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Modern Slavery Bill significantly protects human rights but can be much improved

The new report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights welcomes the Modern Slavery Bill but points to provisions dealing with new post of Anti-slavery Commissioner, overseas domestic workers, supply chains and prevention orders where it could be strengthened still further. The Report also deals with the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill.

Modern Slavery Bill

The Modern Slavery Bill will significantly help to protect human rights, but not all of its measures strike the right balance between law enforcement and protection and support for victims, says the Joint Committee on Human Rights in a Report published yesterday.  The Committee also suggests a number of way in which its protection for human rights can be improved.

Anti-slavery Commissioner

The Committee believes that the Bill provides insufficient protection for the independence of the Anti-slavery Commissioner, specifically in relation to appointment, staffing, powers to report on subjects other than those authorised by Government, and Government redaction of reports.  The Report welcomes the establishment of the new post but argues that without greater independence and a broader mandate the new post risks becoming an adjunct of the Home Office concerned mainly with law enforcement, rather than a vital new part of our national human rights machinery.

Prevention orders

With regard to the prevention orders created by the Bill, the Committee believes that an explicit reference on the face of the Bill to the applicable standard of proof with regard to their use and the sort of prohibitions that they can include would enhance legal certainty.

Trafficking victims and vulnerable witnesses

The Committee also:

  • welcomes the inclusion in the Bill of a new statutory defence for trafficking victims;
  • but considers that the proposed defence could be improved by making clear on the face of the Bill that a child victim does not have to prove compulsion, in line with current CPS guidance,
  • welcomes the extension of current special measures for vulnerable witnesses giving evidence in criminal prosecutions to victims of slavery;
  • welcomes the statutory presumption of age as a positive measure enhancing the protection of child victims; and
  • recommends that the opportunity should be taken in this Bill to amend the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act to ensure that legal aid is available in relation to immigration issues prior to referral or decision by the National Referral Mechanism.

Supply chains

The Committee particularly welcomes the Government’s willingness to bring forward an amendment to the Bill on the issue of supply chains which the House of Lords may now wish to scrutinise for its compliance with the relevant parts of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Overseas Domestic Workers

The Committee regards the removal of the right of an Overseas Domestic Worker to change employer as a backward step in the protection of migrant domestic workers, particularly as the pre-2012 regime had been cited internationally as good practice, and recommends that the Bill be amended to reverse the relevant changes to the Immigration Rules and to reinstate the pre-2012 protections in the Bill.

Dr Hywel Francis MP, the Chair of the Committee, said:

There is a great deal to commend in the Modern Slavery Bill, and we welcome many of its provisions, particularly that requiring businesses to report on what they have done to make sure that their supply chains are not tainted by modern slavery.

However, there is much that can be done to make the Bill even better. It is crucial, for example, that the Anti–slavery Commissioner is given enough independence to act effectively without being bound to the Home Office. Government amendments which add the word “independent” to the title of the post will not suffice in convincing people that the post is truly independent and the Government needs to do more to assure that its independence from the Government is properly guaranteed.

The Bill also provides an opportunity to restore much-needed protection to exploited overseas domestic workers and to ensure that legal aid is available to victims of modern slavery to make their rights a practical reality.

Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill

The Committee notes that clauses 2 and 4 of the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill are intended to send a signal designed to counter a public perception about the current law, and expresses doubt as to whether this is an appropriate reason for legislating. 

The Committee also considers the evidence offered by the Government for the need to send a signal by means of these clauses in the Bill to be insufficient, and doubts the appropriateness of directing the courts, in mandatory language, to have regard to certain factors when carrying out their judicial function, rather than leaving it to their discretion.

With regard to the change to the law intended by clause 3 of the Bill, the Committee does not consider that the Government has demonstrated the need to restrict employees’ rights of access to court for personal injury claims in the workplace.

The Committee also points out that the Bill is drafted sufficiently widely to apply to claims brought not only against volunteers but against public authorities, and gives rise to unnecessary uncertainty about the effect of the Bill on the liability of public authorities for failure to take steps to protect Convention rights.

Dr Hywel Francis MP, the Chair of the Committee, said:

We are also rather bemused by the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill. Insofar as it attempts to change the law, we think it may have some undesirable consequences, and is drawn too broadly for what appears from Government statements to be its intended purpose. Insofar as it is intended rather just to send a signal to counter public misperceptions, we don’t consider that to be a proper reason for legislating, and in any event the Government has failed to provide convincing evidence that such misperceptions actually exist.

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