Nationality and Borders Bill: Bishop of St Albans supports amendments to clause on modern slavery decision thresholds

During a committee debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill on 10th February 2022, the Bishop of St Albans spoke in support of amendments to clause 59 of the bill, relating to thresholds for assessing victims of modern slavery via the National Referral System. The amendments would seek to stop the threshold for assessment of modern slavery victims being raised above the standard of “suspect but cannot prove.”

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I shall speak to amendments 156A and 156B in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, and the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, to which I have added my name. I hope I can be fairly brief because much of the ground has been set out brilliantly by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I am very grateful for that.

The reality of Clause 59 is that raising the threshold—from “reasonable grounds” to believe that someone maybe a victim of modern slavery, to “is” such a victim—could lead to the national referral mechanism failing to identify victims of modern slavery, effectively shutting them out of the support that they so desperately need. That was picked up yesterday in our General Synod debate across the road, to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol has already alluded.

The Clewer initiative, to which she has also alluded, is our response to modern slavery. It was set up in 2016 and published three strategies for 2022. Two of these included promoting victim identification and providing victim care and support. Our concern, along with the Clewer initiative, is not just to get down to the legal minimum but to try to accompany people on what is the most traumatic journey, through which many of them will need considerable help. Part of the reason for that—many Members of your Lordships’ House will grasp this but many people in wider society do not—is that much modern slavery is effectively hidden, and sometimes so subtle that even the people involved in it do not always get what is going on. That is why it affects drug traffickers, fruit pickers, beauticians, people working in nail bars and so on, as well as the obvious areas where people find themselves caught up—for example, in the sex industry.

This coercion is a subtle thing, but it plays a central role in keeping individuals in this misery. It can range from violence to substance addiction, debt bondage and, of course, withholding people’s papers. So, it is a long and complex process. The CURE initiative states that beyond these factors, one of the key elements in controlling victims of modern slavery is creating a fear of any authority so the victims simply do not know where to go. Often, victims will hide.

So it is crucial that, as we are trying to think about the right threshold, we make sure people are getting support and not being prevented before they have even accessed a lawyer, translator or advocate to help evidence their experiences. My fear is that, without these amendments, exploiters and slavers will be able to lean on this increased threshold to further manipulate and control their victims, and deter them from seeking help.

I will just underline some statistics—and one or two more—that the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, mentioned. In 2020, the single competent authorities, he said, made 10,608 reasonable grounds and 3,454 conclusive grounds decisions. Of these, 92% of reasonable grounds and 89% of conclusive grounds were positive; and 81% of reconsidered claims at reasonable grounds stage were later positive. In other words, the vast majority of those who receive positive reasonable grounds decisions go on to be confirmed as victims. That is the crucial thing here.

It seems extraordinary that it looks as if the Government are trying to bring the UK in line with the Council of Europe Convention against Trafficking—ECAT—for reasonable grounds decisions on whether a person is a victim of modern slavery, particularly when our current legislation, it would appear, goes well beyond ECAT and strengthens the identification mechanisms to ensure that fewer victims fall through 

the cracks and fail to receive the appropriate support after the terrible injustices they have incurred and the suffering they have experienced.

I cannot tell whether this alignment it seems the Government are doing is simply for alignment’s sake. But it does seem extraordinary when we were told again and again that the point about Brexit was that we did not need to align with others and could actually make the right decisions. Yesterday’s debate paid huge tribute to our Government in this country for being a trailblazer in this work. I fear that we are going backwards at a time when we need a much stronger lead in our nation. I am struggling to identify any positives with respect to the increased reasonable grounds threshold, and I worry it will simply play into the hands of traffickers. We need the Government to look afresh at this section. I particularly commend these amendments as a way that we may improve this Bill as it goes through Parliament.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Prashar (CB): My Lords, I rise to support Amendments 156A and 156B, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and supported by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and myself. I will be extremely brief as all the points I wished to make have already been covered. Therefore, I really want to say that I strongly support the amendments and the arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that the Government should put on the face of the Bill that a reasonable grounds decision should be made on the tried and trusted standard of “suspect but cannot prove”. I think his explanation and the logic of his arguments were compelling, so I would urge the Government to pay some heed.

Lord Stewart of Dirleton (Con, Advocate General for Scotland): I think the whole Committee will be aware that understanding of the painful effects of trauma and suffering on individuals and their ability to recollect is developing and has developed considerably over recent years, as a better comprehension of these strains and pressures comes to be understood. That understanding filters into this field, as into others. In particular, I refer your Lordships to understanding in the criminal justice system as to why people may make declarations or give statements that are not in their best interests or that they subsequently seek to go back on.

This topic seems to inform the points raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans and my noble friend Lord Deben. Victims may well not want or be able to relive their trauma to state officials. Moulded by forces that those of us who have been happy enough to lead comfortable and sheltered lives can barely comprehend, they may find state officials intimidating.

Will the policy inhibit such people and impact adversely their ability to come forward and speak up? We recognise that some victims of exploitation may be fearful of coming forward to talk to the authorities, including some of the organisations that operate as first responders. That is why a range of organisations operate as first responders, including charities—some of which the Committee has heard about—that work closely with victims and local authorities.

We are keen to ensure that potential victims of trafficking are identified as early as possible and are supporting this with an improved legal aid offer for victims of trafficking with no immigration status within the United Kingdom and subject to immigration removal. This is to ensure that individuals receive the correct support package at the earliest opportunity to address their needs, regardless of when cases are brought, to make sure that those who need protection are afforded it.

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