Richard Rosser on our early moves to improve a generally welcome attempt to tackle modern slavery
The Modern Slavery Bill started its Lords Committee stage earlier this week and continues this afternoon. There is support all round the House for the principal objective of the legislation, which the government described as being “to consign the crime of modern slavery to history”. But concerns arise over whether the plans go far enough to ensure that this objective is achieved.
One of the main debates on Monday focused on the need for clear provisions, lacking at present, that place the victim, and the best interests of the victim, at the heart of the Bill. At the end, the Minister finally agreed to meet with me and other interested Peers to see if a form of words could be found.
Another debate majored on the need for separate offences of both child exploitation and child trafficking. Since travel and movement is a key component of proving exploitation, the reality is that children often do not understand they have been trafficked – perhaps because it is done by parents or others close to them, and doesn’t explain who brought them to a particular location. Children account for around a third of all known victims of modern slavery in the UK and the number is growing, but prosecutions are woefully low. Ministers stuck to the line that the Bill, and existing legislation, was sufficient – even suggesting that the problem was down to the police and responsible authorities not bringing prosecutions. But they did finally say they would not rule out establishing new offences.
In today’s second session, we will discuss allowing victims of modern slavery offences to pursue a separate civil remedy in the absence of a criminal conviction, and securing the independence of the new Anti-Slavery Commissioner. The latter is particularly important, and was the subject of much comment at Second Reading. We welcome the introduction of the Commissioner but want to see the remit strengthened and geared more towards the protection of victims than currently proposed. We also want to see its greater independence, because as it stands the occupant of the position will be doing little more than acting as directed by the Home Office.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights has said that the Commissioner “looks very much like a creature of the Home Office, with very little interaction with Parliament”. If the individual is not to be constrained and allowed to carry out an effective role, the position must be independent of the Home Office. Not least because much of the work may not always be helpful to, or complimentary about, the approach of the department and various agencies involved in dealing with modern slavery.
Ministers have so far showed a distinct reluctance to improve this Bill and we can only hope that further reflection will lead to a change of heart. Today, they can show they are ready to listen and improve a Bill whose aims are widely supported. Whether or not they will take that opportunity, remains to be seen.
Lord Richard Rosser is a Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords
Published 3rd December 2014