On 8th March 2022, the House of Lords debated the Nationality and Borders Bill in its report stage. The Bishop of Worcester spoke in support of amendments to the bill that would remove certain clauses relating to victims of modern slavery, and moved an amendment intended to protect overseas domestic workers:
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, to remove Clauses 57, 58 and 62 from the Bill, to which I have added my name. I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on her appointment and give thanks for all the work she does, even when we do not always entirely agree across these Benches.
As we have heard, Clauses 57 and 58 would make it appreciably more difficult for people to be recognised as victims of modern slavery and receive support. In Committee, the Minister responded to my concerns about these clauses by saying that, far from deterring victims, this will
“encourage genuine victims to come forward”.—[Official Report, 10/2/22; col. 1843.]
I query how that can be the case. More referrals are being made—I am grateful for the statistics from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker—but we know that is only a very small fraction of the likely number of victims to come forward and be identified. The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimated that there could be as many as 136,000 victims in the UK at the moment.
I therefore cannot fathom how raising the burden of evidence, making it harder to get a reasonable grounds decision, can possibly do anything other than further put people off, further delay the already lengthy backlog in making conclusive grounds decisions and end up excluding some genuine victims from support. Could the Minister say, after hearing some evidence earlier on, what evidence and planning suggest that these measures will make genuine victims more likely to come forward? Could he share that evidence with us? It seems markedly at odds with the evidence presented by the front-line agencies.
In his response in Committee, the Minister argued that these clauses were necessary to prevent misuse of the migration system. We have heard some suggestions of that already. Could Ministers share that evidence, as it again seems markedly at odds with the evidence presented to us by agencies? I find it a troubling approach, cutting across support for genuine victims. We already have a system that requires an assessment of potential victims. It is capable of identifying fraudulent or inappropriate claims, and I believe that it does so. Given this, it is not clear to me that the Government have produced an adequate rationale for this reform.
Finally and briefly on Clause 62, I have heard the Minister’s reassurances, but I remain unclear about and uncomfortable with what could or would be classified as acting in “bad faith”, and where the line is to be drawn on serious or minor criminality. I remain concerned that Clause 62 is a gift to those who force victims into illegal activity to entrap them. I have heard the Minister promise that future modern slavery legislation is a priority. As the Bishop with lead responsibility for combating modern slavery, I truly welcome this and look forward to engaging on that legislation when it arrives.
I am not entirely clear what this legislation will address. I echo a question from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in Committee: if future positive legislation is in the pipeline, why are we being asked to push through Part 5, as others are saying, as an add-on to the Bill, which otherwise focuses overwhelmingly on the asylum system? For all those reasons, I remain of the view that these clauses would best be removed from the Bill and that the Government would do better to return with a new Bill that focuses squarely on modern slavery.
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, Amendment 70A is in my name and I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Hamwee, for their support, and to Kalayaan for its briefings and assistance. We debated this amendment in Committee but are bringing it back because the Government’s response seemed a little unclear on the situation as it occurs on the ground, and we might push them a little further to take overdue action. I will be interested to hear if there is any progress tonight.
The situation faced by overseas domestic workers is a historic wrong which has been allowed to continue for a decade, despite consistent evidence from the sector on what is happening. We need to reiterate from the start that this amendment looks only to restore the previous status quo, from before 2012. We know from the data collected by Kalayaan that, since then, reported levels of abuse of domestic workers have increased significantly. We also know that the Government recognised this as a legitimate problem, which is why new measures were introduced in 2016, as referenced by the Minister in Committee. These included allowing domestic workers to change employer but not to extend their visa, except in the cases of those officially recognised as a victim of people trafficking or modern slavery. The fact that these measures were felt necessary in 2016 is evidence that the Government concede that the abuse and exploitation is real and needs confronting.
Sadly, the evidence of the last six years from Kalayaan shows that while the problem is real, the 2016 solution has not really succeeded in helping at all. Indeed, its evidence shows that abuse and exploitation have continued in exactly the same way as before. For many of the workers in question, the inability to extend their visas when they change employer in practice leaves them trapped. If workers have only a relatively short time remaining on their visa—weeks or a few months—their visa status makes them unattractive potential employees and so, in practice, makes leaving their abusive employer the only option on paper.
The Government, including the Minister in Committee, have also urged that exploited workers are best dealt with through referral to the NRM. However, the problem here is that while many of the workers in question may have a case under employment law, they often do not meet the criteria of victims of modern slavery. They are, however, by virtue of their status at risk of falling into slavery or other forms of exploitation and abuse, precisely because it is difficult for them to change job or receive support—and because many are simply unaware of their rights or in possession of their passport or visa.
This amendment is really about prevention rather than cure. By restoring the previous ability of domestic workers to change employer and extend their visa we would empower them to report abuse, confident in their ability to attract alternative employment. Instead of waiting for them to become victims of slavery, we would be providing them with their own productive agency to escape their situation and report their exploiters. In the context of the Bill, this is a very modest amendment which would make little difference to the overall migration picture in the UK, but a vast difference to the lives of those impacted. We now have 10 years of data and evidence built up on this issue and I hope that we might be able to right this historic wrong. I beg to move.
Extracts from the speeches that followed:
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, I join other noble Lords in supporting the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol in moving Amendment 70A. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, I had the opportunity of meeting some of the people from Kalayaan in Palace Yard earlier today. It reminded me of the meeting I had with the group in 2015 when we were discussing the modern slavery legislation and the immigration Bill. With my noble friend Lord Hylton, whom my noble friend Lord Sandwich referred to earlier, we moved amendments at this time. I went back and took the trouble to have a look at what was said during the course of that debate. Indeed, everything that the right reverend Prelate said in her prescient and eloquent remarks was contained both in the amendment before the House tonight and in the amendments that were moved in the legislation that we divided the House on back in 2015 and 2016.
My noble friend Lord Kerr got it absolutely right, as often he does, when he said that this is about bringing the position back to the pre-2012 status. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, referred to the request of Kalayaan that that should be one of issues on the table during the discussions that will be held, I presume with the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, when they meet tomorrow at the Home Office. Like the noble Baroness, I would be grateful if we could have a bit more elucidation about what is going to be on the agenda for that discussion. Given that there is going to be new legislation not that far up the track, it would be wonderful if we could be assured that this will be on the agenda for proper consideration then and that what the right reverend Prelate has said to us tonight will be one of the things that will be considered.
Lord Rosser (Lab): In conclusion, I hope we will hear something positive on Amendment 70A. The right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Bristol, went through all the arguments for the amendment and the reasons it is needed, and I have no intention of repeating them. I also hope we hear something positive and more specific on Amendment 75. I asked the Government in Committee about the timescale. I said, “Is it this year?” and the reply was:
“Yes, I hope that it will be this year”.—[Official Report, 10/2/22; col.1924]
Bearing in mind that a few weeks have passed since Committee, perhaps the Minister will be able to say something firmer and more specific than, “Yes, I hope that it will be this year.”
Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con, Minister of State – Home Office): My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Bristol, for tabling amendment 70A. I thank all noble Lords for participating in this short debate. I also express my sympathy to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, for her nightmares.
It has been suggested by noble Lords that being able to change employer is of little use to those already close to their visa expiry date. We understand, of course, that it takes time to find work, but we must remind noble Lords that it is not the purpose of the domestic worker visa to enable migrant domestic workers to establish themselves in the labour market. This is about shifting the balance of power towards the worker by making it clear that their status in the UK is not exclusively dependent on the employer they arrived with.
By attempting to rewind the clock, this amendment risks reintroducing features of the route that were removed for a good reason. This amendment gives no thought to how the route should be modernised, or how better advantage could be taken of the infrastructure being introduced via the future borders and immigration system to improve the way we communicate with customers.
I respectfully contest the assertion that the system worked well in the past. We must not forget that abuse existed before the terms of the visa were changed in 2012. We must also be mindful that allowing ODWs to stay could inadvertently create a fresh cohort of recruits for traffickers, as the anti-slavery commissioner pointed out back then. That is obviously something we all wish to avoid.
However, none of this is to say that arrangements for domestic workers cannot be improved. It is important to keep routes such as this under continual review. It is important to look forward rather than backwards and to prioritise ending the importation of exploitative practices from overseas in the first place. We accept that not all exploited workers are victims of modern slavery. Following our previous commitment to explore this problem further, I am told, to confirm what the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, said, that Home Office policy officials will meet NGO practitioners tomorrow. They include Kalayaan and FLEX—Focus on Labour Exploitation. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I am afraid I do not know what the agenda is, but the Government are keen to hear directly from those who encounter and support domestic workers, including those who may fall between the cracks of labour abuse and modern slavery. The Government have committed to consider all evidence. In the light of this renewed collaboration and for the wider reasons I have given, I invite the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol to withdraw his amendment.
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, having listened to the debates, I am very grateful for the contribution of noble Lords who have spoken on this issue and engaged with it carefully and over time. I have to say that I am disappointed that we do not seem to have made much progress. I would have wanted to hear much more, not just about the agenda of the meeting tomorrow but about the possibility of future legislation and where this clause might fit within it. It concerns me deeply that there has not been any obvious detail about that for the future.
However, mindful of the time and the great number of issues that everyone has before them tonight and in future, I very reluctantly withdraw the amendment at this time.
Amendment 70A withdrawn.
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