Theresa May has warned slave drivers and traffickers will find it easier to escape justice under Rishi Sunak’s flagship immigration reforms.
The Conservative former prime minister suggested victims would be less likely to come forward to give evidence against traffickers if they believe they were at greater risk of deportation.
Mrs May appealed for modern slavery victims to be excluded from measures within the Illegal Migration Bill and for talks with the Government to resolve her concerns.
Temporary protection against removal from the UK is currently given to suspected victims of modern slavery or human trafficking while their case is considered.
However, the Bill seeks to remove this protection for people who are judged to have entered the UK illegally, with an exception for those co-operating with a criminal investigation.
The legislation aims to stop people claiming asylum in the UK if they arrive through unauthorised means, including by crossing the English Channel in small boats.
It could result in asylum seekers being detained without bail or judicial review for 28 days before being removed to their home country or a “safe third country” such as Rwanda.
The Bill has been denounced by the UN’s refugee agency as an effective “asylum ban”.
Mrs May, speaking during day two of the Bill’s committee stage, said: “My fear with this Illegal Migration Bill is that it will drive a coach and horses through the Modern Slavery Act, denying support to those who have been exploited and enslaved, and in doing so making it much harder to catch and stop the traffickers and slave drivers.”
Explaining what she thinks the “heart of the problem” is, Mrs May gave the example of a woman from Romania who is “persuaded there’s a great job here for her in the UK, is brought here on false papers, put to work as a prostitute in a brothel”.
She added: “Let’s say she manages to escape and meet some people willing to help, she’s taken to the police, but the Government says ‘you came here illegally, we are deporting you to Rwanda’. The traffickers fear she’s looking to escape, (they) take her to one side and explain it’s no good doing that because all they’ll do is send you to Rwanda.
“We would have handed the traffickers a gift, another tool in their armoury of exploitation and slavery.
“Now, the Government might say that it’ll be okay if the woman actually helps with an investigation because there is that caveat in the Bill, but that seriously misunderstands slavery and the impact of the trauma of slavery on the victims.”
“I fear this Bill is going to do all of those things.”
Conservative former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith warned losing the trust of victims of modern slavery could lead to the UK becoming a “soft touch on trafficking”.
He also called for evidence of false claims to be published and suggested changes to the Bill.
Sir Iain said: “The more we help them, the more they give evidence, the more of the traffickers we catch, the more get closed down, and probably fewer people then come across … this is all part of a circle of trust and identification and final prosecution.”
Conservative former minister Sir John Hayes said amendments tabled by colleagues to “make the Bill work” are needed, including proposals to block courts from ordering individuals to be returned to the UK.
He said: “The British people are at the end of their tether, tired of a liberal establishment which is blinded by its own prejudices, which seems oblivious of the needs of working-class Britons, ever more indulgent towards economic migrants or anyone else that comes from abroad, for that matter.”
Home Office minister Robert Jenrick, replying for the Government, said it was unfair to suggest there is not an evidential basis for taking action with regard to modern slavery.
He outlined rising numbers of trafficking claims, saying: “In 2021, 73% of people who arrived on small boats and were detained for removal put forward a modern slavery claim.”
But Mrs May, intervening, said: “The fact that the number of referrals to the NRM (national referral mechanism) has increased does not mean there is abuse of the system, it means actually that we may just be recognising more people who are in slavery in our country.
“And of the 73% – that was 294 people – and also of those who have had their cases looked at by the NRM, nearly 90% are found to be correct cases of slavery.”
Mr Jenrick said: “I don’t think it’s correct to denigrate the concern that 73% of those people who arrived on small boats and were detained for removal put forward a modern slavery claim.
“I think that figure suggests that a very large number would claim modern slavery. And that would make it almost impossible for us to proceed with this scheme.”