Ministers refuse calls from senior Tories to protect trafficking victims

Ex-Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith says Home Office ‘utterly wrong’ not to make proposed changes

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Tuesday 12 January 2021 08:31 GMT
‘Immigration control is nothing to do with this. If the Home Office officials want to blur the lines, then they are the guilty parties,’ says Ian Duncan Smith
‘Immigration control is nothing to do with this. If the Home Office officials want to blur the lines, then they are the guilty parties,’ says Ian Duncan Smith (Getty)

Ministers have refused calls from senior Tories to provide immigration protection for trafficking survivors, prompting claims that the Home Office is prioritising immigration control over tackling modern slavery.

Safeguarding minister Victoria Atkins has confirmed that she opposes the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill – tabled by Conservative peer Lord McColl – which calls for modern slavery victims of all nationalities to receive a minimum of 12 months’ leave to remain in the UK.

In a letter to charity After Exploitation last week, Ms Atkins said: “The government does not agree that victims should automatically be granted leave to remain for 12 months. Immigration decisions for victims of modern slavery are made on a case-by-case basis, considering the individual circumstances of the case.”

Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, who supports the bill, told The Independent he was “dismayed” by the response, describing it as “utterly wrong” and accusing Home Office officials of prioritising immigration control over the UK’s fight against modern slavery.

“[Home Office officials] have this idea that somehow this would encourage people to apply for conditions under modern day slavery. Well that’s ridiculous: the numbers are tiny,” he said.

“We’ve shown the evidence that if you give victims longer in the UK, they are more likely to turn evidence and give you the opportunity to put behind bars the real people you should be chasing, who are the people manipulating them and getting them sent over here.”

The MP added: “Immigration control is nothing to do with this. If the Home Office officials want to blur the lines, then they are the guilty parties. They will find it much more difficult to prosecute those who are guilty of manipulating lives and abusing people.

“We have shown them the evidence for this, and the government must act.”

In response to his remarks a Home Office spokesperson said: “Civil servants provide advice to ministers. They present evidence, facts and options to ministers so that they can make well-informed decisions.”

It comes after former Home Office minister Caroline Nokes laid out a damning indictment of the department’s current approach to immigration control during an interview with The Independent, describing it as “profoundly depressing” and at times “hideously wrong”.  

The Tory MP said the government’s “inhuman” approach would only cause further problems and end up costing the taxpayer more money, and accused ministers of failing to put people at the heart of Home Office policy, as was recommended in the Windrush review last March.

Currently, discretionary leave is automatically considered for all non-EU survivors of trafficking in the UK, but the overall number of survivors who are granted it remains very low.  

In 2015, 123 survivors with positive conclusive grounds were granted discretionary leave, in 2019 it was 70 and in the first three months of this year it was only eight. Immigration changes under Brexit mean EU victims may also face immigration detention.

Responding to Ms Atkins’s letter, Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation, warned that until the government created a culture of safety for those exploited, it would be impossible to win the trust of survivors who are “rightfully fearful of seeking help”.

“The current system of support and recognition is unsustainable and makes it difficult for non-UK survivors to report crime due to the threat of deportation or detention. Equally, UK survivors cannot be confident about the length of support, such as access to safe housing, they will receive if they come forward,” she added.

Kate Roberts, UK and Europe manager at Anti-Slavery International, said granting 12 months’ leave to all trafficking survivors was “fundamental” to ensuring the UK’s anti-slavery response was effective, as it would encourage more victims to come forward and support them to move on from the control traffickers hold over them. 

“This is a basic and moderate ask which is more important than ever following the UK’s departure from the EU, and would demonstrate a commitment to effectively addressing slavery through supporting recovery and sustainable freedom,” she added. 

Lord McColl said: “We are losing vital intelligence from all those victims who are not able to engage with police investigations because they do not have long term support or a stable immigration status. 

"How can we expect victims to engage with court proceedings if they have no certainty about how long they can stay in the UK and whether they will have a roof over their head or food to eat?”

It comes after the independent anti-slavery commissioner backed granting leave to all victims for the first time earlier this month, warning that without this measure they risk being left destitute on the streets.

Speaking to the Thompson Reuters Foundation, Dame Sara Thornton said: “There is a powerful moral argument for granting leave for those whom the state has concluded are victims of trafficking or slavery but there is also a practical one […] Surely 2021 is the year to resolve this?”

The Home Office has been approached for comment.

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