I am today setting out the Government’s response to the key recommendations of the independent review of the overseas domestic worker (ODW) visa, which was undertaken by James Ewins QC and published on 17 December 2015.
The Government acknowledges the vulnerability of ODWs to abuse and exploitation, and has already taken a number of steps both to reform entry requirements to guard against it, and put measures in place to protect the position of ODWs who experience such abuse once they are here. Mr Ewins’ review was commissioned in order to improve our understanding of whether existing arrangements are effective and what more can be done to ensure that abuse can be identified; support provided to victims; and perpetrators dealt with. Such evidence remains elusive due to the difficulty of obtaining reliable data.
The first of the review’s key recommendations is that the Government should relax the “employer tie”, allowing ODWs to change employers and be granted an additional two years’ stay for that purpose. The Government’s primary aim is to ensure that where abuse and exploitation takes place, it is brought to light so that victims can be supported and action taken against perpetrators. The National Referral Mechanism (NRM) has been put in place for this purpose and, as with any other victims of slavery our aim must be to be create an environment in which ODWs who are victims of abuse are encouraged to report the abuse and to access support.
The Government’s concern is that if ODWs were able to change employers and significantly prolong their stay, irrespective of whether they have reported this abuse and whether there is evidence that such abuse has taken place, they may be less likely to report abuse. This may perpetuate a revolving door of abuse in which perpetrators remain unidentified and free to bring other domestic workers to the United Kingdom with impunity.
The Government does, however, acknowledge the case which has been put forward for providing ODWs with an immediate escape route from abuse. On the basis of advice from the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner we have therefore come to the view that there should be two distinct elements to our approach to the employer tie. First, we will provide those admitted as ODWs with the ability to take alternative employment as a domestic worker with a different employer during the six month period for which they are originally admitted. This ability to take alternative employment will not depend on whether or not they have been found to be the victim of abuse.
Second, we will go further and amend the provisions of the Immigration Rules introduced in October of last year to increase the period for which an extension of stay will be granted to an ODW who has been the subject of a positive conclusive grounds decision under the National Referral Mechanism from six months to two years. This is in addition to the existing provisions under which discretionary leave may be granted to those, for example, assisting the police with their enquiries or pursuing a compensation claim.
These measures will build on the steps that the Government has already taken, under section 53 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, to ensure that ODWs who are potential victims of abuse are protected from immigration enforcement action. In the absence of reliable quantitative evidence on the prevalence of abuse, we think these measures will strike the right balance between offering ODWs every opportunity to escape abuse while ensuring that those who report such abuse have greater certainty as to their status. The Government will implement these measures through changes to the Immigration Rules at the earliest opportunity and we will keep them under review as further data on the issue emerges over time.
In addition, the Government is in full agreement with the review’s second key recommendation that more should be done to ensure that both ODWs and their employers are provided with information on their respective rights and obligations, and to provide ODWs with access to a neutral space in which they can be given advice and an opportunity to alert someone to their situation if they need to. We believe that empowering victims of hidden crimes like modern slavery is fundamental to bringing them into the light and ending the cycle of exploitation. The Government will therefore implement the review’s proposals for the introduction of information, advice and support meetings for ODWs who are in the UK, hosted by an organisation independent of the Home Office. We are considering further whether the requirement to attend the meetings should apply sooner than the 42 days period suggested by the review. As the report has recommended, the cost of providing these meetings will be recovered through an increase in visa fees.
We also accept the broad thrust of the review’s recommendations in respect of entry clearance procedures, and will consider whether we should go further in taking a proactive approach to ensuring that information and messages concerning entitlements and obligations are understood before a visa is issued.
We also want to tighten the obligations of employers of ODWs and ensure that these are rigorously enforced. We therefore intend to go further than the review has proposed to ensure employers’ compliance with their obligations. We will introduce a requirement that any employer wishing to sponsor the entry of an ODW must first register with UK Visas and Immigration for this purpose. Registration will be conditional on the employer agreeing that they will allow their employees to attend the aforementioned information meetings; will comply with employment law; and will co-operate with any workplace-based compliance checks undertaken by UK Visas and Immigration. Any employer who fails to comply with these obligations could then be considered for removal from the register, thus losing the right to sponsor the entry of other ODWs in the future. These measures will send out a clear message to employers of ODWs that the United Kingdom will not tolerate abuse and that we will take action against employers who abuse their workers.
We intend that measures to give ODWs working in private households additional protection should also apply to those employed in diplomatic households. The right to change employers will apply to ODWs who have been admitted to work in a diplomatic setting, as will the requirement to attend information, advice and support meetings. In addition, we already require that the entry of such domestic workers must be sponsored by the relevant mission. UK Visas and Immigration may seek from that mission a waiver of the diplomat’s immunity if it wishes to undertake checks on, for example, the diplomat’s compliance with UK employment law.
We will also ensure, as the review has recommended, that where a mission sponsors a private servant of a diplomat under Tier 5 of the Points Based System, one of its sponsorship obligations should be to ensure that the relevant diplomat receives written information about their obligations as employers and confirms they have read and understood it.
It is not, however, clear that requiring that the relationship of employment be with the mission rather than the diplomat - as the review recommends - would make a material difference to our ability to check compliance, as the mission itself would enjoy State immunity. It is also possible that requiring such staff to be employed by the mission would cause the worker to be treated as service staff for the purposes of the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964, making them exempt from UK immigration control, which would in turn reduce the checks that could be applied before the worker entered the UK.
Mr Ewins has in his report made other recommendations concerning, for example, access to legal assistance and the operation of National Minimum Wage requirements. The Government is considering these points and will make clear its position in due course.
The Government will continue to keep its policies concerning the admission of ODWs under review. We have, in this connection, noted Mr Ewins’ comments concerning the lack of robust evidence about the movements of such workers and the incidence of abuse. The Government’s expectation is that the implementation of the measures set out in this Statement as well as the data that will become available from exit checks and the operation of the National Referral Mechanism will shed more light on the issue and the effectiveness of the extensive package of measures that are in place to protect victims.
This statement has also been made in the House of Lords: