Posted: 26 February 2015

New legal powers for child trafficking advocates will help hundreds of children

We applaud the Government for listening to our calls and changing the law to improve support for hundreds of trafficked children across the UK.

The Government’s last minute change to give child trafficking advocates legal powers was passed in parliament yesterday as part of the Modern Slavery Bill. This is a historic step to help ensure these vulnerable children are protected from being forced back into horrific abuse, including domestic work and sexual exploitation.

We have been lobbying on the Modern Slavery Bill as part of the Refugee Children’s Consortium which we co-chair. Read our parliamentary briefings on the bill.

Legal powers to act in a child’s best interests

The Government have taken a big step in the right direction by introducing a pilot scheme in which trafficked children are given an advocate who acts as a champion for them and helps them navigate complex welfare, immigration and legal processes and access the support they are entitled to. But without legal powers these advocates would be toothless and unable to step in at times when they are most needed.

The UK was also failing to follow recent recommendations by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, European Union guidance and crucially lagging behind Northern Ireland who passed a law giving their child trafficking advocates legal powers last month

Legal powers mean that advocates can instruct legal representatives on behalf of a child and represent their best interests. This is particularly important because trafficked children frequently do not disclose that they have been trafficked because they have been manipulated by their trafficker or are afraid of what the trafficker will do to their family. Or they may have not understood or psychologically accepted that they have been trafficked which is often the case if they have been trafficked by a family member.

Greater clout with councils

We are also pleased to see that the government has planned to give advocates greater clout with councils and the power to hold them to account. Our experience and research we conducted with the Refugee Council found that local authorities often fail to understand, prioritise and adequately respond to trafficked children’s needs.

This repeatedly results in these vulnerable children falling through the gaps and being housed in inappropriate, unsafe accommodation such as bed and breakfasts and receiving inadequate financial support.

Unfortunately we find that all too often the only way to force local authorities to act is litigation or the threat of this. A legal advocate with powers to ensure the local authority adheres to the advice of the advocate is therefore vital to ensure trafficked children are correctly assessed and get the services they are entitled to.

Making the law a reality

While we warmly welcome these important changes, the provisions to introduce child trafficking advocates across the country is dependent on the outcome of the child trafficking advocate trials which finish in September 2015. We will be pressing whoever forms the next Government to make these proposals a reality and ensure the bill is fully implemented.

We will also work with the government to ensure that the accompanying guidance on advocates is in line with the European Union best practice guidance and that the role and responsibility of local authorities in relation to advocates is explained clearly.

A lack of clarity about the role of advocates would only lead to tension and miscommunication between local authorities and advocates. If this is set out clearly from the outset in guidance, it could avoid potential conflict.

By Natalie Williams - Policy team
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