The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner raises concerns about Clause 62 of the Nationality and Borders Bill
A comment piece written by The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Dame Sara Thornton was published in the Law Section of The Times on 10 February 2022.
Fears about the bill that would take away support from some victims of modern slavery (The Times, 10/02/22)
I raised concerns in November about clause 62 of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which aims to disqualify potential victims of modern slavery with criminal records from protection through the national referral mechanism.
I was concerned that the bar for disqualification had been set very low and that would undermine our ability to bring traffickers to justice. Worryingly the proposals created a distinction between victims who are deserving of support and those who are not.
These concerns were raised in debate in the House of Commons and an amendment tabled. The bill is now at the committee stage in the House of Lords and amendments have again been tabled.
The UK has international obligations to support victims of modern slavery including those contained within the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings.
Article 13 states that parties are not bound to observe the recovery and reflection period for victims “if grounds of public order prevent it or if it is found that victim status is being claimed improperly”. The government clearly wants to define public order so that it can attempt to use this clause to deny protection to those they accuse of abusing the system.
The parliamentary joint committee on human rights has commented specifically on clause 62, arguing that even when an individual may fall into one of the limbs of the proposed definition of public order, the Home Office would additionally need to show that the individual presented such a continuing risk that the UK needs to avail itself of the exception provided by article 13 of the convention.
Without this, they argue that clause 62 will be applied to victims who do not pose a current threat to public order, contrary to the UK’s convention obligations.
We know that many victims of trafficking will have committed criminal offences — some will have done so under duress and others will have been specifically targeted owing to their offending history. Historic, minor offending does not amount to circumstances where a disqualification from the duty to protect and support victims may be justified.
Ministers have assured that decisions to remove support from victims will be made on a case-by-case basis suggesting infrequent use. But why frame legislation that appears to remove protection from such a wide cohort of individuals if that is not indeed the desire?
There might be exceptional circumstances in which it is right to withhold support when there is a genuine, current and serious threat to public order, but the present bill goes far beyond this. Parliamentarians have the opportunity to address this — I hope that they take it.