Priti Patel’s immigration bill will make it harder to prosecute human traffickers, top police officers warn

Exclusive: Ministers warned plans will ‘destroy’ protections for modern slavery victims

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Monday 08 November 2021 00:52 GMT
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith warned that in its current form the Nationality and Borders Bill risks ‘undoing’ the Modern Slavery Act
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith warned that in its current form the Nationality and Borders Bill risks ‘undoing’ the Modern Slavery Act (Getty)

Priti Patel’s immigration bill risks hampering the prosecution of human traffickers in the UK and making it more difficult for people to escape exploitation, senior police officers have warned.

Cross-party MPs, including two former Tory leaders, and the country’s leading prosecutor in trafficking cases, have also criticised the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently going through parliament, saying it will “water down” vital protections for modern slavery victims.

The bill includes a number of changes to modern slavery support, which the home secretary says will prevent people from being able to “frustrate immigration action” by disclosing late in the process that they have suffered abuse.

It would mean any victim who has been sentenced to prison for more than 12 months anywhere in the world would be disqualified from modern slavery support in the UK, and that survivors would be given a defined period to disclose the abuse they have suffered.

Senior police officers have warned that it can often take a considerable amount of time for trafficking survivors to disclose their exploitation, meaning reducing the time they are given could hinder prosecutions.

Chief Superintendent Paul Griffiths, president of the Police Superintendents’ Association who led Operation Imperial – a major investigation into modern slavery offences in the UK between 2013 and 16 – said giving victims time to disclose exploitation was crucial.

“This bill introduces time limits which could be disadvantageous to people who take a long time to reconcile their position. Their disclosure can be the first step towards getting evidence from them. Without that there won’t be any judicial processes,” he told The Independent.

Referencing one particular case, he said: “We dealt with a victim who quite literally didn’t realise, or accept, that they were a victim of forced labour for 18 months. Sometimes victims need time to build the confidence to provide evidence that can be used in prosecutions.”

Caroline Haughey QC, a leading barrister who is the UK’s foremost trafficking prosecutor and helped draft the country’s modern slavery laws, said the bill would “destroy” much of the legislation designed to protect victims, describing it as “horrendous”.

“This is taking a sledge-hammer to crack a nut and subsequently destroying 10 years of work that led to the Modern Slavery Act and led to us being the best in the world. They are crushing the system to punish the minority rather than save the majority,” she told The Independent.

“It’s based on a presumption that everyone who uses the system is lying. They’re conflating immigration offending, migration issues, with modern slavery. There doesn’t appear to be a real understanding of the victim typology in trafficking cases.”

Ms Haughey, who said she had not been approached by the government in the drafting of the bill, added: “They want me to do more prosecutions, they want us to lock up bad guys, they want us to protect the vulnerable – why then are they chopping off both my arms while I’m trying to do it?”

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the Conservatives and co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), has proposed a number of amendments to the bill, warning that in its current form it risks “undoing” the Modern Slavery Act and will lead to “vital intelligence” on trafficking cases being “lost”.

“The risk is that they’ll get fewer convictions and there will be fewer people making modern slavery disclosures, and more people continuing to work in this ghastly subculture of abuse,” he told The Independent.

The Tory MP said the Home Office was “over-egging” the issue of people falsely claiming to be modern slavery victims to evade deportation, accusing ministers of wrongly branding it a “crisis”.

The CSJ proposes that all confirmed victims should be offered at least 12 months of support and immigration status, that only “serious, sexual, violent or repeat” offenders should be disqualified from support and that “greater weight” should be given to reasons why victims may make late disclosures.

Conservative MP Karen Bradley, who co-chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, supports the amendments. She said the bill would “make it harder for the police and law enforcement to arrest the criminals responsible for these heinous crimes”.

“I am concerned that by making changes like these in what is ostensibly an immigration bill we will water down our weapons in the fight against human trafficking and modern slavery,” she added.

During the second reading of the bill in July, former prime minister Theresa May said she was concerned about the defined period people would be given to disclose the abuse they suffered.

“We must have legislation that not only strengthens the government’s ability to deal with illegal immigration but continues to show that the UK is a country that welcomes those who are genuinely fleeing from persecution,” she told MPs.

Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds has written to Ms Patel warning that the bill would “make it harder for victims to be identified and bring cases forward”, thus “undermining the UK’s position to lead across the world in addressing modern slavery”.

The Labour MP, who last week held a roundtable discussion with experts about the impact of the bill on the fight against trafficking described the plan to set a time limit for people to disclose they are victims as “dangerous”.

“Instead of improving the identification of victims at an early stage and providing support, this bill will allow organised criminal networks to continue operating,” his letter states.

Phil Brewer, who served as modern slavery lead for the Metropolitan Police between 2014 and 2019 and worked as a police officer for a total of 30 years, told The Independent the bill was “wholly worrying” for the UK’s fight against modern slavery.

“It hasn’t been properly thought through. They want to make it harder for people that want to take advantage of the system, but actually it will exclude a much higher number of genuine victims. It will empower exploiters to control and coerce people,” he said.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Human trafficking has absolutely no place in our society and we are committed to tackling these heinous crimes, whilst ensuring victims are protected and receive the support they need.”

They said the new immigration plans would seek to ensure that asylum, human rights claims and other protection matters were considered at the “earliest opportunity”, and this would be supported by an “enhanced legal aid offer”.

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