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OPINION: What still needs to be done to wipe out modern slavery in Britain

by Frank Field | UK Parliament
Thursday, 17 October 2019 14:15 GMT

A union flag is seen for sale at a kiosk on Westminster Bridge opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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We are still not signalling clearly enough that slavery will not be tolerated on our shores if we do not confine its perpetrators for as long as they deprive their victims of their liberty

Frank Field, Member of Parliament for Birkenhead.

Five years ago Britain did not have a Modern Slavery Act. Not only in Britain, but nowhere in the world was there a piece of legislation focused singularly on wiping out forced labour, which traps almost 25 million people worldwide working in factories, farms and fishing boats, and as domestic or sex workers. Now Australia has an Act which uses the one passed in Britain in 2015 as a template, and six other G20 countries have legislations designed to tackle slavery in supply chains. Slowly but surely, statute books across the world are beginning to take note of the fact that slavery did not come to an end when it was abolished in Britain in 1833.

There is, however, a world of difference between codification and action. And I believe there is no room for complacency either in this country or any other, while tens of millions of people across the world remain slaves.

The Modern Slavery Act has given law enforcement agencies the tools to tackle slavery offences. Police forces are beginning to treat this heinous form of exploitation as a priority, and we have seen rings of traffickers identified and prosecuted, as we did earlier this year when eight members of a gang behind the biggest modern slavery network ever exposed in the UK were tried, convicted and sentenced for exploiting over 400 victims.

But although the Act makes provision for life sentences for perpetrators, none of these offenders received more than 11 years, and in fact had their sentences revised downwards when they went to appeal.

We are still not signalling clearly enough that slavery will not be tolerated on our shores if we do not confine its perpetrators for as long as they deprive their victims of their liberty. After all, even once the literal shackles are removed, the trauma remains. In some ways, I doubt whether survivors of slavery can ever truly be free.

The 2015 Modern Slavery Act made Britain the first country in the world to introduce pioneering transparency in supply chains, leading to thousands of large businesses taking action to identify and eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains. Yet again, there is a problem of enforcement, for there is no requirement on companies to write detailed statements on their modern slavery reporting, nor are they compelled to root out the exploitation they discover. This was one of the key recommendations I made along with Maria Miller MP and Baroness Butler-Sloss in our Review of the Act which we completed in March this year.

If we do not take action against companies which choose to ignore their complicity with this crime, then we are inadvertently disincentivising those businesses who ensure every worker who stands behind their product is adequately remunerated. The government might not want to appear to ‘punish’ business but it is inevitably taking sides. With its lax approach to enforcing this part of the Act, the businesses being punished are those which should be rewarded for their ethics.

Finally, and most importantly, is the issue of victim support, and it is here that I believe the government can do most to improve its record on eradicating modern slavery. The High Court ruled in April this year that the 45 day limit placed by the government to safe housing, counselling and financial assistance for victims of modern slavery was too short This came only a few months after the same court ruled that the Home Office (interior ministry) unlawfully cut the benefit payments given to victims, and forced the government to pay £1 million in back-payments.

Most of all, we need data, data and more data. We know nothing of what happens to people once they have passed through the National Referral Mechanism. Are they able to rebuild their lives or are they re-trafficked? We do not know. And what we don’t know, we cannot fix. I urge the Prime Minister to start asking the right questions so we can start taking the right action.