Anti-slavery campaigners outside parliament. Photo: Getty
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During an unexpected boom in the industry, David Cameron is fumbling on slavery

As slavery all over the world is more prolific and lucrative than ever, a new British abolitionist movement is beginning. Just like 200 years ago, however, it is encountering “dark forces” at the top.

The 35 Afghans found in a shipping container on Tilbury Docks this month will provide ample grist for the government’s "Slavery Is Closer Than You Think" campaign. Yet such incidents represent only a tiny fraction of the globalised networks of exploitation that put food on our plates and clothes on our backs.

With as many as 29.8m slaves all over the world today, generating $150bn in illegal profits every year, slavery is more prolific and more lucrative than ever. Increasingly, this new globalised slavery has been found running through the supply chains that lead directly to our high streets and supermarkets.

After the numerous exposés of slavery and child labour on West African cocoa farms left a such bitter taste in the mouths of Cadbury’s, Mars, Nestlé and the other confectionary giants at the top of the chains, the Centre for Social Justice released its landmark report It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to fight modern slavery. The report made recommendations for a new Transparency in UK Supply Chains Act.

The proposed Act was modelled on its American predecessor, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010, according to which large companies doing business in California are required to disclose publically their efforts to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from their supply chains. Yet when the Transparency in UK Company Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Bill came before parliament in 2012, it was soon kicked quietly into touch.

Despite support from church leaders, business groups, anti-slavery organisations and MPs on all sides, the debate on the Bill was deferred and failed to be heard before the end of the 2012-13 parliamentary session. Britain’s would-be Transparency in Supply Chains (Eradication of Slavery) Act therefore made no further progress.

Later that year, when the government unveiled its plans to introduce a new all-inclusive Modern Slavery Bill before the end of the current parliamentary session, many believed Britain was making its triumphant return to the forefront of international abolitionism. Yet, nowhere in the Bill were supply chains mentioned.

Ignoring protests from the evidence review team, commissioned by the government to gather intelligence for the legislation, the Home Office issued a statement explaining that supply chain auditing would remain voluntary, because mandatory requirements would be an “additional burden” on businesses.

On the same day, the Guardian released its exposé of the Thai prawn industry. With memories of the Rana Plaza factory disaster still reverberating in the consumer conscience, the report revealed a picture of slavery, in the most traditional sense of the word, at the bottom of seafood supply chains that led directly to supermarket giants Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.

After the cocoa farm scandal of 2010, the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013 and the Thai prawn-fishing exposé of 2014, public opinion in the UK is primed to bring companies to account for their actions on the world stage. 82 per cent of Britons polled last year would support a law requiring large companies to report on slavery in their supply chains.

Moreover, MPs from all major parties have expressed their support for supply chain legislation. Business leaders have come forward to argue that legislating on supply chains would “level the playing field” and ensure that companies taking action against supply chain slavery are not being undercut by unscrupulous competitors. Even the Home Secretary, in a letter to The Sunday Times, said the Modern Slavery Bill should “encourage companies to make a commitment that their suppliers do not use slave labour”.

Politicians have been prompted, therefore, to look towards the top and argue, in the words of Michael Connarty MP, that “the Home Secretary is involved in a contest against some dark force in Number 10 Downing Street that is trying to stop the government moving all the way forward on the Bill, particularly on questions such as supply chains.”

Be that as it may, the fact remains that unlike two hundred years ago, when Britain led the global abolitionist movement by example, the UK government is now content to let America take the lead. British civil society has shown itself to be as strong as ever. Think tanks, journalists and opposition leaders have brought this issue as close to the top as they can. We still meet resistance, however, when we demand that the government makes demands of businesses.

In 2011, David Cameron expressed his ambition for the UK to “lead the world in eradicating modern-day slavery”. Until and unless the Prime Minister addresses this issue in the appropriate context, and recognises that slavery does not just happen in the UK, but for the UK all over the world, the country will remain a one-time enemy and long-time friend of the immortal international trade in slaves.

Michael Pollitt works on the Transitions Forum and The Culture of Prosperity programmes at the Legatum Institute. He tweets @MJPollitt

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Commission event. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.