Alastair Harper is Government relations manager at UNICEF.
The political media often seem more interested in covering the pursuit of power than its use once obtained. There are more alternative history pieces on the inevitability of a Osborne/Johnson/Miliband government than there are looking at what these politicians actually did with their time in office.
It should not be a surprise, therefore, that there was not much reaction to the first public article by our new Prime Minister, who used it to underline the importance she placed upon on one of her major acts as Home Secretary. It thus provided an insight into one of her likely priorities as Prime Minister.
Writing last weekend, May declared modern slavery to be the “great human rights issue of our time” – a reminder of her personal investment in the Modern Slavery Act, which came into law last year.
She is right to do so: the Act is a real achievement. In political terms, it allows her to be both strong and compassionate – a rare combination. But it is also an achievement in the sense of how it developed from what was first proposed.
Initially, the focus of the drafted legislation was on prosecution of criminal gangs and traffickers, with little attention on protection for their victims. Over time, the Bill’s content changed to address this imbalance. Likewise, the Government responded to calls from business and civil society to include the landmark transparency in supply chain clause, which was not on the original face of the Bill. The then Home Secretary and her team showed the confidence and moral clarity it takes to listen and make something better. As a result, it has done and will continue to do good for some of the most vulnerable children in the world.
It has also influenced the approach of countries around the world. The UK’s legislative leadership here ensured that the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, had real legitimacy in pushing to ensure that modern slavery remained part of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed last autumn.
But in continuing to focus on modern slavery, May hasn’t just popped a champagne cork in celebration of a past achievement: she has also used the moment to push to do more and recognise that having “legislation does not mean the problem is solved”.
We will now see the creation of the first task force on modern slavery to work alongside the existing commissioner, with the aim of improving awareness of the crimes, cultivating the skills of our criminal justice system and ensuring that our country provides greater support for the victims of this crime.
There are further ways for the task force to make progress on tackling modern slavery: first, a big one would be advancing the successful trial for independent child trafficking advocates, and ensure that all children who are unaccompanied or separated from their family have a guardian appointed to protect them from trafficking. This is really the only effective way to ensure systematic support for child victims and children at risk of trafficking and exploitation.
Second, the Prime Minister has committed £33 million from our aid budget to focus on “high-risk” countries from where people are often trafficked – such as Vietnam, Albania and Nigeria. This should prove helpful provided, of course, that the money upholds the principle of our aid budget in reducing poverty, and so be used to tackle the real cause of modern slavery – helping those potential victims escape the economic conditions that leaves them vulnerable.
Finally, the task force should give the requirement on companies to report on how they address slavery in their supply chains the best chance of success by publishing a list of all the businesses captured by the clause. This would allow investors, civil society and the media to hold to make sure our products and services are free of the taint of slavery, as the Act always intended. Coupled with the inclusion of a company’s performance on Modern Slavery in the public procurement process, this will allow a level playing field for leading UK businesses that have taken trafficking in their supply chains to task.
Lyndon Johnson was once advised against doing the difficult things in his Presidency. He was told that the effort of tackling civil rights was not worth the political capital it would cost him. His advisers told him to stick to getting tax cuts through. Don’t bother with the hard stuff. Johnson ended the debate rhetorically: “well, what the hell’s the Presidency for?”
I hope with this first intervention we are starting to see what May will use her government for – to tackle modern slavery, keeping child refugees safe, sending the British promise of safety and prosperity around the world.