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The Nationality and Borders Bill risks letting down modern slavery victims

4 min read

The UK has a proud history of tackling slavery and I was honoured to play a part in that as the minister who took the Modern Slavery Act through Parliament. I therefore more than welcome this Government’s latest commitment to carry on this work to ensure we remain world leading in this area.

As Co-Chair of the APPG on Human Trafficking & Modern Slavery, I have been following the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill closely as it makes its way through Parliament. It has completed its Committee stage and will soon come back to the House of Commons for its Report stage where we will be able to consider amendments.

The Home Office considers that the Bill will lead to real improvements for victims but there seems to be a disconnect between them and practitioners in the sector. The APPG has been overwhelmed with concerns from NGOs and others, including the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, who all agree that the Bill needs amending to ensure it protects victims of Modern Slavery.

The Bill on the face of it is about immigration and includes many good measures that I know Parliamentarians and a great many of my constituents are concerned about, and that this Government absolutely has a mandate and duty to tackle.

It also offers a real opportunity to strengthen how we tackle modern slavery, and I wholeheartedly support the good things in the Bill, for example its plan to put in statute, that victims of modern slavery require support and legal aid. However, one of my concerns is that Whitehall seems too often to treat Modern Slavery as if it were a crime of immigration rather than what it actually is: an economic crime.

There is no other crime where one of the first questions asked of a victim is “what is your immigration status?” The Bill will penalise victims of slavery entering the UK if they don’t reveal they have been enslaved within a set period of time, or if they have entered the UK illegally despite the fact that many victims of slavery often have no choice on how they enter the country.  

A known indicator of slavery is victims not wanting, or being unable due to trauma or fear, to reveal what happened to them for sometimes many years. The Government’s own modern slavery statutory guidance recognises this. For example, several of the British men identified who had been exploited by traveller families, and forced to work hours on end, for little or no pay, beaten regularly, and starved to the point of some of the men having scurvy, refused to identify themselves as victims of slavery. They called the families who had abused them ‘friends’.   

The UK has a framework for identifying and providing short-term support to victims of modern slavery called the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). The Bill aims to disqualify, from this NRM support, any victim of modern slavery considered to be a ‘threat to public order’. The reasonable justification for this is to prevent fraudulent or dangerous criminals from using experiences of exploitation to avoid justice or deportation.

My worry is that the Bill is drafted in such a way that the definitions of serious criminality and ‘public order’ are too broad and will impact British slavery cases and children, along with anyone who has been convicted of a minor offence.  It even includes offences that were committed under duress in slavery. Yet we know many, if not most, British modern slavery survivors have, or are at risk of, a criminal conviction due to their exploitation, including many who commit petty crimes in a desperate bid to escape their abusers.  

Another concern is that this high threshold will inadvertently target the police’s most valuable assets – victims themselves who act as witnesses. We would all like to see more prosecutions but if we make it even more difficult for the victims to come forward, this will inevitably lead to less.

This Bill offers a real opportunity to strengthen how we tackle Modern Slavery and I know that the Government wants to do the right thing. However, as it stands, I believe it risks taking us several steps backwards in the fight to put traffickers behind bars – something I know is not the intention of this Government.

The Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP is Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery

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