The spirit of Wilberforce?

By Ian Dunt

The Lords will vote today on an amendment which could see new laws against slavery in Britain, in a move with overtones of William Wilberforce, the leader of the movement which abolished slavery.

An amendment to the coroners and justice bill would make servitude and forced labour illegal for the first time.

Liberty and Anti-Slavery International are lobbying hard for a change in the law, with warnings that cases are currently falling through the gaps.

Liberty is currently representing a woman held in modern slavery in the UK. Despite managing to escape and complain to police, nothing was done to investigate her case until Liberty brought judicial review proceedings.

The lack of a criminal offence in this area leaves police uncertain how to proceed and unsure of the chance of obtaining a conviction, anti-slavery groups say.

“In an age when new criminal offences have flown out of Westminster like confetti, the lack of an effective anti-slavery law is a gaping hole in the protection of the vulnerable,” said Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty.

“We urge parliamentarians of all stripes to join together in supporting this amendment and honouring the tradition of William Wilberforce.”

Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, said: “To not have a law to protect people from forced labour is comparable to Britain not having criminalised torture.

“Forced labour will remain a reality in the UK unless adequate legislation is put in place and enforced.

“Getting the police to prosecute those who hold people in modern day slavery is extremely difficult because of the lack of a clear offence criminalising this practice. The existing legal provisions fail to protect victims or ensure that the perpetrators of these crimes are brought to justice.”

Trade unions and some legal professionals are also joining to campaign to have the amendment passed. Former director of public prosecutions Ken MacDonald and Helen Mountfiel – both of Matrix Chambers – have provided legal opinions that the gap in British law could put the country in breach of European Convention of Human Rights obligations.

Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of union Unite, said: “Unite will use whatever political levers it can to persuade government to accept this amendment.”

A particularly controversial piece of legislation, the coroners and justice bill has been the subject of debate and argument since its inception.

Attempt to include passages allowing public bodies to share personal data on individuals without the normal legal safeguards was eventually removed after an outcry from privacy groups.

But new clauses in the bill would have allowed inquests to be suspended and secret inquiries established to replace them.

The House of Lords threw out that section of the legislation, but sources indicate the government will keep pushing to secure it.