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 

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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.