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Britain’s Modern Slavery Act: Flies in the Ointment

15 4 2
13.06.2018

In 2015, the UK Modern Slavery Act was enacted, with parallel and slightly differing legislation coming into force in Scotland and in Northern Ireland at the same time. An earlier article by the present author in E-IR, ‘Britain’s Modern Slavery Act: world-leading or a timid start?’ examined the political and policy process leading up to the passage of the Act and set out elements of a developing critique of the Act. This critique was somewhat speculative although some elements were grounded in the development of actual practice. Three years on, we revisit that early critique and assess the extent to which the claims made by government that the Act is ‘world-leading’ stand up to close scrutiny. The Act itself reflected a substantial amount of unfinished business, some of it explicit and some implicit or contested, in part because it was finally rushed through ahead of a General Election. The earlier article concluded that ‘there is little doubt that it will be considerably less than 200 years before it is subject to further scrutiny and revision’, a prophecy which has substantially come true in the last three years.[1]

Readers wanting the detail of that earlier critique are referred to the 2015 article. In summary, the most significant elements of it were as follows:

We can review each of these issues in turn.

Forms of slavery and the focus of the Act

As noted above, up to seventeen forms of offence have now been grouped under the heading of ‘modern slavery’ by the Home Office. The major forms include human trafficking for sexual exploitation, trafficking for labour exploitation, forced labour, cannabis farming, child exploitations, domestic servitude, forced marriage and forced criminal acquisition through, for example, shoplifting, begging and pickpocketing. Organ trafficking has also been included which, whilst few offences have yet to be identified, is a new and potentially growing and highly exploitative form of trafficking. The focus on human trafficking for sexual exploitation has now, from the National Crime Agency’s (NCA) data, been shown to be inappropriate as trafficking for labour exploitation is now the single most frequent case reported to the NRM. Of the 5145 adult and child cases reviewed by the NCA in 2017, 2352 were for labour exploitation and 1744 for sexual exploitation. This reflects a trend observable both within the UK and in other European countries. It also suggests that the focus, in policy and practice, on human trafficking for sexual exploitation should not be the dominant driver for anti-slavery work. During the period under review, the number of those thought to be in slavery within the UK at any one time was initially estimated by government to be around 10,000-13,000; this figure was rapidly challenged by many activists, and more recently, based on NCA intelligence, is said to be to be in the ‘tens of thousands’.

The Gangmaster’s Licensing Authority

The review of the GLA’s powers and remit, required by the Modern Slavery Act, did indeed take place in 2016 but within the context of a new Immigration Act (2016). Whilst most commentators welcomed the extension of the GLA’s (now to be called Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority – GLAA) remit (to include other – potentially all – industrial sectors) and powers (including new quasi-police powers of search and arrest) there was dismay at the linking of this to immigration powers since it flagged up a clear message that modern slavery was effectively an immigration offence and not primarily a criminal offence. This seemed........

© E-International