UK urged to sharpen anti-slavery law to target business and help children
Crime minister says the government will respond to recommendations to improve the first-of-its kind law passed in 2015 but whose implementation has been very slow
London — Punishing businesses that fail to tackle modern slavery, providing better support for child victims, and holding the government to account topped the agenda in a review on Wednesday intended to improve Britain’s landmark anti-slavery legislation.
Hailed as a leader in the global drive to end slavery, Britain passed the 2015 Modern Slavery Act to jail traffickers for life, better protect vulnerable people, and force large companies to outline their actions to avoid using forced labour.
Yet the government tasked MPs last July with reviewing the law due to concerns the country was struggling to keep up to speed with the evolving crime as new investigations have risen rapidly, along with the number of victims.
A lack of convictions, limited awareness among and training of professionals, and problems around data collection have blunted Britain’s anti-slavery response, the report said.
“Without these changes, the Act’s impact will be limited,” said former ministers Frank Field, Maria Miller and retired judge Elizabeth Butler-Sloss in their review of the first-of-its-kind law.
About 7,000 suspected victims of modern slavery were uncovered in Britain in 2018, up a third on 2017. Almost half were children amid rising concern from the police about the growing “county lines” drug trade with gangs using teenagers as mules.
Britain’s minister for crime, Victoria Atkins, said that the government would fully respond to the review’s recommendations, yet did not provide a timeframe.
“Through the Modern Slavery Act, the government is committed to ensuring victims get the support they need and perpetrators are brought to justice,” Atkins said in a statement.
The three officials made more than 80 recommendations but focused on four main areas of the law, from tackling slavery in supply chains to the role of the independent anti-slavery chief.
The law should be sharpened to punish big businesses and public bodies that fail to disclose their anti-slavery actions, while the anti-slavery tsar must be free to scrutinise and criticise the government’s actions, according to the review.
Other proposals included improving financial compensation for victims and ensuring individual support for child victims.
“I support the need to ensure that businesses and [the] government are doing all they can to exclude slavery from supply chains, the importance of providing improved support for all child victims of slavery and ... upholding my independence,” said Britain’s new anti-slavery commissioner, Sara Thornton.
The former police chief took up the post earlier in May, about a year after the inaugural anti-slavery tsar resigned, expressing frustration about the government interference in his role.
Caroline Robinson, director of charity Focus on Labour Exploitation, said the review should spur Britain to swiftly improve the law but added that the legislators had failed to address contradictory approaches from the government.
“Whilst these recommendations could enhance the Modern Slavery Act and response, it overlooks the ways in which current immigration law and policy is contributing to abuse,” she said.
Britain is home to at least 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Slavery index by rights group Walk Free Foundation, a figure 10 times higher than a government estimate from 2013.
Thomson Reuters Foundation