Andrew Selous: This pandemic has left more people exploited by ruthless traffickers

13 Aug

Andrew Selous is MP for South West Bedfordshire

The Government can rightly be proud of the great strides that it has taken against modern slavery in recent years.

Since the publication of its Modern Slavery Strategy in 2014, and the subsequent Modern Slavery Act 2015, the UK Government has pioneered efforts to eradicate the worst human rights abuse of our time, both domestically and around the world. The UK is now rightly considered a leader on the global stage, and the Government is to be commended for its success in increasing international awareness and focus on the need to prevent this awful exploitation.

In my own constituency, I have seen major incidents of modern slavery with, on one occasion, the police freeing 24 slaves, 19 of whom were British and some of whom had been kept on the site for nearly 15 years.

This year, World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, on July 30th, marked a pivotal moment for the anti-trafficking and slavery movement.

The establishment of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office presents an opportunity to take stock of the good work which has been done, and consider what needs to happen next to swiftly and sustainably eradicate modern slavery.

The FCDO must, of course, do so in the context of a global community which is seeking to overcome the crisis of COVID-19 and rebuild a sense of normality.

Experts estimate that there are 40 million people around the world held in slavery. More than at any other time in history. One in four are children. Sadly, the COVID-19 crisis means that increased numbers of people are likely to suffer trafficking and exploitation. Life has become harder for many people due to financial hardship and prolonged isolation, making them more susceptible to ruthless traffickers who prey upon vulnerability. The World Bank estimates that 49 million more people will be forced into extreme poverty this year. Without urgent action, increases in violence, slavery, and other forms of brutal exploitation, could become another pandemic.

There has never been a more crucial moment to build on the powerful momentum of the Government’s action against slavery in recent years. The FCDO must make accelerating our efforts to eradicate modern slavery a priority. There are four key principles which I believe ought to form the basis of the new department’s strategy for tackling this devastating problem.

Firstly, we must bring an end to impunity. The adage that modern slavery is a low risk, high reward crime remains true in many places around the world. Whether it be a lack of resources, expertise, or political will, too often justice systems fail to hold traffickers to account, and vulnerable people are exploited without consequence.

When public justice systems are equipped to enforce anti-slavery laws, dramatic change is possible. International Justice Mission, an NGO which works alongside local authorities to build their capacity to respond to trafficking, have seen this first-hand. In cities in which they have worked in the Philippines, the number of children available for commercial sexual exploitation fell by up to 86 per cent – an astonishing result.

If the FCDO is to develop a robust anti-slavery strategy, tackling impunity and strengthening the rule of law must be at its centre. Approaches like this could see slavery stopped at source, protecting millions of people and making everyone safer.

Secondly, those who have experienced modern slavery must play a pivotal role in shaping our response. Survivors hold an expertise which most of those who develop anti-slavery laws and policies cannot begin to understand.

Across South Asia, the Released Bonded Labourers’ Association has played a pivotal role in helping workers out of exploitation. Earlier this year, I read of 13 families who had been released from forced labour in a brick kiln, thanks to the RBLA’s advocacy which began in June 2018. The families, 42 people including 13 children, had been forced to work for up to five years to repay false debts. Many of them were injured or malnourished, having had no access to good food or medical care. Several of the women were pregnant, and the children worked alongside the adults turning the baking bricks in the hot sun.

Survivors are uniquely placed to understand the circumstances which led to their abuse. We must listen to them if we are stop others falling victim to the same brutal exploitation.

Thirdly, we must see a joined-up approach across government. Modern slavery requires a multifaceted response both at home and around the world. The FCDO will have an essential role to play, but its approach must be aligned with other government departments.

Take, for example, the need to address exploitation in business supply chains. British businesses often source and manufacture goods in communities where forced or bonded labour is widespread. The FCDO through our Embassies and High Commissions, the Department for International Trade, and the Home Office, must work together to create an environment in which business can thrive without the risk of perpetuating exploitation.

Finally, accountability and transparency are key. The British public must have confidence in the new department. The well-respected international aid network, Bond, are correct in saying that ‘aid only works well when it is accountable to parliament’. DFID was subject to close scrutiny by the International Development Select Committee, and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact helped to ensure value for money for the British taxpayer. Such scrutiny must be maintained to ensure we continually strive to be as efficient and effective as possible.

As we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, and as the Brexit transition period comes to an end, the FCDO has a responsibility to be a powerful force for good on the world stage. There are a myriad of pressing issues requiring urgent attention, but tackling the causes of modern slavery must remain upmost in the Government’s priorities.

Andrew Bridgen: It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to expose the scandal of Leicester’s sweatshops

16 Jul

Andrew Bridgen is Member of Parliament for North West Leicestershire.

With its Mayor, three MPs, Police and Crime Commissioner and 96 per cent representation on the city council all from the same political party, the city is called ‘Red Leicester’ for a reason. However, like a cheese that has been around for too long, something smells very bad about what is going on in this great city, which is Leicestershire’s County Town.

On a superficial basis, things look ok: its football team beat the odds to win the Premier League in 2016, it has a famous if faltering rugby team in the Leicester Tigers and an economy that has performed reasonably well in recent years – in part due to the advent of fast fashion and a resurgence of the garment industry in the city.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and the fundamentals don’t quite look as rosy. Indeed, they look extremely sinister. It has now become increasingly apparent that the growth in this industry is on the back of thousands of exploited workers earning between £3-4 per hour – something I warned was happening in Parliament during Business questions back in January.

While I have highlighted this to the Government for a considerable amount of time, the local lockdown of the city and some surrounding suburbs has created national media interest in it, and questions about the reasons behind the surge in Covid-19 cases. People are asking “why Leicester?”

All the evidence that I have seen points to workers who are effectively modern slaves being put into a position where they have to choose to either work or starve during the lockdown.

The internet retailers (who make up over 90 per cent of the factories) and customers have had a bonanza during the lockdown period, as Government policy has forced non-essential retailers to remain closed. This has effectively removed their traditional “physical competition”, and forced anyone who needed or wanted to buy clothes onto the internet.

It’s also a fact that on poverty wages the housing that these modern slaves could afford would be substandard and very overcrowded. I have been told multiple reports of 15 to 20 people forced to “live” in a traditional terraced house, which is usually deemed suitable accommodation for four people.

Leicester’s captive workforce has had to increase production by 50 per cent throughout the lockdown for their internet retailer masters, work even longer hours than normal (while often showing symptoms of the virus – as they don’t get sick pay), in factories without PPE, ventilation or any measures to reduce transmission, only to return home to chronically overcrowded accommodation. It’s a recipe for the spread of the virus and the tragedy we have seen engulf the city.

Representatives of the city council stubbornly maintain that the two issues which propelled Leicester into the media spotlight, namely the Covid-19 outbreak and the existence of illegal sweatshops, are not linked.

However, as said, I don’t think that their claims survive analysis. The hotspot of the virus outbreak in Leicester is in its North East corner, which is in the parliamentary constituency of Leicester East and all the hundreds of illegally-operating factories are also in this part of the city, the former fiefdom of the “Rt Hon” Keith Vaz.

The more I look at Leicester, the more it appears that although the Labour Party is notionally in charge, they are in fact only presiding over a city where the criminals are ruling the roost through a combination of intimidation and cultural blackmail in the knowledge that the authorities are so scared of the potential accusations of racism, that they dare not challenge the Dickensian conditions and the racketeering that exist in “their part“ of city.

When you hear Labour complain about equality, remember the fact that they appear to be happy to allow sweatshop owners driving around in Lamborghinis to threaten journalists trying to expose slave labour conditions in a city that they politically control.

The Government has to take control of this situation – clear out all that’s rotten in this borough. These appalling conditions are stifling legitimate enterprise in this city with the responsible factory owners and employers tarnished while being unable to compete on a level-playing field against those who operate illegally.

All this together with financial cost of loss of revenue to the Treasury through potential tax and benefit fraud and most importantly, the human cost of a slave workforce unable to live a life worth living.

The modern slaves in Leicester are trapped because most of them cannot speak English, and so are disadvantaged in accessing employment and opportunities outside their own closed community. This has to stop and it’s just a shame that it’s taken a pandemic to get people to sit up and take notice.

Priti Patel has given a personal commitment to stamp out these illegal and inhuman employment practices. I and others will be holding her to this pledge.

Andrew Bridgen: It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to expose the scandal of Leicester’s sweatshops

16 Jul

Andrew Bridgen is Member of Parliament for North West Leicestershire.

With its Mayor, three MPs, Police and Crime Commissioner and 96 per cent representation on the city council all from the same political party, the city is called ‘Red Leicester’ for a reason. However, like a cheese that has been around for too long, something smells very bad about what is going on in this great city, which is Leicestershire’s County Town.

On a superficial basis, things look ok: its football team beat the odds to win the Premier League in 2016, it has a famous if faltering rugby team in the Leicester Tigers and an economy that has performed reasonably well in recent years – in part due to the advent of fast fashion and a resurgence of the garment industry in the city.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and the fundamentals don’t quite look as rosy. Indeed, they look extremely sinister. It has now become increasingly apparent that the growth in this industry is on the back of thousands of exploited workers earning between £3-4 per hour – something I warned was happening in Parliament during Business questions back in January.

While I have highlighted this to the Government for a considerable amount of time, the local lockdown of the city and some surrounding suburbs has created national media interest in it, and questions about the reasons behind the surge in Covid-19 cases. People are asking “why Leicester?”

All the evidence that I have seen points to workers who are effectively modern slaves being put into a position where they have to choose to either work or starve during the lockdown.

The internet retailers (who make up over 90 per cent of the factories) and customers have had a bonanza during the lockdown period, as Government policy has forced non-essential retailers to remain closed. This has effectively removed their traditional “physical competition”, and forced anyone who needed or wanted to buy clothes onto the internet.

It’s also a fact that on poverty wages the housing that these modern slaves could afford would be substandard and very overcrowded. I have been told multiple reports of 15 to 20 people forced to “live” in a traditional terraced house, which is usually deemed suitable accommodation for four people.

Leicester’s captive workforce has had to increase production by 50 per cent throughout the lockdown for their internet retailer masters, work even longer hours than normal (while often showing symptoms of the virus – as they don’t get sick pay), in factories without PPE, ventilation or any measures to reduce transmission, only to return home to chronically overcrowded accommodation. It’s a recipe for the spread of the virus and the tragedy we have seen engulf the city.

Representatives of the city council stubbornly maintain that the two issues which propelled Leicester into the media spotlight, namely the Covid-19 outbreak and the existence of illegal sweatshops, are not linked.

However, as said, I don’t think that their claims survive analysis. The hotspot of the virus outbreak in Leicester is in its North East corner, which is in the parliamentary constituency of Leicester East and all the hundreds of illegally-operating factories are also in this part of the city, the former fiefdom of the “Rt Hon” Keith Vaz.

The more I look at Leicester, the more it appears that although the Labour Party is notionally in charge, they are in fact only presiding over a city where the criminals are ruling the roost through a combination of intimidation and cultural blackmail in the knowledge that the authorities are so scared of the potential accusations of racism, that they dare not challenge the Dickensian conditions and the racketeering that exist in “their part“ of city.

When you hear Labour complain about equality, remember the fact that they appear to be happy to allow sweatshop owners driving around in Lamborghinis to threaten journalists trying to expose slave labour conditions in a city that they politically control.

The Government has to take control of this situation – clear out all that’s rotten in this borough. These appalling conditions are stifling legitimate enterprise in this city with the responsible factory owners and employers tarnished while being unable to compete on a level-playing field against those who operate illegally.

All this together with financial cost of loss of revenue to the Treasury through potential tax and benefit fraud and most importantly, the human cost of a slave workforce unable to live a life worth living.

The modern slaves in Leicester are trapped because most of them cannot speak English, and so are disadvantaged in accessing employment and opportunities outside their own closed community. This has to stop and it’s just a shame that it’s taken a pandemic to get people to sit up and take notice.

Priti Patel has given a personal commitment to stamp out these illegal and inhuman employment practices. I and others will be holding her to this pledge.

Christian Guy: Today’s real slavery scandal. There are 100,000 slaves in Britain today – the tip of an international iceberg

13 Jul

Christian Guy is Chief Executive of the anti-slavery organisation Justice and Care. He was formerly a Special Adviser to David Cameron in 10 Downing Street, and a Chief Executive of the Centre for Social Justice.

Daniel grew up in Swansea but became homeless at 16 when he fell out with his Mum. He struggled with mental health and a learning disability. Soon after, a local family of traffickers took Daniel and forced him to work on a scrap yard without pay.

He was beaten and abused so brutally by slave masters that when he was eventually rescued by police, the nurse who cared for him said he had the worst injuries she had ever seen. “He looked like somebody from a concentration camp”, she concluded.

A new report from Justice and Care and the Centre for Social Justice finds there are at least 100,000 slaves like Daniel in Britain today, based on access to new police data. Experts admit it is likely even higher. But we find very few of them: the largest estimate any UK Government had previously made was just 13,000.

When the 13,000 victims estimate was made the Government also calculated slavery’s annual social and economic cost at £3-4 billion, likely well-short of the true figure. And with British nationals the largest group of victims found, this cannot simply be dismissed as a UK Border problem.

What it can become is a mission for this Government, which has rightly put law, order and tackling hidden harms high on its to-do list. For example, last year more than 10,000 potential slaves were found here, but only 219 people were convicted for slavery-related offences. Criminals setting up in the human trafficking trade consider Britain a low-risk place to do business in 2020.

Yet one principle would turn that on its head: start to care for the abused properly, and they will help dismantle the organised crime groups running riot. Victims are key witnesses and many want justice. They are our greatest asset. Yet just as we fail to send most traffickers to prison, we leave too many victims alone, destitute and easily re-trafficked. This is a moral mistake and a strategic error.

Some view victim care as a soft option. This is wrong and delights traffickers. Woeful support has victims running a mile or stuck in silence. However, get those things right and they often talk. This is something my charity sees on a daily basis. Our pilot Victim Navigator initiative is already proving it: 88 per cent of the victims that Justice and Care supported in the first year of the programme are engaging with police and giving vital evidence that would otherwise have been lost. Cases police would have closed are now heading towards prosecution.

Today’s report, It Still Happens Here, also calls for longer-term support for victims – backing Iain Duncan Smith and Lord McColl’s Bill due back in Parliament soon. We argue that for victims cooperating with police investigations or prosecutions beyond the 12 months the Bill would help them for, we should issue US-style ‘Trafficking Visas’. They provide a lifeline for victims helping to get justice done (in America they never reach their annual cap).

Yet good care does not mean everyone stays in the UK. We also call for fast-track repatriation schemes for those who want to return home. Working with charities and other Governments we should be helping people home within 72 hours if they want to. With support when they return and bodies like the EU taking more responsibility, we could close the re-trafficking revolving door and take their evidence on video links if cases move forward. This is the Zoom era – we need to innovate. Let’s treat victims with decency and respect and watch our conviction rates rocket.

Other recommendations focus on ending the benefit fraud traffickers manage on an industrial scale. We found many cases, but one struck me in particular: 70 people were registered for benefits using the same mobile phone number and nobody at the JobCentre noticed. We even heard about abuse of the Treasury’s Furlough scheme, with traffickers claiming payments for victims they were forcing into other lockdown abuse when car washes and nail bars closed.

And on the subject of businesses, action must be taken in two urgent ways.

First, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority has to deal more effectively with exploitative UK workplaces such as the one we read about in Leicester. Not only are they illegal, they risk undermining our COVID recovery.

Second, we have to get tougher on international supply chains – thousands of businesses either continue to ignore the Modern Slavery Act’s requirement to root it out, or they lie in their statements with no follow-up scrutiny. This must be dealt with – fines, Director disqualification or even criminal charges included.

Finally, nearly 60 per cent of people we polled do not know what to do when they spot potential slavery. This is a problem. The police rely on local people being ‘eyes and ears’, and indeed it was a worried member of the public who reported Daniel’s condition when they caught a glimpse of it.

So, from the top down it is time for us to make good on our commitment ‘to lead the world’ in the fight against the ownership of one human being by another. People like Daniel are counting on us.

Fay Jones: A ban on the rough sex defence – and other benefits of this Government’s Domestic Abuse Bill

10 Jul

Fay Jones is MP for Brecon & Radnorshire.

Lockdown has provided many with the chance to spend some rare family time together – learning a new Tik Tok dance or doing a Joe Wicks workout.  But for an alarming number of people, Covid 19 has not been their biggest threat.  For those suffering from domestic abuse, enduring lockdown with an abuser will only have increased the daily fear and anguish.

Consequently, I am enormously proud that this Government made the Domestic Abuse Bill one of its biggest priorities during the pandemic.  It could have chosen to drop the legislation; it stalled during Brexit and then fell again at the general election – but such is this Government’s commitment to victims that Ministers were given license to push it through.  From my spot on the Domestic Abuse committee, I saw just how much this Government wants to champion the rights of those who have been abused, and how good a track record the Conservative Party has on this issue.

While the Labour Party has always tried to argue it sits on the side of ‘the many and not the few’ – history does not support this, particularly in the field of criminal justice.  It was a Conservative Government that brought forward The Children Act 1989.  One of the last achievements of the Major Government was the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which created the offence of harassment.  Making stalking an offence came from the Coalition Government’s Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.  Indeed, during Monday night’s debate, Theresa May rightly accepted plaudits from across the House for pushing through both the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and the early stages of last night’s Domestic Abuse Bill.

The Domestic Abuse Bill will deliver meaningful change; creating a Domestic Abuse commissioner designed to map the availability of services, establishing Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Orders to provide victims with extra protection, prohibiting perpetrators of abuse from cross-examining their victims in family courts and legally recognising children as victims of abuse for the first time.  For many the biggest achievement of the bill is banning the ‘Rough Sex Defence’.  An enormous step in itself, this is evidence that Parliament works best when it acts cross party.  The combined campaigning strength of Mark Garnier and Harriet Harman have delivered a change in the law which will forever prevent murderers from arguing ‘they were asking for it.’

From my perspective, the Bill is also a good example of the strength of the Union.  In 2015, the Welsh Government passed its Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence Act.  However in November last year, the Auditor General for Wales reported a ‘fragmentation’ in service availability as there was no single agency to coordinate the system.  This is something that the Domestic Abuse Commissioner can look into – demonstrating that the ‘jagged edge of devolution’ can be overcome with tenacious, pro-Union Ministers.

The Domestic Abuse Bill is landmark legislation which will go a significant way to protecting the estimated 2.4 million victims of domestic abuse each year and it is by no means the stand-alone example of this Government putting victims first. It is the latest in a long track record of legislative milestones.  Conservatives should never shy away from this record – it is a record of leadership and collaboration which is what the public wants to see from its Government.  Above all, it is a record of standing alongside those who truly need our help.

Richard Fuller: Parliament should vote to put a time limit on migrant detention

29 Jun

Richard Fuller is MP for North East Bedfordshire.

Where does today’s Conservative parliamentary party stand on issues of individual liberty? This is a largely unanswered question – hidden behind the general dysfunction of the last Parliament and our current focus on tackling Covid-19 and the economics of “levelling up”.

An upcoming amendment to place a time limit for immigration detention will be an opportunity to gauge the Party’s willingness to respect the liberties of the most excluded in our society. Why is this important? Because one of the greatest assets of Global Britain is the integrity of our legal system and due process. Indefinite detention should not sully that reputation.

Under the last Labour government, Yarl’s Wood, an immigration detention centre in my constituency, imprisoned the children of undocumented migrants. David Cameron put a stop to that.

My exposure to the injustice faced by the women detained there and to the general futility of immigration detention led me to support calls for reform of the system. Bluntly, immigration detention is unjust, ineffective and costly.

Successive Conservative immigration ministers have chipped away at the shortcomings of the detention estate – limiting the detention of pregnant women, reducing the overall numbers detained and cracking down on abuse. Yet one signal change – a time limit on detention – has yet to be made.

Our immigration system depends on robust enforcement to enable those with no right to remain in the UK to be returned, but this can and should be achieved without the use of unlimited immigration detention.

The latest Home Office figures show that, just in the last year, over 6,000 people were detained for more than 28 days, and 475 for more than six months. Immigration detention can and does sometimes run into years.

The National Audit Office reported recently that, in 2019, 62 per cent of non-British citizens leaving immigration detention were not removed from the UK or voluntarily repatriated; but released into the community. This is because the Home Office detains in all manner of circumstances, including when people have a right to be in the UK – as we saw with the Windrush Generation – or where for various reasons, removal is not possible. Immigration detention is ineffective.

Set that astonishingly high failure rate against the costs of detention, and the waste of this system is laid bare. It costs over £34,000 per person per year to detain someone, almost £90 million in the last year.

Additionally, in the year ending March 2019 the Government paid over £8 million to migrants in compensation for unlawful immigration detention, and the huge costs of settling unlawful detention claims are not known. Immigration detention is costly.

Many of the women I have met have experienced torture, including sexual violence, and many have been trafficked. The Government has done much to combat trafficking and modern slavery, but our success is hollow if the most vulnerable victims of these horrific practices are themselves detained indefinitely. As Global Britain reasserts its place in the world, we should be conscious of those impediments to our role as a global leader promoting freedom under the law.

Conservative MPs have the opportunity to do that right now by supporting an amendment to the Immigration Bill for consideration at the Report Stage. The amendment introduces a 28-day time limit and early judicial oversight of continuing detention. It is a small step that will enhance our immigration enforcement by putting in place a rigorous system to ensure that the Immigration Service operates promptly and efficiently; and it will create an equitable system in keeping with our traditions of justice stretching back to the Magna Carta.