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The Nationality and Borders Bill fails to grasp what being a victim of slavery means

Setting a time limit for modern slavery claims fails to take into account the trauma suffered by those subjected to abuse.

By Dame Vera Baird, Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales, and Dame Sara Thornton, Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph (print and online) on 29 December 2021.

As Commissioners, we both warmly welcomed the recent announcement by the Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, on the Government’s plans to consult on proposals for a Victims’ Law. This landmark legislation has the potential to transform the victim landscape, ensuring victims are better heard, served and protected.

Accompanying the launch of the consultation, the Deputy Prime Minister declared that ‘we have a moral duty to do better for victims’, adding that ‘support will also bring more criminals to justice and protect the public’. 

We agree. Quite obviously this commitment must include the most vulnerable victims which means, amongst others, those who have been victims of the appalling crime of modern slavery.

Modern slavery sees individuals horribly exploited for their captors’ profit and leaves them too afraid of their abusers to risk escape. Women and girls are forced into prostitution, young boys made to commit criminal acts and men kept in appalling conditions for slave-labour. These are some of the most vulnerable and traumatised victims in our society.

So it is alarming that the Nationality and Borders Bill is set to degrade the existing protections for these victims even while the Government works to improve support for others.

We know that traffickers frequently force their victims to commit offences against their will

Firstly, support for slavery victims is set to be conditional. It can be withheld on public order grounds if they have been convicted of offences. For UK citizens who are victims, the bar is set high. For foreign offenders, the bar is set low: any conviction – for any offence at any time, anywhere in the world – carrying a sentence of 12 months.

Yet we know that traffickers frequently force their victims to commit offences against their will. This is to discourage them from approaching the police for help.

But under the Nationality and Borders Bill, the victim’s reluctance in the face of coercion will be no protection against them being simply excluded from recognition as a victim of slavery at all and condemned as a threat to public order. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has rightly observed that setting the bar to access support so high will ultimately allow organised gangs to exploit with greater impunity, with great human cost.

In the most serious of cases, the Council of Europe’s Convention Against Trafficking in Human Beings provides for disqualification from the state giving support where ‘grounds of public order prevent it’. That covers people who are a national security threat and is a principle with which we would all agree. Yet ministers in the Commons resisted an amendment to bring this clause into line with that, insisting on going far beyond that principle. In so doing, this will bring severe consequences for a significant number of victims.

The Bill also provides that suspected victims of modern slavery who are making claims for asylum or humanitarian protection will be served with a Slavery and Trafficking Notice. This will require them to disclose all relevant information to support a claim that they were trafficked or enslaved within a set period of time. If they fail to do so, that must be taken into account as damaging their credibility. So a victim who has been repeatedly raped and is too traumatised to disclose all that happened to them quickly will have their claim undermined, unless they can show ‘good reason’ for the late disclosure.

And it singularly fails to grasp the realities of being a victim. Trauma can have a profound impact on recall and will mean that narratives emerge piecemeal over time as trusting relationships develop.

Take Martin, who was trafficked from a European country with promises of a good job but was enslaved for 10 years. He worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week in a car wash, earning £20 a week. He escaped and was living rough in woods when he was found. It took him 15 months to disclose his abuse.

Or there is Agatha, who was also trafficked to this country and exploited in forced labour. After 17 months of support, she eventually disclosed that she had also been trafficked across Europe for sexual exploitation.

The Bill puts victims under a strict time limit to disclose their abuse, whilst disregarding the impact of a victim’s trauma. It uses a tick box approach to convictions which fails to appreciate the realities of how criminals control their victims. This Bill risks us failing to identify victims of modern slavery and providing them with the protection they need. Ultimately, this will only hinder us in stopping these criminals and preventing the victimisation of others.