Meenal Sachdev: Defeating modern slavery in Hertfordshire

1 Jul

Meenal Sachdev is a Conservative councillor at Hertsmere Borough Council and founding director of the Shiva Foundation, a charity working to fight human trafficking and modern slavery. 

Now that the elections are over, it’s time for councils to show leadership locally and help end modern slavery.

For many newly-elected Conservative councillors across the country, the dust is only just starting to settle from the election. Councils which found themselves with no overall control have finalised their coalitions, with Durham County Council announcing its first ever non-Labour leader only two weeks ago. There can be no doubt that these were hard fought local elections like no other.

However, now that the elections are over, we have an opportunity to work together to address some of the most pressing issues plaguing our local communities. We need to ensure that the often unseen, but incredibly serious, issues, such as modern slavery, are not forgotten in each of our council areas. Our councillors, re-elected or new, can make a real difference.

Over 40 million people across the globe are victims of modern slavery, be it sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude, or criminal exploitation including county lines and forced begging. However, despite the progress made with the Modern Slavery Act, which I’m proud was passed by a Conservative government in 2015, and which was a game-changing first step to define and raise awareness of the issue, many councils continue to overlook the fact that this is something happening on our doorstep. This is despite a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice finding that there could be as many as 100,000 victims in the UK. Make no mistake, there are likely to be victims in your home ward, hiding in plain sight.

If we are to build on our Party’s reputation for leadership on this issue, all Conservative councils and councillors should look to establish modern slavery partnerships, bringing together local organisations and agencies with an aim to end modern slavery in our communities once and for all. Councillors know their constituencies better than anyone and, through local collaboration, may be able to come into contact with a victim and help them escape their exploitation. This is why we must accept our responsibility to address this burning issue locally.

We know that these partnerships work. In 2017, I helped found the Hertfordshire Modern Slavery Partnership, which brings together more than 100 statutory and non-statutory partners from across the county, including representatives from the county, district, and borough councils, the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office, and NHS trusts, to tackle modern slavery. Not only has the partnership led to increased awareness and fostered closer collaboration to address modern slavery, but it has also enabled Shiva Foundation, an anti-slavery charity which I co-founded in 2016, to understand how policies are implemented at a local level and the barriers to victims accessing vital support.

Establishing a modern slavery partnership in every council across the country is both achievable and something we should be striving for. But it’s important to remember that these partnerships aren’t just about saying the right thing. They must foster genuine collaboration and determination to address both the root causes and consequences of slavery in all its forms.

It is also important to understand how the council itself can take steps to address the risk of modern slavery within its operations and supply chains. For councils looking to start this process, signing the Charter Against Modern Slavery, which includes a 10-point plan committing the council to ensure that its supply chains are exploitation free, would be a great place to start. In Hertfordshire, over half of the local authorities have already signed up to the Charter, and we urge other councils across the country to follow suit.

The current UK Government has also recognised the responsibility it has, not only to create national legislation and policy, but with its purchasing power. It drafted a modern slavery statement in 2019 detailing the steps it’s taken to mitigate the risk of modern slavery within its operations and supply chains, as per section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act. The remit of the Act has also been extended to all public bodies reaching the £36 million threshold, and just this month the Government announced the creation of a new workers’ rights watchdog that will be charged with stamping out modern slavery. Councils must now follow the leadership demonstrated by successive Conservative governments, and committing to the Modern Slavery Charter is an excellent way to start taking action. Councillors can also refer to an LGA report here to learn more of what individual role they can play.

This Government has made it clear that action on modern slavery remains high on the agenda. As councils start to build back better from the pandemic, and begin to assess their priorities after the local elections, they must follow suit and take meaningful steps to end modern slavery for good.