The government unveils tougher new anti-slavery laws – but will victims dare to come forward unless they are guaranteed more protection from prosecution?
The new anti-slavery laws will see human traffickers given maximum life sentences in jail, the Home Office has confirmed.
The modern slavery bill contains provisions to give automatic life sentences to offenders who already have convictions for very serious sexual or violent offences.
The draft bill, announced by Home Secretary Theresa May at the Conservative Party conference in September, pulls together into a single act the offences used to prosecute slave-drivers. The bill also introduces trafficking prevention orders to restrict the activity and movement of convicted traffickers and stop them from committing further offences.
A new anti-slavery commissioner will be appointed to hold law enforcement and other organisations to account.
The home secretary said that it was impossible to know exactly how many people are being held in conditions of servitude in Britain, but referrals to official agencies suggest that the numbers are growing.
It is hoped that the changes in the bill will increase the number of prosecutions from the single figures seen in recent years.
Mrs May said one of the obstacles to successful prosecution was the reluctance of victims to come forward because of fears that they might themselves face prosecution or be sent back to their home countries.
We do need victims to be willing to come forward and give evidence in these cases – Theresa May
Mrs May told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “The number of referrals has been increasing and it is on that basis that we believe we have seen an increase in this absolutely horrendous and appalling crime.
“One of the purposes of bringing the bill forward is to ensure that we can enhance our ability to deal with the slave-drivers and therefore reduce the prospect of people being victims in the future.
“I recognise that there is a problem in terms of the very small number of prosecutions for trafficking or slavery offences that we have had. One of the things the bill does is consolidate this structure and introduce longer sentences.”
Mrs May made clear she recognised that the prosecution of victims of trafficking and slavery – such as the case unsuccessfully brought against a group of Vietnamese children forced to work in a cannabis factory – might deter victims from taking the stand against their exploiters.
“We do need victims to be willing to come forward and give evidence in these cases,” she said.
“That issue of whether or not a victim is going to be treated as a criminal themselves is consistently raised.
“I have talked to both the former and the current director of public prosecutions about the treatment of victims and about why it is that we are not seeking more prosecutions for trafficking and slavery cases.
“The DPP and the Crown Prosecution Service are issuing more guidance to make clear the circumstances around this question of where a victim has been forced into criminality because of their servitude, because of what the slave-driver has done.”
Labour MP Frank Field, who published a government-commissioned review into modern slavery at the same time as the bill, said it was crucial to ensure that victims felt they could come forward and not be prosecuted – but also stressed support was necessary regardless of whether they felt able to give evidence.
Mr Field said: “It is indisputable that victims of modern slavery suffer from an evil with few equivalents. They are subject to horrors that, thankfully, most people never think about, let alone face. That survivors should therefore receive the support and care that they need to regain their human dignity is without question.
“It should be provided regardless as to whether they are willing, let alone able to give evidence, for the sole reason that it is the right thing to do.”