This evening MPs will debate the effects of modern slavery on society. They will gather in Westminster Hall and the government will be given the chance to respond to questions and challenges to the current system. With an estimated 136,000 modern slaves in the UK alone, MPs will discuss what more the UK could be doing to tackle this massive problem.
Modern slavery is a vile trade that is an affront to human dignity. The Christian worldview teaches us that all human beings, independent of their circumstances are made equal before God. Yet human trafficking creates a radical inequality where image bearers of God are treated as commodities, forced into forms of servitude by fellow human beings.
From Wilberforce to Hope for Justice today, Christians have been and still are heavily involved in different ways in combatting modern slavery. Some work directly with victims. Others, like CARE, work at a policy level to make sure our laws are fit for purpose. It is in this latter connection that tonight's debate takes on an even greater significance.
Back in 2015, the Modern Slavery Act became law. It was the first dedicated piece of anti-trafficking legislation in the UK for nearly two centuries. Not only did the legislation introduce stronger penalties for traffickers, it also guaranteed victims more support than was previously the case.
But human trafficking is a complicated challenge. Now, more than three years since the modern slavery legislation became law, the evidence tells us that victims of modern slavery are not receiving the level of support they so desperately need. The current law, for all its strengths, is actually failing victims.
When someone escapes from modern slavery they need help. Help to rebuild their broken lives. Help to begin to put the pieces back together. Help to navigate the complicated, often bureaucratic world of engaging with local and national authorities. Help to find a safe place to live. But all too often, there's not enough help, there's not enough time and so victims can end up re-trafficked, destitute or homeless. Police officers have even reported seeing the same victims come through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) more than once.
We cannot rest while these problems remain. Reducing modern slavery must begin by putting the needs of the victims first. Over the last few years, ever since the Modern Slavery Act passed, our focus at CARE has been on finding ways to make sure victims are no longer sold short.
Last year, the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill was introduced in the House of Lords by Christian peer Lord McColl. It engages directly with the whole question of victim support and if passed into law, it would significantly strengthen the level of support currently available to victims in England and Wales. It sailed through the Lords and is now in the House of Commons. To become law, it needs the full backing of the government.
The bill is backed by a huge number of anti-trafficking organisations and charities, from the Co-op, to Hope for Justice, the Human Trafficking Foundation and many more. Together, these groups have formed the Free for Good campaign. Its mission is to make sure victims of modern slavery receive as much support as they need.
How would the bill make a difference? First, it would give victims of modern slavery who escape a guaranteed support period of 12 months. That's a full year where victims can begin to recover from their ordeal and start the process of rebuilding their lives. Second, the bill will mean victims receive a personalised support plan and a care worker who will be at their side as they engage with authorities, or possibly act as witnesses to help bring traffickers to justice. Third, the bill gives victims the right to remain in the UK for 12 months, minimising the disruption and additional trauma caused by the potential prospect of being 'sent back home'.
More than that, this bill will give victims confidence that their concerns, their needs and their lives will be put first. It will tell them that when they escape, everything possible will be done to protect them from further exploitation. This is a simple piece of legislation, but it is one that would make a huge difference.
Time is short, if this bill is to become law. Victims need more than is currently being offered. It was a Conservative government that boldly introduced the Modern Slavery Act. It should be a Conservative government that now backs this hugely significant victim support bill to guarantee victims the support, the help and the care they both need and deserve.
James Mildred is the communications manager at CARE (Christian Action Research and Education)