[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank the secretariat of our inquiry, who were superb. I want to make a brief comment about the importance of this topic to me—it is terrific that so many Members want to intervene or make a speech, because that shows a growing interest in the issue in the House of Commons, which is good.
Two things over my parliamentary lifetime have knocked me sideways: one has been the extent of hunger and destitution in my constituency; the other was the beginning of the work on modern slavery. I find it impossible to describe the horrors that people try to convey to us about the experience of being enslaved in this country, in this year and at this time. That is partly because one does not want to break down speaking in this debate. I know everyone will bear in mind the background of those individuals.
My Pauline conversion came when I was sent off and told to do a press conference for the Centre for Social Justice report on modern slavery, “It Happens Here”. I was horrified and amazed by the information—the data and case studies—that the CSJ brought together. There was a huge gathering of organisations for the launch of the report. We agreed at that meeting that we should lobby hard for a modern slavery Act. It was after a summer’s work of lobbying that the then Home Secretary, now Prime Minister, decided we would have a Bill. She thought we should have a scoping exercise about what that Bill should contain. She then used her influence to allow us to have a Joint Committee of both Houses to consider the draft Bill. We then had a Bill.
For all that we now want to move on from the legislation, that initiative was a real success for the Prime Minister. This was the first modern slavery Act in the world. It included supply chains, although the measures to act on them were pretty feeble. However, once something is in legislation, the requirements can always be pushed up. There was also some help for victims, and I am sure many Members will talk about the adequacies.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he welcome the work of Northern College in Barnsley, which has set up the “Free Thinking” programme, the first of its kind to provide education opportunities specifically for survivors of modern slavery? Does he agree that the Government should look at ways in which we can roll that out across the country?
I do indeed. I had the real pleasure of meeting, with my hon. Friend, a delegation that came down from the college, and I saw the work it is doing. Clearly, if we are to get a breakthrough on the lack of knowledge about what is happening in this country, courses like that will and should play a crucial part. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 signified a breakthrough.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. We can never have such debates too often, and we certainly welcome any initiatives that deal with modern-day slavery. I am sure he will remember the gangmaster issue in Morecambe, probably 10 or 15 years ago, when Chinese people were being used in a form of modern-day slavery. We are getting more and more instances where individuals are being locked in property—
Order. I know this is a hugely interesting debate in which lots of people will want to take part, but I ask for interventions to be brief, because Mr Field has a lot of colleagues to bring in.
I do agree with my hon. Friend. The scope and work of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority are clearly important, as he said, in countering modern slavery.
The 2015 Act was a breakthrough, and there have been successes from it. The number of police investigations moved from 188 in 2016 to 1,370 in April 2019. There has been a doubling in the number of people thought to be victims—up to now, it is 7,000. The composition of that total has also changed; the proportion of children and UK nationals has increased.
We can talk, quite properly, about those things being successes, but, despite that, the Prime Minister was not satisfied we had got the 2015 Act right. She therefore asked the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), Lady Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and me to undertake a review. As always, when the Government act, they want a review by Christmas, although we were not much in session before the summer break. We picked up four themes that we would look at: the anti-slavery commissioner; giving greater importance to supply chains; the role of advocates for children involved in trafficking; and the legal working of the Act.
We made an innovation in how we would undertake our work. It would have been impossible to do a detailed inquiry without the work of the separate commissions that we established, which reported to the right hon. Lady, Elizabeth Butler-Sloss and me. I put on record our thanks to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) co-ordinated the parliamentary front and looked at what Parliament thought about the Act. Bishop Redfern looked at what the faith groups saw their role as. Baroness Young and John Studzinski looked at business. Anthony Steen led the discussions on civil society with the very large number of voluntary organisations that are concerned with slavery. Christian Guy looked at the Commonwealth and the international scene. Professor Ravi Kohli looked at child trafficking. Peter Carter QC and Caroline Haughey QC looked at the criminal justice system. They all went away and did that work, and then came back to the three of us who were in charge of the inquiry. Without their work, we could not have achieved what we did in submitting the report to the Home Secretary on time.
There were 80 recommendations, and the Chamber will understand that I will not dwell on those, although I want to emphasise a couple. One is on the lack of data. It is appalling that we collect no data whatever on what happens to those who enter the national referral mechanism for safety—they are mainly women, but some are men—once that period of safety ends. Most of our forebears would have been scandalised if they had allowed an Act to continue with that lack of data collection.
We had views about the independent slavery commissioner, which the Government, for their own reasons, disregarded. However, we thought it was important to realise that, all the time, there is this great conflict in the Department between its wish to bear down as effectively as possible on those merchants of evil—the slave owners—and its responsibility for immigration. We therefore thought that the Home Office’s modern slavery unit—happily, a unit was established—should actually go to the Cabinet Office. We also have views about the supply chains, and we are anxious that some of the money that we should get off these undesirable individuals under the proposals in the Act actually goes to the victims. That is therefore part of the agenda for today’s debate.
We have parliamentary groups, and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke will talk about other ways in which our report will be followed up. I hope that the Home Office, Parliament, the slave owners and those we wish to rescue from slavery will be convinced that today is another example of our wish to be more effective in countering this wickedness that we see in this country and abroad.
Order. Given the number of Members who wish to speak, there will be a six-minute time limit from the very start. I call John Howell.
Thank you, Mrs Main; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I will raise the situation of modern slavery in Nigeria, which the team should look at as an example of how the Modern Slavery Act is working. The attack on modern slavery is an international phenomenon, and we lead the world in setting the standards.
I mention Nigeria because I am the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Nigeria, so I happen to know the country and what is going on there very well. As a bit of background, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. By the middle of the decade, it will have in the region of 400 million people. It also has the largest number of people in modern slavery in Africa. Examples include women who are tricked into migrating for non-existent jobs and then left to work in brothels or forced to work for no wages and with no legal immigration status whatever.
It is not just women who are affected; the number of children affected is enormous. Some are forced to work as street vendors or beggars. Boys are forced to work in mines, stone quarries and domestic service. Nigeria has just under 1 million people who are trapped in modern slavery. It is an enormous number, which accounts for around 17% of the people trapped in modern slavery in Africa, where the total figure comes to around 7 million or 8 million people. That is an enormous number; we are not even the tip of the iceberg in this country.
The Nigerian Government like what they see in what we do. We are helping to tackle the problem of modern slavery by using the Department for International Development budget in a number of ways. For example, the work with non-governmental organisations uses victims who have been rescued from modern slavery as good examples. Those victims talk to people about how evil it is and about how they can avoid getting trapped in it. That is such a powerful way of getting the message across, because those victims have actually suffered as a result of modern slavery, and such outreach goes down extremely well.
The British Government have taken a stance, putting about £16 million into Nigeria to help with this issue. That provides a number of bits of background. It is particularly concentrated in a place called Edo State, which sits at the crossroads of the people traffickers. I could go on and on about the people traffickers, but I will not.
On my last visit to Nigeria, I took a brief to tackle modern slavery with the Nigerian Government, and one of the companies I went to see was Unilever. Unilever acts in a number of sectors where one would expect modern slavery to exist—broadly, in the agricultural sector. I had a long chat with its representatives and saw the NGOs they were working with. It was a fantastic experience, because Unilever in Nigeria has eliminated modern slavery from not just its own activities but its entire supply chain. That has taken a big effort, so is worth looking at that as an example of how to go about things.
One of the great joys for me was talking to the NGOs that work in this area and that have helped to eradicate modern slavery. They, too, used people who had suffered to get the message across, which is a brilliant thing to have done. When I go back, I hope I will be able to capitalise on that. I hope Unilever’s example has spread, because the company found not only that eradicating modern slavery was a great thing to do, but that being able to tell people that it no longer carried on in that way gave it an enormous competitive advantage in the marketplace.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I declare my interest in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) on securing the debate, and on his report with the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and Baroness Butler-Sloss in the Lords.
I know that the Minister is committed to doing all that she can on this issue, so my remarks are really a challenge to us as an institution, and as a Parliament, rather than a criticism. We all want to end slavery and trafficking; that goes without saying. However, we have an opportunity to ask how we can wake the system up a bit, and make it go a bit faster. I was in Government, and it is a great source of frustration for me that some of the sensible amendments that the Government have started to accept were tabled in 2015. They should have been adopted then, and the Government are now adopting them four years later.
We all understand why people outside sometimes get frustrated. In a sense, that fuels populism, because people ask, “Why doesn’t the system get a move on?” Everybody knows that it is a problem. I say to the Minister that this is a real opportunity to get hold of this issue, and say that not only will we be outraged, frustrated and angered by it, but we will drive the system much more quickly than at present to work in a way that makes a real difference.
A difference has been made, of course, but let us look at what the report says. In the limited time that I have, I will make a couple of points in each area. Businesses are still not really conforming to the transparency arrangements, which I know the Prime Minister has made a statement about. I say to the businesses of this country that surely every managing director or board of directors deplores slavery, and I challenge them to put their own houses in order—to use their massive purchasing power to invest in companies, businesses and supply chains that conform to the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act.
My hon. Friend is making a passionate and well-informed speech. Will he join me in paying tribute to the brilliant businesses around the country who understand the agenda and are trying to do their best about it, such as the Co-operative Group, which has brought in a project called Bright Future that guarantees a job placement for anyone who is a victim of modern slavery?
Yet again, the co-op movement shows the rest of us what can be done. I use this debate to challenge businesses to get their act together—to stop just talking and to show the rest of the country in their investment decisions that they mean what they say. One of the suggestions in the report is more transparency. I know the Minister will address that, and the Prime Minister has already started to address that, which is good.
We come to independent child trafficking advocates. That has to be rolled out much more quickly and has to include not only trafficked children, but unaccompanied children, which is a demand of many of the non-governmental bodies. People would be shocked—I know the Minister is—that we save children, and then we lose them. How can that be right? How can it be right that we take children from the traffickers and put them into the care of the state, and then we lose them, and not just for a short period of time? According to the 2017 report from Every Child Protected Against Trafficking and Missing People, 190 of them have gone and we have no idea where they are. That simply is not acceptable. We have to do better.
The report laid out that the role of the commissioner is a challenge for the Government. The commissioner has to be independent. Governments hate that—I know that from my time in Government. They say they love it, but they hate it, because as soon as the commissioner brings out a report that says the Government need to be doing better, the Government usually row back—although I know the Minister will not do this—and say, “If only the commissioner understood the parameters in which we operate.” That is why the suggestion in the report that the commissioner should be moved into the Cabinet Office rather than the host Department might be a way forward.
It is really important that some of the legal applications are clarified, particularly in terms of what we mean by trafficking and modern slavery, and the relevance to the Palermo protocols and so on. There is a job of work to be done there.
I want to labour one point with the Minister, which completely and utterly bedevils the system, and it bedevils me—I find it intolerable. The Government must reconcile the needs of victims with the immigration system. Somebody can be found to have conclusive grounds for being a victim of modern slavery or trafficking, and yet they end up with no immigration status at all. The Home Office even looks to send home some of the people in that situation. I know the Home Office will say that it will look at this, and that the processes will all be done very carefully, and so on and so forth. I say again to the Minister, all power to her elbow when she points out to the immigration department of the Home Office that these people are victims of the most heinous crimes and should be guaranteed some security of residence in this country, over and above what they are given at present. It simply is not good enough.
I finish where I started. This is a real opportunity. It is a positive report that reflects the good work that the Government and the whole of the House of Commons have done, and it says to the British people that we know more needs to be done, and we are going to do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. It is also a great pleasure to speak in this debate, after having the privilege of working with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss from the other place. I am a newcomer to the issue of modern-day slavery and I have learned so much from the right hon. Gentleman. The report will add much to the work that needs to be done, which the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) has talked about.
Modern-day slavery is a human tragedy that is still happening in our communities today—we have to acknowledge that if we are going to move forward. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has done more than anybody in raising this issue in the last decade, in this place and outside, but there is still so much more to be done. She made a very powerful speech at the International Labour Organisation just a few days ago, reminding us of the progress that has been made. The UK has led on this issue over the last decade, and that work has led to 90 Governments endorsing the call to action on modern slavery, which the Prime Minister launched in 2017.
Although we have done more than almost any other country in the world, and have some of the best legislation, it is important that we recognise that more needs to be done. In her speech, the Prime Minister recognised that, and in my remarks, I want to pick up that theme of raising awareness. The Prime Minister said—this is very important—that “ordinary shoppers” can
“vote with their wallets, to shun those companies that do not make the ethical grade.”
I was delighted to see in her speech that the Prime Minister is committing to one of the things that our report called for—a new registry of modern-day slavery transparency statements, to make it easier for the people we represent to be aware of what companies are doing and how they are taking the need to stamp out this appalling abuse seriously.
We need to go further than that, and awareness is of paramount importance. The hon. Member for Gedling says that everyone knows this is a problem, and we do here, but I am not sure whether it is quite as salient out in the communities as he and I would want it to be. I urge the Minister to consider the work of individuals such as Dr Rosie Riley, who has set up VITA—Victim Identification and Trafficking Awareness—which works in the NHS to ensure that victims and survivors get the help they need at the frontline from people working in emergency departments. The Minister needs to go even further and make sure that we are doing everything we can to make our constituents aware of modern-day slavery. I pay tribute to the work of the Church, which has developed an amazing app on car washes.
We need to go further, and that has to be an important focus of the new commissioner. I will come to that in a moment. It is important that businesses will be under more pressure to publish statements of compliance, but we need to make sure that those statements are properly scrutinised. Our report recommends that that role is taken on by the commissioner, so that the statements do not just become lip service.
I believe that the commissioner’s role needs to have at its core raising awareness of the issue of modern-day slavery in our communities, up and down the country. We must also make sure that the role is independent from the Government. The Minister will be aware of the comments of the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which I chaired, about the slightly haphazard way in which commissioners are being set up. I hope the Minister will listen to the comments in this report and from that Committee, and make sure that we have some proper consistency in the way commissioner roles are dealt with in the future.
I want to raise one thing that is not in the report—I hope that is allowable, Mrs Main. One of the things we wanted to look at, but were not able to because of the terms of reference, was the issue of prostitution. There is strong evidence—much of which was brought forward by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion)—of the very close relationship between modern-day slavery and prostitution. We in the UK need to look carefully at our laws, which are potentially acting as a magnet for those who want an easier place to operate as traffickers of people who they want to sexually exploit. I hope the Minister will be able to comment on that.
In the foreword to our report, we talked about setting up an implementation group to hold the Government to account. The Minister knows me and the right hon. Member for Birkenhead well enough to know that we will do exactly that, and that her feet will be firmly held to the fire—not only on implementing the things to which I know the Government are committed, but on ensuring they look very carefully at all the recommendations in the report. Modern-day slavery is a human tragedy, and we cannot allow it to continue or get worse on our watch.
It is a pleasure to be called in this debate. First of all, it would be remiss of me not to thank the right hon. Members for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and Baroness Butler-Sloss for the incredibly hard work that they individually and collectively put in to ensure that the report came together. Looking at the hours, days and weeks that were spent on the report, I am in awe of those three and others. The report is clear, concise and yet still shocking, and the facts cannot be ignored.
I was an advocate for the Modern Slavery Act 2015, having seen my noble Friend and colleague Lord Morrow. I am sure the Minister is aware of this, but I want to remind the House very gently. He broke ground in the other place with the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. It is my belief that it paved the way for the Modern Slavery Act 2015. I stand by my decision to speak up for people in situations that prevented them from helping themselves. I believe this is the very core of what we do in the life that we have chosen and been given the opportunity to serve in.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke referred to sexual exploitation, an issue that was addressed emphatically in the Act that Lord Morrow brought forward for Northern Ireland. I was the sponsor of its presentation to the House. The event was well attended by Members of different parties and of the House of Lords—I think that encapsulated the interest. However, it is time to revisit the legislation, as all good legislators must—that is what the debate is about—and see its impact on the problem. The report reminds us gently, but firmly and concisely, that although the Act was certainly groundbreaking, new ways of trafficking and slavery circumvent the Act. We must therefore change the Act and the legislation to ensure that we can help people who need protection and assistance, and that those who are guilty of modern slavery are made accountable.
I loved the report’s use of the phrase, “give teeth to legislation.” We often use it in the House on different occasions. We should give teeth to the legislation to stop people exposing loopholes and continuing to exploit people. I support that wholeheartedly, and commend the right hon. Members again. I was horrified to read that:
“The number of potential victims identified in the UK each year has more than doubled”—
these figures are horrific—
“from 3266 in 2015 to 6993 in 2018.”
Right hon. Members have referred to the fact that:
“The proportion of children identified has increased during the same period from 30% to nearly 45%”—
that should shock us to our very core, and it underlines the need to act on the report as soon as possible—
“in large part due to the rise in cases of county lines and other forms of criminal exploitation.”
Perhaps the most shocking thing in the report is that:
“UK nationals now represent by far the highest proportion of potential victims identified at almost a quarter of all those recorded, while in 2015 they were only the fifth most represented nationality behind Albania, Vietnam, Nigeria and Romania”—
the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned Nigeria—
“This is again due to the rising number of children identified as being involved in county lines, most of whom are UK nationals.”
Sex slaves and migrant workers are promised jobs and come to the UK, but that all changes when they get here. I believe we need a victim support scheme. I know the Minister has referred to that in previous answers to questions, and perhaps she could mention the scheme in her response.
I wholeheartedly agree with the authors of the report that too few convictions have been handed down for the new offences prosecuted under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and that too few slavery and trafficking prevention and risk orders are in place to restrict offender activity. We need to tighten up and do better. So how do we add teeth to the legislation? The report is incredibly clear, so I will not simply rehash the recommendations. I seek merely to highlight a couple.
There is the issue of a more appropriately allocated budget for the commissioner, and the message that this is not a board set up on a whim, but an intrinsic part of what we do in this place—protect people and look after them. It is the first step to take. We need sentences to fit the crimes of forced labour and sexual and physical abuse. That must be followed by ensuring that businesses with an annual turnover of over £36 million do not simply have an obligation to state that they did not take any steps, and they must begin to demonstrate exactly what their approach is to ensuring that no member of the workforce is coerced or made a victim. It cannot be acceptable that we do not do that—the six-step guidance in the report should be mandatory for big business in the same way as basic health and safety steps. Another absolutely essential obligation is the complete fulfilment of section 48 and the need for independent child trafficking advocates. This must be done urgently—the funding must be found and the training put in place for the other two thirds of council authority areas.
Time is not on anyone’s side in such debates, because there is so much to say and comment on. I give my sincere thanks to everyone involved. I also pledge to do what I can to make the recommendations become reality, so that the shocking numbers highlighted in the report become a part of our history. As we move forward, we can give hope to people who need it. Our job is to support them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) on securing the debate, and on the work that he has done, alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), in getting such a fantastic report published. I thank everybody else who was involved, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for her dedication to starting to rid our nation of the evil practice of modern slavery when she was Home Secretary. She led the way, not just nationally but globally, through the legislation that she introduced.
I first took an interest in modern slavery when I was first elected, because I heard the Bishop of Derby, Alastair Redfearn, speak about it. As a Derbyshire MP, it had a huge impact on me, so I have been following it ever since. Baroness Young, who was also involved in the report, introduced a private Member’s Bill, the Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill, in the other place in 2016 and asked me to take it through this place in 2017. It was designed to strengthen the transparency in supply chains and introduce the legislation to cover the public sector. Sadly, I did not get the Bill very far at that stage. At the time, the Minister reassured me that the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was just the start. We see today that those words were true, but it is still going far too slowly.
A lot of my constituents will think that modern slavery is about the sex trade and prostitution, but we all know it is more than just that. It is the nail bars and carwashes—my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke mentioned that we now have an app where that can be reported, which is really good. I do not like washing my car, so I take it to a carwash, but I look so carefully at the people who work there, to reassure myself that I am not adding to the modern-slavery supply chain.
Modern slavery also applies to manufacturing. Once again, this issue has been quite close to home, because an agency supplier to Sports Direct was employing slaves. Some fantastic work was carried out by the Nottinghamshire police, resulting in convictions. So we need to tighten up transparency in the supply chain because we never know where we will find modern slavery.
My interest has never gone away. In fact, to promote this debate and to get it on the radar, I asked the Prime Minister a question earlier today. I was reassured because she said that the Government would,
“shortly be publishing a consultation to look at ways to strengthen transparency in the supply chains, and...expanding transparency laws to cover the public sector and its purchasing power.”
As we know, the purchasing power of the public sector is huge. The word that concerned me was “consultation”, and we need action. We could see the report as a consultation and we need to speed things up. We cannot keep having consultation after consultation. We need action to make things happen.
Before I came into this debate today, I was at an event called “Send My Friend to School”, which is about making sure that the sustainable development goals include funding for education. If we get education right, we can give kids a future. Giving kids a future as they grow up is another way of eliminating modern slavery. We need to work across Government to make sure that whatever public money is available is spent on making sure that our supply chains are transparent and free from modern slavery, and we also need to spend public money in the right place overseas to make sure that modern slavery does not happen in the first place.
I look forward to the Minister’s response. I feel that step by step we are getting there, and that my private Member’s Bill, which I tried to introduce in 2017, played a small part in getting us to where we are today. I know there are people in this room who have played a much bigger part, and I thank them for that.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) on securing this debate, on his long commitment to this topic and on the difference that he has made. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), Baroness Butler-Sloss and the review team on the work that they have done on the report. They are tirelessly trying to make the changes that we so desperately need to see in this country.
I speak as chair of the all-party group on prostitution and the global sex trade. Currently, the Modern Slavery Act does not recognise the gendered nature of slavery and does not do enough to effectively tackle trafficking and modern slavery for sexual exploitation. The APPG was concerned that the terms of reference for the independent review were too narrow in scope as they did not allow the review team to explore the links between the laws regarding prostitution and trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. That is why I welcome the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead in the foreword of the report to undertake,
“a scoping review into laws surrounding prostitution in England and Wales and the extent to which they help or hinder police action against trafficking for sexual exploitation.”
I am grateful that the right hon. Member for Basingstoke has reiterated that commitment here today. I know the modern slavery review team are passionate about getting that aspect out into the public domain.
Trafficking and coercion of individuals into the prostitution trade is one of the two most prevalent forms of modern slavery in the UK, and it disproportionately impacts on women. In 2018, 1,192 adult women were referred to the national referral mechanism for sexual exploitation. Only 269 were referred for being potential victims of labour exploitation. Police figures submitted to the all-party group on prostitution and the global sex trade in 2018 indicate the scale of sexual exploitation in this country. Between January 2016 and January 2018, Leicestershire police visited 156 brothels, encountering 421 women, 86% of whom were from Romania. Northumbria police visited 81 brothels between March 2016 and April 2018. Of the 259 women they encountered, 75% were from Romania. More than half of those brothels were recorded by police as being connected to other brothels, agencies or non-UK organised crime groups. Modern slavery for sexual exploitation is happening right here in the UK on an industrial scale. The impact on victims is devastating.
Research by the European Commission shows that victims experience sexual brutality that causes serious damage to health and wellbeing; vaginal injuries that lead to sexually transmitted infections and HIV; and high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. Victims live in fear of reprisals if they try to escape. The rates of re-trafficking of those who manage to exit are high. Evidence from the POPPY project revealed that victims were exploited for an average of eight to 20 months before they could get out. Most women were exploited every single day of the week, seeing on average 13 sex buyers a day. We can therefore extrapolate that the average victim can be raped anywhere from 2,798 to 6,828 times. It is slavery through prostitution in the UK, and it is happening on our watch.
The basic principles of supply and demand underpin the phenomenon of trafficking and modern slavery for sexual exploitation. Without demand from sex buyers, there would be no supply of women and girls through sexual exploitation. Demand for paid sex is context-dependent, and one factor that influences the higher level of demand is the legality of prostitution. Legality has been found to contribute to normalisation, which in turn contributes to demand. In short, trafficking and modern slavery is larger in countries where prostitution is legal.
Demand reduction legislation was first introduced in Sweden in 1999. Research there has revealed that demand for prostitution has significantly decreased since Sweden criminalised paying for sex. At present the Modern Slavery Act does not seek or function to suppress the demand from a minority of men who pay for sex—the very demand that drives and funds trafficking and modern slavery for sexual exploitation. Since our Modern Slavery Act came into force, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and France have all criminalised paying for sex in order to combat demand for sexual exploitation, while removing the criminal sanctions that penalise victims. Demand reduction legislation is also in place in Norway, Iceland and Ireland, which means that England, Wales and Scotland now have substantially more sex-buyer-friendly laws than many of our surrounding countries, making us an attractive destination for sex traffickers.
Prostitution laws should be urgently updated to reduce demand for sexual exploitation by criminalising the purchase of sex, while removing all criminal sanctions applied to victims of sexual exploitation and supporting them to exit. That is the key way to tackle modern slavery of women in the UK. Once again, I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead for securing this debate, and I look forward to working with the independent review team as they explore the links between prostitution laws and preventing modern slavery.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Main. I commend the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) on securing this debate, on his tireless work in this area, on his efforts to expedite a review—I remember that it was not necessarily going to happen—and on the excellent review that flowed from that. Of course, I should not miss out of my compliments Baroness Butler-Sloss and the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), as reviewers, and two of my very good pals in this place, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and Baroness Young, who provided expert advice. Looking down the list of contributors, I feel we should give those guys more difficult problems, because it was a very strong team—I cannot imagine there is much that their collective wits and experience could not tackle. The report really is a terrific bit of work.
The slavery of another human being is a cruel and unthinkable crime. We talk in terms of modern slavery, but, in reality, this is a thread that has run through humanity for centuries, and we are custodians of an abolitionist movement that takes a stand and fights it. Today we stand in the shoes of Wilberforce, Hamilton and Elizabeth Heyrick. It is an awesome opportunity and challenge, and our ambition must match theirs.
Having world-leading legislation is a critical first step. I have no doubt that, as the Prime Minister finishes her final few days in office, the work here will be among her proudest. The 2015 Act stands as a testament to her personal commitment to this agenda. Slavery is a scourge that we have fought for centuries. Slavers innovate, and we too must develop our approaches to make sure that they are fit for a modern context. That is why the review is so important. Even in four years, things move on.
I want to touch on two issues in the report that I have spent my past two-plus years in this place raising. First, the role of the independent commissioner is important; it is one way in which a self-confident, reflective Government are held to account. As the report has shown, however, it has not delivered as planned. Frankly, if a role is hosted, managed and appraised by the very Department it is set up to ensure scrutiny of, it is not independent. It is not possible for someone to be independent of the place where their pay and rations come from. If the Government are serious about independent oversight, it needs to be done properly. The suggestions in the report would be a good approach and would ensure greater independence and effectiveness.
The Minister does not need me to draw her attention to what the right hon. Member for Basingstoke said in the report about the draft Domestic Abuse Bill, on which she and I have spent the past three months. There are some good suggestions there about how we can have a truly independent commissioner. If we carry on along current lines, I can say with certainty that a Member will be standing where I am, facing a Minister, and they will be having the exact same conversation about the independent domestic abuse commissioner that we have been having about the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner. We shall make the same mistakes, because nothing will have changed. No one wants that to happen, but no one at the moment is stopping what seems to be a runaway train. I implore the Minister to stop it and to say there is a better way. I think that there is, and the report suggests one.
While I was a member, the Home Affairs Committee took evidence from the outgoing Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland. We heard about the practical difficulties that he had in running the office and the debilitating nature of the Home Office recruitment process. There are good reasons for that, and I fully understand, but I wonder what craft and creativity could be brought to bear so that the post could be made agile and flexible in relation to need.
As to transparency in supply chains, section 54 of the Act is a critical part of disrupting the supply chains on which the global organised crime network is built. However, the record on that is not good enough. It is unthinkable that, four years on, more than a quarter of companies do not comply with the provisions on reporting, as TISCreport states. That does not even account for token compliance. What other laws that we pass in this place are thought of as, “Do them if you fancy doing them”? I certainly do not talk to constituents about many laws of that kind. These laws are not optional extras, and a competitive disadvantage is created, so I offer no apologies for repeating what my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Anna Turley) said about the Co-op and the Bright Future programme: the company has put itself at a competitive disadvantage to do what it has done, which is wrong.
I have, through my written questions over the past couple of years, noticed an evolution within the Home Office. To begin with, it would reply that it did not know “who should” do things or “how many have”. Then it recognised that it had such knowledge. Now there is an idea that something must happen. The shoe needs to drop. I am interested in hearing more about the Government’s plans.
I echo the call in the review for the requirement to be extended to the public sector. Councils and central Government are massive purchasers and could have a real impact on disrupting supply chains. Of course they would have no interest in dealing with disreputable suppliers. However, the latest Sancroft-Tussell report says that more than 40% of the top 100 suppliers to central Government have failed to meet the basic legal requirements of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. That is extraordinary. What is wrong with us, whether we are in the Government, or we are the people who hold them to account? How have we let it come about that 40% of the top 100 suppliers, who get billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, think, for a start, that they do not need to comply with the law, and do not think it worth their time to cross the road to comply with modern slavery legislation? It is ridiculous, and none of us should stand for it. I would be interested to know when there will be action on that.
The report is excellent. I alluded earlier to the fact that there was a bit of a battle to make the case for it, and I applaud the Members who did so. It is good to come back and ask whether something that was world-leading is now fit for our time. Were amendments rejected previously that now fit the modern context? There are 80 suggestions, and I am pretty much on board with all of them. If we add those things and develop them, we will get what we all want: a strong, forthright and complete attack on slavery in this country.
I am sure colleagues have not missed the fact that they have shown such discipline that the Minister and shadow Minister will have a generous amount of time—it may well be that interventions are required to tease out further questions. I was strict about the six-minute speeches, and colleagues dutifully did not intervene on each other.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Main, and I am grateful to you for not encouraging interventions in my speech at least.
On behalf of the Scottish National party, I thank the right hon. Members for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), and Baroness Butler-Sloss, for their hard work on the review. I welcome, in particular, the fact that they do not see their work as complete and that, through their implementation group, they will continue to hold the Government to account and the Minister’s feet to the fire. I echo what the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said about the need to work on a scoping exercise, at least, in relation to sexual exploitation.
It is good to see that the evidence gathered by the Home Affairs Committee was of assistance to the review panel. I hope that, in due course, we can make a useful contribution to policy development in this important area. I thank all the members of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, particularly the chair, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), who, as we heard, served on the team of expert advisers. He spoke eloquently about the fact that we must seize the opportunity for reform, and about the urgency of action.
Some provisions of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and, therefore, some of the recommendations of the review, are directly relevant to all parts of the United Kingdom. Even in devolved areas, in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where there is of course distinct human trafficking legislation, I am sure all the recommendations will help to inform the debate and policy development, just as they will in England and Wales. We can all learn from what works and from good practice in each of the jurisdictions.
I commend everyone who spoke in the debate for their knowledgeable and insightful comments. I want briefly to add my support for recommendations on two of the key themes of the report that relate to the whole UK, and to make a couple of comments on some of the other provisions. As has been said, we could do with a full day in the Chamber to discuss the various aspects of the topic.
I particularly welcome many of the recommendations made about the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner’s role and powers. The hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) was particularly eloquent on that. Recommendations that I fully back include those on appointment procedures, although I would always want to make it clear that the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive should still be consulted in the process. The proposals on how the role is funded, who sponsors it, and where it is situated seem to be sensible and practical ways to build the independence of the commissioner. As hon. Members have said, that is pivotal to the role’s credibility.
Secondly, I am similarly supportive of the ideas on transparency in the supply chain, which could mean that a measure with the potential to be transformational really has teeth, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, paraphrasing the report. Implementing the suggestions could help to bring an end to what is too often useless and pointless tick-box reporting by certain companies, and could ensure far more widespread compliance.
On a related subject, but going beyond that, there is a compelling case to reconsider whether we should restrict ourselves to a simple reporting model. Perhaps, as other countries are pushing towards doing, we should put companies under duties to identify, prevent and mitigate impacts on human rights more broadly. I echo the eloquent comments of the hon. Members for Erewash (Maggie Throup) and for Nottingham North about the need for action in relation to the public sector.
Thirdly, I welcome the discussion on the different models for supporting children in the different jurisdictions of the UK. We are certainly proud of the work that the independent guardians are doing in Scotland, but nothing is beyond improvement, and analysis such as that provided in the report allows us to see what we can learn from the other schemes. For what it is worth, I am full square behind what has been said about the need for roll-out of the independent child trafficking advocates—or independent guardians. Again, the hon. Member for Gedling is right about the urgency and significance of that.
I have two final topics I want briefly to cover. First, to paraphrase the review, and as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said, there are severe deficiencies in the way data about modern slavery is collected. There is still a need for far greater awareness of modern slavery and for consistent, high-quality training among those most likely to encounter its victims. Addressing those issues will be paramount if we are to maximise the impact of the legislation and strategies. It is against that background that the Scottish Government this week commenced consultation on a broader duty to notify and provide information about victims. The proposal is to specify a wider range of public authorities required to notify Police Scotland about persons who are or appear to be victims of offences under the legislation. The explicit and main aim is to provide a more accurate picture of the scale and extent of trafficking than can be gleaned from national referral mechanism data, and to provide more effective targeting of enforcement activity and support services. I take on board the point made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead on the need for data on those who are on the other side of the NRM process, and I shall definitely feed that back in.
I believe there is still a real need to look again at how the immigration system fits into this, and I echo what other hon. Members said about that. Similarly, as we debated recently in Westminster Hall, the Government need to look again at support for victims. However, that is for another day. I thank the review authors again for their thoughtful and insightful work, and echo the calls that have been made to seize the opportunity to make a difference for the victims of modern slavery.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) on securing this important debate. I thank all those who have spoken so eloquently today. I welcome the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and its robust and detailed recommendations, and I congratulate all those involved in producing the report. Modern slavery is an abhorrent, vile, devastating practice, and we must do everything in our power to ensure it is stopped. Those who fall victim to it must be fully supported on their journey out of modern slavery, and given the dignified care they need.
During my time as an MP and a shadow Minister, I have spent many hours meeting victims of modern slavery, and hearing the tragic stories of how they were stripped of their rights, violated, and subjected to abuse and inhumane work and living conditions. The review highlighted the significant scale of modern slavery in the UK. In 2017, 5,143 potential victims were referred through the national referral mechanism, 41% of whom were children. The number of victims who sadly go unreported will obviously be much higher.
Along with CORE, the UK civil society coalition on corporate accountability, the review highlighted weaknesses in the introduction of section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act, “Transparency in supply chains etc”. An estimated 40% of eligible companies are not complying with the legislation at all, and there are currently no penalties for non-compliance. When statements are shared, they are often generalised and do not provide the detail required to be sure that modern slavery is not taking place. Consequently, if companies have victims of modern slavery in their supply chains, little has been done by organisations to eliminate it.
Much more needs to be done to strengthen the legislation, first by mandating companies to report on the six areas that the Act requests, and secondly by ensuring consequences if they do not report. That commitment from companies could also provide an opportunity for a co-ordinated approach to issues that arise in multiple supply chains. If the UK wishes to lead the way on this issue, it must ensure that such structures are in place, and enforced, so that companies report on their supply chain. A further problem that I have raised a number of times, which was also identified in the review, is the lack of information about victims once they leave the NRM. The fact that such information is not properly recorded leaves hugely vulnerable individuals at risk of being re-trafficked. No knowledge is kept of their whereabouts, which is simply not good enough.
I also wish to mention the gendered nature of modern slavery. I understand that the law on prostitution could not be addressed in the review as it fell outside its remit, but I am pleased that that work will now be carried out, together with colleagues in the all-party group on prostitution and the global sex trade, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) has done such brilliant work. Although the issue was not addressed in the review, many who gave evidence stated that because—unlike other countries in Europe—England, Wales and Scotland do not having a sex buyer law, they could be more of a target for traffickers. The sex buyer law on prostitution decriminalises all those who are prostituted. During my time as an MP I have met countless women involved in prostitution, and I have heard their harrowing stories of exploitative relationships and the dangerous situations they have been put in. We must ensure that England, Wales and Scotland are not easy targets for traffickers because they do not have a sex buyer law.
The UK Government can say warm words, and repeat the same lines about what they are doing to help victims and protect them from modern slavery or being re-trafficked. However, unless our police force and support services are properly resourced to undertake that mammoth task, those desperately needed changes will not come about.
The hon. Lady set out the issues around the law on prostitution in the UK, and she made a clear case for why a sex buyers law has helped to reduce sexual exploitation in other nearby countries, leaving the UK with quite different laws. Will those on the Labour Front Bench support a change to the law in that area?
I will answer by saying simply that it is a work in progress.
In 2015 there were 17,000 fewer police officers in England and Wales than there were in 2010, and regardless of the way that is spun, it will have an impact on helping victims of modern slavery. We can get closer to eradicating this heinous crime if there is a properly resourced, co-ordinated approach by companies, politicians and other supporting bodies, who commit to meeting the expectations of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. There is a huge opportunity to be world leaders in removing this horror from our society, but there must be more enforcement and it must be properly resourced. The consensus we have heard today should, and I hope will, motivate the Government to implement the recommendations as soon as possible. Again, I thank everyone who was involved with this remarkable and insightful piece of work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, and I am grateful for your invitation to colleagues to intervene on the Minister as much as possible.
I thank the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) for securing this important debate, and for all his work not just in the review—I will thank him and others lavishly for that in a moment—but over the years. We were struck by his recollection of how he was first alerted to the heinous crime of modern slavery, and by the recollections of other hon. Friends and Members around the Chamber. My hon. Friends the Members for Erewash (Maggie Throup) and for Henley (John Howell), and the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) highlighted the various ways that we have all become aware of, alerted to, and are working on efforts to tackle the range of horrendous crimes against humanity that modern slavery involves. Yet again it is a great privilege to take part in a debate in which the tone, I hope, shows the best of this place, with both constructive criticism and the will to work together. I thank all hon. Members and friends for their participation this afternoon.
The Government are committed to the eradication of modern slavery in the United Kingdom and overseas. Our modern slavery legislation is among the best in the world, but we always seek to improve our response. The hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) expressed impatience with this place but also with outside, and the hon. Members for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) noted the evolving methodology of slave owners, and the ways they change their criminal behaviour to avoid detection and exploit more vulnerable people, or find opportunities for selling people in a range of ways. That is what modern slavery is about.
On the evolving nature of the legislation, will the Minister do all she can to ensure that some of the negative reporting about the way traffickers are starting to use the statutory defence included in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 does not deter us from using it? That important provision protects vulnerable victims.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question because we have recently seen negative publicity about that issue. We are clear that that defence exists to protect the most vulnerable people in society, particularly children, and we believe that rolling out independent child trafficking advocates—particularly the new forms that we are trying for UK nationals—will help the police and others to understand where that defence applies properly and lawfully.
The Minister will be aware of the legislative change in Northern Ireland—there was a meeting in the House to make Members aware of it. Has she had a chance to look in detail at the legislation in Northern Ireland? May I say gently—and quickly, Mrs Main—that by looking at it she might find a way of introducing effective legislation here?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. Later in my speech, I will deal with hon. Members’ observations about prostitution. I am always happy to look at the example set in other parts of the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
The methodology is evolving, and we have an open-handed, open-hearted response to tackle this very serious crime. I was pleased that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and Baroness Butler-Sloss accepted the Prime Minister’s invitation to review the Act because we do not want to rest on our laurels. We recognise that as the crimes develop, so too must the law. I want to put on the record my sincere thanks to those three colleagues for all the work they have done on this. It is quite something to see the work they have drawn together, with the help of the commissioner experts—I have written to them all to thank them. They have done extraordinary work, and we are truly grateful to them.
We are considering all the recommendations of the final report very carefully, and we hope to respond to them formally before the summer recess. Colleagues who are impatient will have to understand that the wheels of Government turn slowly, and that is a swift response. We are working very hard indeed to achieve that. We recognise that this is an opportunity, as the hon. Member for Gedling said.
I will touch on the review’s four themes, and I hope hon. Members will understand that I cannot commit to particular recommendations today. I am delighted that Dame Sara Thornton took up the role of Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner on 1 May. Anyone who has met Dame Sara or had the privilege of working with her knows how independently minded she is. I know from my meetings with her how much she is relishing the opportunity to work in this arena, bringing her policing experience with her. I have no doubt that she will bring some huge improvements to the way in which we deal with modern slavery in this country. It is a vital role that offers independent insight and challenges public authorities to ensure the UK’s response remains among the best in the world. We very much welcome the review’s recommendations on how to ensure the role’s independence, and we are working closely with Dame Sara to take them on board.
Last week, the Prime Minister announced the creation of a new Government modern slavery and migration envoy to help advance the Government’s international modern slavery objectives. That is something that colleagues were keen to recommend. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley gave examples from Nigeria, with which we must work closely because we are sadly a destination for a great number of the traffickers from that country. My hon. Friend will know that the Home Office is using the modern slavery fund to tackle modern slavery in key source countries, including Nigeria, where we have committed £5 million to deal with the issue. Through events such as the Santa Marta Group conference, I have met some of the amazing people who work with people—predominantly women—in Nigeria who are at risk of being trafficked or have been trafficked. I am absolutely convinced about the invaluable role that their work plays.
This is a difficult question, but I will ask it because the Minister is more sympathetic to this than others in the Home Office. She talks about women from Nigeria who may have been trafficked to this country. If they are confirmed to be victims of trafficking through the national referral mechanism and receive a conclusive grounds decision, what immigration status should they have at the end of that?
I will come on to that when I talk about victim support. The hon. Gentleman understands only too well how complicated this is, so I will try to keep to my themes, and I want to give the right hon. Member for Birkenhead a couple of minutes at the end to sum up.
The Minister was right to identify this country’s pull factor. She rightly talked about the point that the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) made about women coming over here and being sexually exploited. Does she acknowledge that the Government must do more to address sexual exploitation in this country, and that a buyers law is the way to do that?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke for setting out the reviewers’ intention to look at prostitution in addition to the report that they have delivered. I welcome that review. I very much understand the points that hon. Members have made today and in previous debates. We have commissioned detailed research into what prostitution looks like in the 20th century, because we all acknowledge that it is different from how it was 20 years ago, particularly given the rise of online sex trafficking and prostitution. We want to wait for that independent research conducted by academics in south Wales, and we hope that they will be able to report this summer. We very much look forward to that, and we will of course review the evidence once it comes in.
The review rightly focused on transparency in supply chains. We are the first country in the world to require large organisations to report on the steps taken to prevent modern slavery in their supply chains. More and more businesses are reporting on their actions to protect vulnerable workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley mentioned Unilever, and other colleagues rightly mentioned the Co-op. In my role, I have the privilege of helping the Home Secretary with the business forum, which draws together some of the biggest business leaders not just in this country but in the world, so we can examine what they are doing to ensure their compliance with the Act. As hon. Members said, compliance can give companies a competitive advantage, but only as long as other companies are doing what they should be doing too.
The Home Office wrote to the CEOs of 17,000 businesses in October 2018 and March 2019 to notify them of our intention to undertake an audit of compliance. We are pleased that nearly 4,000 businesses have signed up to our newsletter for further information. This is an area that requires real action. I am therefore very pleased that, last week, the Prime Minister announced that we will develop a central registry for modern slavery statements published under the Act to empower consumers, investors and non-governmental organisations to scrutinise statements and hold businesses to account. I think that is a very significant development, and I was delighted when we managed to get it over the line, not least given our experience of the huge public pressure that the gender pay gap has put on businesses to ensure they treat female staff members properly and correct unfairnesses where they exist.
I am conscious of the work being done by various businesses and organisations, including, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke said, the NHS and churches. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority is also doing a huge amount to educate and hold people to account.
The Minister mentioned the excellent progress that has been made on this front, but it remains the case that 5,000 businesses are not in compliance with section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act. In October 2018, she said that they can expect to face tougher consequences if they continue to flout their obligations. Will she elaborate on what those tougher consequences might be?
We will consult on further new measures, including proposals to improve reporting quality, ensure compliance and extend the requirements to the public sector. My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash expressed some dismay at yet another consultation. I regret that when we make big changes, which I hope this consultation will lead to, we have to consult to see what organisations and so on think of them. I believe this consultation will be a real step forward, and I encourage hon. Members to respond to it.
Some 100 local authorities already report, but I am pleased to announce that individual Departments will publish their own modern slavery statements from 2020-21, building on the Prime Minister’s earlier commitment that central Government will report voluntarily this year. We very much accept the observation that we must lead by example, and we will do so.
I turn to independent child trafficking advocates. As was set out, some of the most heartbreaking examples of modern slavery in what is, it has to be said, a pretty competitive field are those of children who are exploited by slave masters. We are committed to providing specialist support for child victims. We have now rolled out ICTAs to one third of local authorities in England and Wales, in line with the commitment I made in July last year. We welcome the findings of the independent review, and we are considering the recommendations on the improvements we can make to the ICTA service. We remain committed to rolling out ICTAs nationally as soon as possible.
On legal application, the Act provided the necessary tools and powers for the police to tackle the offenders responsible for this crime and bring them to justice. I am grateful that the reviewers examined the definition of the offences, the uptake of slavery and trafficking reparation orders, and the use of the statutory defence. We are considering the review’s recommendations with our operational partners and will use the impetus the review has created to build on the recent improvements we have seen in the operational response. We have made good progress, but the review rightly highlights where we need to go further to ensure more offenders are convicted, more gangs are disrupted and more illicit profits are seized and returned to victims.
The hon. Member for Strangford touched on victim support. That technically was not part of the review, but I want to answer his question because it comes up in the context of immigration, which a number of colleagues understandably raised. We absolutely reiterate our commitment to identifying victims of modern slavery and supporting them to recover from their exploitation and begin rebuilding their lives. In 2017 we announced a package of reforms to the national referral mechanism centred on improved identification and support for victims at all stages, and quicker, more certain decision making that victims and wider society can have confidence in.
To improve decision making, we have launched a single expert unit to make all decisions on whether someone is a victim of modern slavery. That single competent authority is responsible for all NRM decisions regardless of an individual’s nationality or immigration status. That is significant because we are absolutely clear that consideration of whether an individual is a victim and any decision about their immigration status must remain separate. We are convinced that that expert unit, and all the safeguards we have put alongside it, will help to improve the quality of decisions.
Importantly, we are also developing a new digital system to make it easier for those on the frontline to identify and refer victims. That system will go live at the end of the summer. That is also significant, because it goes to the point the right hon. Member for Birkenhead rightly made about data collection. We have high hopes that, once that is digitised, the collection of such data will be very much improved.
Modern slavery is an appalling crime that robs people of their freedom and their dignity. It cannot be allowed to continue. We can be proud that the UK is a world leader in tackling modern slavery, and that the Prime Minister set out her expectations not just for the United Kingdom but for the rest of the world in her call to the United Nations for action. We of course acknowledge that we must lead by example, and we will continue to do so. Once again, I thank the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke and Baroness Butler-Sloss, and all their expert commissioners, for their commitment to the review. I look forward to their implementation group and to their holding my feet to the fire.
Thank you, Mrs Main, for chairing the debate; you got us through on time and enabled us all to make our contributions. I thank my colleagues who made the review possible. We had serious intent, but with the kind of fellowship across party lines that Members of Parliament can have, to make a contribution. We have given notice that there will be an implementation group so that we do not just do a report and forget it, and we will also look at the areas we were forbidden from looking at by our terms of reference. With the help of the House—we saw the extraordinary strength of support in this debate—this will be just the beginning of another stage of our campaign.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act.