The Home Office has removed the modern slavery brief from the minister responsible for safeguarding and classed it as an ‘illegal immigration and asylum’ issue.
There are suggestions that the move, signposted on the profile pages of the ministers involved in the issue, was the result of the then-home secretary Suella Braverman’s stated belief that modern slavery was the outcome of people “gaming” the immigration system. The Guardian first drew attention to the changes in responsibility. Braverman resigned as home secretary yesterday.
Modern slavery is now listed at the bottom of the “illegal immigration and asylum” brief of immigration minister Tom Pursglove and no longer mentioned on the page of the safeguarding minister Mims Davies.
Under Theresa May in 2016, the government pledged to be world leaders in combating modern slavery but Braverman said last week that trafficking claims from “people gaming the system” were “derailing the UK’s policy on illegal migration”.
But shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper last week said the largest single group of modern slavery victims under the referral system last year were British children.
Cooper added: “The evidence shows the majority of exploitation takes place in the UK rather than across borders.
“The government should be treating this as an enforcement and safeguarding issue and taking stronger action against the crime of modern slavery wherever it takes place.”
We don’t see people gaming the system … What we see is vulnerable people who are being exploited by opportunists and criminals” – Elysia McCaffrey, Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority
Lucy Symington, parliamentary officer for campaign group Anti-Slavery, said: “The government has a duty to protect all survivors of modern slavery. It’s a question of ensuring the rights and freedoms of people without them, and they live right here in our communities. We challenge all rhetoric that suggests otherwise and stand up to scapegoating of modern slavery victims to advance a political agenda at the expense of people’s welfare.”
Olivia Field, head of policy at the British Red Cross, told the Guardian: “Modern slavery is a crime that can impact people no matter where they are from or where they are in the world.
“So it doesn’t become any harder for people to get the help they need, we would urge the lens on tackling modern slavery to be a safeguarding one focused on protecting people impacted by this crime, as opposed to being treated as an immigration issue.”
The former home secretary’s comments were also challenged by the chief executive of the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, Elysia McCaffrey, who said: “We don’t see people gaming the system … What we see is vulnerable people who are being exploited by opportunists and criminals.”
Home Office view
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are committed to tackling the heinous crime of modern slavery and in the UK we have a world-leading response. However, it is clear people are abusing our system when they have no right to be here, in order to frustrate their removal.”
The Home Office said that given the close links between modern slavery and migration having one minister oversee both modern slavery and migration will help to ensure the interaction works effectively. It explained that handing the immigration minister oversight of the policy would not affect the entitlements of victims.
It emphasised that decisions will continue to be taken on specific cases by the Single Competent Authority and the recently established Immigration Enforcement Competent Authority under the National Referral Mechanism.
According to Anti-Slavery, modern slavery in the UK can take many forms, including forced sexual exploitation, domestic slavery or forced labour on farms, in construction, shops, bars, nail bars, car washes and manufacturing.
We stand up to scapegoating of modern slavery victims to advance a political agenda at the expense of people’s welfare” – Lucy Symington, Anti-Slavery
Forced labour is the most common form of slavery in the UK, fuelled by a drive for cheap products and services. Working conditions in the garment industry of the east Midlands have come under particular scrutiny in this regard in recent years.
The group says one growing form of slavery is trafficking into crime. In the UK, it’s fuelled by the trafficking of primarily British children, forced into ‘county lines’ drug trafficking and trafficking of Vietnamese nationals forced to work in cannabis production.
The government, say campaigners, will have to show that the British victims of slavery will not now fall through the gaps, now that problem is primarily seen as an immigration issue.
In April this year it was reported that businesses were not fully complying with the 2015 Modern Slavery Act by omitting modern slavery statements from their websites or supplying cursory commentary on the issue. Much of the focus of larger UK firms is on the risk of modern slavery entering their supply chains in other countries, leaving them in breach of the 2015 Act.
There are up to 100,000 victims of modern slavery and forced labour in the UK, according to Anti-Slavery.
New BSI standard
The UK’s national standards body BSI on 18 October launched the UK’s first standard to help organisations to eradicate modern slavery in their supply chains.
The new standard: BS 25700 Organizational Responses to Modern Slavery, for use by international and UK organisations of all sizes, provides guidance on preventative measures, identifying, analysing, and evaluating exposure risks, approaches to address identified risks, remedying modern slavery practices, and reporting mechanisms. BSI said the new guidance would help organisations eradicate modern slavery in all forms.
Susan Taylor Martin, chief executive of BSI, said: “Global disruptions such as the pandemic and the return of war in Europe have created greater risks of modern slavery than those faced in 2015 when the Modern Slavery Act was enacted.
“Far more can be done to bridge the gap between policy and practice. BSI is committed to helping organisations understand what they can do in practical terms to eradicate this corrupt, criminal behaviour which continues to plague the global economy.”