ECPAT UK today heralded the passage of historic legislation to protect victims of modern slavery, forced labour and child exploitation but warned there is still much work to do to stamp out human trafficking in the UK and across the world.

The Modern Slavery Act (England & Wales) received royal assent in Parliament today – the culmination of years of campaigning by ECPAT UK and other anti-trafficking organisations to improve protection of victims and strengthen criminal laws against crimes of modern slavery.

The new legislation contains hard-fought provisions to improve the protection of child victims, such as a commitment to introduce child trafficking advocates, a statutory defence to protect victims from being criminalised, a clause to ensure children without proof of age are treated as children and a stronger criminal offence of slavery, servitude, forced/compulsory labour to help prosecute child abusers.

The new Act also includes creation of an Anti-Slavery Commissioner with an extended remit to include protection of victims. ECPAT UK worked with others to ensure this role was sufficiently independent of Government.

For nearly a decade ECPAT UK has led the campaign for independent legal guardianship/advocacy for trafficked children, which is a requirement in the EU Directive on Trafficking and recommended by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 2011, through a joint campaign with The Body Shop, we secured the signatures of 735,889 people supporting our call for a system of legal guardianship for trafficked children.

In 2013, when the new modern slavery legislation was announced, ECPAT UK launched a campaign with Walk Free to improve the provisions for children in the Bill, supported by 85,000 members of the public. All four of our campaign asks have been heeded and either fully or partly implemented in the new Act. Three out of the four have been long-standing campaigns – independent guardianship, an independent commissioner and non-criminalisation of child victims of trafficking.

“Today is an historic day and one that ECPAT UK is proud to have helped secure after so many years of campaigning and advocating on behalf of child victims of trafficking – the most vulnerable individuals in our society,” said Chloe Setter, Head of Advocacy, Policy & Campaigns (Child Trafficking), ECPAT UK.

“To have a single piece of domestic legislation for England and Wales that covers the criminal acts of slavery, servitude, trafficking and exploitation is truly significant and should help to raise awareness of this growing abuse of children and adults, both in the UK and internationally. We wish to thank all of those members of the public who helped pressure the Government to take action and the many Parliamentarians who have taken this cause to their hearts.

“The Modern Slavery Act is truly a milestone in the fight against the world’s fastest growing organised crime. However, legislation alone will not stop modern slavery. We now face the many challenges of implementing the law, training frontline workers to understand these complex issues and ensuring relevant policy is fit for purpose. We urge the Government to honour its commitments to improve protection for child victims and to make sufficient resources available to deliver its ambitious pledge to eradicate modern slavery.”

The Modern Slavery Act (England & Wales) will join Northern Ireland’s new legislation, the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Criminal Justice and Support for Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2015. The Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Bill is still being scrutinised.

A trial of Child Trafficking Advocates is currently under way in 23 local authority areas in England.