Baroness Sally Hamwee writes…Lords push for a stronger Modern Slavery Bill

Parliament is never short of Bills coming from the Home Office, but the Modern Slavery Bill is different.  At the end of the second reading in the Lords last week, the Minister pointed to the warm reception given by every speaker who followed this with seven minutes on all the things that could be added to it.  The view on the Lib Dem benches, like others, was to welcome the Bill both for what it is and for the opportunity it provides to do even more to address the abomination (and very big business – this is often highly profitable organised crime) of trafficking and forced labour.

And something else very significant has happened.  Forced labour featured in a recent episode of “Scott and Bailey”.  Will that do as much to raise public awareness of slavery as the body under the patio in Brookside did for domestic violence?  (No-one else mentioned this in the debate though I did hear comments outside the chamber – apparently peers don’t like to admit to watching TV!)

The Bill brings the offences of holding someone in slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour together with human trafficking for exploitation, and increases the maximum penalties to life imprisonment.  There is a new offence: committing any crime (for instance stealing a car) with the intention of trafficking.  There are powers to require an offender to pay compensation to the victim.

The victim has been described as at the heart of the Bill – and rightly.  It is shocking to hear of someone forced to cultivate cannabis being prosecuted while his traffickers are not.  Many of us argued for more imagination and understanding in dealing with victims.  A victim may need considerable support; this is important in itself – to enable the victim to become a survivor – and to assist in obtaining the evidence for a conviction.  The Bill is a good start but there is a long way to go before everyone in the criminal justice system understands how essential it is not to retraumatize someone who has been forced into prostitution – imprisoned and repeatedly raped – or into heavy labour while living in appalling conditions with no pay and little food.

There is to be an Anti-slavery Commissioner, whose independence from the Home Office will be the subject of scrutiny.  And so will his remit – we know the first post-holder will be a “him” because unfortunately the Home Secretary has made the appointment before Parliament has agreed the job description.  However, again it is a good start

There will certainly be debate about how best to protect trafficked children – the divisions over technical but potentially far-reaching provisions, and criticisms over the detail of child trafficking advocates (currently being trialled in 23 local authority areas), with the principle welcomed.  There will be calls too to extend the work of the respected Gangmasters Licensing Authority (currently confined to the sectors of agriculture, horticulture and shell-fishing), as it is known that individuals who no longer find it easy to use forced labour in these spheres have moved into other sectors, notably hospitality, construction and care.

Feelings run high too about the visas given to domestic workers who come here with a foreign employer family to which since 2012 they have been tied.  There are appalling instances of slavery.

Following pressure in the Commons, the Government has introduced new requirements for commercial organisations to be transparent as to how they investigate possible slavery and trafficking within their supply chains – think the collapse of the Rana Plaza building and the recent fuss over the “This is what a feminist looks like” T-shirts.  This is a major step, but just the start of what can be done.

Because – appropriately in the context – like Oliver Twist, across the parties and with a remarkable show of collegiality, we want more.

* Sally Hamwee is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords, and the Co-Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Home Affairs, Justice and Equalities.

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One Comment

  • Richard Underhill 10th Jun '20 - 7:31am

    Historian Sir Simon Sharma is currently on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme talking about Gladstone’s father, to which the late Roy Jenkins had warned us.

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