LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The British government's proposed law to wipe out modern-day slavery is a landmark piece of legislation but needs to focus more on victims to ensure a higher rate of convictions.
In 2012, the number of potential victims reported to Britain's National Referral Mechanism set up to identify trafficking victims, rose by 25 percent from the previous year to nearly 1,200. Most victims were from Nigeria, Vietnam, Albania, Romania and China, and subjected to sexual exploitation and forced labour.
"Most people out there have no idea of the extent of slavery in our society," Spelman said.
Whether it's young Vietnamese men forced into cannabis cultivation, English girls trafficked by sex grooming gangs or Nigerian women trapped in domestic servitude, experts say the true scale of the problem is unknown because of the hidden nature of the crime and a fear of speaking out.
"One of the problems we're trying to crack is that it has proved very difficult to get prosecutions. All too often countries where slaves are discovered end up prosecuting the slaves and deporting them, which is the wrong approach," Spelman told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"What you really want to do is see those slaves as victims, protect them from prosecution and get them to give evidence about the real criminals," she said during an interview at her office overlooking the houses of parliament.
The Modern Slavery Bill aims to consolidate and simplify slavery and trafficking offences in one wide-ranging bill and increase the maximum penalty of convicted offenders to life imprisonment.
STOP CRIMINALISING VICTIMS
Spelman, who heard accounts from several trafficking victims, said the stories she found most upsetting related to exploitation of individuals by their own families.
"I think the most depressing thing for me is that there is servitude within the family. I find that very difficult because family ties are very, very strong. It's not a transactional relationship," she said.
"For young women to be brought here and kept in servitude to serve other members of the family - not free to live - and worst still, exploited sexually, I find that very difficult."
After hearing evidence from experts including retailers, lawyers and campaign groups, Spelman and her colleagues recommended that criminal offences be simplified to ensure more convictions, and that victims not be prosecuted for crimes they were forced to commit while enslaved.
They called for independent advocates to be appointed to child victims to help them deal with the care and immigration systems and for quoted companies to report on measures they have taken to stamp out modern slavery from their supply chains.
Furthermore, efforts to seize traffickers' assets to compensate victims should be strengthened, Spelman said. "On the whole, the legal process is not good at stripping criminals of their assets fast enough," she said, adding that victims may be more likely to testify if they were compensated.
The committee asked the home secretary (interior minister), Theresa May, to reconsider whether border officials were best placed to identifying trafficking victims. "Of course, the focus of Border Agency is to stop people coming in who shouldn't get here and deport people who shouldn't be here in the first place - and they're conflicted," Spelman said.
The committee asked the government to ensure the independence of an Anti-Slavery Commissioner and revisit visa rules prohibiting domestic workers from changing their employers, which activists say increases their risk of exploitation.
Spelman said she believed there was a "pretty good chance" the committee's recommendations would be incorporated in the Modern Slavery Bill, adding that Home Secretary May had said she was "open-minded" about them.
The bill is expected to be announced in the Queen's speech on June 3, which traditionally sets the legislative agenda for the next year. Spelman said she expected the bill to go to the upper house of parliament, the House of Lords, for debate before being passed to the House of Commons in the autumn.
"And we will enact before the general election in May 2015," she added.