OPINION: We are yet to win the fight against modern slavery

by Victoria Atkins | UK Parliament
Friday, 18 October 2019 13:30 GMT

A woman walks past the Houses of Parliament and the Big Ben clock tower in central London, Britain June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Phil Noble

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It is important to remember that slavery is sadly a crime which is with us today, often hidden in plain sight

Victoria Atkins is Britain's Minister for Safeguarding and Vulnerability.

It is easy to think of slavery as a crime of the past. Children are taught in schools about the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the fearless work of those who campaigned to outlaw this barbaric practice.

But as we mark Anti-Slavery Day 2019, it is important to remember that slavery is sadly a crime which is with us today, often hidden in plain sight. In fact, it is estimated that today, there are 40.3 million people in slavery worldwide. In the UK, almost 7,000 people were referred to the government’s National Referral Mechanism in 2018. And whether it is a child sold into sex slavery, a person trafficked across continents to carry out back-breaking hard labour or a young person here in the UK exploited by county lines gangs, every case of modern slavery is a tragedy – a life shattered.

The government is committed to ending this heinous crime whenever and wherever it occurs and to support victims as they rebuild their lives. Through the world-leading Modern Slavery Act 2015 we have strengthened the response from law enforcement officers, made companies accountable for modern slavery which occurs in their supply chains and developed and improved systems of support for victims of modern slavery through the National Referral Mechanism to help people recover from this dreadful abuse and get back on their feet. In June 2019, there were over 1,479 active law enforcement investigations of modern slavery crimes, compared with 188 in November 2016.

The threat of modern slavery is always evolving and changing. We know that the number of modern slavery victims referred to the government’s support system from the UK doubled between 2017 and 2018. The most common country of origin for a victim of modern slavery is the UK, highlighting the growing threat of county lines gangs in grooming and exploiting young people, moving them around the country and forcing them to carry out their criminal activities.

We have taken action to disrupt county line gangs. Earlier this month, the Home Secretary announced a £20 million investment into a package of law enforcement and disruption activity which will be vital to dismantling these criminal networks, as well as supporting expansion of services to help support victims and their families leave behind county lines activity.

The UK is a world leader in tackling modern slavery but we cannot stand still. Our response is adapting to the evolving nature of this crime and we are improving our support systems for victims accordingly.

Over the past two years we have introduced a raft of improvements to the National Referral Mechanism – the system that victims of modern slavery go through to receive support – to make sure decisions are quicker, to improve identification of victims and to improve the support that those identified victims receive.

Just this year we have launched the Single Competent Authority, a new single, expert unit to make all decisions on whether someone is a victim of modern slavery, and independent expert panels to scrutinise negative decisions to ensure fairness and transparency for those involved. We have digitised the referral system for first responders – such as police or immigration officers – to speed up and simplify referrals.

We will continue to drive improvements to the services available, including embedding a more needs-based approach to our services, to ensure they are meeting the needs of victims.

And just as we tackle modern slavery here in the UK, it is vital that there is a coordinated global effort to stop people being trafficked across continents. The UK argued for all UN Member States to agree to tackle modern slavery in 2015 and in 2017 we launched a global Call to Action on forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking.

The government is determined to end modern slavery in the global economy. We are consulting on expanding the Modern Slavery Act reporting requirements to cover the public sector and its vast purchasing power and we are developing a new central registry of modern slavery transparency statements – so that we can all see exactly which companies are serious about ending exploitation.

As a government we are wholly committed to ridding the world of this vile crime and consigning modern slavery to the history books where it belongs. We will do this by strengthening our global efforts, relentlessly pursuing offenders and by supporting the victims who have endured unimaginable suffering.