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Covid-19: Human Trafficking

Volume 804: debated on Thursday 16 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on human trafficking in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, during the Covid pandemic we are working closely with law enforcement to ensure that high-risk modern slavery cases continue to be pursued and that any changes to the threat of modern slavery are assessed. As a priority, we are continuing to deliver essential services and support for victims during the Covid pandemic.

My Lords, in conjunction with the National Crime Agency, the Clewer Initiative has today released an app to help agricultural workers and their employers understand their rights and responsibilities. In the light of current travel restrictions across the world, what assessment has the Minister made of the impact that the Government’s proposed points-based immigration system will have on seasonal agricultural workers? Will the Government give the sector advance warning of any changes, following the review of the pilot later this year?

My Lords, whether we have a points-based system or not, people who work in our agricultural sector should be protected from exploitation by unscrupulous people who might employ them. Therefore, I cannot see that our points-based system will have a particular effect, but we should always be on guard against people who might exploit those vulnerable to it.

My Lords, before Covid-19 child migrants were already vulnerable to trafficking and suffered problems with health and social care. Could the Minister say what extra support for such children is now available at a local level, and how it will be monitored?

The noble Baroness points to something that we have been very mindful of throughout this lockdown period. I did not quite hear what she said about whom we might support. Was she talking about vulnerable children?

Absolutely, we have been very mindful of the vulnerability of children in all sorts of ways, whether it is from the effects of domestic abuse, online malicious intervention or drugs and gangs. We have secured £1.73 million for charities to provide emergency support to victims, and we have provided a further £1.4 million this year to continue our dedicated funding for the police to tackle modern slavery under the new modern slavery and organised immigration crime programme. This year, we will invest £7 million to safeguard victims of modern slavery.

My Lords, human trafficking is graphic, and it is a form of modern -day slavery. There are more slaves today than at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. What further action will the Government take to ensure that companies—for example, those in the textiles and fashion industry—eradicate slavery from their supply chains?

Sadly, I agree with my noble friend; I fear that, having ruled against slavery over 200 years ago, it is now back on our shores in a different and far more difficult way. We do not require companies or organisations to certify that their supply chains are slavery free, because in many cases that might be impossible, but we do ask businesses to be transparent about their risks and the measures they take to mitigate this. Leicester is a very good example of where we have stepped in, and a task force, led by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, has been set up to bring together the enforcement bodies.

The Walk Free Foundation, a human rights group, found that 75% of hospitality businesses were flouting anti-slavery legislation. As we emerge from lockdown, debt bondage will have increased and traffickers could capitalise as pressure on the hospitality industry to survive grows. Will the Government increase the number of workplace inspections and ensure that inspectors are highly trained to identify victims of trafficking?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. However, as I said earlier, modern slavery can be a hidden crime, so it is incumbent upon all agencies in their work to try and identify the signs of modern slavery and tackle it. The noble Baroness makes a very good point about the hospitality industry.

My Lords, Covid-19 has increased vulnerability to human trafficking and pushed victims into more risky work. At the same time, financial and other resources allocated to anti-trafficking efforts are likely to be stretched during the pandemic. Are extra measures being looked at, such as expanding the referral helpline and working with local government to place prominent notices in public areas to highlight the issue of victims and their need to be able to contact local authorities?

I mentioned earlier some of the funding mechanisms that will be available. My noble friend is absolutely right that we have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of potential victims of modern slavery being referred to the NRM—in 2019, it was 52% more than in 2018. In response to that, we have surged resources into caseworking teams to ensure that those victims receive the decisions and the support that they need in a timely fashion.

My Lords, during the Covid-19 pandemic, might it be a sensible move, as well as a way of saving money, not to put children through the NRM?

I agree with the noble and learned Baroness in the sense that we have paused an awful lot of the processes that might be in place for people seeking asylum. Protecting people during this period and making sure they get the support that they need is at the heart of our endeavours. She has a point—children need specific intervention. I am not entirely sure what the position is with regard to NRM, but the Home Office is very focused on supporting children who might be vulnerable.

My Lords, will the Minister first join me in paying tribute to the work of the Clewer Initiative and the leadership shown there by the right reverend Alastair Redfern, the former Lord Bishop of Derby, whose wise words are much missed in this House? Secondly, does the Minister accept that the exploitation of vulnerable people has continued and increased during the pandemic, with victims finding it more difficult to escape their abusers as front-line services have been either reduced or shut down? Can the Minister tell the House what remedial action will be taken to help victims as the country reopens?

I join the noble Lord in his praise for the Clewer Initiative. We feel that victims have been more in danger not because local services are not available to them but because we fear that many of them, particularly in situations of domestic abuse and slavery, are actually locked in with the exploiter or the abuser.

The initial review from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of abortion services delivered by telemedicine during Covid showed that staff, highly trained in safeguarding, have found trafficked women. Will the Minister’s department work with the Department of Health and Social Care to evaluate and make this telemedicine service permanent?

I fully support what the noble Baroness has said. I will certainly go back to the department in terms of the permanency of this, but she is right to point out that it is another indicator of what might be going on.