Lord McColl, one time PPS to Prime Minister John Major, has been a Conservative Peer since 1989. His Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill had its Second Reading on 8th September and is currently awaiting its Committee Stage.
One of the measures of any society is the extent to which it values and cares for the vulnerable.
There are of course those who believe that this is a Labour rather than Conservative policy focus. While I certainly have no wish to exclude any other party from seeking to develop public policy solutions that care for the vulnerable – indeed I would encourage them to do so – I strongly believe that this is key Conservative territory.
In this regard it is interesting to note that, quite apart from Government measures, our Party’s history has given rise to numerous successful Private Members Bills (PMBs) that have radically improved the circumstances of the vulnerable. Some of these we are rather prone to forget.
It was, for instance, a Conservative PMB in 1842 which ended the appalling exploitation of women and children in the mines; a Conservative PMB in 1845 that combated the dreadful exploitation of children in calico print works; and a Conservative PMB in 1851 that addressed the failings of the Common Lodging Houses. The latter Bill gave rise to what Charles Dickens famously described as ‘the best Act ever passed by an English legislature.’
Today we need to be thinking about how current Conservative Private Members Bills can similarly place our Party on the cutting edge of compassionate policy making. It is with this in view that I have introduced my Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill.
One of our Prime Minister’s greatest achievements is undoubtedly the Modern Slavery Act, passed in 2015, when she was Home Secretary. It constitutes a seminal piece of legislation of which she and the Conservative Party can be proud. There is, however, always scope for improvement.
While the Act is tough on traffickers, it is more limited when it comes to care for victims. Unlike the equivalent Northern Irish and Scottish legislation, which mandates victim care, the equivalent England and Wales legislation only gives the option for introducing statutory provision and so far, no such legislation has been provided.
This is not to suggest that victim care is not made available. However, in Northern Ireland and Scotland the services must be provided transparently by law, and there are clear and publicly accountable legal standards. These safeguards are absent in England and Wales, and this creates the unfortunate situation in which trafficking victims in England and Wales are afforded fewer legal rights to support and assistance than victims in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
My Bill addresses this shortcoming by placing victim care and service standards on a transparent statutory foundation. This provides much needed certainty and reassurance for both victims and the charities that support them.
A further challenge has been highlighted by the recent House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry into ‘Victims of Modern Slavery’.
At present, not only is there no statutory service provision for victims in England and Wales, but what is provided ceases as a matter of course 14 days after a person is confirmed as a genuine victim of trafficking by what is known as the National Referral Mechanism.
It seems bizarre to me that we should mark the point at which we finally confirm that someone has been subject to the terrible trauma of modern slavery by absolving ourselves of any further automatic responsibility for their care. Rather than marking the point at which our general obligation ends, I believe that if we are to create a compassionate society, this is the juncture at which our obligations become greater.
Now, of course, there are already procedures whereby a victim can apply for leave to remain in certain circumstances, such as pursuing a claim against their trafficker or helping the police with their investigations, but the procedures are complicated and can take some considerable time during which victims are left to fend for themselves, often become homeless and are highly vulnerable to re-trafficking.
I believe that it makes far more sense, as the Work and Pensions Committee has argued, to provide an automatic 12 months’ leave to remain, and support from the point at which a person is a confirmed victim of trafficking. This is the second central provision of my Bill.
There is not only a moral, victim-centred imperative for this change, but it also serves our goal of increasing the number of trafficking convictions. The truth is that if victims are not given the leave to remain and support that I am proposing, they are far less likely to be available to act as witnesses in court, so we are much less likely to secure trafficking convictions.
Ironically, if we choose to pursue a policy that is more focused on bringing traffickers to justice than it is concerned with caring for victims, we are more likely to miss both the goals of prosecution and protection, while a victim-centred approach is more likely to increase the number of trafficking convictions at the same time as doing the right thing for victims.
There may be some who are concerned that my Bill will attract more trafficking victims to Britain, but that view is frankly nonsensical. Traffickers are not attracted to a destination on the basis that if their victims are rescued they will be better cared for. Indeed, to the extent that better care suggests a society that is taking the combating of trafficking more seriously, the only thing it is likely to result in is traffickers choosing to go elsewhere.
Similarly, any suggestion that the right to remain for up to 12 months will result in numerous false claims also lacks credibility because it assumes people can refer themselves into the National Referral Mechanism, but this can only be done by qualified ‘first responders’ like the police.
Moreover, even if a first responder was mistaken, the alleged victim’s case would be considered in detail by the very competent National Referral Mechanism, which would weed out any spurious claims.
I believe that my Bill is in the best One Nation Conservative tradition, and that by demonstrating better care to victims, and thereby increasing the chances of trafficking convictions, it will greatly strengthen the Modern Slavery Act. I very much hope that the Government will see it as a timely opportunity for our Party and the country and give it their full support.
Incidentally the PMBs I alluded to earlier were all introduced by the Conservative MP Lord Ashley, who went on to become the celebrated Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Interestingly one of his last political acts before his death in 1885 was to go and see Lord Salisbury, the then Prime Minister, about human trafficking. It is not a new phenomenon!