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It's not just 'lefty lawyers' calling out the Tory asylum bill

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 17th Mar 2023

Politicians who frame policy and make laws based on prejudice or preconception often come unstuck. Evidence-based policy-making matters. There are many things wrong with the Tories’ Illegal Migration Bill. Last week, I wrote about how it will breach the European Convention on Human Rights and the Refugee Convention.

However, it also suffers from being based on claims made about alleged abuses of the asylum system by the Home Secretary which simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. On Wednesday, as the debate on the Budget raged on in the Commons, upstairs at the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) we were finalising our plans for legislative scrutiny of the Illegal Migration Bill and taking evidence in our current inquiry into the human rights of asylum seekers in the UK. Our focus this week was modern slavery and trafficking.

Modern slavery involves the illegal exploitation of people for personal or commercial gain. Human trafficking involves the transportation or coercion of people in order to benefit from their work or service – typically in the form of forced labour or sexual exploitation. While former prime minister Theresa May is rightly criticised for the hostile environment, she is also widely praised for introducing the Modern Slavery Act 2015 which set up a National Referral Mechanism (NRM) for identifying and supporting modern slavery victims in the UK both British nationals and those who have come from elsewhere. The act applies mostly to England and Wales with some provisions applying to Scotland. We have our own sister legislation, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015.

The Illegal Migration Bill will disapply many of the modern slavery provisions set out in this legislation to those entering the UK irregularly. Current protections preventing removal from the UK pending a conclusive decision on whether someone is a victim of modern slavery or not and entitlement to assistance and support will be gone if the bill passes.

Referrals have grown considerably since the act was passed. However, the JCHR heard evidence that this suggests not so much that the scale of modern slavery and trafficking in the UK has increased but rather that it is better recognised and identified because of the act and the training of public authority and first responder officials that followed. Suella Braverman claims that the modern slavery system is being abused through false claims made by asylum seekers trying to “game the system”, particularly those arriving in small boats. However, the director general at the Office for Statistics said in December 2022 that the “statistics do not support the claims that people are “gaming” the modern slavery system, and the source of the claim is unclear to us”.

At the same time Professor Dame Sara Thornton, who was formerly the anti-slavery commissioner, told the Home Affairs Committee that “the factor of modern slavery protections has been exaggerated in this whole issue about small boat crossings. I do not think the evidence, as I understand it, supports the rhetoric, and the concern is that the rhetoric is severely undermining the Modern Slavery Act protections.”

The Home Secretary’s own departmental statistics show that only 7% of the 83,000 of those who arrived in the UK on small boats between January 2018 and December 2022 were referred to the NRM – that’s about 6000 individuals. Indeed, during 2022 it dropped to 6%. And, crucially, around 85% of these referrals were found by the Home Office to be genuine. Suella Braverman also claims that many modern slavery claims are made late in the day by failed asylum seekers in detention awaiting removal from the UK. During the bill’s second reading on Monday Robert Jenrick, the Immigration Minister, suggested that 73% of people detained for removal after arrival on small boats were referred to the NRM. According to the evidence the JCHR heard, the figure was about 66% between January 2021 and September 2022, 1136 out of 1709 people. However – and again this is the crucial point – 93% of those referrals received a positive reasonable grounds decision from the Home Office. Immigration judges and appeals would also have been involved in many of these cases, so these are decisions that have been taken after careful consideration.

So, it is not just “lefty lawyers” who question the Home Secretary’s justification for the bill, her own departmental statistics undermine what she is saying. So does the research of the Centre for Social Justice, a centre-right think tank set up by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, which has a special Modern Slavery Unit. This week the JCHR heard from the former modern slavery commissioner, Professor Dame Sara Thornton. She completed a three-year term in her post in April 2022. Her predecessor resigned citing government interference in his role. When she left, Professor Thornton said that the Government’s asylum overhaul was driven by “political calculation’ rather than expertise and that the fight against modern slavery in Britain wasn’t what it had been. And that was before the Illegal Migration Bill was even thought of!

If you want to hear more about this, you can listen to my interview with her on the Committee Corridor podcast wherever you usually get your podcasts or you can find links to listen online and also the transcript here. Currently, Professor Thornton’s former post lies empty and it’s the Home Secretary’s responsibility to appoint a successor. She was very clear in her evidence to the JCHR that this means there is not a proper evidence base for the bill. The fearless independent voice of the commissioner should have informed the second reading of the bill but it didn’t because the person who wants this unevidenced bill did not want MPs and the public to hear the truth. Now that is what is properly called Trumpian.