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The UK Government responds to recommendations made by the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act

One might be mistaken for thinking that slavery in the UK has been confined to the history books, but sadly modern slavery is still a prominent problem in todays world affecting around 40 million people globally.

It is also a reality closer to home, just last month we witnessed the UK’s largest modern slavery prosecution, in which five men and three women were sentenced for a total of more than 55 years.

The gang is reported to have made more than £2m from trafficking victims from Poland. Police estimate that the gang had smuggled around 400 victims, ranging from 17 to 60 years of age.

The 2018 UK Annual Report on Modern Slavery identified 6,837 potential slavery victims in the UK in 2017 (up from 3266 in 2015). Labour exploitation was the most reported, followed by sexual exploitation. In May 2018, a report of lawmakers said that sex trafficking was taking place on an “industrial scale” throughout England and Wales.

Emilie Martin, of the Salvation Army’s anti-trafficking and modern slavery unit told CNN that, “It used to be that our referrals were predominantly for female exploitation and forced prostitution, but with awareness training people are starting to notice different kinds of exploitation and police are realizing labor exploitation is very much on the increase”.

“More than 100 years ago the world condemned slavery to the history books, but the stark reality for around 40 million men, women and children is that they are still trapped in modern slavery.”
— Theresa May, Prime Minister

Theresa May has identified modern slavery as an issue that she can use to leave a lasting legacy and has made it a priority throughout her time in both the Home Office and at number 10. However, despite her commitment to this issue her legacy is mixed as her policies become entangled with her ‘hostile environment’. Partly owing to fears of creating loopholes in which immigrants in the country illegally can claim to be a victim of trafficking, progress on this issue up to now has been slow.

However, in July 2018 the Government commissioned an independent review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to be carried out. The review was undertaken by Frank Field MP, Maria Miller MP and Baroness Butler-Sloss and was intended to ensure that legislation kept pace with the evolving threat of modern slavery. The review, which was published in May 2019, made 80 recommendations in ways the Government could strengthen legislation around an issue that costs the UK over £4 billion pounds and affects nearly 40 million men, women and children globally.

On 9 July 2019 the Government published its response, accepting a number of the recommendations, generally prompting conditional praise from charities working in the modern slavery space. However, a number of rejected recommendations, as well as those that require “further consideration” are points of concern for the long-term efforts in tackling modern day slavery.

The Government response

The Government has accepted the recommendation that a registry of all corporate modern slavery statements will be established. This registry enables civil society to hold businesses to account for their anti-slavery reporting and also means that businesses can ensure that they are not working with suppliers who are falling short of their anti-slavery obligations.

Another positive in relation to Section 54 of the Act, the ‘transparency in supply chains’ clause, is the Government’s acceptance that this clause needs to be extended to public procurement. This will help drive companies towards compliance and improve the quality of statements to ensure they have the best chance of securing public contracts.

“Our world-leading Modern Slavery Act is tackling this hidden crime head-on and we are now taking decisive steps to strengthen it further – ensuring victims are protected and perpetrators are brought to justice.”
— Sajid Javid, Home Secretary

Of some concern is the Government’s refusal to commit to automatically banning companies, that do not comply with section 54, from winning public contracts. Outright refusal to award public contracts to those companies who fail to adhere to the law would send a strong message of the Government’s commitment to tackling modern slavery.

The Government also seems to have conveniently overlooked recommendations for sanctions to be administered for corporate non-compliance, a large focus of the review and its consultation period. The Government also refused to remove the clause under Section 54 that allows companies to report they have taken ‘no steps’; this minimises the need for companies to strive for improvements and promotes complacency.

On a more positive note, the government has launched a consultation into transparency and supply chains to determine how best to deliver those recommendations requiring further examination. The consultation on “Transparency in Supply Chains” ends on 17 September 2019.

Perhaps the most dubious response is the Government’s rejection of the recommendation to move the sponsorship of the new Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner away from the Home Office and into a different department. By keeping the sponsorship under the control of the Home Office you threaten the independence of the position. It calls into question the authenticity of this role if it is a part of the same department that is meant to hold it to account.

Government launches new modern slavery research centre

Accompanying the response to the review came the announcement of a new £10 million Policy and Evidence Centre for Modern Slavery and Human Rights. The new research centre will be funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund and led by UKRI’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It will bring together academics, businesses and charities.

“The Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre will for the first time bring together researchers, policy makers, NGOs (non-governmental organisations), businesses, and victims on a scale not seen before.”
— Prof. Andrew Thompson, Executive Chair of AHRC

Prime Minister Therea May said:

“There is much we can be proud of in our progress so far, but we need to accelerate our efforts, better share knowledge and build on our expertise. That is why we commissioned an Independent Review of the Modern Slavery Act to ensure our laws are keeping pace with the rapidly evolving nature of these crimes, and why I am pleased to support new, innovative research to inform global efforts to end this barbaric crime by 2030”.

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