Going the distance

Jan_Royall_Generation_Citizen4x3.jpgJan Royall on the key issues taking over the final sessions of Committee on the Modern Slavery Bill

Modern slavery is rightly at the top of the human rights agenda. There are approximately 29.8 million men, women and children trafficked and enslaved across the world, with up to 13,000 potential victims in the UK. And the Home Secretary recently hosted the Santa Marta conference alongside the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

This week, as part of the UK’s determination to focus more on victims whilst bringing more perpetrators of this evil crime to justice, the House of Lords will have its final two days of Committee on the Modern Slavery Bill. The legislation as it stands is good but through our proposed amendments, Labour is striving to ensure maximum effect.

Later today, we will continue our deliberations on the role of the new, Anti-slavery Commissioner. Ministers, rather surprisingly, have so far failed to respond positively to demands from all benches to make the Commissioner truly independent – a matter of both propriety and perception – so we are set to bring the issue back at Report stage. But we’re also seeking to widen the role, so that victim protection is at its core – a view advocated by NGOs with great experience in this area, as well as the Joint Committee on the draft Bill. I simply can’t understand why the government is so reluctant to follow some of the tried and tested practices of similar roles around the world, including the Dutch Commissioner.

I will also be backing an amendment tabled by Lord McColl and Baroness Butler-Sloss on child trafficking advocates. This must be the fourth time that I’ve spoken to an amendment tabled by these two colleagues, both of whom have been truly indefatigable in attempting to introduce such advocates. At first, the government was seemingly unconvinced but pressure led to an agreement on two pilot schemes. And there is now an enabling provision in the Bill and a requirement that advocates act in the child’s best interests. Good, but not good enough. They also need legal powers, so they can effectively act in the child’s best interests and truly protect them. 

Experience of members of the Refugee Children’s Consortium, and research conducted by The Children’s Society and the Refugee Council, found that local authorities often fail to understand, prioritise and adequately respond to trafficked children’s needs. This all too often results in them falling through the gaps and being housed in inappropriate, unsafe accommodation and receiving inadequate adult support. A legal advocate with powers to compel the council to act is vital to ensuring that these children are properly assessed and supported.  It has taken a great deal of determination and diligence to get Ministers to the position they are in, but they need to move further to truly deliver for these most vulnerable of children. 

Later this week, on the final day of Committee, Peers will address extending the remit of the Gangmasters’ Licence Authority, the desperate need for protection from slavery for overseas domestic workers, and a strengthening of the requirement for businesses to report on forced labour in their supply chains. As with so much in the Bill, the current drafting is welcome but Peers on all sides rightly feel that we must not waste this opportunity to do everything possible to end the heinous practice of modern slavery.

Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LabourRoyall

Published 8th December 2014

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