Parliament has voted to bring in legislation that will make it more difficult for suspected trafficking victims to be released from detention as part of government plans to prevent criminals from taking advantage of modern slavery safeguards.
But Conservative, Labour, DUP and SNP MPs opposed the plans, warning that the move would “significantly downgrade protections” and would make people who have endured exploitation at the hands of traffickers less likely to escape their abuse and present to the authorities.
The Home Office is to bring forward the changes in the form of a statutory instrument, a form of legislation that enables the government to change policies without them having to pass through parliament.
Labour MP John McDonnell tabled an early day motion to oppose the plans, which took place in the House of Commons on Wednesday. The changes subsequently passed by 358 votes to 270.
Nearly 3,000 people identified as potential victims of trafficking – making them eligible for access to safe housing and counselling – have been detained due to their immigration status since January 2019.
Under current policy, if someone in immigration detention is identified as a potential victim of modern slavery they are automatically considered for release unless their detention can be justified on grounds of public order.
But the Home Office’s plans – set to come into force on 25 May – will mean that to be considered for release, suspected victims will be required to provide medical evidence that their ongoing detention would place them at “future harm”, as is the case with all immigration detainees.
The Home Office has admitted that “some individuals may, as a result of the changes, be more likely to be detained, or have their detention continued, than would currently be the case”.
Expert organisations including Anti-Slavery International, After Exploitation and Medical Justice have raised concern that the change would weaken the protections for potential victims of trafficking and result in more of them being detained for a longer time.
Speaking in the Commons on Wednesday, Mr McDonnell attacked the legislation as a “disgraceful act of inhumanity” and a “dereliction of government duty”, adding: “To attack the most vulnerable people living in fear of our community is a new low for this parliament.
“I believe this legislation will deter victims from coming forward. It will be used by traffickers to discover victims escaping. Traffickers will say to the victims, with some accuracy, if you try to escape you’ll be locked up anyway in a detention centre or prison.”
Mr McDonnell pointed out the fact that a victim has been trafficked often leads to them having a negative immigration history, as being under the control of a trafficker may result in the person being “forcibly trafficked to commit in this country”.
“We need to recall the people we’re talking about. These are trafficked, exploited, abused physically, sexually and mentally. They’re extremely vulnerable, they’re isolated, confused,” he added.
Shadow immigration minister Holly Lynch expressed “grave concern” about the plans, adding: “All this is delivering a downgrading of those protections which we could have been proud of.
“It’s an erosion of pre-existing safeguards, and will undoubtedly increase the risks of vulnerable individuals being re-traumatised in detention.”
During a Westminster Hall debate on the same issue on Tuesday, Conservative MP Richard Fuller said the changes risked being seen as a “significant step back from UK’s international reputation as playing a leading role against modern slavery”.
Mr Fuller said the effect on victims would be “quite profound”, adding: “Having already satisfied the Home Office they were subject to trafficking or slavery, it seems the practical impact of this change is the Home Office now expects that person to relive that experience so they can demonstrate the harm they will suffer for future detention. Why would the government want to do that?”
Immigration minister Chris Philp defended the policy, saying that being recognised as a potential victim of modern slavery “does not and should not automatically result in being granted immigration status in the UK or immunity from immigration proceedings”.
He said the legislation “supports our desire for a clear and consistent approach to safeguarding in detention decision-making, and will enable decisions for potential victims to be made in line with other categories of vulnerable individuals”.
It comes after Sarah Thornton, the independent anti-slavery commissioner, wrote to Mr Philp expressing concern about the plans, stating that potential modern slavery victims are “particularly vulnerable to suffering harm in detention” and may not be able to access their rights from there.
She also said she was “disappointed” to learn that she was not invited to the consultation on the plans, which took place over a two-week period in the summer, with a limited number of NGOs involved.
Director of After Exploitation, Maya Esslemont, accused the government of “proactively taking steps to make life harder for survivors of the most extreme forms of exploitation”, adding: “Today's vote sent the wrong message to victims: If you come forward, we will punish, not protect you.“
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