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Home Affairs Committee

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 14 December 2023

Select Committee statement

We come to the Select Committee statement on behalf of the Home Affairs Committee. Dame Diana Johnson will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of her statement, I will call Members to ask questions on the subject of the statement. These should be brief questions, not full speeches. I should also emphasise that questions should be directed to the Select Committee Chair, not to the relevant Minister, and that Front Benchers may take part in questioning.

Let me start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting this time for a debate on the report from the Home Affairs Select Committee on human trafficking, the first report of the 2023-24 Session. Let me also thank and pay tribute to the courage and bravery of the survivors who shared their views and experiences with us as part of the inquiry, and express my gratitude to the Committee Clerks, staff and advisers who provided such excellent support.

This report puts paid to the idea that the UK is still a world leader in combating human trafficking. It is not. A preoccupation with small boat crossings and the Rwanda scheme has seen the Government divert their focus and resources away from combating human trafficking. The post of Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner was vacant for 18 months. The Home Office has not published its annual report on human trafficking for two years, and it has taken the Department two years to launch the new stakeholder groups to engage with anti-trafficking non-governmental organisations. The consequences of such de-prioritisation and delays are disastrous for this country’s response to human trafficking, undermining our ability to prevent exploitation, prosecute perpetrators and protect victims.

Let me begin with prevention. Let us be clear: human trafficking will continue to be attractive and extremely profitable to criminals unless more is done to tackle the demand for the criminality that it services. For example, there is currently too little deterrence for men who pay for sex, and that creates a market for trafficking for sexual exploitation. Indeed, the Government’s modern slavery strategy includes just two references to the need to “reduce demand”, and neither relates to sexual exploitation.

Law enforcement action against individuals who fuel the demand for sexual exploitation and who directly abuse victims has also been woeful. Section 53A of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which is headed “Paying for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force etc.”, describes a strict liability offence. However, between 2013 and 2020, just three individuals were convicted under section 53A, and the maximum penalty applied was a fine of no more than £100. We think that the law should be strengthened and penalties increased to ensure comparability with other sexual and trafficking offences, and to increase the deterrent value. There should also be much greater use of section 53A by police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service.

The Committee found that websites advertising prostitution enable and profit from such exploitation without even minimal safeguards on those platforms. We were deeply concerned by the decision of the National Crime Agency and the Home Office to work with these websites, given that there is no evidence that that has led to a reduction in human trafficking on them. Websites are directly fuelling sex trafficking across the UK, and causing unimaginable harm to victims. We therefore call on the Government to make it an offence for any individual or company to enable or profit from the prostitution of another person, including the facilitation that takes place via websites.

Let me now turn to the subject of prosecution. The national referral system is the UK’s national framework for identifying and supporting victims of modern slavery, including human trafficking. The high number of referrals to the NRM, totalling 16,938 in 2022, highlights the scope of exploitation in the UK, but the CPS received only 286 referrals of human trafficking cases in 2022, which resulted in just 405 people being prosecuted. We were very concerned at the disparity in those figures, particularly as we heard during our inquiry that the number of referrals to the NRM is almost certainly not a true reflection of the number of victims.

In accordance with the College of Policing’s authorised professional practice for investigation, all suspected modern slavery offences are to be treated as serious crimes. Additionally, human trafficking and modern slavery have been identified by the National Crime Agency as a national priority threat, yet Dame Sara Thornton, the previous Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, told us that the low prosecution rates are due to the level of priority and resources, including expert teams, that police forces have applied.

To increase the number of prosecutions, there must be additional training for law enforcement. Police and crime commissioners should consider setting modern slavery and human trafficking as a priority in their police and crime plans, and there must be more use of evidence-led investigations. We would also tell law enforcement to follow the money, as there are clear links with money laundering and other criminal activity.

Crucially, we say that victim support must be at the centre of the investigation and prosecution process. The “victim navigator” programme is working to support this, with an independent support worker working with the police to act as a trusted bridge between investigators and victims. This scheme should be expanded and used in all cases.

Finally, to hold perpetrators of human trafficking accountable, the Modern Slavery Act 2015 must be applicable to all those who perpetrate this crime. That is why we recommend that the Act’s definition of human trafficking should be amended to remove the requirement for the exploitation to have involved travel, and to clarify that the consent of the victim, in relation to either the travel or the exploitation itself, is irrelevant.

As long as the crime of human trafficking is committed, we will need to support and protect victims, but we are not getting it right here either. Right now, the NRM decision-making process is extremely slow. The average waiting time for a conclusive grounds decision in 2022, across both competent authorities, was 543 days. This contributes to the stress, anxiety and depression of victims, who face an uncertain future. Furthermore, these delays have caused many victims to drop out of the process before it concludes, leaving them exposed to a risk of re-trafficking.

We heard how long waiting times can be particularly detrimental to British national victims, who may opt out, rather than wait in the NRM, and try to receive help and support elsewhere. The Home Office also failed to produce sufficient evidence to our inquiry to support its claims of widespread abuse of the national referral mechanism and of people trying to game the system in order to claim asylum. We recommend dealing with the backlog and reducing the number of days that NRM decisions take, and we ask the Government again to provide comprehensive data to support their claims of abuse of the NRM, if that data exists.

For some victims, the NRM is not the right support mechanism. In 2022, 41% of all referrals to the NRM were children. The Council of Europe’s expert group on human trafficking notes that, in 2019, the NRM comprised: UK nationals, 52%; Vietnamese nationals, 9%; Eritrean nationals, 6%; Albanian nationals, 6%; and Sudanese nationals, 5%. Several organisations told us that the number of children experiencing exploitation is likely to be much higher than the officially reported cases, yet the NRM is not appropriate for children. There is an urgent need for a joined-up approach to victim support that adequately addresses their needs.

We are also deeply concerned by the lack of action on missing victims of child trafficking. Measures such as devolving decision making to local authorities and providing independent child trafficking guardians to support victims are examples of schemes that can have a very positive effect but are not widely available. We are concerned that, more than two years into the pilots, we are still awaiting any evaluation. We also recommend introducing a statutory definition of child criminal exploitation. Finally, the report makes it clear that it is certainly not appropriate to accommodate children in hotels, particularly unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.

I hope the report marks a turning point in the Government’s response to human trafficking. They can and must do much better. To that end, I welcome the decision by the House of Lords to appoint a special inquiry Committee on post-legislative scrutiny of the Modern Slavery Act, which will begin its work next year. I hope the recommendations and evidence base that we brought together in our report prove valuable to the Committee in its deliberations.

The Home Affairs Committee’s report offers the Government a clear road map for getting the UK’s response to human trafficking back on track. I am pleased that the Minister for Illegal Migration is on the Treasury Bench this afternoon, and I urge the Government to take heed of the recommendations.

As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, I concur with everything the Chair has just said. She raised the very unsatisfactory absence of an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner for more than 18 months. Will she elaborate on our recommendation that the Committee should have a pre-appointment hearing role, as we have for certain other positions? That might enable us to chase the Government rather more effectively on filling that role.

Secondly, the Chair said that the NRM is not appropriate for children and that the Government have been slow to roll out independent child trafficking guardians, let alone a definition of child criminal exploitation. Does she agree that this goes well beyond just trafficking? This is about child safeguarding, child welfare and children in the criminal justice system, and it really needs a joined-up approach involving several different Departments. Otherwise, these kids will end up being perpetrators rather than the victims that, in many cases, they are.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is an excellent deputy Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. His contributions are always very valuable. On children, I absolutely agree that we need a joined-up approach across Government.

On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, the Committee is disappointed that it has taken so long for an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner to be appointed, but we recognise that we could play a useful role in having a pre-appointment hearing for that important role. We said in our recommendations that we would like the Government to consider that, and we look forward to seeing the new Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner at the end of January 2024, although that will be after her appointment. I hope the Government will take heed of our call for pre-appointment hearings in future.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and her Committee on this excellent report. Will she comment on the research that found that 75% of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation are advertised online? One of these adult services websites gave evidence to the Committee that it allows

“individuals to advertise multiple people for prostitution concurrently, that age verification of individuals advertised on their site is not required, and that the same contact phone number can be used on multiple adverts.”

When I read that, I was struck that we could take simple measures to eradicate the loopholes that these websites exploit. What does my right hon. Friend think the Government should do? Does she think the Government could act quickly to deal with such issues?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. All the Committee’s members were shocked when we took evidence about these adult services websites—pimping websites—which are platforms used by serious organised criminals to traffic women, in the main, and advertise them completely legitimately and legally using, as my hon. Friend says, the same telephone number and often very similar advertisements. Hon. and right hon. Members should look at those adverts, as I did in my local area in Hull. I was shocked to see women advertised— “New in town”, “Only here for a week”—using very similar telephone numbers and pictures; obviously, they are being moved around the country. These are serious organised criminals who are doing this. I hope the Government will take into account what we say in our report, because when we questioned the Home Secretary at that time, she was not aware of the issue. In fact, we were concerned that the National Crime Agency and the Home Office, which have had lots of meetings with these websites, such as Vivastreet, seem to be taking an approach that is not about the safeguarding of these women, who are obviously being raped multiple times a day through these adverts.

We also know that Vivastreet and other platforms are making a lot of money. It is quite clear from the evidence that we received that the Home Office acknowledges that these websites are fuelling the sexual exploitation of women and the trafficking of women into this country. If the Minister and the Government do not do anything else, I really implore them to look at that section of our report, because it is shocking. Indeed, all Members of this House would do well to have a look as well.

I thank the Chair for her statement. As a member of the Committee, I found this an interesting but deeply troubling area to look into. Building on what the Chair has just said, the adult services websites are one of the most pernicious parts of our online economy, and the Home Office said that they are the “the most significant enabler” of online exploitation. We heard evidence that those that engage with law enforcement—which is not all of them, by any means—can show pitifully few results from that engagement, in terms of identifying trafficking, helping those individuals or reporting to law enforcement. Does the right hon. Member agree that one measure that we would like the Government to take is to work with the regulator to get these websites to police their own platforms and ensure that they better identify vulnerable people, but that if they fail to do so, the Government should work with the regulator to make sure they are forced to do so?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is an excellent member of the Committee. I know that we all found the session when we heard from Vivastreet to be a distressing one. He is absolutely right in his suggestions; indeed, I would go further. I am old enough to remember when there was a problem with pimps putting these little cards in phone boxes to advertise women for prostitution, but the law was changed and now that is not allowed. Offline, they cannot do that, but these adverts are still online. That needs to be addressed, and it is part of our bigger discussion about the online world. Where there is abuse and criminal activity going on, I hope that the regulators will address it. As the Minister is in his place, I hope he will also take a good look at this and see what more this House can do.

I, too, thank my right hon. Friend and other members of the Committee for their deliberations on this important subject. The report is very thorough. I was pleased to hear her talk about the need to support and protect victims, because these people are indeed victims of horrendous crimes. They are crimes that we thought the landmark Modern Slavery Act 2015, introduced by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), would seek to tackle, but unfortunately that has stalled. Was consideration given in my right hon. Friend’s report to the Government’s insistence on approaching this as an immigration matter and looking at it through the prism of immigration law, rather than focusing on the safeguarding of vulnerable women and children?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question; that was an issue that concerned the Committee greatly. We felt that this area was being viewed through the prism of immigration law, when it needed to be viewed through the prism of safeguarding. We were very disappointed that it was moved from the Minister for Safeguarding in the Home Office and made the responsibility of the Immigration Minister. We did not think that that was the appropriate place for it to sit.

Just to reiterate, when we talk about trafficking, we are talking about criminal offences against the individual, whereas with immigration law we are obviously talking about an offence against the state, which is quite different. I hope that the new Minister will reflect on that, because I understand that this is listed among his responsibilities, whereas the Committee’s view is that it should move to the Minister in the Department who has responsibilities for safeguarding.

May I join others in thanking my right hon. Friend and all the other members of the Home Affairs Committee, and the Clerks and the staff, for the hard work they put into producing this important report? As the report rightly says, human trafficking is a profit-driven crime that sees innocent victims utterly exploited for financial gain. It is only by operating a zero-tolerance approach and giving our criminal justice system the expertise it needs to handle these complex cases that we will see any real change.

The report highlighted a number of important issues and some omissions in the Government’s policy, and I am keen to hear my right hon. Friend’s thoughts on those. First, it recommends that the Home Office should urgently resume the publication of its annual reports on human trafficking. This is not the first time that this issue has been raised, yet the Home Office has still not responded. Does she agree that the Government have been too slow and that, as a consequence, there is insufficient transparency about the UK’s performance in tackling human trafficking?

Secondly, the report raises the concern that, in practice, human trafficking is no longer a priority for the UK Government. That was not the case when the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) was at the Home Office. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that the Government get the balance right, and that the Home Office’s current approach is letting down victims of human trafficking?

Finally, Members will be aware—it has been mentioned already—that in October the Government eventually appointed a new Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, after 18 months of the role being left empty. However, there are concerns about the Government giving this job—one previously held by experts and senior police figures—to someone without a similar level of experience as her predecessors. Does my right hon. Friend think this was a wise appointment?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on the Front Bench about annual reports. We have not had one for two years. There is something clearly wrong in the Home Office when it cannot produce an annual report of its activities. Sadly, we do think that victims are being let down. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members have referred to the fact that when the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, led the charge with the Modern Slavery Act 2015—it was her flagship piece of legislation—the UK was seen to be a world leader in this area. Sadly, over the last few years we have slipped further and further behind. Other countries are now taking on that mantle, which is a great pity and does not do justice to the right hon. Lady’s legacy.

On my hon. Friend’s final point, we were disappointed by how long it took to appoint an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and by the lack of priority given to filling that post. As I said, we had no input into that—there was no pre-appointment hearing—so we are yet to see the person who has been appointed. We are looking forward to seeing her at the end of January, and we certainly want someone who will stand up and make sure that the Government hear clearly what is and is not working in the field of modern slavery and trafficking. I am heartened to hear that the new person is talking very much about the victims and focusing on them, which is absolutely vital. However, we will see her at the end of January, and we hope that we have someone who will be a strong advocate in this area.

May I add my thanks to the right hon. Member and her Committee for this comprehensive report on human trafficking? We will of course consider all the recommendations and findings, and respond in the usual way. She will understand that I will refrain from giving a full answer now—not least because you told me not to, Madam Deputy Speaker—but the Government recognise the importance of this subject and will respond in due course in the usual way.

May I also thank the right hon. Member for the warm welcome she and her Committee gave me yesterday? Because you have asked me to ask a question, Madam Deputy Speaker, I ask the right hon. Member if she is looking forward to working constructively with me and my ministerial team, as I am with her and her Committee?

Well, I smile quite a lot actually, but perhaps not as much as I would like to at the Home Affairs Committee. I thought we gave the two new Ministers a warm welcome yesterday; at times, we gave them quite a roasting, actually.

The House of Commons has given the members of the Home Affairs Committee, and myself as the Chair, the important job of scrutinising the Home Office, its policies, the way money is spent and what Ministers are doing. I take that very seriously, as do the members of the Committee. Of course we will want to work with the Minister, but we will scrutinise him and ask difficult questions. When they attend, we expect Ministers and officials to be fully briefed and to give full answers to the questions that members ask them in the role that we have been given by the House of Commons to scrutinise the Home Office.