Opponents of Theresa May's much-criticised anti-slavery law added a heavyweight figure to their ranks this morning, after Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen threw his weight behind a critical parliamentary report.
The director of 12 Years A Slave praised the joint committee on human rights, which took the unusual step today of giving up on scrutinising the modern slavery bill and simply presented its own version instead.
The rare decision comes after months of anger from anti-slavery groups, who have argued that the home secretary's legislation will do little to tackle modern slavery in the UK.
"There is much in the history of the United Kingdom in relation to slavery that our country should be ashamed of," McQueen said in a statement attached to the report.
"But one thing that all British people can be justifiably proud is of our anti-slavery tradition stretching back to people such as Equiano, Clarkson, Wilberforce, and the Quakers.
"The authors of this report can honourably stand in that tradition. They have listened to the evidence and considered it with great care. Their recommendations are humane and principled.
"I warmly commend this report and pay tribute to the members of the committee who have produced it. Their work has honoured parliament and the country."
The strongly worded statement gives some indication of the strength of feeling amassed against May's slavery initiative, which is accused of putting a focus on prosecutions ahead of caring for victims.
Some critics say that a victim-focused approach was rejected because it would have meant a softening of the government's immigration policies.
They add that criminalising slaves – either because of what they were forced to do while under control or because of their immigration status – prevents them from seeking help from police.
The joint committee recommended sweeping changes to the draft bill, including the creation of six specific slavery offences:
- Slavery of children and adults
- Child exploitation
- Child trafficking
- And facilitating the commission of an offence of modern slavery
"The shift to the focus on victims is not only the morally right thing to do in and of itself, it is essential if we are to get the prosecutions necessary to try to end this evil," chair of the committee Frank Field said.
"We must conclude that for parts of this bill, amendments will not be sufficient to make good, workable, effective legislation. Some parts of it need a rewrite.
"This is ground-breaking legislation that will influence law and the fight against modern slavery around the globe. The world is watching: we have to get this right. In the 19th century British politicians sought to abolish the international slave trade and end one of the most deplorable practices in history.
"Their hard-fought victory remains one of our parliament's finest achievements. We must not betray that legacy – or the victims of slavery."
It is estimated that there are thousands of people in Britain who are victims of trafficking in the sex trade alone.
Others are used in forced labour, domestic servitude and forced criminal activity.
The committee recommended:
- Requiring quoted companies to report on measures they have taken to eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains, ensuring that goods and services sold in the UK are free from slavery
- A simplification of the criminal offences in the bill to ensure more convictions
- Making provision for distinct child assistance and support
- Establishing a statutory system of children’s advocates
- Ensuring victims are not prosecuted for crimes they were forced to commit while enslaved
- Establishing a fund for legal services for the victims of modern slavery
- Revisiting recent domestic worker visa rule changes that "unintentionally strengthened the hand of the slave master against the victim of slavery"
- Ensuring there is a clear separation between immigration decisions and decisions on modern slavery victimhood
"Unless and until the protection of victims, and the provision of support and services to them, are put on a statutory footing at the heart of this legislation, there is a risk that we will turn victims into criminals," Baroness Butler-Sloss said.
"Apart from the fact that this would be morally wrong, it is also self-defeating."