Human trafficking victims must be supported
Some 206 years after Britain's first law to eradicate the slave trade was passed, the Coalition Government has published draft proposals in its continuing effort to fight the commodification of human beings.
The early stage legislation was proposed by Home Secretary Teresa May in August, and the Home Office is claiming that this is the first bill of its kind in Europe.
The bill aims to consolidate all the previous offences associated with slavery into a single act and includes the following measures:
• Increasing the maximum custodial sentence from 14 years to life.
• Automatic life sentences for offenders with prior convictions for serious sexual or violent offences.
• Creation of new classes of crime which could increase sentences linked to other offences (EG drugs or prostitution sentences could be substantially increased if the offences in question were linked to people trafficking)
• New Trafficking prevention orders (modelled on sexual offence prevention orders) will enable courts to restrict offender's ability to own a company, visit certain areas, or work with young children.
• Systems for companies to voluntarily provide details of how they are seeking to remove modern slavery from their supply chains.
• Creation of the position of "Modern Slavery Commissioner" whose purpose will be to hold government and police to account over efforts to better fight slavery.
Labour MP Frank Field estimates the number of victims of slavery in the UK to be around 10,000.
But Ms May, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, has said: "The honest position is that we don't know whether that is the right figure, or whether there are fewer or indeed more victims in the UK.
"What we do know is that we have seen more referrals to what is called the national referral mechanism, where people are able to refer people who they think have been trafficked, who they think are the victims of modern slavery, into a central mechanism.
"The number of referrals has been increasing, and it's on that basis that we believe that we have seen an increase in this absolutely horrendous and appalling crime."
Writing in the Sunday Times, Ms May said: "It is scarcely believable that there is slavery in Britain, yet the harsh reality is that in 2013 there are people in this country forced to exist in appalling conditions and often against their will"
Commenting on the contents of the proposals, she said: "Trafficking prevention orders will ensure that someone released from a sentence for a human trafficking offence cannot simply go back to being a gangmaster."
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, Labour MP for Inverness, has been generally supportive of this move, but with some reservations. She is quoted in the Guardian as saying: "Stronger action against traffickers is welcome. But the proposals also need to include stronger action and enforcement against gangmasters and employers, and more support for trafficked victims, especially children and young people."
"Considerable concerns have been raised about trafficked children and young people ending up in children's homes and then going missing and being trafficked again."
A coalition of fifteen charities has suggested that the bill is a step forward but does not go far enough.
They are critical of the voluntary system for self-reporting of companies and the presence of modern slavery in their business practices. They instead argue that it should include a compulsory measure. They also want further clarification on the role of the Anti-Slavery commissioner, ensuring whomever is in the role is sufficiently independent and accountable to Parliament.
Chloe Setter of the ECPAT UK children's rights charity, was wary that the bill's focus was too narrow. "There appears to be very little in regards to victim protection for adults or children which is something that we believe is crucial and should be at the heart of any bill trying to tackle slavery and trafficking."
Dr Dave Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, said: "For evangelicals this is unfinished business, we've been fighting slavery for hundreds of years, and we are still at it today.
"This bill needs to live up to its promise. It has the potential to tackle modern slavery but needs listen to the campaign groups in order to achieve that aim.
"We're working with many organisations committed to abolishing slavery to call on the government to act and strengthen the bill so it can bring freedom to many caught in slavery."
Nola Leach, chief executive of CARE, commented: "This is a key moment in Britain's fight against human trafficking and slavery. The government must seize this opportunity to set a new standard in the care and protection of survivors. A bill without victims at its heart will be only a half measure. Together, we must act to support the vulnerable and expose those who exploit them."
Major Anne Read, anti-trafficking response co-ordinator for The Salvation Army, said: "The Salvation Army is keen to join with all those who are calling on government to make every possible effort to eradicate the evil trade in human beings and bring an end to the abuse and exploitation of the children, women and men who are the victims of modern-day slavery."
The Home Office has said it expects the proposals to have been passed into law by the 2015 election.