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)
While the Nationality and Borders Bill focuses on immigration there is also a whole section on modern slavery. Some clauses helpfully place support for victims of slavery in statute. However, there is a risk that the proposals to serve Trafficking Information Notices on a potential victim and expect a response within a fixed time scale will make it harder to identify those who have been exploited.
Traumatised victims cannot disclose their suffering to order – it takes time to build trust and confidence. I cannot imagine that we would contemplate asking victims of sexual assault or child abuse to respond within a set period.
My gravest concern lies in Clause 51 of the bill which aims to disqualify potential victims with criminal records from state protection through the National Referral Mechanism. The bar for disqualification has been set very low — particularly for foreign victims who will be disqualified if they have been sentenced to 12 months in prison anywhere in the world.
I am firstly concerned that we are suggesting that some victims are deserving of support and others are not — however awful or egregious the harm suffered. There are also practical reasons to be concerned about this proposal. There is a significant risk that this provision will undermine our ability to bring perpetrators to justice.
Last year more than 10,000 potential victims of modern slavery were identified in the United Kingdom. By contrast, only 347 offenders were prosecuted leading to just 238 convictions. These figures are too low — there is no justice and compensation for many victims, and little deterrent for criminals. This sends a signal to exploiters that the risk of prosecution is low.
Many victims of modern slavery who assist police investigations and give evidence at court as witnesses are supported by the National Referral Mechanism. They might be provided with accommodation in a safe house, counselling, or medical support. This in turn enables them to support investigations and prosecutions.
A recent operation which led to the imprisonment of 11 members of an organised crime group relied on the witness evidence of about 60 victims. The violent and ruthless criminals coerced their victims through menace and threat, controlled their finances and kept them in squalid accommodation. About of third of these victims had criminal convictions and under this proposed law would have been disqualified from support.
Without this support it is unlikely that they would have been able to give evidence and this would have seriously undermined the chances of a successful prosecution.
My third concern is that the need to consider whether support should be withdrawn from victims will inevitably slow down a decision-making process in the Home Office which is already creaking under the strain of backlogs.
At the beginning of this year those backlogs stood at over 17,000. This additional requirement will take time to administer fairly. And I know from previous experience that obtaining criminal records from many countries is a lengthy process.
We are quite rightly proud of our Modern Slavery Act which was genuinely ground-breaking in 2015. Let’s not rush through legislation which could undermine both the identification of victims and the prosecution of offenders – both key features of that act.