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Nationalities and Borders Bill risks failing victims of modern slavery

21 December 2021

A report published today by the Joint Committee on Human Rights has criticised a lack of clarity in key clauses of the Nationality and Borders Bill relating to Modern Slavery. In its current form the Bill needlessly casts doubt on the credibility of potential victims of trafficking or slavery based on how quickly they can submit evidence. The Joint Committee warns that victims forced into criminality by the gangs who trafficked them could find that this Bill acts as a barrier to seeking justice under the legislation.

The report is part of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ ongoing legislative scrutiny of the Nationality and Borders Bill. It focuses on Part 5 of the Bill which sets out the Government’s proposed changes to law concerning modern slavery. It includes proposals for key amendments to the Bill that would provide greater clarity on how it would operate and improve protections for victims of trafficking and modern slavery. 

Victims of modern slavery or trafficking will have suffered traumatic experiences and coming forward to report a crime may be difficult for them. Under the new legislation, victims who miss the deadline for providing information about what happened to them would be seen as less credible. The Joint Committee finds that this would be unfair and risks the UK failing to meet its obligations to combat slavery and human trafficking. 

It calls on the Government to alter the wording of Clause 58 to remove the presumption that a delay in disclosing the details of traumatic experiences of being trafficked should damage an individual’s credibility. The Government should also issue guidance setting out the timescales for when information should be supplied and what might be reasonable grounds for missing a deadline. The Bill should also clarify that these time limits do not apply to children or victims of sexual exploitation given the acute trauma these cohorts will have suffered. 

It is wrong for victims of trafficking or slavery to be prevented from accessing protection, with consequent failings to prosecute the criminal gangs responsible, due to a perceived risk. The Joint Committee finds that, in line with international standards on combatting slavery and human trafficking, only serious and ongoing criminality should be considered a risk, not minor or historic offending. The Government should clarify the meaning of Clause 62 of the Bill and make clear that prior offending of the victim will not impact on the likelihood that their case will be investigated and that they will be protected from abuse. Failure to do so would act as an invitation to the gangs responsible to target those with a criminal past. 

Legal protections and other forms of support should not be removed based on criminal acts that victims were forced to undertake by these gangs. Prosecuting trafficking victims is wrong because it punishes them for something they were compelled to do as victims. The Government should provide further clarity on how the new measures will apply in such cases and what it is doing to ensure victims are not prosecuted, in line with its human rights obligations. 

The definitions of who is a “victim of human trafficking” or “victim of slavery” should be clearly set out in the Bill, not in future secondary legislation. The Joint Committee calls on the Government to ensure that the definitions used in UK law are compliant with those used in international treaties, such as the UN Palermo Protocol. 

Chair's comments

Publishing the report, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights Harriet Harman MP said: 

“The fundamental goals of any Bill concerning modern slavery and people trafficking must be ensuring victims are supported and the criminal gangs responsible brought to justice. We are concerned that there is a lack of clarity in this Bill that could instead see victims prosecuted, while the criminal gangs evade punishment. 

We have called on the Government to do more to set out how this legislation will operate in practice and ensure that there are adequate safeguards built in to ensure that it improves the UK’s response to modern slavery. The Bill must be there to support victims in coming forward, not add further barriers that needlessly throw doubt on their character or remove support based on criminal acts they have been compelled to do.”  

Further information

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