Britain is a world leader in many areas. One of the big social reforms of recent years has been a more robust approach to slavery based on a historic piece of legislation, itself was born of a 2013 report from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) called ‘It Happens Here’.
At the time too little attention was paid to so called ‘modern’ slavery, a vicious crime happening in all corners of our country. The CSJ think tank put a spotlight on this issue and to their credit the government of the day acted to introduce and pass the Modern Slavery Act a little over a year later.
This Act among other things forced companies to look into their supply chains and take action to root out slavery. It set the framework for measuring slavery and bringing the issue out into the open, away from the shadows where gang masters operate.
Where we acted other countries followed too. We should be proud of our role in in fighting slavery, but there is now a new fight to win, building on the success of the Modern Slavery Act.
At the time the CSJ published ‘It Happens Here’ there was a widespread and lazy assumption that slavery was a thing of the past, a historic wrong corrected. We only have to look at the factory in Leicester producing high street clothes to understand that the battle is not yet won.
The CSJ has returned to this issue and examined the data. Alongside, anti-slavery charity Justice and Care we have discovered that there could be at least 100,000 slaves in the UK. That’s the population of Bath, ten times the figure previously estimated by the Government and would mean we only find one in ten victims out there.
It still happens here. This is the darkest of crimes. Young women raped 10 times a day in brothels, men exploited from sunrise to sunset on farms with no escape and children sold online to the highest bidder.
With British nationals increasingly falling victim too, through grooming and county lines, it isn’t simply about toughening up our approach to controlling our borders, although that will help. It is serious organised crime on an industrial scale - people of all nationalities being moved and abused for vast profits on home soil.
This new CSJ report shines a renewed spotlight on slavery. It uncovers a link between widespread slavery and illegal cigarette sales in Leeds and reports how traffickers in Birmingham stole the benefits of victim after victim, with this benefit fraud costing the taxpayer billions of pounds.
We can act as decisively as we did in 2015 if we are willing to do so again and build on the success of the Modern Slavery Act. Our report sets out new reforms with two priorities: transforming the way we treat those who have been abused and exploited and bringing many more slave masters to justice. The first can lead to the second.
It is time to pass the Modern Slavery Victim Support Bill returning to Parliament after the summer. This would provide rescued people the help they need for 12 months as they start to rebuild their lives. Post-Brexit we should also consider new visas for those cooperating with the police beyond that, as the US does.
At the same time, more foreign national victims could be supported to return home sooner, still keeping in touch with police investigations here. Stronger and faster repatriation schemes should be established between the UK and source countries, working with support charities, to do so.
Despite a surge in the number of UK victims identified every year, criminal convictions are woefully low. Slavery remains low risk, high return. In the last four years a 119 percent increase in victims being rescued has been reported, but only a nine percent increase in convictions.
When survivors are helped to recover properly they often talk. They can become our greatest assets in the fight against organised trafficking crime. There are models doing this, like the Victim Navigator programme, which should be extended.
There has been remarkable cross-party support for this agenda, with strong voices demanding action across party lines. MPs will be calling for the Modern Slavery Victim Support Bill to be passed when we return from the summer recess and this report will be landing on the Home Secretary’s desk with practical steps the government can take to ensure we maintain our place as a world leader in tackling slavery.
We can once again show the rest of the world how to root out this abhorrent crime.