Slavery isn’t a thing of the past – it’s just less visible. Photo: Getty
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Migrant workers are being exploited in the UK – we must take action

Today's Modern Slavery Bill is a vital opportunity to challenge exploitation of workers; slavery isn’t a thing of the past – it’s just less visible.

Just over 200 years on from the abolition of slavery in the UK, it is incomprehensible for many that it should still exist in our society. This is a dangerous assumption, grossly out of sync with the modern forms of slavery which do exist here. Traditional symbols of slavery such as the workhouse may be gone but the abuse, misery and exploitation associated still permeate parts of our community. Slavery isn’t a thing of the past – it’s just less visible.

For example in my own rural constituency of Northeast Cambridgeshire, there is an issue with migrants being brought to the UK under false pretences, often with the promise of a job including accommodation which simply does not exist. Once in the UK they find themselves forced to live in squalid or overcrowded housing, with intermittent work which pushes them into debt and makes them even more vulnerable. 

It is not just those living in these terrible conditions who suffer. Local residents must deal with the knock-on effects of related anti-social behaviour, petty crime, shoplifting and street drinking.

There has been some success in tackling these problems. In November 2013 as part of a national multi-agency award-winning scheme called Operation Pheasant involving the police, the Gangmasters Licencing Authority and the local council, 300 police officers launched a co-ordinated raid on properties in March and Wisbech in my constituency and nearby King’s Lynn. In total eighty-one trafficked migrant workers were rescued from their cramped, overcrowded housing and moved to temporary specialist reception centres set up by the Salvation Army and the Red Cross.

Yet there is little evidence as to what happened to these victims when they left the victim shelters after the maximum fourty-five day period. Nationally the Home Office has no official figures for victims post shelters. I have tabled amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill today to focus attention on this gap. 

Operation Pheasant also resulted in enforcement activity, with ten arrests of those allegedly exploiting workers were made, and these are currently in the courts. Two Fenland-based Gangmaster agencies were shut down and had their licenses permanently revoked by the Gangmasters’ Licensing Authority. Accusations against these gangmasters included failure to pay the national minimum wage, failure to provide personal protective equipment for safety at work, failure to provide safe transportation for workers and using unlicensed sub-contractors.

It is imperative that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority is given new powers to tackle these issues more effectively under the Modern Slavery Bill. I have tabled a number of new clauses and amendments to the Bill, which will face its third reading in parliament today, designed to strengthen the ability of the GLA to more quickly and effectively punish those abusing some of the most vulnerable people in our society. At a time of limited resource, we need to make it quicker and cheaper to bring investigations and prosecutions. 

Amongst others these include the ability for the GLA to issue civil fines, to freeze the assets of those suspected of exploiting labour within 24-hours and to ensure the independence of the anti-slavery commissioner.

It is estimated that 2,744 people, including 602 children, were potentially victims of trafficking for exploitation last year, an increase of 22 per cent on 2012. In the first quarter of this year there were a further 566 cases. Experts agree that these figures are the tip of the iceberg, with most cases concealed from the authorities. It is likely that there are many more victims than official figures suggest.

Today parliament will take a step forward in tackling modern day slavery. Yet the Bill needs to go much further if it is to deliver real change. Slavery should be consigned to history. For now in constituencies like mine, it remains very present.

Steve Barclay is the Conservative MP for Northeast Cambridgeshire 

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.