The Home Office has been forced to defend its refusal to disclose figures revealing the detention of hundreds of trafficking victims after a report by The Independent prompted a parliamentary debate on the issue.
The department was accused on Wednesday of covering up the plight of victims of modern slavery after it emerged government data obtained via freedom of information (FoI) requests had previously been withheld from MPs when they had asked for it in parliamentary questions.
MPs were repeatedly told by the Home Office that there was “no central record” of how many victims were placed in removal centres and that the department “did not collate or publish the data requested”.
But figures obtained through an FoI request submitted by data-mapping project After Exploitation revealed last week that 507 people who had escaped exploitation were detained under immigration powers in 2018.
Citing The Independent's article in the Commons on Wednesday, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott asked immigration minister Caroline Nokes whether she accepted that when she responded to the parliamentary questions she had “misled the house”.
Ms Nokes said she had not, saying the information had been “for internal management only” and that it was possible the FoI data was “caveated” and inaccurate.
“I elicit the point there is no central record held and the info from the FoI has been collated from a variety of sources, and if there is one thing you learn as a Home Office minister, it is to be very wary of numbers at all time and not to give numbers that may be inaccurate,” she added.
Campaigners made the point that while the minister claimed Home Office data on the detention of trafficking victims was not accurate enough to disclose to MPs, she referenced the same data in Parliament in order to defend the government’s record on detention discharge.
Responding to Ms Nokes’ claim that the FoI figures may be unreliable, Labour MP Vernon Coaker said: “You’ve missed the point of what all of us are saying. There is a genuine shock across the house of the fact it is government policy to lock up victims of modern slavery as immigration offenders. It is unacceptable and when is it going to stop?”
In response, the immigration minister said: “Just because somebody is a victim of modern slavery or trafficking does not mean they have immigration status in this country [...] We must not assume we are best placed those people who have been trafficked.”
Labour MP Thangham Debbonaire questioned whether the Home Office had considered the possibility of keeping such numbers centrally, saying: “Is it not the case that keeping the number centrally might be a good idea?
“The rule on ‘adults at risk’ surely suggests that number should be kept as low as possible, and we can’t know if it is unless we know what those numbers are.”
Ms Nokes said the Home Office was making “good progress in replacing antiquated case-working systems and data platforms”, but that it was a “complex” process and was “not an instant fix”.
Joan Ryan, MP for the Independent Group for Change, said that in response to a written question she submitted last year, the Home Office had said the information was not available – but that when she pressed the minister, the figures were provided.
“Why do we have to go to such lengths to pry information from the Home Office? Why does the government withhold important data from public scrutiny? Where is the accountability and transparency in this situation?” she asked.
It comes after an open letter signed by more than 20 charities, including Amnesty International and the Refugee Council, condemned the “conflict of interest” between the Home Office's immigration enforcement and its duty to protect trafficking victims.
They went on to warn the problem has gone largely unchallenged due to a “lack of data transparency” and urged the government not to wait until public scrutiny to make data on deportation and detention outcomes of victims available.