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Slavery on Britain's cannabis farms

Cannabis farms are being run in suburban houses by organised crime gangs, and staffed by illegally s

Children - particularly from Vietnam and China - are being trafficked to the UK to work as slaves in illegal cannabis farms.

These 'farms', run by organised crime gangs, are often situated in suburban houses. The children, generally aged between 14 and 16, are smuggled into the country before being locked in the houses to water cannabis plants. They have been found sleeping in cupboards or attics to make more space for plants, and are at constant risk of fire or electrocution due to illegal rewiring of electricity supplies.

Rather than being treated as victims, these children frequently suffer a second ordeal upon discovery by the authorities. A 2007 Home Office report on child trafficking describes how at least four Vietnamese children of the twenty two in the dataset were not identified as victims of trafficking and were arrested for cannabis cultivation.

“If a child is identified in a cannabis factory, then are are in a situation of harm, and are probably being controlled by adults,” says Christine Beddoe, director of the charity End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT). “Decision making on their treatment should flow from that. Instead, children are seen as criminals.”

An all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking last year established guidelines for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on child trafficking in order to avoid such miscarriages of justice. However, the evidence of numerous court cases since then show a reluctance to put this into action. Twelve trafficked Vietnamese immigrants were tried in a single case last year for conspiracy to produce cannabis, including a 14 year old girl. A 17 year old girl in a separate case will be deported as a foreign criminal at 18.

ECPAT frequently provide expert witnesses for court cases, securing the release of a child earlier this year after the CPS admitted that the conviction was not in the public interest. Such victories are a tough fight: this appeal alone took five months of legal wrangling by a specialist team. The cases continue, despite a landmark ruling in July 2007, when Judge Christopher Mitchell refused to sentence two young Vietnamese men, aged 16 and 20, saying that they were victims of “modern slavery” after reading about cannabis farms in a newspaper.

“There is a gap between the mechanism of protection provided by the CPS guidelines and the reality on the ground, where there is no clear policy or practice guidelines for police to follow,” says Beddoe. “The police and the CPS say that these children are not trafficked, not because there is proof that they are not, but because they haven't investigated the possibility.”

Although these children were identified as a risk group over a year ago, Home Office Minister Alan Campbell admits that “No central records are kept on juvenile offenders who may have been victims of trafficking. It is not therefore possible to give a reliable figure.”

Independent research and uncollated data suggests that the problem is on a huge scale. The charity DrugScope found that in London alone 1500 cannabis farms were raided from 2005 – 7, and that approximately two thirds of these were run by Vietnamese criminal gangs. When farms are raided, police arrest the only people there – the so-called 'gardeners', typically trafficked adults or children.

“Young people who have been trafficked and are found tending cannabis farms should be treated as victims, not criminals,” said Harry Shapiro, director of communications at DrugScope. “They work in cramped, dangerous conditions and should be given support and protection, not imprisonment.”

Tragically, these children can all too easily slip through the net, a lack of co-ordination meaning that they bypass government provisions for lone asylum-seeking children. Local authorities and children's services will deal with the child as a young offender, guilty of cannabis cultivation or of carrying false documents, despite the fact that the UN's Palermo Protocol states that a child cannot consent to his or her own exploitation. Being instantly criminalised means that they are not referred to specialist trafficking units and are left with virtually no ability to claim asylum or protection.

Independent charities and pressure groups, providing much needed research and support to victims and the authorities, are calling for the creation of a Human Traffic Rapporteur, to provide clear information and act as a watchdog for the implementation of laws. This is considered international good practice by the UN, and a successful model is in place in the Netherlands.

The deadline for ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on Action against the Trafficking in Human Beings is approaching. It requires member states to regularly gather and analyse information on human trafficking, and includes measures for victims to claim asylum. However, no concrete policy plans have been made as to its implementation in the UK, and it was announced last week that the Met's specialised police unit will close in April.

The child victims of the cannabis trade may have a long wait before they gain automatic protection.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times