THE UK’s anti-slavery commissioner has backed calls for victims of people trafficking to be protected from prosecution for crimes committed during periods of exploitation.
Kevin Hyland, whose independent office was established last year, said it was important for victims to be given protection in statute.
Legislation which would create a single offence of human trafficking is currently working its way through the Scottish Parliament.
But bodies including the Faculty of Advocates have warned the bill does not go far enough in stopping victims from ending up in court, and have called for a statutory defence instead of relying on guidelines from the Lord Advocate.
While not commenting on the specifics of the Scottish legislation, Mr Hyland said protection in law would help increase both the number of victims coming forward and the number of prosecutions.
He said: “We need to put protection measures there for those committing document offences or thefts as a result of their trafficking or exploitation.
“It’s in the law in England. It does need to be something that’s very clear because we do need to make sure that, in statute, we are protecting the victims.
“Until I see what the legislation is going to be and what that advice from the Lord Advocate is, it’s very difficult to comment, but when I look at what the bill in England and Wales says and Northern Ireland, they’re quite strong around the protection of the victim.”
He added: “One of my roles is to increase the number of victims coming forward and to increase prosecutions. By making sure that’s in statute we can achieve something around that.”
Mr Hyland said Scotland was unusual in the UK because a non-EU country - Vietnam - was currently the most likely source of trafficking victims.
And he warned that children living in the UK were being trafficked around the country for sexual exploitation, often by their own families.
The Faculty of Advocates last week said it was not sufficient to rely on guidelines from the Lord Advocate to protect victims, while Police Scotland has called for a definition of “forced criminality” to be inserted into the bill to protect those found to be breaking the law during their exploitation.
But the Scottish Government has rejected the idea of protection in statute, arguing it would place a burden on victims to prove a link between their offending and their trafficked status.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “This bill has the needs of victims at its heart, guaranteeing they will receive the support they need as well as strengthening criminal law against those who traffic and exploit others.
“It does include a presumption against prosecution where there is credible evidence that a person has committed a crime as a direct consequence of their trafficked status. It is a fundamental principle of our legal system that the final decision on any prosecution rests with the Lord Advocate. These provisions are in line with international standards and best practice, including the EU directive on human trafficking.”