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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser