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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”.

Legislation to tackle modern slavery was enacted across all UK jurisdictions in 2015. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 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 passed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, respectively. The legislation provides for similar victim support measures and law enforcement powers throughout the UK.

As 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 QC, 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.

In April 2017 the Work and Pensions Committee published a report following its inquiry into victims of modern slavery. The Chair, Frank Field MP, 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 30 July 2018, the Home Office announced plans to launch an independent review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The review is being led by Frank Field MP, Maria Miller MP and Baroness Butler-Sloss. The aim of the Review is to understand and report on how the 2015 Act is operating in practice, how effective it is, and whether the legal framework for tackling modern slavery is fit for purpose now and in the future. The Review is due to report to the Home Secretary before the end of March 2019.

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