Launched amid a considerable level of political hype we finally have the chance to read the new Modern Slavery Bill – promised by the home secretary, Teresa May, in a column in The Sunday Times back in August. As someone who gave written and oral evidence to Frank Field’s inquiry, I see very few surprises in the content of the draft bill. While it is of course welcome to see some political attention given to this subject, the publication of the bill raises at least two questions: why now? And what difference will it make?
The answer to the first question seems to hinge on a cold political calculation. This can be summed up as providing a rebuttal to opposition arguments regarding exploitation (the Labour Party is belatedly showing concern); creating important career opportunities for ambitious parliamentary players and finally getting a “quick win” piece of legislation through parliament that is likely to gain cross-party support and might help to detract a little from the Conservatives’ “nasty party” tag.
On the second question, it is perhaps too soon to know what difference the new bill would make. However, considering one of its main aims is to simply consolidate existing legislation, it does not seem to be aiming very high. Among the other provisions, the new prevention orders make sense but will only have impact if there are more people convicted, and the impact of a new “Anti-Slavery Commissioner” will depend on the small print and the ability of the first incumbent to use powers wisely and imaginatively. Of course this is just the start and we will find out more as the bill moves through the parliamentary process and detailed discussions begin (we have also been promised secondary legislation).
Recent cases such as the horrific story of the three women in London who were trapped for 30 years have underlined the case for a new law - or have they? Read the draft bill and you will find constant references to global criminal networks. For those experiencing slavery-like conditions in domestic work, the “criminal network” might only amount to the family unit they are living with. Evidence suggests that there are a range of different ways in which profits are made from exploitation and some, but by no means all, seem to emanate from organised crime.
Labour market regulation
The draft bill actually draws attention away from the causes of slavery-like conditions in the UK and focuses almost entirely on symptoms – and using the criminal justice system, to catch more individuals who benefit from criminally exploiting others. This is only part of the story – regulation and enforcement of the UK labour market is very weak and patchy, making this a low-risk crime for unscrupulous operators. There is some attempt in the bill to improve the language around victim care but there is little extra resource. This is a complex and expensive area and ultimately requires multi-agency co-operation, which is difficult when many frontline staff have low awareness of the problem.
Ultimately it is those who suffer these crimes that we should be focusing on – not just as “victims”, but as people who have survived a crime and deserve a decent job and to be treated fairly. The state can only do so much. We need to improve the ability for individuals to fight back and seek redress – and this goes far beyond the prospect of stiffer sentencing for the perpetrators. Severe exploitation reflects a perverse imbalance of power. The government can try to address this by providing the conditions that empower more of those who are trapped in exploitative conditions to be able to escape and overcome their experience. This is the best way to ensure it does not repeat or continue.
Restricting the rights of migrants, prioritising the rights of business over their employees and closing off access to employment tribunals are all recent trends that travel in the wrong direction. We are told that this bill is just the start of a new strategic effort – it will be fascinating to see how the rest of the government’s plans develop.
On February 21 the Centre for the Study of International Slavery (CSIS) based in the School of Histories, Languages and Cultures at Liverpool University will host a keynote speech on modern slavery by Guy Ryder, director-general of the International Labour Organisation.