Modern slavery: Report says ministers 'must act quickly' to combat 'evil' trade
Ministers have been urged to act "quickly and effectively" to ensure greater protection for thousands of modern slavery victims across the UK.
An independent review of the Modern Slavery Act, introduced in 2015 by then home secretary Theresa May to support those affected and bring perpetrators to justice, has found the legislation is not strong enough to combat an illegal trade that "pervades every community" in the country.
Modern slavery encompasses forced labour, domestic servitude, human trafficking, exploitation and other crimes, all of which target the most vulnerable people in society.
Previous government estimates suggested there were up to 13,000 victims in the UK, but experts have said the number is significantly higher - potentially up to 136,000.
In order to provide them with the help they need, the new report - to be published on Wednesday - has said the existing act must allow for tougher action against those responsible.
Review chairman Frank Field MP said: "Modern slavery is one of humanity's greatest evils: involving human trafficking, forced labour, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation.
"But there are still sadly too few convictions being handed down for the new offences prosecuted under the act, and too few slavery and trafficking prevention and risk orders are in place to restrict offender activity."
The report, co-led by Mr Field, Maria Miller MP and Baroness Butler-Sloss, makes 80 recommendations across four areas - the role of the independent anti-slavery commissioner, transparency in supply chains, independent child trafficking advocates and the legal application of the act.
Its findings have been welcomed by the minister for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability, Victoria Atkins, and independent anti-slavery commissioner Sara Thornton.
Ms Atkins said: "Sadly, modern slavery, forced labour and human trafficking are not evils of the past - they are with us today and their victims are hidden in plain sight.
"Through the Modern Slavery Act, the government is committed to ensuring victims get the support they need and perpetrators are brought to justice. We will be providing a full response to the review's recommendations."
Ms Thornton added: "I support the need to ensure that businesses and government are doing all they can to exclude slavery from supply chains, the importance of providing improved support for all child victims of slavery and the importance of upholding my independence as I monitor the work of public authorities in fighting modern slavery and drive the UK's response to protect the most vulnerable in our society."
The report comes amid dramatic growth in county lines networks in the UK, which have been blamed for a rise in the number of British children being forced into modern slavery.
Earlier this year, National Crime Agency figures showed the number of modern slavery cases involving UK minors went from 676 in 2017 to 1,421 in 2018, with nearly two-thirds of cases linked to labour exploitation by illegal operations like county lines and other criminal gangs.
Three county lines drug dealers were jailed for a total of 12-and-a-half years under the Modern Slavery Act earlier this month for recruiting six teenagers to transport illegal drugs to coastal communities.
They were among thousands of people involved in county lines networks in the UK, where there are thought to be around 2,000 gangs working to expand their drug networks.