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