Christian Guy is Chief Executive of the anti-slavery organisation Justice and Care. He was formerly a Special Adviser 10 Downing Street and Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice.
Recently I joined armed police for a 6am raid as they pulled several bewildered Vietnamese men from an enormous basement cannabis grow.
The forest of plants filling room-upon-room had a street value of £1 million. Weapons and cash were seized at the squalid scene, with exposed electrical wires hanging over dirty sleeping bags and filthy floors.
At first glance it was easy to assume the men we found there were willing criminals choosing to break British law, but my work combatting human trafficking has taught me all is often not as it seems on first inspection. For instance, we discovered that the men found there had actually been forcefully trafficked into the UK as slaves – bought, owned and moved by a violent organised crime group putting them to ‘work’ in that brutal basement.
In fact, in that particular case, large numbers of such slaves were being smuggled into the UK and housed in London properties – equivalent to business warehouses – before being delivered around the country whenever other gangs purchased them for criminal activity. It was like Amazon Prime, but the products were people.
These were not economic migrants paying vast sums of money to reach the UK, these were powerless people being brutally exploited. They just wanted to go home.
In supporting police efforts to bring human traffickers to justice in the UK, the charity I lead, Justice and Care, often finds that few of their victims know their own age, most are illiterate, and many were plucked from poverty here or elsewhere. Plenty were enslaved during childhood and some have no idea they are in the UK when rescued.
This, they concluded long ago, is just their lot in life. They are resigned to being moved like fearful cattle in the shadows from one country of exploitation to another, forced to make money for their criminal gangmasters.
There are at least 100,000 such people in Britain today, exploited against their will in sex dens, factories, farms, car washes, and nail bars so organised crime bosses become even richer. An increasing number of them are British – one third of all victims found last year, says the Home Office.
As I left the dawn raid, I was reminded again that the people we need to punish are those running these trafficking networks, not those who fall victim to them. That is a mission which has united Conservatives through the centuries, from the abolitionists who smashed the transatlantic slave trade to the MPs who made the world-leading 2015 Modern Slavery Act a reality. Freedom and justice are in our DNA.
And it is why we now need to seize the opportunity provided by the Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill. If we get that legislation right, life will get tougher for the organised crime groups trafficking people like those men. Miss our moment, and we make their lives depressingly easier.
The Bill proposes some changes to the way we deal with potential victims of slavery in Britain as part of an overhaul of our asylum system – aiming to choke off criminal activity and bogus claims. Some of the reforms move us forward, including by guaranteeing certain rights for victims in law.
Yet other technical shifts the Bill proposes when it comes to victims of slavery should now be refined in smart ways in the coming months. Talk to police and prosecutors and they say that these changes to the Bill could be the difference between success and serious setbacks in the fight against organised crime.
In the main, it comes down to how we treat people when we find them in exploitation. This matters if we want to break the criminal gangs responsible.
At Justice and Care, for example, we see that targeted support for victims transforms prospects of a prized criminal prosecution. Over 90 per cent of victims we help the police to engage with are passing on crucial intelligence for investigations, compared to about 30 per cent police engagement nationally without our support. And, as a result of the evidence victims give, traffickers are in courtrooms facing slavery offences the Conservatives introduced in 2015 (which bring heavier sentences than other offences).
So, to convict more traffickers and change the way they exploit the UK market, the Nationality and Borders Bill needs to make victim engagement easier, not harder.
We need to refine the Bill if we are to get that job done, because the current draft inadvertently risks fewer genuine victims getting help.
For example, the Bill effectively sets a time limit for someone to come forward to talk about their abuse in a way we would not impose on victims of other serious crimes – including historic sexual abuse. So, it is vital we avoid its presumption that delayed disclosure from victims is automatically less credible, especially as we know how trauma can affect people. This should change in the Bill. We can prevent bogus claims being processed without harming the honest majority.
For those who are later formally classified as slavery victims, we need more clarity in the Bill about the help on offer. MPs including Sir Iain Duncan Smith are rightly calling for robust support as people rebuild their lives.
Providing recovery and ‘move on’ cover for 12 months – including helping people prepare to return home if they have been trafficked from another country – is not just the right thing to do, it is also savvy for those police investigations and prosecutions we need more of. We all pay the price when so many victims choose not to work with police at the moment.
There are two other changes we should make to the Bill if we want to defeat organised crime.
First, although defining the grounds on which protection from immigration removal and support may be withheld will bring welcome transparency, the definition is drafted disproportionately widely. The Government has said these changes are necessary to prevent serious criminals using the NRM to bypass deportation and to protect the public.
These are credible concerns. But the way it is planned at the moment risks sweeping up those who pose no risk to the public and who could be helped to give evidence against slavery networks. That provision should therefore focus on victims who are serious, sexual, violent, or repeat offenders and a risk to the public or national security.
There should also be special protection granted in law for genuine victims of slavery who may have come through ‘safe third countries’ before entering the UK, but who clearly did so in the grip of traffickers. Their claims should be treated on their merits and not subject to presumptions of inadmissibility or different treatment, given the criminality controlling them during transit.
Dismissing victims who may have arrived that way would be a win for the trafficking networks and their ongoing movement of people through those channels.
With these common-sense refinements, we stand a much greater chance of bringing traffickers to justice. To continue unabated, traffickers would design a UK system in which their victims are silenced, unsupported, and distrusted.
We now have a chance to deliver the opposite, and bring their reign of misery to an end. Let’s make these improvements and strike a major blow.