Monday 30th September 2019

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Scotland Office
Robin Walker Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Robin Walker)
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30 Sep 2019, 7:29 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of and approves the Report pursuant to Section 3(12) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 - Use of discretionary powers to provide assistance and support under section 18(9) of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, which was laid before this House on Wednesday 4 September.

It is an honour to speak for the first time as a Northern Ireland Office Minister, though by no means for the first time on Northern Ireland matters.

On 4 September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State laid before Parliament a report on the use of powers to provide support and assistance under section 18(9) of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. As Members will know, the policy on modern slavery is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland and is dealt with by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice. I thank officials from the Department for the assistance they have provided in producing this report.

Modern slavery is a truly abhorrent practice that can often have long-lasting physical and psychological effects on its victims. It is unsettling to realise that those who are vulnerable in our society could be subjected to such crimes, but the distressing reality is that callous traffickers and enslavers are operating across the UK, including in Northern Ireland. I recognise and welcome the significant good work that daily continues to be taken forward by partners in Northern Ireland, across Government and by statutory agencies, civil society and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in seeking to tackle this issue.

We know that modern slavery is happening in Northern Ireland and I am aware that the Department of Justice has recently welcomed a number of convictions under the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act. This is encouraging, as it undermines any low-risk, high-profit perceptions that might have been held by exploiters and traffickers and sends out a strong message that modern slavery will not be tolerated in Northern Ireland. As with the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland has in general seen increasing numbers of referrals to the national referral mechanism over the past five years.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Will the Minister congratulate the PSNI on what it did today and over the weekend when it caught some of those involved in human trafficking and its after-effects? Does it perhaps show that the PSNI needs this legislative back-up to pursue criminals who do not care about people as individuals but look upon the people they traffic not as people but as commodities? The PSNI can do its job, but the Minister and the Government need to do theirs alongside it.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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30 Sep 2019, 7:32 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I was going to come to the actions of the PSNI in my closing remarks, but let me congratulate it on its work. It is clear that, while the legislative framework is slightly different in Northern Ireland from that in the UK, it is enforcing the law actively, which sends an important message to the traffickers. He will recognise that the report relates to specific support under the law of Northern Ireland, rather than to the issue of who is arrested and for what, but his point is very valid, and certainly I am unstinting in my praise for the work of the PSNI in protecting the victims of trafficking and indeed protecting the whole of society across Northern Ireland.

Lady Hermon Portrait Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind)
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30 Sep 2019, 7:33 p.m.

I welcome the Minister to the Northern Ireland Office. He did a superb job in the Brexit Department and I am absolutely delighted, as I am sure is everyone, to have him in the Northern Ireland Office, though we regret that we have to share him with the Scotland Office.

I am grateful to the Minister for his praise for the work of the PSNI—it is right that he praised it—but I am concerned about the aftercare for those trafficked. There is a growing number of particularly women but also men who have been trafficked and rescued—thank goodness—by the PSNI. What happens to them afterwards? Does the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland have a record of those who are deported? More to the point, are they allowed to stay in Northern Ireland and given settled status when they are rescued from the horrible ordeal of being trafficked?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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30 Sep 2019, 7:34 p.m.

The hon. Lady makes a powerful point. I want to come to the elements in the report that focus on the support to victims of trafficking—that is what it is really focused on. It is important that we send a message, as we have done in our many discussions in the wider debate about human trafficking in this place—that the victims should be protected and reassured wherever possible that their rights will be respected. I join her in acknowledging that.

The number of referrals has gone up, perhaps as a result of greater awareness of the issue and increased reporting. Tackling modern slavery is a key priority for the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland and, as we have discussed, for the PSNI, and I commend them for the work they have done with other Departments that have significant roles, such as the Department of Health, which is responsible for child protection.

I know that across the statutory agencies and civil society organisations with which the Department is working there is a group of hugely committed and dedicated people who are pursuing offenders, providing essential support to victims so that they can rebuild their lives, and actively raising awareness or trying to reduce demand.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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30 Sep 2019, 7:35 p.m.

There is an organisation in my main town of Newtownards. It is a charity group and probably a church group as well. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) referred to aftercare and the follow-on. I think that is what it does. Will there be funding, grant aid and assistance to help those organisations doing such marvellous work, albeit under the radar—they have probably never heard their name mentioned. They are doing the work where it matters and some assistance to help them would be gratefully received if possible.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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30 Sep 2019, 7:36 p.m.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s support for the organisation in his constituency and his bid for assistance. As he will appreciate, the report we are discussing is specifically focused on one element of this, but I will take that away and take it up as something we can discuss as we move forward.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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30 Sep 2019, 7:36 p.m.

I will give way to the hon. Lady, but then I will make some progress so that we can get into the meat of the report.

Emma Little Pengelly Portrait Emma Little Pengelly
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30 Sep 2019, 7:36 p.m.

I note from the report that the immigration status of those who have been rescued and entered the system is not held. I want to echo the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) about aftercare. If this information is not held, as indicated in the report, how can we be sure that those who have suffered from human trafficking are being looked after on their onward journey and not experiencing problems with settled status and potentially being deported?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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30 Sep 2019, 7:37 p.m.

I want to come to the specific point about the information that the report does and does not contain. Clearly, as it sets out, there were concerns, given the small number of individuals involved, that to disclose their immigration status could result in some of them being identified. That was the reason the Northern Ireland civil service did not want to go further in disclosing that information. That said, the hon. Lady raises an important point: the aftercare should be there.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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30 Sep 2019, 7:38 p.m.

The paucity of information in the report is staggering and the response about immigration status totally inadequate. It says that the Department of Justice does not hold this information and would have concerns if it did because of the limited number of people involved. The legislation passed by this House does not ask for that information from the Department, as is accepted in the second footnote where it states it would be possible for a competent authority to provide the information. We would understand that to be the Home Office. If there had been any serious intent behind the research for this report to the House, in compliance with the legislation, it would not have been much trouble to ask the Home Office for that relevant information. It is a point of concern. It has been raised by three Members now and it would be appropriate for the Minister to push back and ask for that information.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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30 Sep 2019, 7:39 p.m.

I certainly take onboard that feedback from a number of Members, but it is not just that the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland does not hold that information. We recognise that another competent authority could advise on immigration status, but given the small number of victims involved—16 over three years—the concern was that information on their immigration status could make it possible to discern their identity. That is why the view was taken not to include that information in the report, but I recognise the strength of feeling, and I will reflect on it in any follow-up action.

I want to come back to the Department of Justice’s role. I have read its 2019-20 modern slavery strategy and I note the priorities of pursuing offenders, protecting victims and preventing further vulnerability to modern slavery. The nature of Northern Ireland and its structures—one police service, five health and social care trusts—and its relatively small geographical size can only help to support a truly joined-up strategic and operational response. Partnership is key to delivering that strategy, as are training and awareness, together with strong links with colleagues in neighbouring jurisdictions.

The report, which was laid before Parliament on 4 September, contains information specifically on how many times the Department of Justice has considered it necessary to provide ongoing assistance and support for victims of human trafficking for whom there has been a conclusive determination that the person is a victim of trafficking of human beings, under the discretionary power under section 18(9) of the 2015 Act. It also outlines the reasons the Department has decided it is necessary to provide that support. I recognise the importance of the support that is provided to adult potential victims of modern slavery under section 18 to assist them in recovering from their experiences—we should acknowledge that separate arrangements are in place for children.

It was clearly the will of Parliament that the Secretary of State should report on this issue. We have already discussed the caveats for the one area where we have perhaps been unable to report in the detail that the legislation originally specified. I will certainly take away the strength of feeling that we have already heard in the debate, and I look forward to hearing what hon. Members across the House have to say.

Karin Smyth Portrait Karin Smyth (Bristol South) (Lab)
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I, too, welcome the Minister to his new post. He and I have previously met and talked in our respective roles in the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. He is a great loss to the Brexit team but a great addition to the Northern Ireland Office team, given his knowledge.

This is a cruel subject and there are many victims. I was recently involved in the police parliamentary scheme, as many other hon. Members have been, and I spent a day with the trafficking team here in London before going out on one of their investigations. Anyone who has seen up close the work that they do could only be massively impressed. It is very difficult work, and meeting and talking with victims is hugely emotional. I pay tribute to the work that they are doing here in London and to support teams across the United Kingdom and Europe.

It is very valuable to have this discussion about victims in Northern Ireland. The European Commission’s recent report “Together Against Trafficking in Human Beings” highlights that:

“Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom to have a land border and traffickers and enslavers exploit this. We therefore have strong links and effective partnerships in place to ensure that law enforcement organisations from both jurisdictions work together to tackle modern slavery.”

That is a core part of the United Kingdom’s work in this area. I therefore have a few questions for the Minister. First, in the context of the discussions that are now happening, and not just on the European arrest warrant but in relation to our joint north-south arrangements on human trafficking, which are a core part of the UK’s defence in this area, what discussions are taking place to ensure that traffickers and enslavers are not allowed to exploit the situation at the border.

Secondly, as has been mentioned already, support for victims really does rely on policing. We have heard about some good success this weekend, but the chief constable of the PSNI has said that he will require an extra 800 police officers over the next few months, so resourcing in this area is a massive problem. Having seen up close the level of resource needed by police forces in the rest of the United Kingdom—I have not been to Northern Ireland to see the work being done there—I know that it is a massive problem, and they will have to make decisions about those competing priorities. Again, we need an assurance from the Minister that the Government will be cognisant of those priority decisions that the chief constable is having to make now with regard to policing over the next few months, to ensure that the situation is not further exploited by traffickers.

Thirdly, as has already been said today, these are victims, and even if we find them, which itself is a massive “if”, they require an awful lot of support and resource, particularly in housing and health provision, and especially mental health support and counselling. We know that mental health services in Northern Ireland are already heavily stretched, with high levels of mental health need. It is important, when looking at these reports and the work coming forward, that the Minister and his Department work with colleagues across Northern Ireland to really understand what we mean by aftercare. The fact that it has been raised here shows that people here feel very strongly about that. We know that these public services are already under huge strain and cannot cope with the levels of care needed. I do not have much confidence that they are able to provide that aftercare. The Government need to take that very seriously, support those victims and provide the rehabilitation services that they so desperately need.

Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
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30 Sep 2019, 7:46 p.m.

The 2019 Act states that the report must include reference to

“progress on the use of discretionary powers”

and that it must cover three distinct areas. The key words here are “progress” and “must cover”. I believe the Minister to be a most courteous and conscientious Minister—I, like many other colleagues, welcome him to his new post—but I regret to say that this scant report is a sadly inadequate response to a very grave subject. Only two of the three questions are even touched on in any way. If we are to learn what works in tackling the huge scourge of human trafficking, we need better data-gathering systems, and one thing that the report clearly does highlight is the need for that to improve.

Lady Hermon Portrait Lady Hermon
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30 Sep 2019, 7:47 p.m.

I am delighted to endorse what the hon. Lady has said. I suggest that one of the key issues that the Department of Justice ought to have put into this very thin report, and which it should have been capable of doing, is the involvement of paramilitaries in human trafficking, whether loyalist, republican or simply criminal gangs that have no connection with either side. We need to know who is responsible for this hideous crime in Northern Ireland, because it is growing, and that should have been included in the report.

Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce
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I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention.

In 2015, the Northern Ireland Assembly became the first legislature in the United Kingdom to pass comprehensive human trafficking legislation. I commend Lord Morrow on his leading role in initiating that legislation and the Assembly on fully supporting its wide-ranging provisions. In some areas, it goes further than the human trafficking legislation in England and Wales, the Modern Slavery Act 2015, in providing statutory assistance and support for victims during the process of confirming victims, which is known as the national referral mechanism. There is also a fully implemented scheme of independent guardians for trafficked children. An article published in the journal Statute Law Review in 2016 described that Northern Ireland Act as “an impressive instrument”.

Section 18 of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) sets out the first statutory support for victims, or potential victims still to be assessed, of a minimum of 45 days during the NRM process, but it also recognises that there are times when that support would need to be extended. Again, the Northern Ireland Assembly was ahead of the rest of the UK in that regard, because section 18(9) specifically allows for assistance and support to be extended beyond the point where a victim receives a positive conclusive grounds decision at the discretion of the Department of Justice. Indeed, it is one of the more bizarre features of the current system of identifying victims of trafficking that, once fully recognised as a victim, the state offers them no further statutory support. As the previous anti-slavery commissioner said,

“supporting a potential victim until the conclusive decision is made and then ceasing support so abruptly could be damaging for the victim and negatively affect their recovery.”

In 2013-14, Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly envisaged that there could be circumstances in which it is not in the best interests of the victim for support to be stopped if they receive a positive conclusive-grounds decision. The Assembly was ahead of its time in recognising the need for victims to receive support beyond that point. The report that we are considering shows that, for the past three financial years, 17 victims received that additional support. That is welcome, although sadly the numbers are low. Will the Minister give us some more information on how long the victims were supported and say why information is scant? Will he confirm that those 17 did indeed receive that extended support after they had had a positive conclusive-grounds decision?

Northern Ireland introduced that pioneering legislation, and there has been much debate and dialogue about what assistance should be provided, and for how long. It has become clear that the extent of stability and support that victims need to help them on a pathway to recover beyond the NRM potentially has a huge impact on their ability to recover, on their resilience to the very real risk of re-trafficking, and on their capacity and confidence to participate in police investigations and court proceedings against their traffickers. They need that support to enable them to have the confidence to stand up and do so.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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30 Sep 2019, 7:50 p.m.

Does the hon. Lady recognise the international aspect of human trafficking? The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) referred to local paramilitaries, both loyalist and republican, being involved in human trafficking. In many cases, the people who are trafficked are from eastern European countries, so the internationalism of criminal gangs must be taken into consideration. Under the legislation that has been introduced to help the victims, that internationalism must be considered so that we find the right way forward.

Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce
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30 Sep 2019, 7:50 p.m.

That is why I was disappointed that there was no reply to the third aspect of the report, on information relating to the immigration status of individuals. It was not so much that I wanted to see particular information, but it might have indicated a pattern of trafficking to this country from certain other jurisdictions, which could be helpful in tackling the problem further.

I have spoken a number of times about the need for much greater support for trafficked victims, which was acknowledged in a court case in June by the Home Office, albeit in an out-of-court settlement with victims of human trafficking. If the Home Office has acknowledged that in a case in this jurisdiction, it should consider that that has implications for Northern Ireland. Forty-five days is better than nothing, but it is still not enough. Several reports and Committees have stated that in recent years, and I shall highlight a few. The Select Committee on Work and Pensions produced an important report on victims of modern slavery as long ago as 2015 and strongly recommended personal recovery plans for victims of up to 12 months in cases in which they wanted to stay in the UK. More recently, the British Red Cross, in its July 2019 report, “Hope for the future”, repeated those needs. The Home Affairs Committee is running an inquiry into the impact of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, including, because it knows that it needs to be looked at, levels of support for victims and how that can be improved. The independent review of the Modern Slavery Act, led by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), along with the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and Baroness Butler-Sloss, stated in its final report in May this year that there was a need for improved victim support, even though victim support was not in its remit. It said that

“it cannot be right that the Government provides no standardised post-NRM support offer for victims, who are often still incredibly vulnerable, and this can increase their vulnerability to being re-trafficked and re-exploited.”

As I have said, victims who receive support are more likely to be able to work with the police in any investigation of their traffickers and provide important evidence in court.

Following Northern Ireland’s example, Lord McColl of Dulwich introduced the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill at the beginning of this Session in the other place. It is being taken through this House by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) no less, and it recommends 12 months’ support. That is the kind of support that is needed, with the option of different services to meet an individual’s particular needs. I understand that it is possible that, if the Government accept the Bill, the measure will relate not only to England and Wales, but could easily be extended to Northern Ireland. I would appreciate a meeting with the Minister to discuss that and other aspects of my speech.

I sincerely hope that the McColl Bill will be considered in the House so that we can debate more fully the benefits of providing longer-term support for victims. The University of Nottingham Rights Lab recently published a cost-benefit analysis of providing support to victims in England and Wales on the basis of the provisions in the Bill. It estimated, staggeringly, that there would be a direct and indirect net benefit to society of up to £25.1 million from providing all confirmed victims with 12 months of support to help their rehabilitation.

The report of the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act, to which I have referred, called for standardised support for victims wherever they are trafficked in the UK. The Government report on trafficking that we are discussing gives very few details on why the 17 individuals were given further support. It is inadequate for it to say that the reason that the Department of Justice decided that it was necessary to provide assistance related to the general policy intent underpinning the provision. That is the rationale behind the regulation—it does not give us any detailed information. The response is barely five lines long. When one considers some of the desperate situations that people can face when they are trafficked, it is completely inadequate to have so little information to help us understand how they can be helped further. Will the Minister let us know whether or not officials who have made decisions to extend support have received any guidance on how to make those decisions? If there is guidance, can he place a copy in the Library? If there is no guidance, how are decisions made as officials consider the case of each individual victim?

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson
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30 Sep 2019, 7:50 p.m.

I thank the hon. Lady for the thoughtful and considered way in which she is dealing with these issues in detail. She is making absolutely correct points. There was a response, following consideration of the report, issued to Lord Morrow from our party and the questions that he raised by Lord Duncan of Springbank. May I suggest to the hon. Lady that that could usefully be placed in the Library?

The hon. Lady is right to make these points for a number of reasons. First, there was a conclusive finding in the case of 16 people—they were victims in those 16 individual circumstances. We do not know why there was a delay, or whether other financial support and welfare assistance was provided, but there was a delay in doing so, or whether there was a delay in the administrative system through which they received support. Similarly, we do not know whether there were other people beyond the 16 for whom there was a conclusive finding of victimhood, but that occurred before the 45-day expiration. I thank the hon. Lady for raising the paucity of information in the report and for the detailed way in which she has explained why she hopes it will be provided in due course.

Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce
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30 Sep 2019, 7:50 p.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. To put it on the record, in its first response, the Department of Justice admitted that it did not routinely record information in relation to the exercise of the discretionary power to provide continued support. As he said, that is completely unsatisfactory. Sadly, the report also says that the Department of Justice is not proposing any policy changes or consultations in relation to the provision under section 18(9). That is a great pity, because we need to understand how discretionary support works and whether there could be a plan to extend it under the statute to provide more comprehensive support to benefit the wellbeing of victims of human trafficking.

I further commend Northern Ireland’s legislation as the only legislation in the United Kingdom with substantial provisions to tackle the demand for sexual exploitation—an international treaty obligation—and to provide support for those who want to exit prostitution. Although many women in prostitution are not trafficked, we know from the NRM data that the majority of female victims are trafficked into sexual exploitation. Rachel Moran, a survivor of prostitution, commented that

“prostitution is the context in which sex trafficking takes place”.

A report produced by the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, which I have the privilege of chairing, highlights the need to reduce the demand for prostitution by creating a new criminal offence of paying for sexual services in England and Wales; not supplying them, but paying for them. Since the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, France, the Republic of Ireland and Israel have introduced similar legislation. Our country will be behind the curve if we do not address this. I commend the commission’s report to the Minister; perhaps we can discuss that as well if he is kind enough to agree to a meeting.

Those who have been abused through sexual exploitation must not be treated as criminals. Instead, those who exploit and coerce others must be penalised. In countries such as Sweden and Norway, which have legislated to tackle the demand for paid sex, fewer men report having paid for sex following the introduction of those laws. According to a report published by Queen’s University Belfast a couple of weeks ago, relating to the 2015 Act, 11.6% of people asked said either that they had stopped purchasing sex or that the law was likely to make them stop completely, while 27.1 % said that they would purchase sex less frequently.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con)
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30 Sep 2019, 8:02 p.m.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about prostitution, but in respect of victims of sexual exploitation, there is a danger. If prostitution is driven underground, it is much more difficult to recognise and release the victims of human trafficking. There is a balance to be struck.

Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce
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I hear what my hon. Friend says, but all the evidence that I have seen from countries where paying for sex has been criminalised shows a reduction in that form of abuse. In other words, laws such as the one in Northern Ireland are having positive effects.

As we heard earlier, only yesterday the Police Service of Northern Ireland announced the arrest—through the use of the 2015 Act—of a 57-year-old man in the Belfast area on suspicion of human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, controlling prostitution, brothel keeping and money laundering. The PSNI also announced the arrest of five men on suspicion of paying for sexual services. The officer in charge made a powerful statement, and I hope that the House will bear with me if I put it on record; I am approaching the end of my speech. The officer said:

“Whilst the sale of sex in itself is not a crime in Northern Ireland, it is a criminal offence to purchase sex. I want to make it very clear—if you are paying for sexual services, you are committing a crime. Do you really want to be getting a knock on the door from police, perhaps having to explain to family and friends why you have been arrested? I want to encourage anyone who purchases sex to think of the consequences. Furthermore, you cannot be sure that the person providing the services has not been forced to or trafficked to make a profit for the person controlling them.”

The importance of the way in which prostitution ties in with trafficking is currently being reviewed by a piece of work following up the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act. Prostitution is also the subject of a new inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee. I believe that we should follow Northern Ireland’s progressive steps and create the offence of paying for sex and consequently make England and Wales a less attractive destination for traffickers.

In acknowledging the very significant accomplishment that is the 2015 Act, I cannot but note that it provides a fantastic example of how we have all benefited from a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly. Most of the Act was supported by all the parties, and, crucially, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin supported all of it. I very much hope that Stormont can be up and running again very soon, so that we can benefit from its legislative prowess in this and other areas.

Emma Little Pengelly Portrait Emma Little Pengelly (Belfast South) (DUP)
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30 Sep 2019, 8 p.m.

I do not intend to speak for long because I follow a hugely comprehensive, detailed and valuable speech from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Many extremely detailed issues have been articulated in an excellent way. Although this has been a relatively short debate, with few speakers, it has certainly not lacked detail and substance, and I welcome that. A number of important questions have been asked and I look forward to the Government’s response.

First, let me offer huge congratulations to Lord Morrow and the team. In previous contributions, I have indicated my dismay and sorrow about the situation in Northern Ireland, which has experienced 1,000 days without a devolved Assembly, but when we reflect on this Act, we realise that we have something to celebrate in relation to our Northern Ireland Executive. The Executive and the Assembly have often been criticised, perhaps with some cause, but the Act is an excellent example of Northern Ireland’s leading the way. It took a lot of inspiration and hard work by those behind the scenes, who lobbied and received a warm and receptive response from Lord Morrow. That team helped him to produce a private Member’s Bill that was an innovative piece of legislation which has led the way not just in the United Kingdom, but globally.

I welcome the fact that over the last few days and weeks there has been a significant investigation of human trafficking. I understand that there have been a number of arrests. That is a welcome example of the success of the legislation and the action of the police, and I commend the teams in the police and other agencies who work so hard to identify and to try to stamp out the absolute scourge that is modern slavery.

The report is, of course, very specific. It relates to the support that is given to those who come forward, or who are suspected of being trafficked. I will not go into too much detail—I had a number of questions to ask, but many of them have already been asked by Members on both sides of the House—but I want to touch on a couple of technical issues.

The report focuses on section 18 of the Act, which provides assistance and support for adults during the process of determining whether a person is a victim of trafficking. That process is known as the national referral mechanism, or NRM. It specifies a period of 45 days. As has already been pointed out this evening, the legislation very much led the way. At that time, the 45-day period involved some flexibility, with the understanding that it might be sufficient, but this matter has moved on. I want to focus on that flexibility, and on what consideration the Government have given to extending it and adopting a more needs-based approach to support. I understand that they are engaged in ongoing discussions about the report and about the possibility of a 12-month period, which would certainly provide more flexibility. Important questions were posed in the original amendment which requested the report. We should analyse the experience in Northern Ireland up to this point.

I agree with other Members that, unfortunately, the report is somewhat scant in relation to the information. There is a bit of detail in there. I accept the Government’s view—there are small numbers involved—that we do not want people to be identifiable from that, but I feel that there would have been a way in which to provide a great deal more detail and analysis of the situation without contravening anything or compromising anyone. This legislation pertains to Northern Ireland, so it is worrying if the Department of Justice and other agencies in Northern Ireland do not hold or analyse that data.

There has been a huge drive in public policy making, including in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has been leading the way on evidence-based and outcomes-based accountability. Government policy making is very much at the heart of that, and I argue that the policy development work of Committees and this House should be also be based on evidence. We have the potential to collect and analyse that valuable data and to evolve, amend or change the law in accordance with our experience over the past three years. References to the data not being held are, therefore, worrying. There is an old adage in public policy making and Departments that what is not measured does not get done. If the data is not being measured, how are we evaluating and analysing information relating to the evolution and development of policy?

The Act broke new ground, in that there was an awareness that we would have to assess, improve and develop. That was discussed at the time. The Act is a really good example of innovative policy work and legislation breaking new ground and taking risks. I welcome that because it is important, but we must also carefully monitor and measure. The most worrying thing is what happens to those people when they move off the system. The Home Office arrangements mean that every MP has a case load of people and we liaise regularly with the Home Office. We know how stressful it can be to navigate the system, and if people are told that they have to leave and are at risk of being lifted at any time and are unsuccessful in getting the right to remain. People who have come through terrible experiences may face that situation, but we do not know because apparently that data is not held by the Department of Justice.

I can only imagine the terrible and unfortunate circumstances in which people who were trafficked found themselves in their countries of origin or perhaps in a country to which they travelled and from which they were trafficked onwards. I can only assume that at the heart of each of those individual stories is a very tragic and unfortunate set of circumstances, perhaps going right back to their childhood. It is deeply worrying to think that some of them are being sent back and about where they are being sent back to. I hope that that is not the case and that, with a little more analysis, the Minister will be able to confirm in due course that they have the necessary support, that they are able to stay and that they are being protected, because it is care for the human and those people who have been through such difficult circumstances that is at the heart of this compassionate legislation. There are a number of questions for the Minister to answer.

I also want to ask about the guidance. I have had the benefit of seeing Lord Duncan’s letter to Lord Morrow in response to a number of queries. I know that they have been answered, so perhaps that letter could be placed in the Library for the benefit of Members who have asked questions. Although a number of questions have been answered, it is important to get additional clarity, particularly on the guidance given on the extension and the discretion involved. I understand that there is a very small number of cases. The Government’s argument is that they are dealt with on a case-by-case basis and that there is absolute discretion. I fear, however, that that discretion is not necessarily operated fairly or consistently; it depends on who applies it. It would be helpful if transparent guidance could be set down so that Members and others, including victims and members of the public, can be assured about the circumstances in which support can be extended and that the right support mechanism is in place. Many Members across the House would like that additional information, to ensure that that support mechanism is in place for these very vulnerable people if, indeed, the current legislation is not operating as envisaged.

Peter Bone Portrait Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con)
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30 Sep 2019, 8:15 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly), who made the very good point about the 45 days and the national referral mechanism. When we debated and introduced the proposal in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, I remember 90 days being thought to be appropriate. We were reassured, however, that people would be looked after irrespective of the 45 days, if necessary. We do not have enough information to make that judgment in relation to Northern Ireland. I do not want to say that the Government are not doing that; I would just like more information.

The United Kingdom leads the way on fighting human trafficking. It is a great credit to the previous Government that they passed the Modern Slavery Act and that they listened to Members on both sides of the House. A little while ago, when I was chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) invited me to Northern Ireland. I had travelled all over the United Kingdom and I saw in the voluntary and charitable sector in Northern Ireland an effort that exceeded what was happening in the rest of the UK. It is to their great credit that those voluntary organisations help victims of human trafficking in Northern Ireland. I also had the pleasure of meeting the Justice Minister at the time, and I was absolutely convinced that there was a determination in Northern Ireland to do their best to stamp out the evil of human trafficking.

The phrase “The evil of human trafficking,” does not really grasp what really happens. We are dealing with violent, evil, criminal gangs. It is no surprise to hear today that loyalist and other evil gangs that have operated in Northern Ireland on sectarian lines are the sorts of gangs that would get involved in human trafficking. They are just despicable.

I will give one example of what happened in Northern Ireland some time ago. A restaurant in Belfast was importing young girls into Northern Ireland. They were told when they came in that they would be working in the restaurant, but that is not what they did. They were taken to a terraced house in Belfast where the locks on the bedroom doors were on the outside, not the inside, to lock the girls in. These girls were then used for prostitution, but let us be honest: it was not prostitution; it was repeated rape. I still cannot really get across the evil of it. Imagine if you were a young girl, brought up perhaps with a strong religious background in Hungary, who had come to this country thinking you had got a job, but you finished up being raped and raped and raped.

To the great credit of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, it broke that gang up. Police forces across the United Kingdom have a very good record of doing that, but we have to look after the victims who are rescued. I have to say that in the case of adults, we do that very well. The approach taken in England and Wales—with the Salvation Army, the distribution of money from the Ministry of Justice, and voluntary organisations—is exactly the right way to look after adults. I am sure that adult victims in Northern Ireland are also very well looked after. I am not at all concerned that victims of human trafficking are sometimes regarded as criminals and sent home; I just do not believe that happens. We look after victims properly.

What I worry about are the child victims of human trafficking. For a 20-year-old girl who comes over expecting to work in a restaurant and who finds herself repeatedly raped, it is appalling, but let us imagine being a 15-year-old girl in those circumstances—it is even worse. They are rescued and the police service does its job but, as a child victim of human trafficking, they should not be looked after in the same way as an adult victim. The Minister said in one line, “and there are similar arrangements for child victims.” No, there are not. They are totally different arrangements. We have to get a grip so that we do not look after child victims in the same way as we look after adult victims.

As the hon. Member for Belfast South said, the data is not there. The problem is that so many children who have been trafficked find themselves re-trafficked because we do not give them the same protection that we give adults. We have an excellent Minister—I am pleased he is in the Northern Ireland Office and not the Brexit Department, because we do not agree on the Brexit issue—and I want to know about the pathway. This touches on what all Members have said: once a person has been recognised as a victim, it is no good just looking after them for 45 or 90 days and patting them on their head. That does not happen, of course, but the children disappear into a system that is not the same as the system for adults. They are re-trafficked but, of course, we do not have the data.

When a victim of human trafficking is rescued, I want to know where they are and what has happened to them after a year. If we cannot prove they are still safe, we can bet our bottom dollar that they have been re-trafficked. It is not a difficult thing to do, and thankfully there are not that many victims, but it is no good looking after victims only at the beginning; we have to look after them continuously so they are not re-trafficked.

In a future report to this House, would it not be good if we could know what has happened a year later to every victim of human trafficking in Northern Ireland? If they are all safe and well, we will know our system is working; but if they are not, we can take action to sort it out.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker
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30 Sep 2019, 8:22 p.m.

I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for this wide-ranging discussion; they will recognise that it has sometimes ranged beyond the confines of the specific legislation and report before us.

It is a pleasure to face the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) across the Dispatch Box. I have enjoyed working with her at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and I recognise and share the interests of Members on both sides of the House, and in the other place, in ensuring that support is available to all victims of human trafficking, both adults and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said, children, although children are not specifically within the scope of this report.

The hon. Member for Bristol South asked about the common travel area and cross-border co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda, and I assure her that we are confident that that will continue in all Brexit scenarios—those discussions will continue. She asked about extra police officers for Northern Ireland and, even though that is not specifically part of this report, I am happy to be part of a Government who are supporting extra police officers across the UK. I understand that around 206 extra officers have been recruited in this financial year as a result of extra support from the Treasury for the PSNI, which has also sustained 102 more officers recruited over the past financial year.

Modern slavery is a global issue, but it is also a local one. It is widely accepted that there are more slaves in the world today than at any point in human history, which is a shocking thought. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, Northern Ireland has, in many ways, pioneered action in this space. As the hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) said, that is a reason to celebrate the work of the Northern Ireland Assembly. As we debate these motions and regret the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, we should celebrate that good work where we have seen the Assembly leading the way.

I am grateful to all those involved in developing and implementing the strategy at the Department of Justice, and I am sure there will continue to be a sustained and increased collaboration with the voluntary service, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough rightly praised as outstanding.

I acknowledge and commend the Northern Ireland civil service for its progress on these matters in the current difficult circumstances, and I look forward to a time when these issues can be properly considered by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly which, as the hon. Member for Belfast South said, can look at the evidence and take this issue forward.

As we discussed, there were a number of arrests in Northern Ireland over the weekend for crimes related to human trafficking, and Members across the House will join me in praising the work of the PSNI in that respect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton asked specific questions about the guidance, and I refer her to the letter from Lord Duncan to Lord Morrow. I am happy to make sure a copy of that letter is placed in the Library for all Members to look at because, as the hon. Member for Belfast South said, it makes the point that support is extended on a case-by-case basis and is not based on specific guidance. When we go into more detail, the body of the report sets out the general policy intent to accommodate those cases where a short transitional period may be needed to facilitate a smooth transition for individuals exiting Department of Justice-funded support into mainstream agreements. I can confirm that, where an extension of support has been requested, it has been extended in all cases until that transition is facilitated.

A number of hon. Members on both sides of the House raised areas where they would like to see this issue taken further, and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton talked about her wider campaign and the legislation before the House in other areas. Recognising, of course, that responsibilities for this area sit with the Home Office, the Northern Ireland civil service and the Department of Justice, as well as with the Northern Ireland Office, I am happy to take up her invitation for a meeting.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House takes note of and approves the Report pursuant to Section 3(12) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 - Use of discretionary powers to provide assistance and support under section 18(9) of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015, which was laid before this House on Wednesday 4 September.