The UK can lead the global campaign to root out the evil of modern slavery in its entirety

The House Magazine - 13 Jun 2019

When I spent a whole summer lobbying Fiona Hill, adviser to Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, to pass an Act to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking, I could never have imagined that Mrs May would, just a few years later, consider action against these twin evils to be a central part of her legacy in government.

Having secured the passage of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015, in recent months I have chaired a review into its effectiveness, along with Maria Miller MP and Baroness Butler-Sloss. We made a total of 80 recommendations and while we are yet to receive the government’s full response, two of these were accepted by Mrs May in her speech to the International Labour Organisation in Geneva.

First, there is to be a new International Modern Slavery and Migration Envoy to drive forward the Government’s agenda on modern slavery and co-ordinate the UK’s efforts with other nations. The UK was the first country to pass a Modern Slavery Act and, with this latest reform, it is poised to lead a global campaign to root out this evil in its entirety; not only by setting legislative precedent, but also by offering guidance to other countries and learning from best practice elsewhere.

And, second, the Prime Minister announced that there would be a free online registry of businesses’ modern slavery statements, to make it easier for consumers, investors and NGOs to track compliance and action that businesses are taking.

This is a promising start, and I hope it indicates that a good deal of our recommendations will be taken on board. But ‘start’ is the operative word in this sentence. It is not enough for businesses to be obliged merely to record whether their supply chains involve modern slavery: there should be a requirement on them to do their utmost to act on those findings. The Government should also act decisively when businesses do not comply so that this legislation actually has teeth.

We also need to the Government to act with greater urgency, knowing that every day there are all too many vulnerable people whose lives very much hang in the balance.

The speed with which the Home Office has moved thus far has not been inspiring. For instance, the Act included an independent child trafficking advocate service, so that child victims of trafficking and slavery could receive as much support as they needed.

But despite restating their commitment to roll out this service across England and Wales on several occasions, it is still only available in Greater Manchester, Hampshire, Wales, the East and West Midlands, and Croydon. There should be no further delay on installing this service across the UK so that more children are not left at risk of being retrafficked simply by virtue of them living in the ‘wrong’ area.

A related point: the welfare of victims needs to be at the forefront of the minds of everyone whose work touches on this issue. This applies to everything, from the extent of victim support (and unfortunately our Review was not permitted to speak on the National Referral Mechanism, which leaves much to be desired) to the amount of compensation made available to victims whose traffickers are prosecuted.

However, the sensitivity required from public servants is not always present. I was, for instance, recently asked to comment on a story in which victims of trafficking had been released from immigration detention centres and returned to the addresses in which they had been enslaved.

Most notably, government collects no data on what happens to victims after they have exited the NRM. Are they retrafficked? Do they reintegrate back into society? Or are they left traumatised for the rest of their lives? We simply do not know. And what we do not know we cannot fix.

And fix it we must – continually, as we learn more about how these criminals operate and what hurdles face victims who seek to go on with their lives. I am glad that Mrs May sees the importance of doing so. I can only hope that her successor does the same.