Back to Top

Hull MP speaks in Commons modern day slavery debate

Hull North MP and Labour Shadow Home Office Minister Diana Johnson delivered the speech below in a House of Commons debate on modern day slavery.I congratulate the hon. Members who secured this debate. My hon. Friend Fiona Mactaggart, the excellent chair of the all-party group on human trafficking and modern day slavery, made a powerful and well-informed speech. She did so in an inclusive way, and paid tribute to her predecessor, Mr Bone, after what was obviously a hard-fought election for the position of chair. My right hon. Friend Mr Field also talked about the need to put victims at the heart of the Bill and for us to lead the world with a modern slavery Bill. I also pay tribute to Anthony Steen, who did so much to raise this issue in the last Parliament, and to Baroness Butler-Sloss, who takes a keen interest in this matter in the other place.Given that we are debating slavery, it gives me special pride to speak from the Front Bench as a Hull MP. We have heard many mentions this afternoon of William Wilberforce, who was also a Hull MP and one of the leaders of a 20-year campaign to bring about the abolition of the slave trade. In a Back-Bench debate, it is important to note that he did that entirely from the Back Benches. The full horror of the slave trade is remembered at the excellent William Wilberforce museum in Hull, which I would encourage all hon. Members to visit when they visit our city as the city of culture in 2017 or before. We are also fortunate to have the Wilberforce institute for the study of slavery and emancipation, which is attached to the university of Hull and provides great information. I am sure that it will also offer support to hon. Members looking at the draft Bill.It is worth reminding the House that when the slave trade was abolished, through William Wilberforce’s Bill becoming an Act of Parliament, it was felt appropriate to compensate the slave owners, not the victims. It is shocking now, but the family of the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone received £93,526 in compensation for losing their 2,039 slaves after abolition. Several hon. Members have made the point that we hope that any proceeds that are available will go to the victims of this dreadful crime, and perhaps also to the police and the Human Trafficking Foundation.I pay tribute to all those who have contributed to this excellent debate. My hon. Friend Ann Coffey spoke knowledgeably, as ever, about the needs of trafficked children, and about the need for multi-agency safeguarding hubs to be extended to every area. My hon. Friend Graham Jones talked in some harrowing detail about child abuse and slavery in India, and shocked all hon. Members when he talked about children as young as three being used as prostitutes. My hon. Friend Michael Connarty talked knowledgeably about the EU dimension as well as the Scottish experience, and the need for the auditing of supply chains.Sir John Randall paid tribute to the NGOs—very important—and also raised the issue of supply chains. Andrew Selous talked harrowingly about his constituency experience of 23 British slaves who had been slaves for up to 15 years, and about the vital work that needs to be done to raise public awareness of the issue. Fiona Bruce talked about the global sex trade and Pauline Latham talked about the need to make sure that people understand it happens anywhere—down our own streets and roads. Stephen Barclay talked about the particular issues of electronic payments and civil penalties that could be used. He made some very interesting points and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to them.I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Meg Hillier. As a former Home Office Minister and chair of the all-party group on Nigeria, she spoke knowledgeably on issues related to her experience in those roles.We know, and we have heard again today, that modern-day slavery exists. We think that there are around 27 million people enslaved around the world. The UK Human Trafficking Centre estimates that at least 2,200 human beings were trafficked into the UK in 2012. In 2009, the Home Affairs Committee held an investigation into human trafficking and it estimated that the number is likely to be nearer 5,000. Just two weeks ago in Lambeth we saw three women escape from what appears to have been 30 years of enslavement. Few people can understand how that could happen on an ordinary street in south London, but although that is an extreme case, it is far from isolated.Modern-day slavery is on the rise. Human beings, mainly women and children, are being trafficked into and within the UK to work as labourers, domestic servants, prostitutes, cannabis farmers, forced beggars and to do a whole range of other jobs. We have had a number of excellent suggestions this afternoon on what can be done to tackle this practice, and I know that the Minister will have been listening carefully.I put on record that the Opposition support the principle of such an important Bill on modern-day slavery. We will work constructively with the Government to ensure the Bill passes within the limited parliamentary time available, and we will press for a Bill that does all that is needed to address this horrendous practice. I stress that the Opposition will be looking for a Bill that puts victims at its centre and the first step is to recognise who the victims are. The situations into which people are trafficked either from outside or within the UK are disparate and we need a system that recognises that. It is not just neighbours, such as those in the Lambeth case, who fail to recognise victims in their midst. Too many cases are missed by the police, social workers, health workers and immigration staff.We need frontline professionals across a range of sectors to be trained to recognise trafficking in all its forms. There has to be an understanding that enslavement does not have to mean chains or cellars. Once we have identified victims, we need to give them protection and support, and that is where we think the current system is left wanting. There is a national referral mechanism to collate information on victims, but it is currently not fit for purpose. As I mentioned, the UK Human Trafficking Centre, in collaboration with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, identified 2,255 human trafficking victims, whereas the NRM identified 1,186. The failure is equally pronounced for children: the UK Human Trafficking Centre identified 549 child victims in 2012, while the NRM identified 349. We think the true figure is probably much higher. Given that there are 23 bodies authorised to refer to the NRM, the Government need to address urgently the multiple deficiencies in the system that are stopping referrals. One measure the Opposition support fully is the introduction of a commissioner to oversee the proper collection and use of information.Once we have identified victims, we have to ensure that the support is there to look after them. The support required will depend on the circumstances in which people have been trafficked. We must not criminalise human trafficking victims. We have to move away from a situation where the first instinct of the authorities is to treat people as an immigration problem rather than as victims. If we are to get more prosecutions, the first stage has to be to identify and protect the victims. They will be then be more willing to come forward as witnesses.We know that support for child victims is a particular weakness. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said, a horrifying 60% of child victims taken into care go missing. One local authority admitted to losing 90% of children. This happens because the strength of the bond between child victim and trafficker is not diminished when the child is taken into care. Factors that made the child vulnerable in the first place remain and often the trafficker will retain a psychological hold. Without special provision, the child will often return to the trafficker. This is especially true if the child is repatriated. I welcome the vital cross-border work being done to minimise the risks to children when they are returned home.Trafficked children in the UK require specialist care that is tailored to their individual circumstances. That kind of tailored care will only be provided if trafficked children are given specialist and independent guardians. That system has worked elsewhere in Europe, and, as the Minister will know, was set out in the EU directive on human trafficking. The Government have so far decided not to introduce a system of guardians, but I hope they will look at that again. The Government’s own review, “Still at Risk”, which was commissioned by the Home Office, was unequivocal about the need for guardians.Domestic workers were mentioned, as was the need for a review of the changes introduced to the domestic workers visa. Statistics presented by hon. Members make the case to consider their unintended consequences.On prosecutions, the Opposition will certainly support the Government in increasing the penalties for convictions for offences relating to human trafficking, but will look to the Government to introduce aggravated offences for such cases as well. We would also support the inclusion of the specific offence of child trafficking and exploitation, which currently does not exist. I pay tribute to ECPAT for highlighting that particular issue.In conclusion, I commend the Government for their commitment to introducing a modern slavery Bill, but I urge them not to waste the opportunity before us. There would be many more prosecutions if we could identify more victims and give them the support and protection they need to become witnesses and then help them to rebuild their lives. Unless the Bill recognises that, we will waste a great opportunity.I want to finish by quoting William Wilberforce’s words to the House of Commons on 12 May 1789, which I think sum up the position today:“The nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it”.—[Hansard, 12 May 1789; Vol. 28, c. 63.]

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Email

Diana's twitter feed