Clause 35 - General functions of Commissioner

Part of Modern Slavery Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 6:00 pm ar 9 Medi 2014.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Ceidwadwyr, Congleton 6:00, 9 Medi 2014

I will speak briefly to amendment 50 and then to amendments 119 and 120. Regarding amendment 50 and widening the commissioner’s remit, when we looked at that issue in the Joint Committee, we concluded that including oversight of victim protection in the role of the commissioner was

“fundamental to achieving the Government’s aim of improved law enforcement.”

The importance of that connection was made clear to us by holders of similar positions in other countries, including the US ambassador-at-large and the Dutch national rapporteur who said:

“protecting victims and prosecuting criminals are two sides of the same coin.”

I recognise that we need a commissioner who is appropriate to our situation in this country, but we would be wise to learn from individuals who have experience of such positions. That is why I ask the Minister to carefully consider the comments on amendments 50 and 111.

The concerns about an overlap with the role of the Victims’ Commissioner, which the Government have raised in their response to the Joint Committee report, deserve to be taken seriously. However, the different circumstances of the victims of human trafficking should also be taken into account. Provision of assistance under the victim support programme, in accordance with international treaties, is not something provided to other victims. It has a separate process for eligibility, the National Referral Mechanism, and many other unique aspects, so I ask the Minister to reflect on whether the Victims’ Commissioner cab promote best practice in that sort of support, which is so different from the experience of other victims and witnesses and does not directly involve the criminal justice system. There could be a gap here and action may be better taken by the anti-slavery commissioner who would have specific expertise in understanding the experience of victims of human trafficking and slavery.

It also seems sensible that the commissioner should be responsible for monitoring the implementation of international treaties to which we are a signatory, as amendment 111 requires. The same level of critical reflection on the implementation of international treaties is required as with the critical reflection on law enforcement, which we have already discussed. The reports published by the Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Human Trafficking over the past two years have provided a helpful overview of the situation of human trafficking in this country. However, as a ministerial body it cannot, by its very nature, be politically neutral. The work of the ministerial group and all Departments with responsibilities in this area would be enhanced by the independent analysis that could be offered by the commissioner.

I turn now to amendments 119 and 120 in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate, and to amendment 51. As we have heard, amendment 119 allows the commissioner to undertake “investigations and studies” to evaluate the nature of trafficking and slavery in this country. I am concerned that clause 35(1) is limited to the commissioner encouraging good practice in the investigation of,

“offences under sections 1, 2 and 4”.

If the commissioner is to promote good practice in enforcement of the law on human trafficking then he or she will need to have a detailed and up-to-date understanding of the nature of modern slavery, and how trends and patterns in forms of exploitation or strategies used by the criminals are developing. That knowledge will be essential to identify good practice and ensure that operational approaches are informed by the latest analysis of the wider landscape.

It is this wide remit for investigation that amendment 119 seeks to address. The ability to undertake such investigations and studies will enable the commissioner to establish this information if analysis is not available elsewhere. I am aware of similar roles in countries such as the Netherlands that operate very successfully with a wider  analytical remit, not to mention the role of a national rapporteur or equivalent position set out in the EU directive.

Amendment 119 gives the commissioner the power to request statutory inspectors to undertake inspections. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North mentioned that the Joint Committee referred to the need for data collection in this regard. The Centre for Social Justice also made that recommendation in its report, “It Happens Here”. That report specifically suggested that there may be cause for the commissioner to ask Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary to assess the ability of a particular police force to respond to issues of modern slavery. The Committee has already heard concerns about variations in the capacity of different police forces to address this issue. Such inspections might also be useful in the Prison Service, where it is known that many victims of trafficking are not being successfully identified, as we have already heard. Both those examples would work towards meeting the commissioner’s primary functions of promoting good practice in identifying victims, and the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of offences.

Amendment 120 concerns engagement with civil society and highlights the importance of the commissioner engaging with NGOs and other civil society groups. The charity Hope for Justice commented that the relevant functions of the commissioner should reflect article 21 of the trafficking directive, which includes,

“carrying out of assessments of trends in trafficking in human beings, the measuring of results of anti-trafficking actions, including the gathering of statistics in close cooperation with relevant civil society organisations active in this field”.

While the need for this kind of interaction is established in the EU directive, it is more importantly a matter of common sense. The Minister may comment that engagement with civil society is so much a matter of common sense and so obvious as to be implicit in the Bill. Why not then make it explicit in the Bill?

The role of civil society in this area of concern is vast. NGOs, community groups, and think-tanks are all involved in raising awareness, training front-line officers, providing support and assistance to victims and monitoring the effectiveness of the law and its implementation. Indeed, over several years organisations such as Stop the Traffik, Hope for Justice, CARE, and many others already mentioned in this Committee, have highlighted this issue and I wonder whether, but for this work, we would be here today at all. It is vital that the Commissioner can work collaboratively and productively with these groups. I thank the Minister for adding reference in the clause to the commissioner’s co-operating or working jointly with others, but feel that the role of civil society should be expressly mentioned. In his evidence to the Committee, Andrew Wallis from the charity Unseen spoke of the need for a “collaborative” approach and of the commissioner as a “focal point” to foster that collaborative working across law enforcement, charities, business and so forth.

Amendments 51 and 52 relate, again, to the commissioner’s independence, about which there has been so much comment already. Restricting the commissioner to reporting only on matters previously agreed with the Secretary of State could impede their ability to respond, for example, on an urgent or topical  matter and, again, would have rather an impact on the appearance of the commissioner as an independent voice.

The Dutch national rapporteur told the Joint Committee:

“'if you are directly under the Minister, he or she will not really be amused when you criticise their policies. If you want to be an effective rapporteur, you have to criticise, too, because that is the important part. It is not criticising for the sake of criticising, but it is very important not to cover up everything with nice political words.”

We must not create a position where the independent commissioner is unable to be independent-minded and provide an independent voice, irrespective of the individual responsible, during their tenure.