Frank Field: May’s work pushing modern slavery up the agenda is to be admired, but victims have also suffered at the hands of the ‘hostile environment’
May Days: Far from giving victims their freedom, we appear to be embroiling them in a different set of constraints, and even literal imprisonment, writes Frank Field
Once the Centre for Social Justice’s report It Happens Here (insert above) was published in 2013, I spent a summer lobbying the then home secretary to introduce a modern slavery bill. To her credit, she responded with that draft bill, set up the modern slavery task force and commissioned two reviews into the workings of the Act – one by Caroline Haughey QC, and another by Maria Miller MP, Baroness Butler-Sloss and me.
Theresa May is now right to want to make combatting modern slavery central to her legacy as prime minister. What could be a better use of the levers of power of No 10 than protecting the most exploited in our society and bringing to justice the perpetrators of this most heinous crime?
Since the Act was passed, we have seen an impressive rise in police activity, traffickers being charged and successful prosecutions. The number of potential victims identified in the UK each year has more than doubled from 3266 in 2015 to 6993 in 2018. Referrals from the police to the Crown Prosecution Service rose by a third and the number of successful prosecutions rose by a quarter in 2018. This is partly thanks to Mrs May putting modern slavery firmly on the political agenda, which has led to a drive amongst police forces across the UK to root it out of our communities.
Her legacy on modern slavery, however, is mixed as victims of trafficking have found themselves entangled in Mrs May’s ambition to create a ‘hostile environment’ for those who would come to this country illegally. Afraid of creating a loophole whereby an illegal immigrant could falsely claim to be a victim of trafficking and earn both the right to remain and a substantial package of support, actual victims have been cut a raw deal.
Mrs May cut the weekly benefits to victims of trafficking from £65 a week to £37.75, which, given the prohibition against them working, is all they have to live on. Similarly, a report this month, Deported or Supported, revealed that at least 570 recognised victims had been held in immigration detention centres in 2018, where they cannot get the healthcare, legal advice, and psychological support they most desperately need. Far from giving victims their freedom, we appear to be embroiling them in a different set of constraints, and even literal imprisonment.
It took a High Court Judge in April of this year to overturn the Home Office policy of providing a mere 45 days support to victims of modern slavery, saying it caused “irreparable harm to very vulnerable individuals”. I still reel from the testimonies I heard from victims as part of our scoping inquiry. That anyone is able to recover over their life from the hideous abuse to which they have been subjected astonishes me. That they could be expected to do so after just 45 days strikes me as insufferably thoughtless.
Theresa May set the pace in the UK’s fight against modern slavery and human trafficking. And this has rightly inspired the action of other governments. But her successor must be even more active, given the scale of the task. There is still a huge amount of work to do to ensure that victims receive the support they need, and slave drivers get the justice they deserve.
Frank Field is Independent MP for Birkenhead