LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain launched an inquiry into its progress on tackling modern slavery on Wednesday, citing concerns over the effectiveness of a landmark law seen as one of the world’s toughest and the use of children as drug-runners.
Britain has been regarded as an international leader in the fight against human trafficking since passing the Modern Slavery Act in March 2015 to tackle a crime affecting an estimated 40.3 million people worldwide.
But a parliamentary committee said concerns had been raised over a lack of progress since the legislation came into force and over the support provided to victims.
One significant cause for concern is the so-called county lines gangs, which authorities say use children - some as young as 12 - to carry and sell drugs between cities and rural areas in Britain.
“Thousands of teenagers and young people are coerced and exploited into selling drugs across the country, with British victims making up the highest proportion of known slaves in the UK,” parliament’s Home Affairs Committee said in a statement.
The National Crime Agency said last year police had seen a rise in the abuse of children, and had identified more than 700 criminal operations in the ‘county lines’ drug trade.
The government estimates at least 13,000 people across Britain are victims of modern slavery - trapped in forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude - but police say the true figure is likely to be in the tens of thousands.
The committee will assess progress made since the law came into force and what more remains to be done after government reports said police responses to modern slavery, Home Office oversight and support for victims needed to improve.
The inquiry will also look at business compliance with requirements of transparency in supply chains and potential priorities for the new Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
Justine Currell, executive director of anti-slavery group Unseen, said the focus must be ensuring the law is upheld, rather than strengthening legislation.
She also called for more support for victims, calling the current “one size fits all” model inadequate.
“We need to take a holistic view of support mechanisms for different victims who are in different situations,” Currell told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Modern Slavery Act introduced life sentences for traffickers and measures to protect people at risk of being enslaved and made large companies scrutinize their supply chains for forced labor.
The law has been hailed for shining a spotlight on the global drive to end modern slavery, but some activists said it has not yet made a serious dent in the illicit trade in Britain.
Forced labor is rife among Britain’s building sites, nail bars, car washes, factories and farms, according to the country’s anti-slavery agency chief.
Reporting by Sonia Elks, Editing by Katy Migiro and Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.