Modern Slavery Bill — Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:06 pm on 17th November 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon Labour 7:06 pm, 17th November 2014

My Lords, I declare an interest in the debate as a trustee of the campaigning organisation Liberty. I urge all of us to ask ourselves: is this Bill all that we can do? Have we given everything that we can? If there is one more victim, one more slave, as there definitely will be, will we be able to look them in the eye?

It is an honour to sit in your Lordships’ House in the Parliament of a country that so often has been defined by what it stands for as well as what it does. As we have just commemorated, we have fought for freedom from international tyranny so that people and communities across the world may have the opportunity to live with dignity and hope. That is our fundamental human desire, for ourselves and for our children—that we might have the chance to live lives of dignity where we might put our talents to good use and see just how much we can do, with the simple hope that tomorrow might be better than today.

One could of course quote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at length to show the extent of international agreement on this, but we know what we want for our children when they are born. It is not for them to be spirited across borders against their will, to work backbreaking hours with little or no pay, with the promise of only a beating if they try to escape, or to live their lives under the violent control of others, exploited for their labour and robbed of their free will and hope. That is not what we want for our children.

Sitting in your Lordships’ House, I have come to realise that all the people in this country that we represent, whether or not they were born here, are our children. It is their right to have a future that we must honour and secure. Therefore, I welcome the fact that we have come so far in progressing the Bill and I acknowledge the dedication and commitment of so many in your Lordships’ House, the other place and the public realm to bringing the freeing power of light to an issue that has known too much darkness.

However, as we consider the Bill today, even with the changes that have been made, we know that it is not all that we can do. The Bill currently suggests that our primary objective is to punish the perpetrators, not to give victims a life where they can enjoy their inherent human rights. I strongly support the inclusion of measures such as the restoration of legal aid for all potentially trafficked people, to give them access to their rights, protection from further abuse and a strong voice in the system. The experts, including the Prime Minister’s former special envoy on human trafficking, Anthony Steen, are clear that a Bill without strong victim protection and victims’ rights at its heart will not be as effective as it should be, either in giving victims of exploitation back their lives or in securing conviction—the worst of both worlds.

The Bill currently sacrifices pragmatism and outcome for symbolic efficiency. While I wholeheartedly support the principle of consolidation, by not breaking down human trafficking into its component crimes we make it much harder to secure conviction. I strongly endorse the proposition of being more specific in setting out separate offences not only to ensure that we can secure convictions but also to address all forms of exploitation. The absence of specific definitions and clauses relating to child exploitation are a powerful example of this Bill being strong on intent but weak in delivery.

The Bill currently has our values and leadership a distant second to political expediency. Some say that because of potential public confusion about victims of trafficking and immigrants, the Bill has pulled its punches in terms of victim protection and support. If we do not offer victim support, we abdicate not only our moral duty but also our responsibility to the economy, as forced labour undercuts the job market. The current Government’s 2012 visa changes to overseas domestic workers—tying them to one employer and drastically increasing the number of people at risk of domestic slavery—are a worrying example of this. The Bill is politically strong for the Conservatives on immigration, but it is weak on compassion and human rights.

In the other place, William Wilberforce spent 25 years fighting for the abolition of the slave trade. While we are part of that same arc of history, our struggle to bend society towards abolition and towards justice will be much easier and quicker if we choose to achieve that end. The moral argument has been won: every country condemns slavery. The economic argument has been won: the cost of ending slavery is just a fraction of the value freed slaves will create for economies. The legal argument has been won: legislation is not the silver bullet, but it certainly plays a large role, as we acknowledge here today.

The intent of the Bill is good. However, we are talking about the rights and futures of our children. In that light, the Bill does not go far enough. Their lives are too important for political expediency. Our children call on us for moral leadership. We have to send a clear message to the boys, girls, men and women who are currently enslaved, living lives where hope becomes more distant and the future more bleak. We have to say: “We will not let you live lives without dignity, without rights, without a future worth living. You are our children, too”. I ask your Lordships to ensure that, through this debate and our subsequent work, we make the Bill worthy of this Chamber, this country and the people whom we represent.