Two years ago a well-known MP told me that the Centre for Social Justice was wasting our time chasing political action against slavery, because it wasn’t a ‘doorstep issue’. I’m rather glad I didn’t take that advice because, as Theresa May has said, our 2013 report It Happens Here sparked the vital changes we will hear from the Queen today.
Later this morning Elizabeth II will open Parliament for the 61st time. Labour claims she’ll have nothing much to say, with Shadow ministers attacking an impending ‘zombie parliament’.
This is unfair. Especially because nestled in Her Majesty’s speech will be a landmark Modern Slavery Bill. The publication of that Bill, surprisingly undersold by the Coalition, will be an exciting and symbolic moment for our country.
There’ll be much to welcome within in. An independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner will be created to hold ministers to account and measures will be introduced to confront the criminals who enslave adults and children, including increasing maximum sentences to life imprisonment. Public authorities will also be required to report potential trafficking victims rather than overlook them. This represents major progress.
But without one other clause it will be nation-changing rather than world-leading legislation.
For the Coalition should seize its opportunity to present a Bill that also includes new anti-slavery measures for businesses. Importing the success of a Californian scheme, backed by Wallmart and Microsoft among other corporate giants, would forge a dynamic new partnership between employers and Government. By asking large companies in the UK to report how they have sought slave-free supply chains, we could save lives.
Rejecting this clause as ‘anti-business’ and onerous, as some in Government claim it could be, would be a mistake.
It has worked in the United States, it has cross-party support and it has the endorsement of leading campaigners. More importantly though, renowned British business leaders and employers – including the likes of Sir Richard Branson and the Co-op – have already backed it and want to help.
There’s also little doubt that if the Coalition ducks it Labour will table the idea in amendment form. This could delay the Bill and allow Yvette Cooper and the Opposition to take political credit on the world stage.
But action now on supply chains would set the tone for the watching global community and bring British business into the battle against slavery.
I am sure by now the Queen is very bored of opening Parliament. Today though she should take heart – for the thousands of slavery victims in our country this could be 61st time lucky. Especially if she means business.
Christian Guy is Director at the Centre for Social Justice