Suffolk has always fought against slavery. The fight must continue

Portrait of Thomas Clarkson, seated in his study Photo: Kingston Upon Hull City Museums.

Portrait of Thomas Clarkson, seated in his study Photo: Kingston Upon Hull City Museums. - Credit: Archant

I learnt with interest this week that the internationally-renowned anti-slavery campaigner, Thomas Clarkson, is buried at Playford village church. Clarkson, who died in 1846, campaigned with William Wilberforce for the abolition of slavery worldwide. He was pivotal in the introduction of the passage of the Slave Trade Act in 1807 which ended the trade of slaves from the American colonies.

The plight of enslaved people in the 18th and 19th century is well documented. It is estimated that more than 1 million people were enslaved and transported throughout the 19th Century.

Sadly, 185 years after the Slavery Abolition Act, slavery still exists today. Thankfully not in the same numbers, but it is - as the Prime Minister described - ‘one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time’.

Modern slavery can be found in communities across the country. Not on cotton plantations or ships, but on our high streets in nail bars, factories, car washes and within the cleaning industry.

Slavery is defined today as someone forced to work through coercion, or mental or physical threat. Victims could be dehumanised, treated as a commodity or bought and sold as ‘property’ or being physical constrained. The breath of exploitation is also vast and includes sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude or even organ harvesting.

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It is estimated that more than 5,000 potential victims of modern slavery and trafficking were referred to UK authorities last year. This is a record number and consists in the most of British nationals, followed by people from Albania and Vietnam.

It is also reported that the number of children thought to be victims rose by 66% from 2016. This rise of child referrals is due in part to the growth of county lines across the UK.

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It is worth noting here that in Suffolk last year there were less than 10 reports to police of slavery or human trafficking offences. However, in my opinion, one offence in our day and age is unacceptable.

At full council last week, I stood united with my colleagues from across the Chamber to propose a motion which commits Suffolk County Council to comply with the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The act was the first of its kind in Europe and delivers tough new penalties to put slave masters behind bars with life sentences for the worst offenders.

The motion also included a proposal to bring a paper to Cabinet to decide on the production of an annual slavery and human trafficking statement which will outline our actions to identify, prevent and mitigate modern slavery in our communities

Such is the strength of feelings within the council, that I am told this is the first time that two motions have been submitted by two parties for the same topic. The motion was unanimously agreed.

Under the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which was introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, local authorities have no legal obligation to publish statements on compliance with the act.

The act requires commercial organisations, with a turnover of at least £36million, to prepare and publish a slavery and human trafficking statement for each and every financial year. This statement must report on their actions to identify, prevent and mitigate modern slavery in their supply chain.

However, a growing number of councils (66 and growing) have voluntarily published statements, including Forest Health, St Edmundsbury, Waveney and Suffolk Coastal.

It is only right that Suffolk County Council follows suit. Procurement of our services is an important and significant part of our expenditure and we must ensure that these suppliers comply with the Modern Slavery Act.

We must do all in our power to ensure that modern slavery and human trafficking is properly identified, eradicated and prevented in our county.

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