The Independent Anti-Slavery commissioner has said that ministers are too often viewing modern slavery and human trafficking through an “immigration lens”, which is the “entire opposite approach” to the Modern Slavery Act 2015, a series of laws designed to combat slavery in the UK.
During an interview with The Independent, Dame Sara Thornton said the new immigration bill that the home secretary, Priti Patel, is trying to push through would “create more people in this country who are vulnerable to exploitation” and “undermine” Britain’s ability to prosecute traffickers.
She also said she had “grave concerns” about policy changes that have recently been implemented, and accused the Home Office of failing to “take note” of her advice and warnings before pushing through reforms.
The Nationality and Borders Bill, which passed through the House of Commons earlier this month and is due to be scrutinised by the Lords in January, will tackle illegal immigration and the “underlying pull factors into the UK’s asylum system”, according to Ms Patel.
It contains a series of changes to modern slavery support – provided under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – which the home secretary claims will prevent people from being able to “frustrate immigration action”.
Currently, any individual that NRM decision-makers assess to have a “reasonable” likelihood of having been a modern slavery victim is entitled to a 45-day “reflection period”, during which they are offered housing, financial support and counselling, and will not be removed from the UK. A “conclusive” decision is later made on their case.
But the bill would disqualify victims who have been sentenced to prison for more than 12 months anywhere in the world from accessing NRM support, and limit the timeframe in which non-British survivors can disclose that they have suffered abuse.
It would also see refugees who arrive in Britain via unauthorised routes, such as on small boats crossing the Channel, denied an automatic right to asylum and instead be regularly reassessed for removal to safe countries they passed through – and given reduced rights in the UK in the meantime.
Dame Sara said the latter change, which would likely see many people unable to work or claim state benefits, would “create more people in this country who are very vulnerable, and vulnerable to exploitation”.
She added: “People might have not been victimised at all on their way here, but actually they’re an exceptionally vulnerable population and they could be exploited. Think about all the labour shortages we’ve got – the unscrupulous could employ people. They’d be working illegally, with no protections whatsoever. The chances of them being exploited are really quite substantial.”
The commissioner, who took up the role in May 2019 after working in the police force for 33 years, said the government’s plan to prevent people with past prison sentences of more than a year from accessing NRM support would create “deserving victims and undeserving victims”, which would be a “problem, as a matter of principle”.
The change would also create more delays in the NRM, which is already ridden with backlogs – with the average conclusive grounds decision taking more than 450 days – as decision-makers would have to enquire into the criminal background of recognised victims, she said.
Dame Sara raised concerns that the bill would also make prosecuting perpetrators more difficult: “If you look at people who give evidence against human traffickers, we think about a third of these witnesses might fall under this provision, and wouldn’t get the NRM support, so you’re just undermining your ability to prosecute traffickers. Why would you do that?”
Meanwhile, limiting the timeframe in which victims can disclose that they suffered abuse “disregards what we know about the trauma of potential victims”, she said. “If someone is given a form and told to respond within so many weeks, it doesn’t seem to me the best way to find out whether someone might be a victim, and it risks missing victims.”
Earlier this year, the Home Office said that criminals and failed asylum seekers were “taking advantage of modern slavery safeguards” in order to prevent their removal and enable them to stay in the UK. The department published data showing that the proportion of modern slavery protection claims among people exiting removal centres had increased from 3 per cent to 16 per cent between 2017 and 2019 – but it did not present any evidence to suggest that there has been a rise in failed or false claims.
Dame Sara said she disagreed with the Home Office’s conclusion that more referrals meant there was more abuse in the system, saying: “Just because more people are referred into the NRM, you cannot conclude a causal link.”
Asked whether she was concerned that immigration enforcement risked being prioritised over the fight against modern slavery, the commissioner said: “It’s hard to argue there isn’t an overlap, but I worry we’re looking at the issue through an immigration lens, which is the entire opposite approach to the Modern Slavery Act – which is about victims, their protection, and prosecuting offenders.
“With [the government’s] very strong focus on immigration and borders, my argument is we risk unintended consequences for our fight against modern slavery in both pursuing the traffickers and protecting the victims.”
Aside from the new immigration bill, Dame Sara expressed “grave concern” about the Home Office’s decision last month to grant immigration enforcement teams the power to decide on NRM cases for people facing deportation from the UK.
The Home Office has said the move would “streamline” decision-making, but the commissioner, who was not consulted on the change before it was implemented, said it created potential for the decisions to be “inappropriately influenced by immigration concerns”.
Asked whether she felt the Home Office was listening to her concerns, she said: “They listen, but they don’t necessarily take note.”
A Home Office spokesperson said people with a 12-month sentence or more would only be removed from the NRM on a case-by-case basis, and after full and careful consideration of any possible vulnerabilities and their individual circumstances.
They added: “The Nationality and Borders Bill will go further than ever before in terms of putting victims’ rights into law, including providing clarity on their entitlement to a recovery period, which will be tailored to their personal needs.”
“It is vital our broken immigration system is fixed, and our New Plan for Immigration will ensure we can stop the criminal practices of those who abuse it.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies