Stuart McDonald – 2023 Speech on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery

The speech made by Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, in the House of Commons on 29 March 2023.

I, too, start by congratulating the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) on securing what he quite rightly described as a very timely debate. I hope that he is restored to full health very soon. I also very genuinely thank him for all his work over many years, which I think is recognised across the House; he has been a real champion for victims of trafficking.

The starting point for this debate—unusually, I agree with the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel)—should be recognition that we have in place across the United Kingdom some genuinely world-leading pieces of legislation that are designed to tackle trafficking and slavery. The problem, as a couple of hon. Members have already said, is that the message coming from those who work with trafficking victims is that we are in danger of going backwards and that these are truly worrying times for people caught up in those appalling crimes.

That is because—again, as has already been alluded to in this debate—the Government are increasingly conflating trafficking and immigration. That is despite the fact that, as other hon. Members have also already said, since 2018 over 16,000 British nationals have been referred to the national referral mechanism. That is a clear reminder that modern slavery is a crime of exploitation and not immigration. Despite that, however, the Government now seem to be consciously stripping away rights and protections from trafficking victims as a tool of immigration policy. So, the first and most important call that I make today is that we need the Government to recommit to eradicating modern-day slavery, because at the moment the Government’s commitment is increasingly being seen as playing second fiddle to immigration policy. Indeed, I almost think that we are at a point where we have to ask whether we should have trafficking policy being decided by the same Department that is in charge of immigration policy, because I think that one is dominating the other and that is not good for victims.

I will address three issues today. First, I will briefly consider the impact of the Illegal Migration Bill; secondly, I will take a quick look at some of the so-called “evidence” being used to justify that Bill, which the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) has already spoken about a little; and, thirdly, one issue that has not been touched on already is some of the updates to the modern slavery statutory guidance, which was implemented on 30 January 2023.

First of all, in relation to the Illegal Migration Bill, it is fair to say and Members will be aware that there were widespread and deep-seated concerns raised right across the House yesterday about the impact of that Bill on victims of trafficking. Members will be aware that I absolutely reject the logic of deterrence. However, even if someone accepts that premise, the logic of deterrence that permeates the Bill just does not apply when it comes to trafficking, because the simple point is that we cannot deter a trafficking victim from coming here; it is not a free choice, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough pointed out. So it makes no sense for the Government to massively undermine the various UK modern slavery laws through the Bill in the way that they propose to do.

The carveout in the Bill for situations where there is assistance with an investigation is worthless. That is because the result of the Bill will be that trafficking victims simply will not come forward to seek help at all, particularly if they are simply going to be discarded as soon as they have served any useful purpose in the criminal justice system. Consequently, I suspect that the Bill may well deliver a reduction in the number of possible trafficking victims being referred into the NRM, but that will simply be because fewer victims are coming forward and not because there are fewer victims.

Indeed, the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group is clear that the Bill will increase the number of victims and reduce the number of prosecutions against traffickers, driving the modern slavery system underground, meaning that survivors will no longer be able to report trafficking and access the assistance that they genuinely require.

Secondly, like the hon. Member for Rotherham, I will speak about all these allegations that people are “gaming the system”, to quote the current Home Secretary. I think that that narrative is quite simply not backed up by evidence, so the Home Office and the Home Secretary herself should provide the evidence to back up those claims, if there is any. The Home Office has already been reprimanded by the Office for Statistics Regulation and in December 2022 three UN special rapporteurs also expressed alarm at the UK Government’s increasing use of unsubstantiated and unevidenced claims.

The simple point made by those working in the field is that abuse of the modern slavery system is barely possible, and that point was made several times yesterday as well in the debate in the main Chamber, because someone cannot just claim to be a modern slave and enter the NRM in that way; someone has to be referred by an approved first responder. The Home Office must trust its own system, which prevents people with fraudulent claims of modern slavery from accessing support. The reasonable grounds decision within the NRM is designed exactly for that purpose.

So what are the actual statistics that are available to us? Based on Home Office figures, of the 83,000 people who arrived in the UK on small boats between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2022, only 7% were referred as potential victims of modern slavery. In the calendar year 2022, it was only 6% and the percentage subsequently recognised as victims of modern slavery or trafficking was 85%. There is also no evidence of an uptick in those being referred into the NRM and receiving a negative decision. The calendar year 2022 is absolutely consistent with earlier years in showing that 90% or more of those being referred into the NRM received conclusive grounds decisions that are positive.

This is the issue for the Minister: if the Home Office is going to persist in arguing that the modern slavery system is being abused, it must produce evidence. It would be useful to know what evidence and data the Government have.

I agree with the hon. Members speaking yesterday that the Illegal Migration Bill, which is now before Parliament, risks pushing victims away from seeking support and back into the arms of traffickers. We should improve the NRM and trafficking assessments. We should improve access to support and not drive people away from it.

The modern slavery statutory guidance, which was operationalised on 30 January 2023, was designed to remove what the Prime Minister referred to as the “gold plating” in our modern slavery system. Those updates include changes to the decision-making thresholds, which require survivors to provide unreasonably high levels of evidence in unrealistically short timeframes. New exclusions for bad-faith claims have been applied, but without sufficient safeguards built in. Victims and first responders will not be able to gather the necessary evidence in the five-day timeframe, meaning that genuine trafficking victims will be prevented from entering the NRM. There is no data yet available to determine the impact that the new guidance has had, so it would be useful to hear from the Minister what early analysis the Department has done about the impact of the new guidelines.

In implementing these guidelines, it seems to have been forgotten that the whole premise of the NRM and the two-tier decision-making process is to allow people to get a reasonable grounds decision fairly easily in order to access a recovery and reflection period. At that stage, evidence can be gathered in order to receive a conclusive grounds decision, if that can be reached.

Upping the reasonable grounds threshold will directly affect first responder organisations. They will have to provide a higher level of and more complex evidence, meaning that the amount of evidence and casework required to get a positive reasonable grounds decision, when compared with the situation previously, will put further extensive pressure on organisations that are already at breaking point. One designated first responder organisation has commented:

“The update puts additional burden on an already collapsing First Responder system, with capacity for referrals dangerously low.”

Concerns have been raised by modern slavery and trafficking organisations that the changes are building on previous regressive changes, including when the recovery period was reduced from 45 days to 30 and the multi-agency assurance panel process was removed. There are significant concerns that, together, those changes will make it harder for survivors to be identified and to access support, and that this represents a regression in efforts to increase identification and trauma-informed support for modern slavery victims.

We could have said a lot in this debate about where we should go with our modern slavery policy. There are calls for more evidence-led policies; for collaborative approaches; for investment to fix the NRM and the huge backlog there; to improve training for first responder organisations; and to recognise more first responder organisations. There are calls for better and longer support for survivors that is tailored to their individual needs. That helps them and it helps us to prosecute criminals. We must improve prosecution rates and, as many hon. Members have said, we must have an independent anti-slavery commissioner in place.

The problem is, however, that before we can move forward, we must stop moving backwards. Sadly, things appear to be getting worse, rather than better. At the very least, we must take out the modern slavery provisions in the Illegal Migration Bill. We must also reconsider some of the recent changes to modern slavery guidance. We have to consider whether we can continue to have one Department responsible both for looking after trafficking victims and for immigration policy, because it seems to be delivering absolutely the wrong results.