10,000 last year, which was many times higher than in countries such as France and Germany. I think our record on identifying and protecting victims of modern slavery is second to none across Europe, which we can all be extremely proud of.
However, we should also be clear that someone being recognised as a victim of modern slavery does not and should not automatically result in their being given immigration status in the UK, or in their being exempted from immigration proceedings. There are protections granted by the modern slavery provisions. My hon. Friend mentioned the reflection and recovery period, which is 45 days. Of course, if there is a recovery need that can only be met by the person remaining, that is obviously respected as well. However, it does not follow that every single potential victim of modern slavery should be exempted from immigration proceedings or indeed from detention.
Therefore, it is very important that we have a proper way of weighing up the various considerations that come before decision makers: on the one hand, there are questions of vulnerability, or potential vulnerability; and on the other hand, there is the need to operate a proper immigration system. That is an important balance to strike. Both those things are important; we are not minimising the importance of either one of them.
It is worth observing that the reasonable grounds threshold for a modern slavery decision is, by design, extremely low. At the moment, it is set out as “suspects but cannot prove”, which is an extremely low threshold. We are looking to make adjustments to that, as set out in the policy statement a few weeks ago, consistent, of course, with our ECAT treaty obligations. However, once the reasonable grounds decision is made, that does not mean that the person involved is a victim of modern slavery. It means that there are reasons to suspect, but without proof, that they might be a victim of modern slavery, which is extremely important to bear in mind.
There has been some evidence recently—I am talking about the last 12 months in particular—that for some cohorts in particular, including some foreign national offenders, it appears that modern slavery claims are increasingly being used as a means of disrupting immigration proceedings. We need to be mindful of that, and mindful that we should do everything to protect genuine victims of modern slavery, many of whom will have suffered appalling trauma and mistreatment. It is in the spirit of achieving that balance that the changes we are discussing today and will discuss again tomorrow are being made.
The change that my hon. Friend outlined so eloquently, enshrined in the statutory instrument laid on 25 February this year and coming into force, if passed, in a few weeks’ time, to make the release decision in relation to people with a positive reasonable grounds decision if they might be a victim of modern slavery is inside the ambit of the existing adults at risk policy. That is not to say that their potential vulnerability will be ignored, but the issue will be considered in the round and a balancing exercise will be performed, as it is with other forms of vulnerability in the existing scope of the adults at risk policy to make sure that everything is being properly accounted for in the round.
Having done that exercise, release decisions might, and in many cases will, still be made. An adults at risk policy, as my hon. Friend said, was introduced in 2016. It has had time to bed in and is being continuously improved upon, but it has a well-defined grading scale—level 1, level 2, level 3—and the more serious the evidence of vulnerability or potential harm, some of which my hon. Friend laid out in his speech, the higher the balancing factors have to be in order not to release.
Viewing the matter in the round and considering everything is an appropriate thing to do. It is a balancing exercise that we are trying to achieve. The caseworker guidance that will be published in due course will address the specific situation of potential victims of modern slavery. My hon. Friend laid out some of the unique circumstances associated with them, and the caseworker guidance will take into account the particular vulnerabilities that my hon. Friend drew attention to in his speech.
I hope that gives some reassurance about the approach that will be taken. The detention decision making process will of course include an assessment of the individual’s recovery needs. That will ensure that detention is maintained where the balancing criteria are met, and also where those needs can be provided from within detention. If those needs cannot be met from within detention, that would obviously argue very strongly and persuasively, probably decisively, in favour of a release decision being made.
It is also worth saying by way of context—I know my hon. Friend has a wider interest in detention; we have discussed it on many occasions—that detention is used sparingly. At any one time, 95% of people who might be eligible for detention are in fact in the community. The numbers being detained are relatively small by historical standards. If I take the figure from 31 December 2019, before coronavirus, because coronavirus has caused the number to go down even further, there were 1,637 people in immigration detention, which is a pretty small number when we measure that against the number of people who probably do not have the right to be in the country.
The 1,637 number approximately halved in the two-year period preceding. From 30 September 2017 to 31 December 2019, the number of people in immigration detention roughly halved. The vast majority of people—we have debated this previously—are in detention for relatively short periods of time. Some 74% are detained for 28 days or less, so detention is not being used on a widespread, indiscriminate basis, but it is an essential component of running a proper immigration system. Where someone does not have the right to be here, or where they have committed a serious criminal offence and they are a foreign national, it is right that we take steps to remove them. Without having immigration detention available, it is extremely difficult to do that, so it is an important thing to be able to do.
As I have set out, we accept that modern slavery is a truly despicable crime. We take our responsibility to identify victims very seriously. We also take our responsibilities in using immigration detention very seriously as well. Our focus as we take forward these changes will be to make sure that the right balance is struck and that potential victims with genuine vulnerabilities are protected. We are determined not only to protect those vulnerable individuals, but to bring the perpetrators of modern slavery to justice. It is in that spirit that we have introduced the changes that will be debated in the main Chamber tomorrow.
I have a very small point. Will the Minister respond to specific questions that I asked and commit to reply in writing?
Yes, I am happy to give that commitment.
Question put and agreed to.
18 March 2021: Modern Slavery & Human Rights Policy & Evidence Centre: How Covid-19 limited UK’s ability to identify people who experienced modern slavery
Prof Alex Balch analyses the figures of people referred as potential victims of modern slavery in the UK for 2020:
[…] Our research points to a number of lessons that can be drawn from the NRM data, and from the challenges and experiences of First Responders throughout the pandemic. First, we need to explore new opportunities to overcome the challenge of decreased mobility in order to continue engagement with people who may be subject to exploitation – this may be at supermarkets and food banks and, currently, at vaccination centres.
Second, there could be connections made with other related areas where there have been innovative actions taken, for example the code ‘Ask for ANI’ (Action Needed immediately), which was launched to tackle domestic abuse.
Third, it would be very useful for the NRM to provide more granular data and analysis of the situation in different parts of the country. If the UK Government is committed to tackling modern slavery, the experiences of frontline staff and the data on referrals from the NRM need to be used in an intelligent way. Only then we can ensure that the response is dynamic and appropriate to local context, with an ability to react to new constantly evolving challenges that have been highlighted by the experiences during the pandemic.
4 March 2021: ICIBI: An inspection of the work of Border Force, Immigration Enforcement, and UK Visas and Immigration to identify, investigate, disrupt and prosecute perpetrators of modern slavery and human trafficking October 2019 – April 2020 #ICIBI
3.1 According to Home Office data,3 in the two years between April 2018 and March 2020, 10 individuals were arrested for modern slavery offences following an investigation by Immigration Enforcement’s Criminal and Financial Investigations (CFI) directorate. Five of these were subject to no further action by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), three were charged with conspiracy to facilitate and two with the substantive offence of facilitation.
7.91 Some individuals were detained in IRCs despite the circumstances of the ICE encounter suggesting that they were likely to be MSHT victims. Responding to ICIBI’s ‘call for evidence’ for the Adults at Risk inspection, a number of stakeholders expressed concern about this: “some of the women we have spoken to have been arrested during immigration raids on brothels or massage parlours … so there is evidence from the circumstances of their arrest that they may be victims of trafficking. In spite of this, though, they haven’t been referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), and they have been detained.”
7.136 The guidance, which contains hyperlinks to other relevant guidance, explains that modern slavery includes “human trafficking [and] slavery, servitude and forced labour”, and cautions that victims may not feel able to identify themselves as such and “it may only be by directly asking that the claimant will indicate they are a victim of modern slavery”. It notes: “The difference between people who are smuggled and those who are trafficked will often be blurred. The ‘end’ situation for the individual can determine whether someone has been smuggled or trafficked. Asylum claimants may be encountered before the ‘end’ situation, so the exploitation may not have yet occurred. However, as it is in the mind of the exploiter, the person could still be a victim of trafficking. If in doubt you should proceed on the basis that the person may be a victim of trafficking. The screening form has some initial softer 127 ‘Asylum screening and routing’ explains that these can be found “in the guidance for frontline staff”. 65 questions that may indicate whether the claimant is a victim of trafficking and there is a direct question in part 5 (sic) – question 2.5.” 7.137 The NRM form asks a number of ‘tick box’ questions about the nature of the victimisation, including indicators of modern slavery, forced or compulsory labour, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation that focus on the actions or behaviours of perpetrators. It also asks for a narrative of the encounter with the victim and the information they provided, including the “name of agent, exploiter or trafficker (if known)”, to support the reasons for the referral. 7.138 However, screening interviewers told inspectors that since the ‘Method of Entry’ form was replaced with a more streamlined question set, they had lost the opportunity to gather further information from an asylum applicant that may have identified MSHT offences and perpetrators. Some staff said they did not feel that they were encouraged or supported by their managers to find out more information: “Before we would ask a few questions. Now, they say, ‘Just ask the questions on the form, leave the rest for the caseworker’”. One commented “It’s a shame because this is the first stop. They reveal quite a lot to us [but] we’ve been told not to ask other questions”.
7.142 However, ‘Victims of modern slavery – frontline staff guidance’ details the reasons why “claimants may be reluctant to go into much detail about the full facts of their case” and informing the interviewer that “they may need to establish” the circumstances in which the claimant came into contact with the trafficker and whether “they fear the trafficker and/or associates if returned to their country of origin”. The questions, including whether they can seek protection from the authorities in their country of origin or relocate internally, are clearly intended to address the basis of claim. However, the answers may identify and enable the investigation and prosecution of traffickers in the UK or overseas. 7.143 Inspectors spoke to asylum caseworkers. They said that there was little opportunity for them to detect perpetrators. Staff did not see intelligence gathering as part of their role. intelligence submissions but did not have a good understanding of what information was required: “We know that we should send intelligence, but little more”.
4 March 2021: The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner: Dame Sara comments on ICIBI modern slavery report and Government response #ICIBI
The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, said:
“The Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration (ICIBI) report laid in Parliament today outlines the critical role that Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and UK Visas and Immigration play in disrupting the activities of perpetrators of modern slavery and human trafficking. The report finds that the Home Office is not doing enough to identify, investigate, disrupt and prosecute the perpetrators of modern slavery, and opportunities to do so are being missed.
“The report follows discussions I had with Chief Inspector David Bolt on where this latest inspection could add the most value. The ICIBI conducted an inspection on the identification and treatment of potential victims of modern slavery by Border Force in 2017 and a re-inspection on progress made since that report in 2018. Both reports were carried out in cooperation with my Office.
“This latest report is focused on operational activity to identify, investigate, disrupt and prosecute perpetrators of modern slavery and human trafficking. The report finds that while operational activity has increased, the work of the Home Office and its three Borders, Immigration and Citizenship System (BICS) operational directorates is still siloed and disjointed, with little evidence of a plan to address this. The Chief Inspector sets out his recommendations for a clearer set of roles and responsibilities for BICS. He also advocates a much greater responsibility for the Home Office lead on serious and organised crime to provide leadership and coordination to the operational BICS units.
“The need for leadership and coordination is absolutely essential notwithstanding the challenges posed by upcoming Home Office reorganisation and the long wait for the review into serious and organised crime commissioned in November 2019.
“I will be scrutinising the Home Office response to these recommendations and look forward to seeing tangible action at both a strategic and operational level to disrupt and prevent these crimes from taking place at our borders.”
4 March 2021: Dame Sarah Thornton @UKAntiSlavery Commissioner,
See @PolicingInsight (subscription required) https://policinginsight.com/features/interview/more-specialist-officers-and-improved-cross-border-working-are-key-to-tackling-modern-slavery-says-commissioner/
15 February: Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner: Launch: Identifying and mitigating risks in the EU Settlement Scheme and the UK’s new points-based immigration system
The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, has today published a briefing paper outlining potential risks of exploitation related to the EU Settlement Scheme and the UK’s new points-based immigration system.
In February 2020 the Home Secretary committed to protecting individuals from criminal exploitation and unscrupulous employers when she announced the new points-based immigration system.
Traffickers are swift to adapt and will seek to abuse new arrangements. It is essential that the potential risks of the EU Settlement Scheme and the points-based system are identified and mitigated. Officials need to listen to concerns about unintended consequences, monitor impact and take mitigating action.
The paper sets out how the EU Settlement Scheme and points-based immigration system have the potential to increase vulnerability to modern slavery:
Concerns associated with the EU Settlement Scheme
- Victims and survivors of modern slavery may not have full evidence and documentation required to apply for settled status
- Lack of clarity around late applications to the EUSS and communication on the need to convert pre-settled status to settled status
- Criminal convictions and the Modern Slavery Act 2015’s Section 45 statutory defence
- Lack of physical documentation proving EUSS status
Concerns associated with the points-based immigration system
- Risks around the visitor route and continued demand for low skilled labour
- Risks around the skilled worker route including recruitment fees, artificially inflated salaries and clawback of money by employers
- Quality and compliance of sponsors, effective labour market enforcement and communication of migrant workers’ rights
4 January 2021: IASC commentary: Supporting survivors to regain independence
Comments by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton, feature in an article published today by Thomson Reuters Foundation on priorities for the anti-slavery movement in 2021. (see extract below)
Expanding on her comments in the article on the moral and practical arguments for granting leave to survivors, the Commissioner further adds:
“I continue to be concerned to hear the anguish and trauma caused to survivors of modern slavery who even after they have had a positive trafficking decision from the Home Office are waiting for decisions about whether they will be able to remain in the UK. I have been working with officials to try to understand why decisions take so long but this approach is slow and meanwhile survivors are suffering.
“The latest guidance says that discretionary leave is automatically considered for all non-EEA survivors. But the overall number of survivors granted discretionary leave remains very low. In 2015, 123 survivors with positive conclusive grounds were granted discretionary leave, in 2019 it was 70 and in the first three months of this year it was only 8. From 1 January some EEA nationals will be similarly unsure about their future.
“There is a powerful moral argument for granting leave for those whom the state has concluded are victims of trafficking or slavery but there is also a practical one. Without such leave survivors, who are not claiming asylum or who have not been granted EU settled status, are not entitled to accommodation and have limited access to benefits – they will either be unable to leave safe houses or left destitute on the streets. Surely 2021 is the year to resolve this?”
Thomson Reuters Foundation: Laws to leaders: three aims for the anti-slavery movement in 2021
Coronavirus pandemic could undo gains in tackling human trafficking worldwide, experts warn
[…] About 40 million people globally are estimated to be enslaved – in forced labour and forced marriages – in a trade worth an estimated $150 billion a year to human traffickers, according to the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO). […]
SUPPORT FOR VICTIMS
With attention and resources diverted elsewhere during COVID-19, trafficking is now even more underground and less visible, the U.N. special rapporteur on trafficking has warned.
Many victims are unable or afraid to speak out or seek help – with migrant workers particularly vulnerable – and face working longer for less pay or falling further into debt bondage due to the economic slowdown, according to several experts.
Governments need to urgently revive their anti-trafficking responses to head off a “ballooning crisis”, said Valiant Richey, trafficking lead at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), a security and rights watchdog.
“This means reactivating the criminal justice and victim assistance systems, including by adequately funding NGOs, as soon as possible,” he said.
Unconnected to coronavirus, campaigners have voiced concern in major nations from Britain to the United States about the low number of victims granted asylum or leave to remain.
Britain’s independent anti-slavery commissioner, Sara Thornton, said there was a moral argument and also a practical one for granting leave to survivors, as many otherwise faced being stuck in safehouses or left destitute on the street.
“Surely 2021 is the year to resolve this?” she said
April 2020: ICIBI: Annual Inspection of Adults at Risk in Immigration Detention 2018-19 #ICIBI
5.79 Most respondents believed that effective screening of individuals to identify vulnerability was lacking. Although this applied to anyone who might be detained, the impact on particular groups was highlighted, for example potential victims of modern slavery (PVoMs):
“some of the women we have spoken to have been arrested during immigration raids on
brothels or massage parlours … so there is evidence from the circumstances of their arrest
that they may be victims of trafficking. In spite of this, though, they haven’t been referred
into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), and they have been detained.”