Modern slavery: what is it and what is being done?

What is modern slavery and human trafficking?

We are familiar with the long campaign led by William Wilberforce to outlaw the slave trade in the early 19th century. The term modern slavery is used to describe human trafficking and coercion of people in a way akin to slavery. This problem is believed to be on the increase as part of a global trend. Trafficking is seen as possessing three elements:

  • The movement – recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of people
  • The control – threat, use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or the giving of payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim
  • The purpose – exploitation of a person, which includes prostitution and other sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or similar practices, and the removal of organs

There are no official figures on the extent of trafficking or human slavery in the UK and estimates of people trafficked for sexual purposes range considerably. The UK Human Trafficking Centre (UKHTC) Strategic Assessment for 2012 estimated that there are up to 2,255 possible victims of human trafficking in the UK. Many specialist organisations argue that the numbers are much greater.

Internationally, the UN and other supranational organisations calculate that modern slavery and human trafficking trade is worth a minimum of US$32 billion a year. However, very few people in the UK have been convicted for trafficking offences. In order to coordinate action, the previous Government introduced a “national referral mechanism” (NRM) to help identify victims of trafficking, although not all suspected cases are identified through this route. The Salvation Army currently holds the Home Office contract to deliver support services to adult trafficking victims in England and Wales.

What plans are there to legislate?

The laws in this area are not particularly clear or effective. There were no specific anti-trafficking laws at all until 2003. The Government published draft legislation in December 2013 which aims to:

  • Consolidate and simplify existing slavery and trafficking offences;
  • Increase the maximum sentences available to life imprisonment;
  • Introduce civil orders to restrict the activity of those who pose a risk and those convicted of slavery and trafficking offences;
  • Create a new Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

How is Parliament scrutinising the legislation?

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, promised to introduce legislation in the next parliamentary session, once the draft bill has been scrutinised by a joint committee. The committee is chaired by Frank Field who was responsible for assembling the Modern Slavery Evidence Review, published at the same time as the draft Bill. Details of the committee membership can be found from the committee website. There will be a call for evidence in the next few days and the committee is expected to report by the end of the current session.

Further information on the draft bill can be found in Library standard note Draft Modern Slavery Bill. For more information on the overall policy commitment, see Library standard note Human Trafficking: UK responses.

Author: Oonagh Gay