‘Urgent’ call for Parliament to resume modern slavery inquiry to address Brexit and Covid concerns

Leading anti-slavery charities have called for an abandoned parliamentary inquiry into modern slavery to be urgently resumed to address the impacts of Brexit and coronavirus on vulnerable victims.

By Harriet Clugston and Georgina Morris
Thursday, 18th February 2021, 6:22 am

The Home Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper, had been conducting an inquiry into the Government’s efforts to stamp out human trafficking in the wake of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act.

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But the inquiry was abandoned in November 2019 when Parliament was dissolved – and the committee with it – for the General Election, and has never been resumed.

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Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee which had been conducting an inquiry into modern slavery. Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty

The committee had received almost 150 submissions of evidence from charities, police forces, academics and councils before the inquiry was shelved. Contributors included West Yorkshire Police and the county's police and crime commissioner.

Now four leading anti-slavery charities – Unseen, After Exploitation, Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) and Hestia – have called on the committee to reestablish its probe, warning Brexit and Covid could put vulnerable individuals at greater risk.

Joining them in highlighting the need for the inquiry to be be resumed is Mark Burns-Williamson, West Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner.

"I would absolutely support that," he said. "Sadly, as we know, the whole Covid impact has changed and evolved this issue over the last 12 months.

The JPIMedia Investigations team is running a week-long series of reports on the issue of modern slavery.

"I would certainly hope that the Home Affairs Select Committee recognises that it's very important for this to be recommenced."

It comes after a JPIMedia investigation revealed police in England, Wales and Scotland had failed to being charges for more than 19,000 modern slavery crimes since the 2015 Act was passed, and its 2016 equivalent in Scotland, with suspects facing action in fewer than one in 20 cases.

In West Yorkshire, only 52 of the 1,150 offences recorded in that period have resulted in a charge – a rate of 4.5 per cent.

Charities describe a “litany of issues” in the criminal justice and social support systems, with victims struggling to access sufficient support or compensation to help them overcome their ordeals.

Mark Burns-Williamson, West Yorkshire's Police and Crime Commissioner. Picture: Simon Hulme

Andrew Wallis, chief executive officer at Unseen, said there were more than 100,000 victims of slavery in the UK at any one time, with a cost to the economy of at least £33bn per year.

“A resumption of the Home Affairs Select Committee investigation is the absolute bare minimum as there is a litany of issues when it comes to modern slavery,” he said.

“With the immediate impact of Covid on both survivors and victims, the increased vulnerability due to the coming economic downturn, and no strategy for effectively ending the scourge of modern slavery, the issue should be an urgent standing agenda item across all government departments and associated select committees.”

A spokesperson for FLEX said it would welcome the opportunity to provide more evidence to the inquiry, arguing many people were at exasperated risk of labour abuse and exploitation because of the pandemic and the end to free movement in Europe.

“There is increased urgency for the efforts of the Government, to prevent slavery and protect at-risk individuals and survivors, to be scrutinised,” they said.

The JPIMedia investigation also revealed more than more than two-thirds of councils in England, Scotland and Wales are using suppliers who are not complying with the law by publishing annual statements outlining what steps they take to prevent modern slavery in their business or supply chains.

Responding to the figures earlier this week, Mr Burn-Williamson told the YEP: "Post-Brexit and during a pandemic where huge announcements are being made around funding in the public sector, there's even more of a need to ensure we're all doing what we can around ethical supply chain procurement."

In evidence submitted to the inquiry back in autumn 2018, West Yorkshire Police said it would like to see inspections of key businesses with ratings awarded for their anti-slavery practices so customers could make more informed choices.

The force also highlighted the potential impact of Brexit when it comes to public awareness and the understanding people have about the impact of modern slavery upon victims.

Its submission said: "There is a currently an ambivalence towards the suffering of foreign nationals which may or may not be added to by Brexit. The current economic climate also provides an apathy from the public who want to see cheap goods and services available without fully understanding the impact that these have on the victims of modern slavery actually producing the goods and providing these services."

A spokesman for the Home Affairs Select Committee said it was “keeping an eye” on the issue, but had no timeframe for resuming its inquiry at present.

The Modern Slavery Helpline can be called on 08000 121 700.

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