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The Government has described modern slavery as a “brutal form of organised crime in which people are treated as commodities and exploited for criminal gain”, which “takes a number of forms, including sexual exploitation, forced labour and domestic servitude”. The Home Office says that the true extent of modern slavery is difficult to ascertain, as it is a “highly complex and hidden crime”. In 2014, it estimated that in 2013 there were between 10,000 and 13,000 potential victims in the UK.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015

Legislation relating to modern slavery was enacted across all UK jurisdictions in 2015. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 (‘the 2015 Act’), which applies mostly to England and Wales only, received royal assent on 26 March 2015. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 were also passed In Scotland and Northern Ireland, respectively. These measures permit similar victim support measures and law enforcement powers throughout the UK.

The Modern Slavery Act 2015:

  • Consolidates and clarifies the existing offences of slavery and human trafficking and increases the maximum penalty for these offences;
  • Provides for two new civil preventative orders, the Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Order and the Slavery and Trafficking Risk Order;
  • Creates new maritime enforcement powers, so that the police can pursue traffickers on ships;
  • Sets up the office of Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner;
  • Brings in measures focussed to support and protect victims, including a defence for slavery or trafficking victims and special measures for witnesses in criminal proceedings; and
  • Requires certain businesses to say what they are doing to eliminate slavery and trafficking from their supply chains and their own business.

Reactions to the 2015 Act and its implementation

Reaction to the 2015 Act has been largely positive, although some stakeholders criticised the legislation for omitting certain aspects, and perceived delays for others included. These including aspects such as legal aid, domestic workers, and transparency in supply chains. Recent evaluations have been more critical of the implementation since the 2015 Act came into force.

In April 2017 the Work and Pensions Committee published a report following its inquiry into victims of modern slavery. The Chair, Frank Field, announcing the report, said there was “a shocking lack of awareness and co-ordination in the front line services dealing with modern slavery” and called for an “urgent review” to ensure some minimum safeguards for victims were in place.

On 24 October 2017, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published a thematic inspection of police forces response to modern slavery. The report expressed concern that police were closing cases prematurely and inconsistently and ineffectively identifying victims. Positive examples were found to be small or only recently established, and overall, HMICFRS said the police service and law enforcement agencies needed to do much more to respond successfully to modern slavery and human trafficking.

Government actions since the 2015 Act

The then Home Secretary Theresa May set up an independent review of the 2015 Act a year after it came into force. The review, by barrister Caroline Haughey, found that the 2015 Act had set “an international benchmark to which other jurisdictions aspire”. It found that slavery remained under-reported, but the operational response was improving. However, the review said there were problems, including a lack of consistency between law enforcement and criminal justice agencies and poor quality intelligence at all levels. The review recommended better training and a more structured approach to prosecuting and preventing slavery.

The Government set up a Modern Slavery Taskforce in September 2016 to help co-ordinate policy and operational responses. On 17 October 2017, the taskforce announced three new measures. The National Referral Mechanism will be reformed to try and improve decision-making and support, including a new digital system. A new unit in the Home Office will handle all potential modern slavery cases, and an independent panel of experts will review all negative decisions. A broader package of reforms will also be announced in due course.

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