The existence of modern of slavery and human trafficking is a cause for major concern. Although the United Kingdom has legislation to tackle it, incidents of slavery and trafficking are increasing at alarming rates.
Local press coverage recently reported that the number of reports of slavery or trafficking in Wigan had trebled in the last three years. This is a further example of the trend shown in October last year, when the Local Government Association reported that referrals made by local authorities of suspected child victims of modern slavery had risen by more than 800% over the previous five years. The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has explained the growing number of referrals of UK children as being due to the prevalence of children being used in drug dealing known as 'county lines'.
Everyone working in the public sector recognises the need to tackle this disturbing trend. Local authorities have a duty under section 52 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to notify the secretary of state if they suspect that a person may be a victim suspicion of modern slavery. The high increase in referrals could be seen as a sign that local authorities are working effectively in meeting this duty but it also shows the importance of continuing to take action to prevent slavery and trafficking.
Local authorities have opportunities to tackle and prevent modern slavery from occurring in their areas through their powers and the activities they undertake. One way in which they can do this is in their purchase of services, supplies and works. Local authorities often need to use external suppliers to enable them to discharge their functions and they need to be sure that their suppliers are not involved in slavery or trafficking and can demonstrate that there are no instances or risks of slavery and trafficking in the supply chain.
If local authorities have robust procurement rules in their constitutions and adhere to those and to public procurement regulations when they apply, they should be effective in identifying and addressing risks of slavery and trafficking. They should be constantly alert to the risks and should keep their rules and processes under review.
The need for transparency in supply chains is recognised in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which requires commercial organisations to prepare a statement each financial year, saying what they have done to ensure that slavery and trafficking are not taking place in their supply chains. Local authorities are not currently expressly identified as commercial organisations for the purpose of this duty but some local authorities decided voluntarily to produce such modern slavery statements.
However, the Government is proposing to amend the Modern Slavery Act 2015, following a review of its effectiveness. The Government proposes that public sector organisations with an annual budget of £36m or more should be brought within the scope of the duty to produce modern slavery statements. Local authorities who are not already choosing to produce modern slavery statements should prepare themselves for a time when they will be obliged to do so.
The Government also proposes to take other action to address the need for transparency in supply chains. It is intending to establish a registry of modern slavery statements and it is looking into ways of strengthening the approach to tackling non-compliance.
The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Dame Sara Thornton has a key role in tackling slavery and trafficking in the UK. Towards the end of last year, she published a strategic plan, setting out her priorities for 2019 to 2021. She identified four priorities, which focus on victim protection and the prosecution of traffickers and on tackling the systemic issues that allow modern slavery and trafficking to thrive.
Her priorities were:
- Improving victim care and support
- Supporting law enforcement and prosecution
- Focusing on prevention
- Getting value from research and innovation
Although the number of referrals made by local authorities of suspicions of slavery and trafficking have increased significantly over the last five years, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner commented in her strategic plan that the proportion of potential victims referred by local authorities was much smaller than those referred by Home Office agencies and police forces. She also said that there was concern about levels of awareness on the ground.
Local authorities should ensure that they are fully aware of their duties and powers to tackle modern slavery and human trafficking and that they know how to recognise and act on risks of modern slavery in their areas. Local authorities have a number of demands on their resources but the prevalence of slavery and trafficking are serious problems that need to be addressed. The effectiveness of actions by local authorities could have a significant impact on the effectiveness of actions by the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
Tiffany Cloynes is a partner, and Julia Shannon, Ph.D, is a paralegal at Geldards LLP