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Committee Corridor: Modern slavery in the UK

2 February 2023

The third series of Committee Corridor, the podcast from the House of Commons Select Committees, launches today. In the opening episode, new host and Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry KC MP explores different perspectives on the issue of modern slavery. 

Special guests, former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Professor Dame Sara Thornton; Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion MP; and member of the Home Affairs Committee, Tim Loughton MP give their views on the urgent priorities around modern slavery and the UK Government’s response to it. 

The podcast recognises the scale of the problem within the UK. Sara Thornton warns that “in 2021, 12,600 potential victims were identified, but in fact… the number experts predict is probably around a hundred thousand”. She also highlights the global aspect, adding, “forced labour is pervasive in global supply chains, and the focus really, needs to be on finding it and fixing it, and ensure that those who are affected, those who are exploited, have some sort of reparation or remedy.” 

The former Anti-Slavery Commissioner welcomed the impact of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, in particular the “genuinely world-leading” efforts to address “forced labour risks in these very long global opaque supply chains”. However, she warned that, in her view, the UK was now lagging behind international partners and the Government had changed focus, “the emphasis appears now to be on immigration and small boats, rather than… trying to catch up a little bit with the rest of the world on legislation about business and human rights.” 

Measures in the Nationalities and Borders Act 2022 may make the fight against modern slavery more difficult, Sara Thornton said, “I was particularly concerned about provisions to restrict protections for those with criminal convictions. That would make it very much harder to prosecute offenders. I was also concerned that we were saying that potential victims would have a deadline in which to disclose their exploitation.” 

The wide-ranging interview with the former Commissioner includes discussion of the definitions of modern slavery; the ‘chill effect’ of the 2022 Nationality and Borders Act on the confidence of potential victims to come forward; the problems of viewing modern slavery through the lens of immigration and debate on small boat crossings across the English Channel. 

Tim Loughton raised concerns about the growth in claims from Albania, questioning “why has there been such a big upsurge in the numbers from a particular country now claiming modern day slavery?”. He argued that the UK needed to work closely with the Albanian authorities to understand the drivers of this growth and ensure potential victims of modern slavery were better supported.  

The MP added, “there's a stronger case for people being looked after back in their own country where they've got family networks and other support networks, and can be properly protected if they are generally victims of modern-day slavery, rather than in a foreign country.” He further warned that wrongful claims of modern slavery risked undermining public confidence in wider the asylum system.  

Sarah Champion called for greater awareness of gender-based violence, “we need to be very clear that women are particularly at risk of this. I've met too many young women who thought that they were coming for jobs and have ended up in the sex industry in this country.” 

The Chair of the International Development Committee also highlighted Home Office failures in providing appropriate care for unaccompanied children who have claimed asylum in the UK. She said, “A number of those children are going missing. And when they are found, they are found to be in the slavery underground”. She called on the Government to do more to recognise these children as victims and ensure an adequate support network was in place to keep them safe. 

Professor Dame Sara Thornton’s term of office finished in April 2022 and the post of Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner remains vacant. The delay in appointing a new Commissioner is of ‘huge concern’, she says.  “We need a fearless, independent voice to scrutinise what the Government’s proposing in its desires to reform modern slavery legislation” she says. 

“But also, more positively, we need somebody who can work with business, with law enforcement, with civil society to improve awareness, and improve the effectiveness of responses to modern slavery.” 

Further Information

Image: Andrew Bailey, UK Parliament