Prime minister Theresa May is to set up the UK’s first government taskforce to tackle modern slavery, which she labelled “the great human rights issue of our time”.
May promised to personally drive the battle to end the “barbaric evil” of modern slavery, which included human trafficking, forced labour and sexual abuse.
She also vowed to make it a worldwide mission to eliminate the “cruel exploitation” that affected up to 13,000 men, women and children in the UK and 45 million people across the globe.
“These crimes must be stopped and the victims of modern slavery must go free,” she wrote in an article for the Sunday Telegraph.
The food and drink industry is among those most vulnerable to slavery with its dependency on global supply chains and vast numbers of seasonal, often foreign, workers.
In recent months, however, supermarkets and retailers including Waitrose and M&S have led the way in publishing statements on their website detailing what they are doing to address the risk in their businesses and supply chains, in line with the requirements of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
The act was first brought forward by May as home secretary, and now requires all companies with turnovers of £36m or more to publish reports annually.
But May wrote that the problem was still a long way from being over and she was setting up the first-ever government taskforce on modern slavery.
See also: Modern slavery - is grocery doing enough?
“Together with my successor as home secretary, we will hold regular meetings in Downing Street with every relevant department present to get a real grip of this issue right across Whitehall and to co-ordinate and drive further progress in the battle against this cruel exploitation.”
Among other things the taskforce would raise further awareness of “these despicable crimes”, improve training of law enforcers and give greater support to victims.
A HMIC inspection was also being commissioned after it was revealed that six of the country’s 43 police forces had not recorded a single modern slavery crime from April 2015 to March 2016.
Furthermore, the prime minister said Britain must collaborate with law enforcers worldwide to stop the “pernicious gangs” who operated across borders, as illustrated by anti-slavery commissioner Kevin Hyland, who had discovered criminal gangs were creating twinned towns for slavery between Britain and other countries.
“This will be an important focus for the new taskforce because modern slavery will never be stopped if our police, borders and immigration agencies work in domestic silos,” the prime minister said.
Finally, she wanted Britain, “as a bold country confident in its values” to continue to lead the fight that had made the eradication of modern slavery a global Sustainable Development Goal.
To this end, the government would be using more than £33m of its aid budget to create a five-year International Modern Slavery Fund to focus on countries where it knew victims were regularly trafficked to the UK.
“Vulnerable people who have travelled long distances believing they were heading for legitimate jobs are finding they have been duped, forced into hard labour, and then locked up and abused,” she said.
To emphasise the horror, May added that children were being forced to pickpocket on the streets and steal from cash machines, some as young as seven were domestic slaves, while others were raped, beaten and passed from abuser to abuser for profit.