David Cameron could have been an anti-slavery hero

Now it's up to the churches to make sure that someone seizes the chance

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

16 August 2014

9:00 AM

When I helped bring the Modern Slavery Bill to parliament I thought here, surely, was a piece of legislation that the PM would want to own. Three women — Theresa May, the Home Secretary; her then special adviser Fiona Cunningham; and Philippa Stroud, Iain Duncan Smith’s special adviser — had all worked for a Bill that would give the government a chance to seize the moral high ground, restoring Britain to its historic role as leader in the abolitionist movement.

David Cameron was within touching distance of greatness. But almost at the last moment, he stumbled. Wary of alienating the business community, he balked at the idea of stipulating that quoted companies must report on how they were checking their supply chains against their use of slave labour. He thought this would introduce an unnecessary regulatory burden on businesses.

In fact, a host of big businesses from Tesco to the Co-op, from Primark to investment bankers like Rathbones, would welcome the legislation. Slavery (by which we mean not just human trafficking but also domestic servitude) is the second largest global criminal industry. Slave labourers are invisible: it is difficult for the T-shirt retailer in London to know the labour conditions of the cotton pickers in India. By not forcing companies to conduct due diligence, to declare their supply chains slave-free, Cameron has denied them the best line of defence: ‘I checked my suppliers, as the law demands.’ This leaves them open to accusations of illegal practice and — just watch — lawsuits.

Area Investigated Where Three Women Were Reportedly Held Captive In London
Police stand guard outside a flat in Brixton after three women, of British, Irish and Malaysian descent, were allegedly held captive as slaves for thirty years, 2013 Photo: Getty

The PM has missed an opportunity to make the Modern Slavery Bill a world leader by setting the best legislation possible to help destroy this evil practice, but I hope the churches won’t. They too need a great new cause to burnish their tarnished image. I know that individuals in both the Lords and the Commons, and across all political parties, are going to fight for amendments to the Bill; even Theresa May would prefer to see legislation on supply chains.

This is about convincing No. 10 Downing Street; and the churches — Anglican, Roman Catholic and Nonconformist — must join in this battle. By loudly and very visibly promoting a new abolitionist campaign, they can be seen as the champions of the tens of thousands of people in the UK alone and millions abroad who are the victims of slavery. What better way to remind secular Britain of its traditional role as a guardian of true morality?

Banishing slavery is a universally popular cause, and a nonpartisan one. This is precisely what the churches need, to disarm critics who claim they have become mouthpieces of every trendy campaign imaginable. A new anti-slavery campaign would be free of party politics. To stamp out a trade that affects 30 million people around the world is not a question of Labour vs Tory, as both sides are committed to the Bill. The question is how we make this Bill a world leader which other countries will seek to adopt.

Anti-Slavery Day March To Parliament
Anti-slavery activists rally outside Parliament Photo: Getty

Many of the churches’ past policies have angered the right, yet surprisingly have not completely alienated them. The churches’ Conservative-leaning members remain loyally on side. Indeed, despite their recent difficulties, the church institutions still mobilise the biggest numbers in terms of activists and signatories for petitions. In an election year, this matters: even the most mild-mannered churchmen can inspire real fear in MPs in swing seats.

The churches’ campaign ought to centre on the 50 most marginal Tory, Labour and Lib Dem seats. In many of these areas, the MPs are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. A relentless campaign from church constituents and the signing of petitions will, as Dr Johnson said about hanging, concentrate the MPs’ minds wonderfully on political survival.

If the faithful push for a supply-chain clause to the Bill as it comes up for its last Commons debate in mid-October, I think many MPs will have no choice but to listen; all the more so if parishioners and constituents decide to name and shame those politicians who refuse to come on board.

So let me say this clearly: I challenge the churches to draw inspiration from the great Christian abolitionist, William Wilberforce, and galvanise their followers to stamp out slavery. Now as then, if they choose, they can be a great lobbying force for good.

On this issue of a Modern Slavery Bill, the churches have a chance to make the world more just. Such opportunities do not present themselves that often.

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  • edithgrove

    David “we’ve got to get those people of that hill” Cameron will go down in history as a ditherer.

    • Bob339

      He will go down in history as Bliar Mk.2. Another in the long line of venal, lying traitors the great british public seems unable to resist voting into office.

  • whs1954

    I’m afraid I have a very negative view of this article, despite the fact I should also like to see modern slavery wiped out, and here is why.

    1) If you are a small shop – even if you’re Tesco – and you, in this modern world, decide you don’t want to stock goods made by slave labour: well, how the hell do you sort your suppliers, many of whom are in Third World countries, between the bad and the good? Spend money sending someone out to China or India to check on suppliers?

    How deep do the checks need to be? Do you think your suppliers in India or China, countries with cultures of backsheesh and not keeping proper records, would want to deal with you if you were always popping in to check on health and safety in Bangalore factories. How would you afford it if you were a small retailer or even a quoted company on its uppers?

    2) Meanwhile, while railing against retail outlets, Frank Field ignores slavery here at home – men and women imported to pick fruit or just to be brainwashed into a cult like the poor women of Brixton.

    3rd) and most crucially – Frank Field can talk about Wilberforce the great abolitionist, and how we (the British) wiped out slavery in the 18th C, but we wiped out slavery in the 18th C because we, the British, with a superior set of moral values, ruled the world’s waves: we ruled chunks of Africa and Asia and we stamped out what was essentially an Asian and African man’s trade in slaves.

    Now in the 21st C we don’t rule the waves. We can’t stamp out slavery in Bangalore by sending a gunboat, or by having the Governor-General read a decree that the redcoats will put down slavers. In Wilberforce’s time we could – big difference.

    Instead we have imported Africans and Asians to Britain, where they keep one another in slavery in bedsits and council flats in the heart of London, and while we really mean well and hate slavery, oh, but, we don’t want to say anything negative about what immigrants do, no no, that would be racist, and being racist is worse than being a slave trader in London, oh no…

    • pointlesswasteoftime

      I don’t think small shops would be hit. Surely most of their suppliers are wholesale importers to the UK and it would be down to them to make those checks.

      Yes we need to crack down on what happens here with gangmasters etc, but we can do both.

      Finally, military muscle is not the answer to anything these days. But put a factory out of business because it doesn’t meet standards? Maybe that could work.

      • RJ45

        Those days are long gone. Doesn’t everyone, even market traders, buy direct from China now?

    • Terry Field

      Small shops buy tiny quantities broken from the bulk imports from usually National import distributors. It should be their function to know the detailed source of the goods they receive. It is not good enough to say it can’t be done. It can be done and it should be done.

    • vieuxceps2

      I fear that being a racist is the worst, the utterly worse worst that you can ever ever be, indeed you can perhaps plead in defence of any crime or atrocity or deepest sin that at least you were no a racist. Sighs of relief all round, thank god for that etc.etc. Why is this? Are we to be denied the right to like or dislike whom we choose? Who are these people who have passed laws so that if a person is assaulted from dislike,then one set of laws applies, but if assaulted because of race then harsher laws apply? Not exactly onelaw for all is it?

  • Bob339

    Oh Do F off

  • Terry Field

    Thank you Mr Field. As so often, I (we) have cause to respect your work, and be grateful for the direction you try to take our country.
    Indeed modern slavery is a global problem, wrapped in corporate pomade, and hidden from our all too often uncaring eyes.

    That David Cameron failed yet again through pragmatic concerns that generated social myopia is not surprising – I am by inclination a free-trade Tory, but this man time and time again shows he wants to be like Blair, but without the flair.

    Try again, Mr Field.

    I do hope that you succeed. We are lucky to have you in our political midst.

  • Mike

    Banning slavery is a taboo subject right now just as banning many other forms of discrimination or subjugation of the weak whether its sexual or economic.

    Why is it taboo ?

    Quite simply if we were to ban slavery, Islam would be up in arms as it would make illegal all manner of bondage, ownership, servitude and installation of human rights for all would be completely against their culture of treating women like chattels. Warsi may have dumped Cameron but he still caught her disease of political correctness and pandering to barbaric practices.

    Whether its the women in sweat houses in Pakistan, the control of Islamic women in the west or the ownership of sex slaves that Mohammed inspired, ‘progressive’ Cameron doesn’t want to upset Islam over the ‘trivial’ issue of slavery especially as its primarily women that are affected. You see, Islam trumps all and especially slavery and the ownership of human beings to use or dispose of how you like. Its like a Gordon Brown version of social engineering, instead of using economics and a benefit culture to control the masses, extreme religion with draconian penalties is used instead.

  • global city

    caption: Cameron selects post election victory Cabinet.