Clause 35 - General functions of Commissioner

Part of Modern Slavery Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 6:15 pm ar 9 Medi 2014.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Michael Connarty Michael Connarty Llafur, Linlithgow and East Falkirk 6:15, 9 Medi 2014

I take the offer in good spirit, and I hope that the Minister will show us that she is someone who wants to live in the 21st century rather than the 20th century.

On the question about staffing and whether the commissioner may appoint staff, David Anderson said that the need for the commissioner to appoint his or her own staff might be reduced if they will, in fact, be

“more of an adjunct to the law enforcement process”.

As I have said repeatedly, I worry that that is all that the commissioner will be—a prosecuting assistant and not a commissioner. David Anderson made this point:

“It depends very much on whether you are looking for a watchdog or a tsar.”

I think that we need a tsar, rather than just a watchdog, to tackle the problem of human trafficking. I hope that the Minister will be influenced by looking at the evidence about what works, and that she will decide accordingly.

I commend the hon. Members for Congleton and for Enfield, Southgate on the amendments that they have tabled. I have before me article 19 of EU directive 2011/36 on preventing and combating the trafficking of human beings. Originally, the Government had to be dragged screaming and kicking into implementing the directive, although they have now done so. It is good that hon. Members have noticed that the Bill contains a serious omission. The directive states that the Government should be

“carrying out…assessments of trends” and

“gathering…statistics in close cooperation with relevant civil society organisations”.

I hope that the Minister will put that into the Bill so that we get what we need.

If there was time—I realise that there is not, because we have had some serious debates—I would have taken people back to the Joint Committee’s recommendations. Many people who read this debate will not realise what was in the Joint Committee’s recommendations and thus why the proposals for the commissioner in the Bill are so lacking in spirit and content. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner—the Children’s Commissioner has been mentioned a few times—submitted some evidence to us in November 2013. Paragraph 9 sets out the powers that should be given to an independent anti-slavery commissioner; I note the use of the word “independent” in the submission. According to the evidence, the anti-slavery commissioner should, first,

“monitor and assess measures adopted by the Government to tackle modern day slavery with a power to require public authorities/those exercising public functions to provide information, and to research and publish reports on any connected matter.”

The words “any connected matter” are important, because they would take the commissioner’s role far beyond the Bill’s definition of general functions, which are basically prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of offences. That shows us that the main focus of the role is to be a prosecuting assistant for the Secretary of State.

Secondly, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner states that the anti-slavery commissioner should have:

“Formal oversight of the National Referral Mechanism”.

That would not simply be a review; we were promised a review a year ago and told that it would take six months, and it has not reported yet. That is one of the things that the Government can kick into touch. A commissioner in that role would not have the same problems with politics as the Government do, so they could get on with the job and provide a serious assessment through the national referral mechanism.

The evidence states that, thirdly, the commissioner should

“report annually to Parliament on the success of the Government’s efforts to tackle modern day slavery”.

That is an interesting suggestion, because such a report would not be filtered out by the Secretary of State. The Minister commented earlier about the Secretary of State interfering in which reports come forward. The Opposition have tabled amendment 51 to deal with clause 35(3), under which the Secretary of State can authorise the commissioner to report on a “permitted matter”. How much more constrained could that be? We might as well tie their hands behind their backs and dictate to a typist what we want the commissioner to say. It is as though the Home Secretary is afraid the commissioner will say something about the Government getting things wrong. That is a serious worry.

I am sorry for those who believe this is a half-full glass, but I believe we have a glass and we have still to assess how half-full or quarter-full it is. In reality, when it is all put together into action, we will have to work out whether this will improve things or not. I have seen many things already. People will think it is such a guddle—a lovely British word; I do not think we use it in England. It means getting tied up in knots and never moving forward. I am still one of those people who want to see how much is in the glass at the end of the day.

The amendments are very sensible. They try to ease out the role of the commissioner, to help the Government succeed in the things that they set out to do. The comments of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner were salient—it could come back to give us even more advice. In addition, we were given an overview about

“developing a better understanding of modern slavery; supporting better identification (of perpetrators and potential victims); gathering and using data and intelligence to inform investigations; effective investigative techniques; disruption of organised criminal networks”— that seems to be the whole focus of the Government’s thrust— and

“increased prosecutions and convictions.”

They are in the overview, but they are not the main point. It went on:

“We want to ensure that the Commissioner has the authority and autonomy they need to carry out their functions effectively, whilst at the same time ensuring that their remit is clearly focused.”

That seems to be the way the Government should have designed the clause. It is what was in essence the recommendation, without going into detail, of the Joint Committee, but it was not effected in the writing of these clauses, and that is a worry.

The Centre for Social Justice gave evidence. It was quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North. It was about the enhancement of knowledge. It was worried about the paucity and fragmentation of data. That is one of the things we came across again and again. People do not have good data about what is happening in the human trafficking world and in terms of tackling it. The CSJ believes absolutely that the anti-slavery commissioner should be independent of the Home Office, and Government as a whole, as the brief is likely to be interdepartmental, and most organisations outside Government will work much more effectively with an independent body.

I met on various occasions the ombudsperson from the Netherlands. Although they had been appointed by government, they were clearly outside the system, gathering their strength from a huge network of NGOs—the biggest I have ever seen outside the Human Trafficking Foundation. They brought that power in to help the Government. They did not see themselves as being opposed to the Government, and the Government worked with them and moved forward sensibly.

The other model is the one in Finland. The commissioner there had been a Member of Parliament for years and a Minister for two years. She was clearly inside the system. We met her in the serious organised crime office when we went there with Parliamentarians Against Human Trafficking. She was embedded there, and she worked closely with it. She worked in the system, but bringing in other forces that the system allowed her to bring in—not interfering with prosecution in any way, but conscious of prosecution from her previous position as a Minister.

Those are two different models, but they both drove their own ship. In the evidence they gave us, they said that quite clearly. There was a good dialogue between my hon. Friend the Member for Slough and the Finnish commissioner, which can be looked at in the evidence of Thursday 6 March 2014. Asked clearly about the Children’s Commissioner describing the anti-slavery commissioner as a Home Office civil servant, the Finnish commissioner became quite heated. She said:

“If I may be blunt, no.”

If the new commissioner is seen as an extension of the Government, a civil servant, it will not work. She said:

“If it was a national co-ordinator, it would work. I think there is also a need within Government to co-ordinate the work that is done in different Ministries”— having been a Minister, she is looking at things from the inside. She continued:

“To be able to look at it without this kind of need to compromise is important”,

and that is the point. If the position is in any way compromised, it will not be effective.

We therefore had good evidence that led us to think that we should have a different structure, with a different set of tasks, from the one set out in clause 35. The Labour Front Benchers and Government Members have tabled sensible amendments. I hope that those amendments will be looked at seriously.

I will end with what Andrew Wallis said. He is from Unseen UK and chaired the Centre for Social Justice report, “It Happens Here”, which alerted so many people across the political divide to the fact that we should have a joint approach, which worked its way into the Joint Committee. He said in evidence that

“the profits—not the turnover—of slavery is $150 billion per annum”— it is a big criminal organisation. Part of what we have to do

“is having someone that can galvanise and focus because this issue goes right across Government. It is not just a Home Office issue...Unless you have got someone who can focus with real  precision right across the issue and who also has the representation of victims, then good luck.”––[Official Report, Modern Slavery Public Bill Committee, 21 July 2014; c. 27, Q56.]

What he meant was, “I think you will fail.”

I hope that the Minister will take on board the amendments of the Labour Front Benchers and her own colleagues and realise that we have to move away from the general function of the commissioner as set out under clause 35 if we are to have an effective commissioner to help the Government and the victims of human trafficking.