Parliamentary Debate on the Immigration and Social Security Bill – and it’s potential impact on victims of human trafficking

Sep 16, 2020 | Featured parliamentary activity


Parliamentary Debate on the Immigration and Social Security Bill – and its potential impact on victims of human trafficking

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)

My Lords, I am pleased to speak in support of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, who has done such heroic work, both here and in the Northern Ireland Assembly, in championing the rights of people who are being trafficked. I endorse everything that the noble Lord, Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown, has said. 

I should declare that I am a trustee of the anti-trafficking charity the Arise Foundation, which focuses on prevention of trafficking in source countries and has seen a huge increase in vulnerability, due to lack of available work during the Covid pandemic. When ready for publication, I suspect that we will see a substantial increase in trafficking numbers. Has the Minister seen any harbingers or indicators of that?

Undoubtedly, from the reports being received by Arise, Covid has had a devastating effect on heightening vulnerability in source countries, making it more likely that people will be at risk of making unsafe journeys. That is even more reason to incorporate the amendment. I also remind the Minister of the remarks I read into Hansard last week from the former independent commissioner on human trafficking, Kevin Hyland. 

I am greatly concerned that, as things stand, when proposed changes to immigration law come into effect on 1 January 2021, they will diminish the rights of victims of modern slavery, and the amendment would help to prevent that from happening. Whereas today EEA nationals who are victims of modern slavery are able to remain in the UK, accessing a variety of publicly funded benefits and employment opportunities to help them recover, they will lose this in the same way as EEA nationals who are not victims of modern slavery. Nothing comparable is being put in its place. Their only hope is to apply for discretionary leave to remain, but we know that in practice very few victims receive such grants of leave—about 12%. Perhaps the noble Baroness can confirm that.

Then I see from reading the Government’s response to Amendment 7 that, although they have committed not to, in effect, directly knock out rights from the EU anti-trafficking directive that are part of EU retained law, they cannot tell us whether all the rights currently available to victims will be part of EU retained law. The Government have a chance again to do that this evening. Unless they do so, this will continue to engender fear that 1 January 2021 will usher in the end of some effective rights of victims of modern slavery.

That would be particularly tragic for the Government because they can take great credit for passing the Modern Slavery Act 2015. I was happy to have been a participant in those proceedings. Of course, that legislation came forward only because of the work of the then Home Secretary, Theresa May. It is a permanent and lasting legacy and achievement of hers and of both Houses, working with one another across the political divide. I would be deeply saddened if I thought that anything we were doing now would in any way diminish the importance and effectiveness of that legislation. 

As the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, has said, one of the arguments advanced by those in favour of leaving the European Union, was that the UK would now have the option of not merely maintaining EU standards but going beyond them. Here is an opportunity to test that proposition. The Government could and should go further by urgently adopting the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill sponsored by the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, and the former Conservative Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith. 

In the time available to me, however, I want particularly to comment on the value of the amendment from the perspective of preventing human trafficking. I should like to pursue a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, about ensuring that the arrangements not only for the skilled worker visa but other migration routes will clearly set out how the Government intend to prevent human trafficking and exploitation and contain appropriate safeguards to avoid those routes being manipulated by traffickers.

I welcome the Government’s inclusion of protecting people from modern slavery in the three guiding principles for the points-based system set out in the further details statement published in July. The fact that the whole approach to immigration is underpinned by three foundational principles, and that one of those principles is concerned with combating trafficking, suggests that combating trafficking is important. But where is the delivery mechanism? That was a point made effectively by the two noble Lords who preceded me. I commend the amendment to the Minister as an example of the sort of mechanism that needs to be put in place in order to fulfil the aspirations of that principle.

Of course, not all migrant workers are vulnerable to modern slavery—a point made by the Minister rightly made from the Dispatch Box. Indeed, those who are the most highly paid are unlikely to be caught in exploitation; but even for skilled and well paid migrants it is important that checks and processes are put in place to ensure that those recruiting people from overseas are reputable, subject to scrutiny and abide by all labour regulations. The noble Baroness rightly reinforced that in our earlier debates.

Most at risk, though, are likely to be those who fall outside the skilled worker points-based programme—those who will participate in other temporary migration routes such as youth mobility schemes or seasonal worker schemes or those who may be recruited to work illegally spring to mind. The Government’s policy statement about the points-based system in February said: 

“We will not introduce a general low-skilled or temporary work route. We need to shift the focus of our economy away from a reliance on cheap labour from Europe and instead concentrate on investment in technology and automation. Employers will need to adjust.”

I am very concerned that some of the ways in which unscrupulous employers will adjust will include the exploitation of undocumented workers and it is worrying that that the Government do not seem to have taken account of that risk. I look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness says on that in her reply. 

I support the amendment because it will mean that, as the building blocks of the new immigration system are put in place through regulations under Clause 4, the Government will be required to assess the impact of that system on victims of modern slavery, and I hope, the way in which the system can prevent modern slavery from happening at all.

I was struck by research published in 2019 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which looked at labour exploitation of adult migrants in eight European Union states and found that

“vulnerability linked to residence status is the most important risk factor causing or contributing to labour exploitation”.

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In 2017 the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group warned that an approach to immigration targeted at reducing low-wage or low-skilled migration presents

“a key risk as, in low-skilled sections of the labour market where demand for cheap and temporary labour is greatest, migrant workers are already highly vulnerable to abuse. Demand for labour in these sectors is unlikely to decrease, meaning that positions may be filled by undocumented workers or those working in breach of visa conditions, who are at even greater risk of severe exploitation due to insecure status.”

I urge the Government to look again at the need for a safe and approved route for migrant labour to enter low-wage sectors. However, in doing so, the Government must consider how the structure of those schemes would facilitate or prevent modern day slavery.

Noble Lords will recall our many debates during and following the passage of the Modern Slavery Act regarding the risks of trafficking and exploitation of domestic migrant workers resulting from restrictions within the special overseas domestic worker visa. It was an issue on which—as I think the noble Lord, Lord Bates, who is on the Woolsack today, will recall—I divided the House. The risks that I and others identified included the inability of a worker to change their employer. We must take care that these harmful restrictions that have already been identified in relation to one sector are not replicated in the new immigration routes and system that will be formed through regulations made under Clause 4. Amendment 81 will help in that process.

The Government have already made a commitment to ensure that the points-based immigration system will protect individuals from modern slavery and exploitation. I commend them for that, but they must do more than make statements of aspiration in policy papers. They must make sure that rules, infrastructure and processes surrounding all migration routes will act to prevent modern slavery.

Amendment 81 provides a means for assessing whether each facet of the new immigration system meets this commitment to prevent trafficking and, crucially, allows Parliament to scrutinise the assessment. It will ensure that the risks to the most vulnerable of all workers are considered at the outset of developing new immigration policies and provides a way for the Government to put flesh on the bones of their July policy statement commitment to protecting individuals from modern slavery. For all those reasons, I commend Amendment 81 to the Committee.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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