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DoreenLawrence.jpgDoreen Lawrence on the problems inherent in the government’s attempt to tackle modern slavery

When considering the festering sore of modern slavery, we have to ask whether the government’s current legislative plans are all we can do? If there is one more victim, will we be able to look them in the eye?

It is an honour to sit in the parliament of a country that has so often been defined by what it stands for as well as what it does. A country that has fought against international tyranny, so that people across the world might have the opportunity to live with dignity and hope. Our fundamental desire to help put their talents to the best use, so tomorrow might be better than today. 

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights shows the extent of international agreement on this, we know what we want for our children when they are born. It is not for them to be spirited across borders against their will, or forced into sexual servitude. It is not for them to work backbreaking hours with little or no pay, or live under the violent control of others and robbed of any free will. And as we consider the Modern Slavery Bill, which begins its Committee stage in the Lords today, we know there is more to be done.

The Bill suggests our primary objective is to punish the perpetrators rather than help those who have suffered enjoy their inherent human rights. I strongly support the inclusion of measures to restore legal aid for all potentially trafficked persons – something that would give them a strong voice in the system. But legislation without victims’ rights at its heart will not be as effective as it should be. 

The Bill also sacrifices pragmatism and outcome for symbolic efficiency. I support the principle of consolidation but any failure to break down human trafficking into its component crimes will make it much harder to secure convictions. Indeed, the absence of specific clauses on child exploitation are a powerful indication of where the plans are likely to be weak in delivery.

Political expediency is also at play.

Perhaps because of potential public confusion about the difference between victims of trafficking and immigrants, this Bill has pulled its punches on protection. Not offering strong victim support fails on two fronts, as an abdication of our moral duty and an act of irresponsibility towards the economy – forced labour undercuts the job market. 

Equally worrying however, is the impact of the Coalition’s 2012 visa changes for Overseas Domestic Workers, which tied individuals to one employer and dramatically increased the risk of domestic slavery. Strong for the Conservatives on immigration but lacking compassion. 

William Wilberforce spent his political life fighting for the abolition of the slave trade. While we are part of that same arc of history, our struggle to bend it towards justice will be much easier and quicker if we choose to make it so. To the boys, girls, men and women who are currently enslaved, living lives where hope becomes more distant and the future more bleak, we have to send a clear message. We will not let you live lives without dignity, rights or a future worth living. You are our children too. 

Baroness Doreen Lawrence is a backbench Labour Peer 

Published 1st December 2014

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