Government concede modern day slavery legal gap

28 October 2009

The Government today conceded the need to criminalise forced labour and servitude. Parliament was expected to vote this afternoon on an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill that would make servitude and forced labour an offence in the UK for the first time.

However, in advance of the vote the Government has agreed in principle that there is a need for this offence and will introduce a revised offence in this Bill next week.

Liberty identified the need to properly outlaw modern day slavery after representing a woman who had been subjected to forced labour. Despite managing to escape and complain to police, nothing was done to investigate her case until Liberty brought Judicial Review proceedings. In June of this year Liberty and Anti-Slavery International suggested the creation of this new offence, and Baroness Young of Hornsey, an independent Crossbench peer took the amendment through the House of Lords.

Isabella Sankey, Policy Director of Liberty, said:

“We are incredibly grateful to Cross Benchers, Liberal Democrats and Conservative peers, and now the Government for listening to the strength of our argument. There is understandable public scepticism about politics these days, but this victory shows the potential for protecting the most vulnerable in our society when politicians on all sides come together.”

Joanna Ewart-James, Supply Chain Co-ordinator at Anti-Slavery International, said:

“It is shocking that these criminal offences do not already exist so we are very pleased that the Government has agreed to introduce an amendment to this Bill.

“Once in force, we expect that police and prosecutors will be better able to press charges against perpetrators of this serious crime, providing better protection to the most vulnerable workers in our economy.”

Baroness Young of Hornsey said:

“Like many others I was shocked to learn that forced labour had never been properly criminalised in this country. All sides of the House have now recognised the important, urgent need for this offence. My pleasure that the hard work, expertise and advice of Liberty and Anti-Slavery International and that of my fellow peers has paid off, is mitigated by the fact that we need such a law.”

Heavyweight support for the criminalisation of forced labour and servitude also comes from trade unions and prominent members of the legal profession. Former DPP, Ken MacDonald QC, and Helen Mountfield, both of Matrix Chambers, have provided Legal Opinions that the gap in existing UK law is likely to place Britain in breach of its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. Trade union Unite and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority have also pledged their support.

Contact Mairi Clare Rodgers on 020 7378 3677 or 07973 831 128 NOTES TO EDITORS

1. Liberty and Anti-Slavery International’s joint briefing on this issue is available here:  

2. Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, provides that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude”, or “be required to perform forced or compulsory labour”.

3. In a recent case at the European Court of Human rights (Siliadin v France) France was found to be in breach of Article 4 because it had not specifically enacted laws to outlaw servitude and forced labour. It is the contention of Liberty, Anti-slavery International and Ken MacDonald QC and Helen Mountfield that Britain would likewise be found in breach, if challenged.