ECPAT UK has welcomed the introduction of the Modern Slavery Bill in Parliament today but warned that it must go further to protect trafficked children and meet the Home Secretary’s aim of ridding the UK of the ‘scourge of modern slavery’.

The legislation pledges to protect victims of human trafficking from crimes they were compelled to commit by their traffickers, echoing the calls of the more than 70,000 supporters of ECPAT UK’s Modern Slavery Bill campaign launched in December 2013 in partnership with Walk Free.

This marks a significant victory after sustained pressure from ECPAT UK, the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group, Walk Free and other campaigners to stop the further abuse of trafficking victims in the criminal justice system, including Vietnamese children arrested after their enslavement in cannabis factories across the UK and children forced to commit crimes such as pickpocketing and theft by criminal gangs.

The Bill also introduces an Anti-Slavery Commissioner after calls from ECPAT UK and other leading charities for the UK to strengthen its response to modern slavery and trafficking.

In a welcome move, the Bill will also include a ’benefit of the doubt‘ clause about children’s age, which ECPAT UK has argued is a necessary part of the new legislation. This will help to ensure that, when there is reason to believe a person is a child but there is no proof of age, agencies treat those without proof of age as children and provide them with the necessary support until an age assessment has been carried out.

However, ECPAT UK warned today that more work must be done to improve the Bill as it passes through Parliament to ensure it improves identification and protection of child victims, in particular by providing in statute a system of independent legal guardianship for trafficked children so that they have someone with the legal authority to act, as a parent would, in their best interests and hold authorities to account.   

Instead of putting such a system in the Modern Slavery Bill, the Government has included an ‘enabling clause‘ that would potentially allow for the introduction of a legal system of guardianship at a later stage, following the completion and evaluation of a trial child trafficking advocates scheme due to start soon.

Last week, the Queen’s speech promised new legislation that would not simply focus on prosecutions but also fundamentally improve support for human trafficking victims. According to ECPAT UK, the new Bill represents an improvement upon the initial draft legislation introduced in December 2013. However, ECPAT UK has expressed disappointment that the Bill has not included a separate criminal offence of child exploitation.

Chloe Setter, Head of Advocacy, Policy and Campaigns (Child Trafficking), said:

“We welcome the positive steps taken by the Home Secretary to strengthen her Modern Slavery Bill and to include measures that will help to protect child victims of trafficking and slavery, in particular the introduction of a statutory defence of trafficking to protect those wrongly prosecuted for crimes they are forced to commit.

“However, we are concerned that the Government has failed to capitalise on the chance to enshrine in legislation a system of independent guardianship. Whilst the ‘enabling mechanism’ could provide for guardianship at a later date, an opportunity has been missed to provide urgent protection for children who are at risk right now and who urgently need this support.

“In addition, we had hoped to see a criminal offence of child exploitation included in the offences as we believe this would improve the woefully low detection and prosecution rate of child trafficking in the UK. We will continue to work hard to ensure the Bill best protects children and reduces child trafficking both here and globally.” 

ECPAT UK will continue to scrutinise the Bill with partners over the ensuing weeks and campaign to ensure its two remaining campaign calls are included in the final legislation in 2015.