Repeal the Human Rights Act? Slavery arrests another reason to think again

12 September 2011

Author: 
Emma Norton, Legal Officer

Slavery in modern day Britain? Sadly, it does not beggar belief. This morning we woke to terrible reports that 24 people appear to have been held in appalling and squalid conditions in Bedfordshire and forced to work for years with no pay. Police reports suggest that many of the victims are extremely vulnerable and on the margins of our society - easy prey for those who would exploit them. Some of them may have been imprisoned for as long as 15 years.

It seems incredible that this can have gone on for so long with no-one noticing. Sadly the problem is not as unusual as we might like to think. In 2008 Liberty represented a young woman named Patience Asuquo who had been held as a slave and had managed to escape her abusive employer, only to face a disinterested police force that refused to investigate her allegations of abuse and assault.  And we are currently representing another young woman in frighteningly similar circumstances who has complained that she was held in forced servitude for years and when she finally managed to escape following a particularly nasty assault, was met with a police force that thought the best way to deal with the situation was to simply caution the abusive employer and send her on her way. Only last month, in a separate case, a woman was convicted and sent to prison for holding another young woman in forced servitude in her London home for six months where she had been forced to endure exploitation and abuse.

Part of the problem with these cases is a lack of awareness and public and police indifference. Hardly surprising then that until April 2010 there was no such thing in English law as the criminal offence of holding someone in slavery or forced servitude. Thank goodness for the Human Rights Act (HRA). It is the HRA that has enabled these recent arrests and prosecutions to be brought.  Following Patience’s case, and using  Article 4 of the Human Rights Act (the right not to be held in slavery) Liberty and other organisations lobbied hard for the creation of a new serious criminal offence of holding someone in slavery or servitude. In October of 2009, an amendment was pushed through the House of Lords which created the offence of holding another person in slavery or servitude or requiring another person to perform forced or compulsory labour. That was then brought into English law through the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. A person convicted of this offence can expect to get a sentence of up to 14 years in prison.

It is this law that has been used today to arrest those suspected of holding those vulnerable men in modern day slavery. Liberty hopes that police forces will continue to actively investigate this and other cases like it. And that those who would repeal the Human Rights Act consider the appalling impact that repeal would have on these terrible and shocking cases.