‘Urgent’ call from charities for Parliament to resume modern slavery inquiry to address concerns over Brexit and Covid

Leading anti-slavery charities have called for an abandoned parliamentary inquiry into modern slavery to be urgently resumed to address the impacts of Brexit and coronavirus on vulnerable victims.

Monday, 15th February 2021, 12:05 am
Updated Monday, 15th February 2021, 7:37 am

The Home Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, had been conducting an inquiry into the Government’s efforts to stamp out human trafficking in the wake of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act.

But the inquiry was abandoned in November 2019 when Parliament was dissolved – and the committee with it – for the General Election, and has never been resumed.

The committee had received almost 150 submissions of evidence from charities, police forces, academics and councils before the inquiry was shelved.

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Now five leading anti-slavery charities – Unseen, the Human Trafficking Foundation, After Exploitation, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) and Hestia – have called on the committee to reestablish its probe, warning Brexit and Covid could put vulnerable individuals at greater risk.

It comes after a JPIMedia investigation revealed police in England, Wales and Scotland had failed to being charges for more than 19,000 modern slavery crimes since the 2015 Act was passed, and its 2016 equivalent in Scotland, with suspects facing action in fewer than one in 20 cases.

Charities describe a “litany of issues” in the criminal justice and social support systems, with victims struggling to access sufficient support or compensation to help them overcome their ordeals.

Andrew Wallis, chief executive officer at Unseen, said there were more than 100,000 victims of slavery in the UK at any one time, with a cost to the economy of at least £33 billion per year.

An Unbroken Chain: Modern Slavery in the UK

“A resumption of the Home Affairs Select Committee investigation is the absolute bare minimum as there is a litany of issues when it comes to modern slavery,” he said.

“With the immediate impact of Covid on both survivors and victims, the increased vulnerability due to the coming economic downturn, and no strategy for effectively ending the scourge of modern slavery, the issue should be an urgent standing agenda item across all government departments and associated select committees.”

A spokesperson for FLEX said it would also welcome the opportunity to provide more evidence, arguing many people were at exasperated risk of labour abuse and exploitation because of the pandemic and the end to free movement in Europe.

“There is increased urgency for the efforts of the Government, to prevent slavery and protect at-risk individuals and survivors, to be scrutinised,” they said.

And Maya Esslemont, director of After Exploitation, said the Government must be held to account, after ministers previously denied having access to data on the detention and deportation of victims.

The charity has since proved the data does exist, with nearly 3,000 potential trafficking victims held in “prison-like” settings since 2019.

“Without transparency, advocates and survivor groups have no idea whether the Government is supporting or deporting survivors,” she said.

Tamara Barnett, director of the Human Trafficking Foundation, which grew out of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, said while the UK was going in the right direction, it was “tiny baby steps”, with a lack of progress painful for survivors caught up in a “shoddy system”.

She said: “There’s still some really shameful gaps and I think it does need to be highlighted.

“You can create an Act, but what does it do? If actual things don’t happen on the ground? An Act can only do so much when in reality these huge bureaucratic systems just carry on as before in many cases.

“There’s so many radical things that need to change. The Home Affairs Committee doesn’t have any executive power at all but it is a powerful scrutiny body.”

Patrick Ryan, chief executive officer of Hestia, added: “Through our work supporting thousands of survivors of modern slavery it is clear that criminals are continually developing sophisticated strategies to trap victims into a cycle of exploitation.

“The new landscape of the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit will undoubtedly see this brutal crime evolve again.”

A spokesman for the Home Affairs Select Committee said it was “keeping an eye” on the issue, but had no timeframe for resuming its inquiry at present.

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