UK ministers 'must act quickly' to end modern slavery: report

The UK's anti-slavery legislation may not be keeping pace with evolving crime. MPs are trying to sharpen the law.

    Maria Miller was one of three members of parliament who coauthored the review [File: Paul Hackett/Reuters]
    Maria Miller was one of three members of parliament who coauthored the review [File: Paul Hackett/Reuters]

    British members of parliament (MPs) have outlined key areas to improve the United Kingdom's anti-slavery legislation, including punishing businesses that fail to tackle modern slavery.

    Providing better support for child victims and holding the government to account were also high on the agenda in a report published on Wednesday.

    The landmark Modern Slavery Act was passed in 2015. Under the law, traffickers can be jailed for life while vulnerable people are given better protections and large companies are forced to outline their actions to avoid using forced labour. 

    Last July, the government tasked MPs with reviewing the law amid concerns that the country was struggling to keep up with evolving crime. 

    A lack of convictions, insufficient awareness, limited training of professionals and problems around data collection have blunted the UK's anti-slavery response, the report said. 

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    "Without these changes, the Act's impact will be limited," MP Frank Field, MP Maria Miller and Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss said in their review, an independent report that was commissioned by the UK government.

    Field called modern slavery "one of humanity's greatest evils" and said it exploits "the most vulnerable people in our society", adding that the problem "pervades every country in the world and every community of the United Kingdom". 

    Some 7,000 suspected victims of modern slavery were uncovered in the UK last year, up a third from 2017, according to the country's National Crime Agency. Nearly half of the victims were children, raising concerns from police about the growing "county lines" drug trade, in which gangs are reportedly using teenagers as mules.

    Victoria Atkins, the minister for crime, said that the government would fully respond to the review's recommendations, without providing a timeline.

    "Through the Modern Slavery Act, the government is committed to ensuring victims get the support they need and perpetrators are brought to justice," Atkins said in a statement.

    'Contradictory approaches'

    The three politicians made more than 80 recommendations but focused on four main areas of the law, from the problem of slavery in supply chains to the role of the independent anti-slavery chief. 

    The law should be sharpened to punish big businesses and public bodies that fail to disclose their anti-slavery actions, while the anti-slavery chief must be free to scrutinise and criticise the government's actions, according to the review.

    Other proposals included improving financial compensation for victims and ensuring individual support for child victims.

    "I support the need to ensure that businesses and government are doing all they can to exclude slavery from supply chains, the importance of providing improved support for all child victims of slavery and ... upholding my independence," the UK's new anti-slavery commissioner, Sara Thornton, said. 

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    The former police chief took up the post this month, about a year after Kevin Hyland, the inaugural anti-slavery chief, resigned, expressing frustration about government interference in his role.

    Caroline Robinson, director of the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation, said the review should spur the UK to swiftly improve the law. But she added that the lawmakers had failed to address "contradictory approaches" from the government. 

    "Whilst these recommendations could enhance the Modern Slavery Act and response, it overlooks the ways in which current immigration law and policy is contributing to abuse," she told Reuters news agency.

    The UK is home to at least 136,000 modern slaves, according to the Global Survey Index published by the human rights group Walk Free Foundation. That figure is 10 times higher than the one cited in a government estimate in 2013. 

    Wednesday's report comes as research from business consultancies Sancroft and Tussell, published on Monday, showed that about 29 of the UK's 100 biggest companies did not meet the legal requirement to outline the steps they had taken to combat the risk of forced labour within their supply chains. 

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies