The Government must today commit to clarify its proposed criminal legislation on child trafficking and child slavery if it wants to secure more prosecutions against those who exploit children, ECPAT UK has said. 

ECPAT UK, supported by the Refugee Children’s Consortium, is urging the House of Lords to today strengthen the Modern Slavery Bill to make sure the law affirms the Government’s previously stated intention, that where the victim is a child, it shall be an offence to hold a child in slavery, servitude or forced/compulsory labour, even if there is no evidence of force, threat, deception or any type of coercion.

CLICK HERE to read the ECPAT UK and Refugee Children's Consortium briefing on child exploitation offences

Members of the House of Lords will today debate the drafting of the criminal offences, but ECPAT UK is concerned that the Bill does not go far enough to protect children, who make up a quarter of all-known victims of trafficking and slavery in the UK. ECPAT UK has led the campaign for a separate offence of child exploitation as part of the ECPAT UK and Walk Free Modern Slavery Bill campaign, which has attracted 80,000 signatures from the public.

Last week, the Government heeded ECPAT UK concerns that the Bill did not sufficiently describe the various forms of exploitation that children are subjected to, in particular, forced criminality and forced begging.

Children, who are known to be ‘particularly vulnerable’ to exploitation, have often been groomed into a life where exploitation is sadly ‘the norm’. Some may also have additional vulnerabilities such as learning disabilities. They may even display elements of Stockholm Syndrome and become attached to their abuser. This means children often do not realise they have been exploited as they are not aware of their own rights. In some instances, a child is exploited by their own family and so the coercion is particularly subtle and hard to establish. When found by authorities, there is little of the evidence available to prove beyond reasonable doubt the high threshold of slavery, servitude, forced or compulsory labour as defined by international law and conventions. The Government has not yet shown how Clause 1 of its Modern Slavery Bill will overcome the evidential barriers, which are exacerbated by the lack of case law involving child witnesses.

ECPAT UK is aware of cases where a child has been exploited for years in domestic servitude by a family who benefits from their labour. Yet because the child may still be sent to school and/or displays some attachment or gratitude to the family for what is believed to be the provision of care, the investigation is dropped and no charges are brought against those adults who have enslaved the young person without pay, in a country miles away from their family. 

Chloe Setter, Head of Advocacy, Policy & Campaigns (Child Trafficking), ECPAT UK, said: “Child exploitation too frequently goes unpunished, denying children their right to access justice for the abuses against them. Today, the children’s sector is calling on Peers to ensure the Modern Slavery Bill works for children, the most vulnerable victims of slavery and trafficking. 

“This is an historic moment for us to ensure our modern slavery laws enshrine sufficient protection for children so that the UK is properly equipped to win the fight against the rise in child exploitation in our country.”