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Overseas Domestic Workers Visa

Volume 768: debated on Monday 25 January 2016

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to implement the recommendations of the independent review of the overseas domestic workers visa published on 17 December 2015.

My Lords, the Government are considering Mr Ewins’ recommendations very carefully. Our first concern is to ensure that we can both protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice. I have made it clear that we will return to this issue on Report of the Immigration Bill, with our considered views.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bates, for his reply. To be honest, it is disappointing to hear that, despite the Government having clear recommendations for action from their own review, which they commissioned during consideration of the Modern Slavery Bill, a further process of data collection and discussion with officials is proposed now that this issue is being raised as part of the Immigration Bill. Is this extra consultation the final hoop that we need to jump through, and will it be completed in good time for a final decision to be made on Report of the Immigration Bill?

The report was published on 17 December, so we have had it during consideration of the Immigration Bill, which is obviously a more sensible legislative vehicle to carry any changes. James Ewins has put forward 34 recommendations, which we are looking at very carefully, and we appreciate his work. When we debated this in the Immigration Bill Committee last week, I said that, before Report, we would have a meeting of all interested Peers—with James Ewins—and the Government would produce their response and any proposed amendments to the legislation.

My Lords, the Minister has proposed a meeting on this subject and we are grateful for that. However, what is the point of having an independent, specialist review and then delaying implementing its conclusions and recommendations? Failure to act will surely prolong and continue exploitation and misery, whereas this could easily be remedied by modifying the immigration rules.

That is one route. We are on the same track as the broad thrust of what James Ewins has put forward. He identifies some gaps in the data, and we recognise that that needs to be worked on. We need to consult, across Government, about the right approaches. However, there are some areas where we have a problem that we would like to focus on further. Our view is that the national referral mechanism is the correct vehicle for dealing with someone who is found to have been abused under the overseas domestic workers visa scheme. That ensures that the individual gets the help they need and that the National Crime Agency finds out who the perpetrator is, so that appropriate action is taken. However, we are on the same page on the broad thrust.

In light of this review, will the Minister tell us if, when an application is made, embassy or consular staff have the power to interview the person on whose behalf the application is made, outwith the presence of their employer, in the country of origin, before they reach the United Kingdom?

We are trying a pilot on this in west African countries, which is not necessarily proving conclusive either way. Very importantly, we have instituted that a model contract should be in place governing the terms and conditions of employment, working hours, what holidays these workers would get and what rights they have when they are in the United Kingdom. That model contract must be in place before the visa is granted. It is also very important that people reporting abuse report it to the authorities here in the UK, so that if a person who has been guilty of abuse then applies for a further overseas domestic workers visa, that information will be known to the authorities.

As the Minister will know, the Conservative Minister in the Commons said before the election that the intention was that whoever was in government would implement the recommendations of the James Ewins review. Yet last Wednesday in this House, the Government said that while they took Mr Ewins’ recommendations extremely seriously, the arguments are “finely balanced”. Is the reality not that the Government are seriously considering the option of not implementing his recommendations and, if not, what did the Government mean in saying last Wednesday that the arguments are finely balanced?

When Karen Bradley mentioned this issue before the last election, I think that she prefaced those remarks by saying that no one can actually bind future Governments. The point here is that the purpose of the inquiry is to inform the debate and discussion within government, but government must reserve the right to look at the findings of the report and reach their own judgment. I would have thought that would be quite in keeping with the standards set by the Inquiries Act. I have said that we agree with the broad thrust. However, if someone goes through the national referral mechanism and the Salvation Army, they get access to accommodation, legal aid and translation services; more importantly, we also get the right to find out who the perpetrator of the crime is, to ensure that they can be appropriately dealt with. I would have thought we could all agree with that.

My Lords, what remedies are available to domestic workers if the abuse is perpetrated by those who enjoy diplomatic immunity?

We have been very clear on this. Where someone comes in on an overseas domestic workers visa—bearing in mind that some can come in through a tier 5 diplomatic visa—and abuse is reported to the authorities through the national referral mechanism, we have said that the Foreign Secretary will waive the right to diplomatic immunity so that there can be a prosecution in this country. We have been very clear on our intention to clamp down on abuse, particularly against women and girls.

My Lords, the Minister said that no Government can bind successor Governments. Surely that would apply to any legislation before your Lordships’ House, because no one can bind a future Government. What is different about this case?

I was just placing the quotation which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, cited in the wider context of what Karen Bradley had said. The broad point is that we were the Government who were dealing with the issue at that time, introducing what became the Modern Slavery Act. There was huge input from your Lordships into that Act, and it is one of the pieces of legislation of which I am most proud, and so should your Lordships’ be. In it, we went a long way to addressing the concerns about overseas domestic workers by changing the visa permissions to give them the right to stay; by giving them, under Section 53, additional protections if they are found to have been abused; and by giving them legal aid under Section 47. This is the final piece in addressing this issue, and we want to take our time to make sure that we get it right.