Why the Modern Slavery Bill still needs more clout

21st Nov 2014

It’s a powerful piece of legislation, but it needs fine-tuning and time is running out, says Frank Soodeen.

Earlier this week the House of Lords began to examine the Modern Slavery Bill. The Bill presents a unique opportunity to tackle the sad reality of modern slavery in the UK. For the many groups and individuals pushing for a move away from thinking about the problem as solely a human trafficking issue, it was strongly welcome. Yet to achieve real change for the 3,000-5,000 people affected by forced labour in the UK the Bill will need further improvements.

The draft Bill, when first published by the Home Secretary in December 2013, had a number of important gaps, the main points of concern being the lack of victim protection and insufficient attention to supply chains. Helpfully, our concerns were echoed by the report of a joint committee of MPs and peers convened to look at the draft in detail, and in June 2014 a new version of the Bill was laid before the Parliament containing a separate section on victim protection.

Encouragingly for organisations such as JRF who had pushed for this, the provision covered all victims of modern slavery, removing the disparity that existed between victims of trafficking, who had access to the support system, and victims of forced labour who did not. Nevertheless, the Bill remained focussed on prosecution, continuing to approach modern slavery chiefly as a problem of organised crime without addressing its complexity or the underlying causes.

Research shows, for instance, that forced labour is not just a matter of organised crime but is also a function of employment relations and the way the labour market functions. In other words, forced labour occurs in legitimate industries that supply products and services to the public, having been enabled by the behaviour of businesses and labour agencies. We were therefore delighted when, following intense campaigning from anti-slavery groups, the Government introduced a major amendment as the Bill was coming to the end of its scrutiny in the Commons. The amendment requirement will require both listed and non-listed companies operating in the UK to disclose what measures they are taking to address modern slavery. The inclusion of the transparency in supply chains provision was welcomed by civil society, business and investors.

But with the Lords now considering the Bill there is still much to do. The general election is only six months away however, and the pressure is on to ensure that work on the legislation is completed by February so that it reaches the statute books before parliament is dissolved. JRF’s latest briefing details the main areas where we still think there are gains to be had. In short, there are some smart things that can be done to ensure that the elimination of forced labour is approached as a task across government, particularly by promoting better links between criminal justice activity and labour market regulation.

These include enhancing the powers of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and covering the whole spectrum of exploitative acts related to modern slavery on the face the Bill. There are also some additional measures around the independence of the Anti-Slavery Commissioner and guaranteed minimum standard for protection of victims that would make it into a better piece of legislation. Pleasingly, most of our points were taken up during the second reading debate, and we will now be supporting several peers to put forward the strongest version of these arguments to ministers.