Slavery is perhaps the greatest affront to the fundamental principle of individual liberty. The very idea that human beings are held in bondage is sickening. Yet there are, according to the National Crime Agency, victims of modern slavery and human trafficking in every town and city in the UK.
They are brought here from all over the world – many come from Albania and Vietnam; many others are British. They are forced to work on construction sites and in nail bars, to pick fruit and wash cars. Many are housed in overcrowded caravans, others in sheds, some even in shipping containers.
Victims have their passports and money taken from them and are kept in constant fear of homelessness or deportation. Women and girls are often trafficked into domestic slavery and sexual exploitation.
This rightly appals us. The Coalition Government passed a Modern Slavery Act in 2015 to make it easier to identify victims and bring traffickers to justice. And, while prosecutions have increased, far too many victims remain undetected and unsupported.
Theresa May has called modern slavery “the great human rights issue of our time” – and yet I believe many of her own policies are now undermining efforts to tackle it. The Conservatives’ “hostile environment” immigration policies – developed by May when she was Home Secretary – make it harder for victims to come forward, whether to report crimes or seek medical help.
For example, the new “Offence of illegal working”, introduced by May in 2016, is used by traffickers to keep their victims in fear of prosecution if they speak up. Visa rules bind domestic workers to their employers, meaning that trafficking victims face deportation if they manage to escape exploitation. Yet the Government has fiercely resisted cross-party efforts to change those rules.
Conservative cuts to both the police and the Border Force mean that there are fewer and fewer officers on the frontline in the fight against trafficking. Meanwhile, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority – which plays an important role in uncovering exploitation – had its remit expanded but hasn’t been given the extra resources it needs.
Theresa May is trying to wage the war against modern slavery on the cheap, and that simply isn’t good enough. And then, of course, there’s the Conservatives’ pursuit of a hard Brexit. This threatens the EU-wide security and intelligence arrangements that we rely on to tackle organised crime and human trafficking.
British leadership in Europol has made the law-enforcement agency far more effective, and we have been influential in making human trafficking one of its top priorities. Even if we remain a member of Europol – as we must – Brexit will strip us of that vital leadership role.
Similarly, the Government’s Brexit “red lines” mean that we risk losing both the European Arrest Warrant and access to EU intelligence-sharing systems – both of which have helped us to put traffickers behind bars.
We know that Theresa May cares about tackling modern slavery, and her leadership in passing the Modern Slavery Act will go down as one of her greatest achievements. But, three years on, she is undoing that achievement through her “hostile environment” policies, cuts to the police and the Border Force, and her insistence on a destructive hard Brexit.
Today, on the United Nations’ World Day against Trafficking in Persons, I call on the Prime Minister to change course. Recommit to the fight against modern slavery and abandon the policies that are hampering it. Let’s end slavery in the UK once and for all.