Theresa May once called modern slavery “the great human rights issue of our time”, and she was right. The very idea that human beings are held in bondage in the UK today – forced to pick fruit and wash cars, to work on construction sites and in nail bars – is sickening.
In 2015, the Coalition Government passed a Modern Slavery Act to make it easier to identify victims and bring traffickers to justice, and prosecutions have increased as a result. But now, many of Theresa May’s own policies are undermining efforts to tackle it.
The “hostile environment” approach she introduced as Home Secretary is making it harder for victims to come forward, whether to report crimes or seek medical help. In 2016, for example, she created a new offence of “illegal working”, which traffickers now use to keep victims in fear of prosecution if they speak up.
Meanwhile, Conservative cuts to the Border Force, as well as to police forces across the country, have left fewer officers on the frontline in the fight against trafficking. That simply isn’t good enough. The “great human rights issue of our time” can’t be tackled on the cheap.
Perhaps the biggest threat to efforts to combat modern slavery, though, is the Government’s pursuit of a hard Brexit. As the European Commission, the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee and respected security experts have all made clear, this puts at risk the vital cross-border institutions and co-operation that we rely on to fight organised crime and human trafficking.
Thanks to British leadership, human trafficking has become one of Europol’s top priorities. Even if we remain a member of the agency – and we must – Brexit will strip us of that leadership role. At the same time, the Prime Minister is sticking to her “red lines” that may cost us both the European Arrest Warrant and EU intelligence-sharing arrangements that have helped to put traffickers behind bars.
I know that Theresa May cares about tackling modern slavery, and the Modern Slavery Act stands as one of her greatest achievements. So I’m calling on her to protect that achievement, abandon the harmful policies that threaten it, and work to end slavery for good.