Nationality and Borders Bill 2022: Bishop of St Albans speaks in support of amendments on modern slavery

On 8th March 2022, the House of Lords debted the Nationality and Borders Bill in the 3rd day of the report stage. The Bishop of St Albans spoke in support of several amendments on modern slavery:

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 67 and 68 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I spoke to these amendments in Committee because I was concerned that Clause 59 was effectively raising the reasonable grounds threshold for identifying a victim of modern slavery. With respect to the Government, I confess that I remain unconvinced by their desire to alter reasonable grounds thresholds, and was not adequately assuaged in my fears that this could erect an unnecessary barrier to victims accessing the national referral mechanism.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, made the argument in Committee that reasonable grounds decisions on the standard of “suspect but cannot prove” would allow the Modern Slavery Act to be more in line with ECAT. I am not a legal expert so this may well be the case. However, I made the point that since we currently use “maybe” as it exists within the Modern Slavery Act, as opposed to “is” or “are” as proposed by the Government —indeed, rather than “has been” as appears in ECAT—in supposedly bringing ourselves in line with ECAT we would effectively raise the threshold for access to the NRM.

There are then two possibilities here. Either by opting not to have a “suspect but cannot prove” reasonable grounds, we are moving away from ECAT, or we are essentially raising our reasonable grounds threshold away from a standard of “suspect but cannot prove” to be in line with ECAT. If it is the former, the amendments presented by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, would better achieve the Government’s stated aim. If it is the latter, it begs the question as to what the benefits are of aligning ourselves to ECAT if we are in effect raising the threshold and making it more difficult for victims to access the NRM.

I recognise that we have obligations under ECAT but, as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, previously pointed out, we do not break our international obligations by going further than them, and by seeking alignment via Clause 59 we would effectively withdraw to an obligation that is weaker than our existing legislation. It is slightly bizarre that Her Majesty’s Government seem happy to diverge from Europe when it comes to regulation and standards, as was recently announced with regard to the prospective Brexit freedoms Bill, but when it comes to reducing a threshold for the victims of modern slavery it appears that they are rushing for alignment.

As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that the NRM is being abused. In 2020, the single competent authority made 10,608 reasonable grounds referrals, of which 92% were later confirmed as victims, and 81% of reconsidered claims were later positive. There is an obvious fear that, through this higher standard, a number of victims may not even enter the system at all and, furthermore, that 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. Surely this cannot be the Government’s intention.

I will listen with great interest and care to the Minister’s response. I hope that rather than just talk about the need for legal clarity in relation to both the statutory guidance and ECAT, which I recognise is important, he will address the pressing problem about whether this increased reasonable grounds threshold would have a negative effect on people using the NRM or indeed on referrals being made. I believe that this is the central concern that many of us have in this whole group of amendments, which I support.


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