As a former trade union officer, I have spent years fighting for fairness at work, and it’s a cause that I’ve taken up in Parliament as well. Even in today’s Britain too many people still face unacceptable conditions in the workplace. But there are few abuses as serious as those we call “modern slavery”, where people are literally used as slave labour – facing not just work without pay but life without freedom.
It may seem almost unbelievable that slavery could still exist in a developed country like Britain. But over 5,000 people were identified as victims of this barbaric practice, along with human trafficking, in 2017 – an increase of over a third. I have been fighting alongside many colleagues across the labour movement to ensure there is proper enforcement action against this scandal. But it is also important that we support the victims.
That is why I am proud of the effort made by the Northern College in Barnsley to create a specific education course for survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking, allowing them to adapt to their new-found freedom in an often unfamiliar country.
The Northern College has for many years focused much of its attention upon providing education for the most disadvantaged in society and there will be few more disadvantaged than the survivors of modern slavery.
In May, they welcomed 14 students from 11 different countries to a pilot course for the year. It is the first programme of its kind in the UK, created working with the independent anti-slavery commissioner. It will develop their functional skills and knowledge, aiming to rebuild self-confidence and trust in humanity and preparing survivors for living and working in the UK, or returning to their home country as they wish. With four of the students bringing babies for in-house care, the course will also help the next generation as well.
Unsurprisingly, the students come with a range of education backgrounds – from a graduate with a degree, to someone for whom the Northern College will be their first experience of formal education. Many speak two languages, but will need help developing their English. The College has done an amazing job in designing a course that will help all of them develop, despite this diversity.
As the Northern College noted when I visited, it is ironic but fitting that the students will stay in Wentworth Castle – an estate built in the 17th century on the profits of Britain’s own involvement in the slave trade. I hope this programme will showcase a different kind of Britain, and redress that balance.
But that is where we must also address another modern day injustice as well.
Recently liberated survivors of modern slavery and trafficking are at the start of any process applying to be a refugee and often lack the paperwork to immediately prove their identity. Many more are not from EEA or single market countries and will not be entitled to public funding even if they can prove their identity.
On top of this, the Home Office has recently placed many newly liberated survivors on “immigration bail”, with the condition that they may not study at risk of arrest and deportation.
In theory, those who can meet certain requirements (some European citizens, a recognised refugee or asylum seeker) may be entitled to funding but have no access to transport to access learning, and without good English the rules are far too complex to navigate. So complicated are the Home Office regulations that many colleges also struggle to work out whether students are eligible and turn away survivors through the simple fear that they will end up un-funded.
That is the situation facing the Northern College – the Government’s rules have effectively stopped them using their education grant to fund the learning for some of the survivors, and the College has had to use its own reserves to make up the shortfall. That may limit the course in future.
That is why I am calling on ministers to think again.
There is an easy solution to this problem. Anyone who has been identified as a modern slave or subjected to human trafficking should have been entered into the National Referral Mechanism under the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. Anyone in that system should be allowed public funding for education purposes in order to allow them to recover and prepare them for life either in the UK or in their country of origin following safe repatriation.
We must learn the lessons of the Windrush scandal. Denying the survivors of slavery and trafficking, now resident in our country without having had any free choice of their own, an education is both cruel and stupid. Empowered with skills and knowledge, they could go on to make a great contribution to our society, and we can address a terrible injustice at the same time.
Stephanie Peacock is the Labour MP for Barnsley East