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Anthony Steen is the Chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation and was a Conservative Member of Parliament from 1974-2010.

Hats off to the Prime Minister for his determination to drive modern day slavery out of Britain. And to the Home Secretary for introducing a Modern Slavery Bill in this session of Parliament.

But why is one needed at all – when trading in slaves was abolished in 1807 and a worldwide ban introduced a few years later? Because although slavery was abolished, in reality it continued underground, hidden and undetected. In fact, slavery is now the second largest criminal activity in the world, netting over $150 billion annually for traffickers, with more people in slavery today than in the entire history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

There is widespread belief that slavery doesn’t exist here in Britain, let alone within a mile of where we all live. Yet modern day slavery is very real and has become a national issue; with 1,746 victims found as slaves in the UK in 2013 coming from 112 different countries, up 47 per cent on the previous year.

Modern slavery takes many forms: the largest being the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation; then forced labour; the trafficking of children for shoplifting, begging, pick-pocketing or ATM thefts; domestic servitude; and finally, debt bondage. The top five countries of origin for victims are: Albania, Romania, Nigeria, Hungary and Czech Republic.

However, slavery is not just a question of victims coming from abroad; the number of cases involving UK nationals being trafficked within Britain rose 173 per cent in 2013. Yet the number of traffickers convicted remains depressingly low with only eight in 2011, 12 in 2012, and 19 in 2013. And not all received custodial sentences.

No wonder the Home Secretary concluded it was about time that the Government took action to head off a growing cancer in the heart of society.

What are Ministers trying to do? If the Bill follows the example of the Israelis, it will put trafficking and terrorism on an equal footing, with police resources to match. This will raise the profile of the 43 UK police forces, and put modern slavery in their action plans. This would be a good start. But in order for the legislation to be world class, more will need to be done.

Threatening traffickers with life imprisonment is unlikely to deter them. Longer sentences on their own won’t do the trick. But confiscating their assets – that will really hurt them.  The Italians have a success story here, confiscating millions of pounds annually from traffickers. They have the ability to freeze traffickers’ assets within 24 hours of an arrest. And confiscation provides a fund for compensation for victims. Current access to the Criminal Injuries Board in Britain is proving increasingly difficult, since legal aid was withdrawn. Traffickers’ assets must be pursued more vigorously beyond the UK jurisdiction. The Bill should be beefed up here.

Law enforcement is an important part of the legislation, but to capture slave masters is another story. My experience, from two years with the Metropolitan Police on the Parliamentary Scheme, four years chairing the All Party Parliamentary Group, another four years heading up the Human Trafficking Foundation, and through my role as the Home Secretary’s Special Envoy Combating Modern Slavery, makes me believe that the only way to drive modern slavery out of Britain, is to approach the issue in an entirely novel way – to enlist the help of victims as a first priority.  They hold the key to the whereabouts and identity of their traffickers. But they won’t disclose this to the authorities. That probably explains why the helpline set up by the Metropolitan Police in 2011 has received so few calls, peaking at 52 in 2012, and only 29 so far this year. Victims don’t trust the police.

To “protect” victims doesn’t mean a policeman outside everyone’s door; victims will only “talk” if they feel safe and secure with no fear of reprisals for themselves or their families back home. However, that is not the principal reason to care for victims; there is also the moral high ground to remember as well.

Inevitably, there are voices criticising the Bill. Some ask: is it necessary to have a specific new clause targeting trafficking on the high seas, when there is so little of it? Others complain that important issues are excluded, such as a specific offence targeting child traffickers, or the requirement for companies to state their supply chains are slave free in their annual reports.

The Scots have recognised the importance, not just of strengthening existing law, but of enhancing the status and support offered to victims. Surely it would make good sense for Holyrood and Westminster to harmonise their modern slavery legislation? That would mean England and Wales being more inclusive and involving the many excellent, NGOs working at the rockface. It’s worth recognising that shelters caring for victims in Britain for the 45 day so-called “reflection period” are small voluntary organisations with a wealth of experience which needs to be better utilised.

The Home Office is also involved in a number of separate initiatives. Whilst this is good news, there would be more brownie points to be won if it involved civil society and shared information with NGOs, rather than keeping it all within the department. The legislation appoints a Commissioner to bring together the many disparate parts of law enforcement.  But how much better it would be if the role was independent from the Home Office, and lessons were learned from the experience of both the Dutch and the Finnish who established similar provisions years ago. The statistics in Britain are unreliable, and remain largely hidden. The commissioner could ensure greater transparency, as in Portugal, where trafficking patterns are regularly published, identifying where victims are found and traffickers arrested.

Since the majority of victims are found by the non-government sector, that is where government should invest. What will protect victims is appropriate training so that they can find work which suits them, and that is best done in their own home country, and is certainly less costly.  In view of fact that 86 per cent of men trafficked to UK don’t speak English, it would also be that much more practical.

Awareness raising is of course important, and that is why I set up the Foundation with Baroness Butler-Sloss and Clare Short in 2010; that is why I passed Anti-Slavery Day into legislation; and that is why I have been raising the issue and stirring the pot ever since. Thanks to the Home Secretary, the log jam is at last starting to move.

If the Bill is to be an effective world leader, we must shout from the rooftops; tell other nations and their parliaments. The Human Trafficking Foundation has built up a thriving network of over 100 parliamentarians in Member State Parliaments, right across the EU. This is the opportunity for the Home Secretary to seize the initiative, back the Foundation, so that every EU parliament considers passing new legislation mirrored on ours.

Next Tuesday, the House of Commons will debate the principles behind the Modern Slavery Bill at the second reading. On Wednesday 9th July, the Home Secretary will be speaking at the annual general meeting of the All Party Group on Human Trafficking/Modern Slavery, to which all UK-wide voluntary organisations involved in tackling modern day slavery are invited, as well as MPs and Members of the House of Lords.

Interest in the Bill is already making waves. By raising public awareness and being more open, this should result in a nationwide response so that traffickers have nowhere to hide, and slavery becomes a thing of the past.

15 comments for: Anthony Steen: It’s time for Britain to lead the world in abolishing slavery for the second time

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