10/12/2013 11:42 GMT | Updated 09/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Slavery Is an Evil That Continues to Confront Our Society

One of the fundamental principles underlining today's UN Human Rights Day is the prohibition on slavery in all its forms. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is explicit in stating that no-one shall be held in slavery or servitude. And yet, 65 years on, it is this very evil that continues to confront our society.

It is happening in our streets, in our communities, and across the world. This morning I was privileged to accompany the Metropolitan Police Service on an operation tackling modern slavery in our capital. I saw first hand the dedication of police officers to protect victims and bring their abusers to justice. It was a timely reminder of the reason we are fighting this crime and the horrific reality that men, women and children across the UK still face.

Our primary objective is to deter and disrupt the activities of those who are involved in these despicable crimes. Stopping people from becoming victims in the first place is our goal, but that requires a continued and strengthened law enforcement response. That is why this Government is bringing forward a Modern Slavery Bill - to fight this evil at home and abroad. We must strengthen our law enforcement efforts to provide individuals with the level of protection they need and deserve.

We know that a large percentage of victims are foreign nationals. That is why law enforcement agencies in the UK are working with their counterparts in Europe and across the world, setting up joint investigation teams to catch the perpetrators, here and abroad. But, as we have seen recently, victims are also UK nationals - taken from their homes, kept in appalling conditions and made to work for hours on end for little or no pay. This practice is simply unacceptable and one that must be stopped. Action must be taken at a national, regional and local level so that law enforcement agencies in the UK have the tools and the knowledge they need to effectively deter, disrupt and prosecute those involved. That is why we have made it a priority for the National Crime Agency.

Domestically, we are strengthening our legal framework. We will consolidate existing criminal offences, restrict the movements of perpetrators and raise the maximum available sentence to life imprisonment. We will introduce an Anti-slavery Commissioner to oversee and coordinate law enforcement efforts. He or she will have a unique opportunity to test the law enforcement response and make recommendations on how it can be improved.

Our belief is that, through this strengthened approach, fewer people will be subjected to this abhorrent crime. But, where they are victims we want to see that they are rescued and cared for in an appropriately sensitive manner. The National Referral Mechanism plays an important role in doing just that. Its function is to support the effective identification of victims and provide them with the care and support they need to rebuild their lives and move on. We want to ensure that the National Referral Mechanism continues to meet these objectives which is why we are undertaking a review as well as looking at the £4million government-funded contract which provides bespoke care to potential victims.

The Modern Slavery Bill will mark an important further step on the road to eradicating slavery from our shores. Legislation is important but I recognise that it cannot be viewed in isolation. Next year we will publish a strategic action plan, setting out a number of important actions that will strengthen and complement the Modern Slavery Bill. A new Modern Slavery Unit has been set up in the Home Office to coordinate this work, both legislative and non-legislative.

The Bill and the practical steps we are taking underline our commitment to ridding our society of the appalling exploitation and abuse of others. Freedom from slavery is a fundamental human right - and a right that this Government will steadfastly uphold.