Former PM warns Government immigration reforms will harm modern slavery victims

Theresa May has warned more people will be left in slavery in the UK by Government reforms aimed at deterring migrants from crossing the English Channel.

The Conservative former prime minister (pictured) held talks with the Government over her concerns, but described an amendment tabled by ministers as a “slap in the face” for those who care about the victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.

Temporary protection against removal from the UK is currently given to suspected victims of modern slavery or human trafficking while their case is considered.

But the Illegal Migration Bill removes this protection for those judged to have entered the UK illegally.

It contains an exception for people co-operating with a criminal investigation, but Government amendment 95 adds it is not necessary for a person to be present in the UK to co-operate with such proceedings unless there are judged to be “compelling circumstances”.

Mrs May and Conservative former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith are behind a separate amendment seeking to protect victims of modern slavery in the UK from removal and being barred from returning.

Mrs May said of amendment 95: “Far from making the Bill provisions better for the victims of modern slavery, (it) makes it worse.

“I believe (immigration minister Robert Jenrick) was talking to me in good faith but I have to say it’s hard to see this Government amendment 95 as an example of good faith – I’d say rather it’s a slap in the face of those of us who actually care about the victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.”

Mrs May said the change also suggests those dealing with the Bill “simply do not understand the nature of these crimes or the position of victims”.

The MP for Maidenhead said the Government amendment will make it “much harder” to investigate and prosecute traffickers and slavedrivers given victims need to feel safe and have confidence in the authorities.

Mrs May said: “Sending victims back to their own country or a third country like Rwanda will simply, at best, make them feel less secure, and therefore less able or willing to give the evidence needed, and at worst will drive them back into the arms of the traffickers and slavedrivers.”

She added: “Modern slavery is the greatest human rights issue of our time. The approach in this Bill, I believe, will have several ramifications. I believe it will consign victims to remain in slavery.

“The Government will be ensuring that more people will stay enslaved and in exploitation as a result of this Bill because it will give the slavedrivers, it will give the traffickers, another weapon to hold people in that slavery and exploitation, because it’ll be very easy to say to them, ‘Don’t even think about trying to escape from the misery of your life, from the suffering we’re subjecting you to because all the UK Government will do is send you away and probably send you to Rwanda’.

“The Modern Slavery Act gave hope to victims, this Bill removes that hope. I genuinely believe that, if enacted as it is currently proposed, this Bill will leave more people, more men, women and children, in slavery in the UK.”

Former minister Sir Iain warned of “unintended consequences” in the Bill in relation to modern slavery victims.

He said: “We need to send the right signals about this and I think the problem with this Bill right now is it’s unnecessarily now targeting a group of people that are not the problem, themselves will suffer, and ironically we will fail as a Government through the home affairs end of it because the police simply won’t be able to get those prosecutions.

“So on every grounds this is wrong and, I have to say for their new amendment 95, is a disastrous attempt to make it almost impossible for anyone to feel confident of the country before they give evidence and I really, really ask the Government before we make a decision about whether this (amendment four) is moved, to make it very clear at the end of this debate that they will take this away and they will genuinely look to see what those unintended consequences are now coming together to become.”

Mr Jenrick earlier said amending parts of the Bill to create exemptions could “lead to abuse of our modern slavery protections”.

The immigration minister added: “I understand, of course, (Sir Iain, Mrs May) and others in the preparation of their amendments have thought in particular about how we can prevent individuals who have been in the UK for a sustained period of time from being exploited by human traffickers, or if they are already being (exploited), from being deterred from escaping that modern slavery or raising concerns with civil society or law enforcement bodies.

“Those are serious issues and ones that I want to take forward with them, listening to their unrivalled expertise through the passage of the Bill and seeing if there are ways in which we can address and assuage their concerns.

“It’s for this reason that we will look at what more we can do to provide additional protections to individuals who suffered exploitation in the UK.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2023, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) House Of Commons / PA.