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Joe Fortune: The government doesn’t care about modern slavery

Suella Braverman likes to portray herself as tough on crime. But for all her rhetoric, it is clear there is a particular crime that the Home Secretary has no interest in tackling. Even worse: her Illegal Migration Act is a veritable traffickers' charter. 


October 03 2023, 12.18pm

Modern slavery cases are continuing to rise year on year – and one would think that the Home Secretary would do everything in her power to end this scourge once and for all. Instead, her actions have resulted in modern slavery becoming less of a priority. And if her recent statements are anything to go by, this situation will only get worse – pushing victims into the hands of traffickers and slavers.   

Modern slavery is one of the most horrific crimes in society, depriving people of their basic dignity and human rights. It exists in many forms – whether it's sexual slavery, domestic slavery or forced labour. It takes place in different settings across the country, from nail bars to car washes. Women, children and people with disabilities are often more vulnerable to victimisation.   

The Illegal Migration Act, passed by Parliament earlier this year, marked a significant stepping back in our effort as a country to end this horrific exploitation. The Act means that if a victim of modern slavery comes to the UK via any route other than a resettlement scheme, they could be deported or detained by the Home Office. Crucially, unless they agree to be part of an active police investigation, they will be denied any form of support from government.

What kind of message does this send to human traffickers? The Act will now allow them to hold even more power over their victims. It means that if victims speak out about their abuse, they will live in fear of detention and deportation, denied access to vital support and protection – playing straight into the hands of traffickers. Simply put, the Bill is a traffickers' charter.   

The government simply don’t care about combatting modern slavery. Instead, in a much pilloried social media graphic, they bragged about how those coming here on small boats will be denied access to our asylum system if they claim to be a victim of modern slavery. That sort of image is one you can imagine criminal gangs brandishing in the faces of their victims.

So how have the government been able to get away with it? Part of the answer is that the government is avoiding independent scrutiny – a familiar tale where this government is concerned. 

The Modern Slavery Act mandates that the Home Secretary appoint an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, who is responsible for holding the government accountable and oversees much of the work done to identify and protect modern slavery victims in the UK. Yet for over a year, there has been no Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner in place, after the former Commissioner left the role in April 2022.

“The passing of the Modern Slavery Act showed our political system as its very best. This now seems a very distant dream.” 

In fact, in January of this year, Braverman scrapped the entire near year-long recruitment process and started it anew – further delaying the filling of this crucial role.  

It’s no mistake that this role has been conveniently left vacant at the exact same time that the Home Secretary was pushing through controversial changes like the Illegal Migration Act.  

For me, this is all about what side of history you want to be on. Do you want to stand with victims and use the UK’s status in the world to be a global leader on ending this crime? Or do you want to hand even more power to those exploiting vulnerable people and exposing them to modern slavery?  

The saddest thing is that it hasn’t always been this way. The Modern Slavery Act passed by parliament in 2015 was a world-leading piece of legislation. Just eight years on, ministers have now backpedalled on its commitment to end modern slavery once and for all. Rarely in politics do we see MPs from all sides of the House coming together to agree on an issue. The Modern Slavery Act was one of those moments, with parties of all colours agreeing to the Act and showing our political system at its very best. This now seems a very distant dream.  

I’m proud to be general secretary of the Co-operative Party. Together with 1,600 councillors across the country, we’ve done our bit to tackle the crime. In 2018, the Co-operative Party launched the Modern Slavery Charter, which commits local councils to ensuring there are no instances of modern slavery in their operations or the operations of their supply chain. Since the launch, over 150 councils have signed up to the charter. The government may have changed tack for political expediency, but I know our members and representatives will keep working until the evil of modern slavery is ended for good. 

We’re showing that another way is possible. This is far removed from government inaction on this issue.  But we can and must become world leaders again. Only then can we end modern slavery in all its guises.   

Joe Fortune is General Secretary of Co-operative Party

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