John McDonnell MP
I find it hard to believe that we are having this debate today, and that this delegated legislation has been introduced at all. Emotionally, many Members of the House will find it hard to take, especially those of us who have taken any interest in detention, and specifically modern slavery and trafficking, over the last two to three decades.
After all the years of campaigning to expose modern slavery and trafficking, and after Parliament’s achievement of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which we are all proud of, this is like stepping back in time. It is a hugely retrograde step. After the exposure of trafficking and the recoil from the policies of the hostile environment, I thought we would never see this sort of legislation again. It is shameful that it has been brought before us. Have we learned nothing about the suffering that trafficking imposes on people? I urge the Minister and hon. Members not to support the motion, and to go back and look at some of the reports and investigations that led us to put in place extra protections for trafficking victims.
In 2017, Rahila Gupta—a member of Southall Black Sisters and now a famous author in my local community—wrote the book “Enslaved: The New British Slavery”. It was reported extensively at the time, and it shook many of us to the core with its descriptions of trafficking and the impact on our fellow human beings. Many other reports then followed, and we learned something of the scale of trafficking and its consequences in this country.
Yesterday, in Westminster Hall, the Government seemed to claim that the reason for this legislation was that the system was being abused somehow. No evidence for that claim has been published by the Home Office, and we have seen no independent assessment of the claim or data that the Government may want to bring forward to argue this case. What we do know, however—this is on the basis of research backed by the Home Secretary and undertaken in 2020 by Justice and Care and the Centre for Social Justice—is that there are estimated to be more than 100,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK. In 2020, only 3,000 people were positively identified as survivors of slavery in the second stage of the decision-making process.
I contend that the Government’s main worry should be their failure to identify and make safe the vast majority of people who have been trafficked into this country. The Government should concentrate on that, rather than on unsubstantiated allegations of abuse in the system. With no data published to prove it, the Government have argued that over the last 12 months, there has been a surge in foreign national offenders claiming to be victims of trafficking to disrupt immigration proceedings. That represents a complete failure to understand everything that we have learned about how many of those who are convicted are convicted of crimes that they were forcibly trafficked to commit in this country. I cite the recent examples from many of our constituencies of the Vietnamese young people who have been trafficked into cannabis farms in the UK. Many of those who are trafficked and then convicted of crimes lack access to legal advice and support even to explain their circumstances and case.
The Government appear to be arguing that the threshold of reasonable grounds for determining whether someone has been trafficked is too low. Under the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking, the threshold was deliberately set low to ensure that people are identified. I believe we have an international obligation to uphold that standard under the convention. People who are referred into the system are referred, as the Minister knows, by first responders, who are professionally trained and authorised by the Government. In detention, virtually all the referrals come from the Home Office itself. As the Minister said, the Government have offered us revised casework guidance. That has not even been published, yet we are expected to vote into law this statutory instrument—a leap in the dark.
If the consultation had been adequate, no Government could have reasonably brought forward this statutory instrument. As other Members have said, the consultation was extremely limited, in both who was consulted and the timescale. Consulting for only two weeks on something so significant is a dereliction of the Government’s duty, particularly on openness, transparency and the consideration of all reasonable factors. As others have said, the Home Office admitted to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee that more people will be held in detention if the instrument is approved. It will mean more people going into detention, but it will also be more difficult for people to get out of detention.
We need to recall the people we are talking about. These people are trafficked, exploited and abused, physically, sexually and mentally. They are extremely vulnerable. They are isolated and confused, often even lacking the ability to speak English, and they are suspicious of authority. Often, they have been emotionally abused to the extent that they are traumatised, and many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. These are the people that this statutory instrument will increasingly force into detention. And let us be clear: we know now that, in detention, there is little access to legal advice or to emotional or health support, so it is often very difficult for these people to communicate their circumstances and their case.
What does detention mean? Well, this is the reality of detention. I have two detention centres in my constituency: Harmondsworth and Colnbrook. I have been visiting Harmondsworth for more than 30 years. Years ago, it was a couple of Nissen huts, with no more than about a dozen people detained there. Now we have what are, effectively, two prison-style buildings housing anything between 800 and 1,000 detainees.
These detention centres are notorious. Detainees have died, with accusations of neglect, lack of care and abuse. Perhaps the Minister will remember the 83-year-old man who was taken from detention to Hillingdon Hospital and died still in handcuffs. On two occasions, riots have broken out, with Harmondsworth being burned down.
Detainees get lost in the system, too, with examples of some being detained for long periods, trapped in detention. The irony is that most will eventually be released and allowed to settle, becoming valuable members of our community. The moral of this story is that we detain too many people unnecessarily and in unacceptable conditions. I believe that, in years to come, people will look back on this system with incredulity but also disgust.
I believe that this legislation, in addition to increasing the number of victims of trafficking in detention, will deter victims from coming forward. It will be used by traffickers to discourage victims from escaping. If the SI is passed, traffickers will say to victims, with some accuracy, “If you try to escape, you’ll be locked up anyway in a detention centre or prison.”
I believe that, if this House allows the statutory instrument to go on to the statute book, it will be seen as a disgraceful act of inhumanity. To attack some of the most vulnerable people, living in fear in our community, is a new low for this Parliament. I thought that we had all moved on. I thought we had moved forward. I hope that sufficient Members of this House still have the humanitarian instincts to reject this appalling measure.