Anti-Slavery Day 2016: Examining the UK's Response to Modern Slavery; Key note speech by Fiona Mactaggart MP

My message is in three parts: 1. It is very good that our new Prime Minister feels personal investment in this issue and that the Government is open to reviewing the success of its work. I just wish it acted on the recommendations of those independent reviews. 2. But it’s intolerable that still thousands of people are enslaved in Britain – and despite legislation which is regarded as leading, most traffickers are not caught, few slaves are freed and even those who are are unlikely to see their exploiter convicted, or themselves get compensation for trauma and exploitation. If we protected victims better we would be able to catch and convict more slave masters. 3. The EU and ECHR has driven progress for victims. Brexit threatens their limited rights and yet the impact of Brexit on enslaved people hasn’t even been discussed.

Thank you for this opportunity.

My message is in three parts:

1.    It is very good that our new Prime Minister feels personal investment in this issue and that the Government is open to reviewing the success of its work. I just wish it acted on the recommendations of those independent reviews.

2.    But it’s intolerable that still thousands of people are enslaved in Britain – and despite legislation which is regarded as leading, most traffickers are not caught, few slaves are freed and even those who are are unlikely to see their exploiter convicted, or themselves get compensation for trauma and exploitation. If we protected victims better we would be able to catch and convict more slave masters.

3.    The EU and ECHR has driven progress for victims. Brexit threatens their limited rights and yet the impact of Brexit on enslaved people hasn’t even been discussed.

Today is Anti-Slavery Day, created as a result of Anthony Steen’s Private Members Bill when he was an MP. He was one of the first politicians to recognise that the battle against slavery was not completed two centuries ago, but that much work still needs to be done to free people who are enslaved today. I thank him for that.

William Wilberforce – the author of the Slavery Abolition Act – said “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know.” I think, on this Anti-Slavery Day, we must thank people like Anthony who made sure that, once again in Britain, you cannot say you did not know.

For the difference is that slavery in Wilberforce’s day was legal and in plain sight. The horror is that modern slavery happens in the hidden places.

The Global Slavery Index, published by Walk Free, estimates over 5 million people are trapped in modern slavery around the world, 11,700 of which they suggest are in Britain. And yet only 3,266 potential victims were reported to our National Referral Mechanism last year, and only 117 offenders were prosecuted.

So while the Modern Slavery Act in 2015 was a ground breaking, it only scratches the surface of one of the most serious human rights abuses of our century..

And it’s approach – of providing harsher sentences and new was of convicting the traffickers and slave masters, rather than supporting and empowering exploited people is unlikely to mean a higher proportion of offenders are convicted because successful prosecution depends on witnesses who need better support to give evidence that will bring the offenders to justice.

But let’s start with some good things which have happened:

The former Home Secretary decided to make this a defining aspect of her work – and she is now Prime Minister.

In 2010 Tory of Liberal Democrat manifestos merely made passing reference to a crackdown on people traffickers. Probably a key driver for the law we now have was the EU, which, adopted a directive in 2011, setting out a comprehensive duty to respond to human traffickers and modern slavery.

It was followed by the publication in 2013 of ‘It Happens Her’ – the Centre for Social Justice report.

It wasn’t obvious that these would lead to comprehensive legislation. In June 2013. I talked to the Deputy Chief Whip in the Coalition Government, we both doubted that there would be legislation in the coming Queen’s speech. But, by December that year, there was a draft bill.

The fact it was a draft bill was significant – it gave a chance to subject it to scrutiny even before the usual parliamentary process. That pre-legislative scrutiny produced a unanimous report from parliamentarians of all parties and none which highlighted issues which were not dealt with in the original bill, but were, to a greater or lesser extent, in the final version.

I was particularly glad that the issue of company responsibility for tackling slavery in their supply chains - which I had proposed in a 10 minute rule private members’ bill in 2010 – was eventually included.

Of course the struggle doesn’t end there. The APPG which I chair is working with the Commissioner to try and establish a single independent repository where statements by companies can be held and examined by their customers in order to make that aspect of the law effective.

There is a risk that the Commissioner – (whose budget is determined by the Home Office and who was appointed by the Home Secretary even before the legislation was completed) – would not be independent in his approach. However, I think he has really tried to be: he’s used his connections in the Catholic Church to engage the Pope; he’s helped to secure tackling slavery in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals; and he has published reports which have been critical of government: whether it’s the inadequate attempt to protect children at risk of exploitation in Calais; the Department of Work and Pensions benefit rules failing to provide support for trafficked slaves from other EU countries or local government housing policies which exclude victims of modern slavery. I would have appreciated slightly higher profile criticisms – but then I am a politician and Kevin Hyland is a cop.

The Government has been willing to commission independent evaluation of its work in this field from the start such as;

-          The CSJ report

-          Pre legislative scrutiny

-          Evidence review by Frank Field MP in 2013 on supply chains

Since then further published reviews include:

·         University of Bedford – on the pilot for child trafficking advocates

·         James Ewins – protection for domestic workers

·         Caroline Haughey – first year of this legislation  

However, this welcome openness is marred by its responses.

 Professor Kohli was clear that the child advocates pilot was a success yet his independent rigorous academic analysis was undermined by the Home Office choosing to highlight only selected parts of the report to justify a decision to commission a new trial… Disappointingly, it is not clear if there will be an independent evaluation of the next phase - “early adoption sites”

It is obvious to all that children need better protection, we are still seeing children re-trafficked, some imprisoned because of wrong age assessments and many former child slaves deported to their countries of origin without seeing their slave masters brought to justice, yet over a year after parliament passed legislation for advocates for trafficked children most children will not have one.

James Ewins proposed a practical way of supporting victims of domestic slavery. It was not adopted and reports show that still, many women brought to the UK as domestic servants are expected to work unpaid for 20 hours a day; have no breaks; sleep on the floor; and eat leftovers.

Caroline Haughey’s report is most likely to gain traction because it focuses on the criminal justice processes rather than on Home Office policies. Yet the main weakness of the Modern Slavery Bill is it over-focuses on a criminal justice response. And not effectively enough, as numbers I cited earlier show (13,000 victims, 3,266 NRM, 117 prosecutions). Today, thousands of people are working in many different sectors – fishing, food processing, construction, domestic service, and the so-called sex industry – who are doing so for little or no money. Without the freedom to leave and constantly in fear of their lives, most have no hope of rescue.

Care of victims is key. That’s where we fail the most.

The framework for victim care, and indeed aspects of its language, was established by the Council of Europe Convention and the EU directive.

But Britain has interpreted these responsibilities in a limited fashion. For example, the convention requires the state to provide a “recovery and reflection period sufficient for the person to recover and escape the influence of traffickers and/or take an informed decision on co-operating with the competent authorities.”

In Britain, this tends to mean victims get 45 days help and then they’re turned out onto the street (in a country where they don’t have allies and support.) As one victim said to a researcher from the Poppy Project “I’ve been treated worse than an animal. I was given a positive trafficking decision and then not offered accommodation – even animals get shelter’

As the US Trafficking in Persons report notes, this has resulted in “victims returning to prostitution or being re-trafficked due to lack of long-term support.” In the US victims have a special visa with a pathway to residency in 3 years, time to recover and collaborate in prosecution. The NRM which has led to this situation has been revised and a new model is being piloted – but it is unlikely it will provide proper support to victims.

 

And here we reach an urgent unaddressed concern:. The best protections for victims of slavery derive from the European Union and the European Convention on Human Rights.

Yet we are told that European Court of Human Rights rulings will not prevail when the proposed British Bill of Rights is introduced. And Brexit will make it harder for lawyers to argue in UK courts for rights for victims. UK law doesn’t focus on human rights for victims of slavery but on prosecuting slave masters, an approach which often fails because the witnesses, who are victims don’t get the support they need to give evidence.

Britain doesn’t provide reparations for what they have suffered.  ATLEU (Anti Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit) describes “lawyers’ strategy has tended to be: identify a domestic law which comes nearest to providing what the victim needs (e.g. housing or compensation) and then persuade the court that, because of EU or Council of Europe law, the court has to interpret domestic law to give the victim what is needed, even if this goes against previous case law.” 

“Better protection for victims of slavery and human trafficking must be part of the Brexit agenda.

EU law has enabled some enslaved people to claimed back pay at minimum wage levels, in a deregulated Post Brexit world they are unlikely to have that chance. Yet I haven’t heard any of the Brexit Ministers even mention what new protection on slaves will need after Britain has left the EU.

Finally, what do we do now?

We must start from the perspective of victims

It’s striking that the Council of Europe and EU policies both start from awareness that likely victims are vulnerable (including many women and children) and require support.

Unfortunately, the UK priority is to target exploiters, which has too often led to a careless approach to the needs of victims.  Too many have been abandoned, homeless and with no income so they have been forced back into exploitation.

At this moment, we all know that are children in the camps in Calais who are being controlled by slave Masters, yet our national response has been sluggish, many months of delay can mean a greater part of a child’s life is being stolen by criminal gangs.

I call on those planning our exit from Europe to prepare and publish a plan to protect future victims of slavery and compensate them for their exploitation. 

Anti-Slavery Day is a reminder not to be silent about these issues. As William Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know.”