Yesterday marked two years since the Modern Slavery Act 2015 received Royal Assent and last week saw the 210th anniversary of the Slave Trade Act 1807.
As the UK’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, appointed by the Prime Minister in her former capacity as Home Secretary, I have been afforded the responsibility of spearheading the country’s response to this barbaric crime. The journey thus far has included many successes and numerous challenges. Overall more victims have been supported and more perpetrators punished – a noteworthy victory – but there remains much to do, domestically and on the international stage.
Despite their being an estimated 10 – 13,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK, just two years ago there was no single piece of legislation that addressed the complex nature of the crime. Much has changed in the last two years and the passing of the Modern Slavery Act was just the start.
The Prime Minister now chairs a Taskforce on modern slavery, hosting regular meetings at Downing Street with relevant departments to coordinate the UK fight. The Home Secretary recently announced £8.5 million funding to police to boost their response to the crime. A further £33.5 million has been committed to address the root causes of modern slavery overseas in countries where victims originate.
Since the Act received Royal Assent, statutory agencies have stepped up anti-slavery efforts. Combating the crime of modern slavery has been made a high priority threat for the UK’s National Crime Agency, who have ramped up their response; UK police have begun conducting increasing investigations across the country; and the Work and Pensions Select Committee is carrying out an inquiry into access to welfare benefits for all victims of modern slavery, as well as looking at awareness levels among the Department for Work and Pensions staff on modern slavery issues.
Furthermore, with the UK the first country in the world to bring in legislation on transparency in supply chains of companies, businesses have begun to openly engage on the issue. Cases of modern slavery have been identified, shared and no longer kept hidden.
Specific companies have started to lead the way in responding to modern slavery by going above and beyond the requirements of the Act. For example, The Co-op has developed an innovative project providing employment opportunities for survivors of modern slavery; the Chartered Institute of Building has driven collective action within the construction industry; and a number of companies, such as Carillion, are taking pro-active approaches, establishing steering groups to identify modern slavery risks, rolling out training programmes for employees and introducing agreements with suppliers to ensure all comply with the Act.
Not only has progress been made at home, but internationally too. In late 2015, I led efforts to secure a clear target in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals dedicated to the eradication of modern slavery. Since then, the international community has woken up to the scale of slavery, which thrives in humanitarian crises. Preventing this brutal trade in human life is now an integral part of discussions among world leaders. So much so that during its presidency of the UN Security Council earlier this month, the UK hosted an open debate on modern slavery in conflict where over 80 countries acknowledged the need to address the crime. In addition, countries such as Australia are following the UK’s lead by considering introducing their own legislation on modern slavery.
Mind-sets are starting to change and cultures are beginning to shift. We are seeing more statutory and non-statutory agencies view this as the serious and often organised crime that it is. However, for the UK to be deemed a world lead on this issue, there is still more to be done. The Modern Slavery Act is the first legislation of its kind in Europe but we cannot be considered a global leader if support for victims in the UK lets them down, if law enforcement agencies do not work together to build an improved intelligence picture or if British businesses ignore slavery in their own supply chains.
Complacency is a barrier to progress; we must remain driven to fighting the injustice of modern slavery. I want to see reform of the support available to victims, so that they are not left destitute, homeless or worse, vulnerable to modern slavery once again. I want to see agencies doing all they can to prevent children going missing after exiting exploitation. I want to see capacity building of law enforcement officers, whether on our streets or at our borders. I want to see anti-slavery efforts built into protection measures in humanitarian crises. And last but not least, I want all to remain committed to tackling the crime at source, with clear preventative messaging and employment options to stop people falling prey to traffickers and slave masters.
There are gaps that need filling and this will take vast resource and resolve. The UK Prime Minister has called this ‘the great human rights issue of our time’ and it is my hope that defeating this will be one of the greatest achievements of our time.