Bishop of Bristol speaks about migrant domestic workers in House of Lords immigration bill debate

First published 10th March 2022

On Tuesday 8 March in the House of Lords, the Right Revd Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol, spoke on a proposed amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill. 

The proposed amendment would seek to protect migrant domestic workers from abusive employers. You can read Bishop Viv's speech from the debate below.


My Lords, I support the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, to remove Clauses 57, 58 and 62 from the Bill, to which I have added my name. I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, on her appointment and give thanks for all the work she does, even when we do not always entirely agree across these benches.

As we have heard, Clauses 57 and 58 would make it appreciably more difficult for people to be recognised as victims of modern slavery and receive support. In Committee, the Minister responded to my concerns about these clauses by saying that, far from deterring victims, this will “encourage genuine victims to come forward”. [Official Report, 10/2/22; col. 1843.]

I query how that can be the case. More referrals are being made – I am grateful for the statistics from the noble Lord, Lord Coaker – but we know that is only a very small fraction of the likely number of victims to come forward and be identified. The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimated that there could be as many as 136,000 victims in the UK at the moment.

I therefore cannot fathom how raising the burden of evidence, making it harder to get a reasonable grounds decision, can possibly do anything other than further put people off, further delay the already lengthy backlog in making conclusive grounds decisions and end up excluding some genuine victims from support. Could the Minister say, after hearing some evidence earlier on, what evidence and planning suggest that these measures will make genuine victims more likely to come forward? Could he share that evidence with us? It seems markedly at odds with the evidence presented by the front-line agencies.

In his response in Committee, the Minister argued that these clauses were necessary to prevent misuse of the migration system. We have heard some suggestions of that already. Could Ministers share that evidence, as it again seems markedly at odds with the evidence presented to us by agencies? I find it a troubling approach, cutting across support for genuine victims. We already have a system that requires an assessment of potential victims. It is capable of identifying fraudulent or inappropriate claims, and I believe that it does so. Given this, it is not clear to me that the government have produced an adequate rationale for this reform.

Finally and briefly on Clause 62, I have heard the Minister’s reassurances, but I remain unclear about and uncomfortable with what could or would be classified as acting in “bad faith”, and where the line is to be drawn on serious or minor criminality. I remain concerned that Clause 62 is a gift to those who force victims into illegal activity to entrap them. I have heard the Minister promise that future modern slavery legislation is a priority. As the Bishop with lead responsibility for combating modern slavery, I truly welcome this and look forward to engaging on that legislation when it arrives.

I am not entirely clear what this legislation will address. I echo a question from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in Committee: if future positive legislation is in the pipeline, why are we being asked to push through Part 5, as others are saying, as an add-on to the Bill, which otherwise focuses overwhelmingly on the asylum system? For all those reasons, I remain of the view that these clauses would best be removed from the Bill and that the Government would do better to return with a new Bill that focuses squarely on modern slavery.


Amendment 70A moved by The Lord Bishop of Bristol 

70A: After Clause 67, insert the following new Clause—

“Migrant domestic workers

(1) The Secretary of State must amend the rules under section 3(2) of the Immigration Act 1971 to make provision for the matters mentioned in subsection (2).(2) All holders of domestic worker or diplomatic domestic worker visas, including those working for staff of diplomatic missions, must be entitled to—(a) change their employer (but not work sector) without restriction, but they must register such a change with the Home Office;(b) renew their domestic worker or diplomatic domestic worker visa for a period of not less than 12 months, provided they are in employment at the date of application and able to support themselves without recourse to public funds, and to make successive applications;(c) apply for leave to enter and remain for their spouse or partner and any child under the age of 18 for a period equivalent to the unexpired period of their visa and of any subsequent visa;(d) be granted indefinite leave to remain after five continuous years of residence in the United Kingdom if at the date of application their employer proposes to continue their employment.”

The Lord Bishop of Bristol 

My Lords, Amendment 70A is in my name and I am grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Lister and Lady Hamwee, for their support, and to Kalayaan for its briefings and assistance. We debated this amendment in Committee but are bringing it back because the Government’s response seemed a little unclear on the situation as it occurs on the ground, and we might push them a little further to take overdue action. I will be interested to hear if there is any progress tonight.

The situation faced by overseas domestic workers is a historic wrong which has been allowed to continue for a decade, despite consistent evidence from the sector on what is happening. We need to reiterate from the start that this amendment looks only to restore the previous status quo, from before 2012. We know from the data collected by Kalayaan that, since then, reported levels of abuse of domestic workers have increased significantly. We also know that the Government recognised this as a legitimate problem, which is why new measures were introduced in 2016, as referenced by the Minister in Committee. These included allowing domestic workers to change employer but not to extend their visa, except in the cases of those officially recognised as a victim of people trafficking or modern slavery. The fact that these measures were felt necessary in 2016 is evidence that the Government concede that the abuse and exploitation is real and needs confronting.

Sadly, the evidence of the last six years from Kalayaan shows that while the problem is real, the 2016 solution has not really succeeded in helping at all. Indeed, its evidence shows that abuse and exploitation have continued in exactly the same way as before. For many of the workers in question, the inability to extend their visas when they change employer in practice leaves them trapped. If workers have only a relatively short time remaining on their visa—weeks or a few months—their visa status makes them unattractive potential employees and so, in practice, makes leaving their abusive employer the only option on paper.

The Government, including the Minister in Committee, have also urged that exploited workers are best dealt with through referral to the NRM. However, the problem here is that while many of the workers in question may have a case under employment law, they often do not meet the criteria of victims of modern slavery. They are, however, by virtue of their status at risk of falling into slavery or other forms of exploitation and abuse, precisely because it is difficult for them to change job or receive support—and because many are simply unaware of their rights or in possession of their passport or visa.

This amendment is really about prevention rather than cure. By restoring the previous ability of domestic workers to change employer and extend their visa we would empower them to report abuse, confident in their ability to attract alternative employment. Instead of waiting for them to become victims of slavery, we would be providing them with their own productive agency to escape their situation and report their exploiters. In the context of the Bill, this is a very modest amendment which would make little difference to the overall migration picture in the UK, but a vast difference to the lives of those impacted. We now have 10 years of data and evidence built up on this issue and I hope that we might be able to right this historic wrong. I beg to move.


The Lord Bishop of Bristol 

My Lords, having listened to the debates, I am very grateful for the contribution of noble Lords who have spoken on this issue and engaged with it carefully and over time. I have to say that I am disappointed that we do not seem to have made much progress. I would have wanted to hear much more, not just about the agenda of the meeting tomorrow but about the possibility of future legislation and where this clause might fit within it. It concerns me deeply that there has not been any obvious detail about that for the future.

However, mindful of the time and the great number of issues that everyone has before them tonight and in future, I very reluctantly withdraw the amendment at this time.

Amendment 70A withdrawn.

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