Steve McQueen, the Oscar-winning director of 12 Years A Slave, has called for Theresa May’s plans for an overhaul of laws against people-trafficking and forced labour to be toughened to result in more convictions.
The Home Secretary’s proposals for a wide-ranging Anti-Slavery Bill, which will bring in a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for offenders, will be set out in the Queen’s Speech in June.
A committee of parliamentarians charged with scrutinising the measure backs the principle of the moves, but argued they needed to be simplified and strengthened to boost the number of prosecutions of modern-day slavemasters.
It received the backing of Mr McQueen, whose film depicting a freeborn man’s kidnap and sale into slavery in 1841 won the Best Picture award at this year’s Oscar ceremony.
He said: “There is much in the history of the United Kingdom in relation to slavery that our country should be ashamed of. But one thing that all British people can be justifiably proud is of our anti-slavery tradition stretching back to people such as Equiano, Clarkson, Wilberforce.”
Mr McQueen said the report’s authors stood in that tradition and praised their recommendations as “humane and principled”.
He added: “More than that, they have grasped the complexity of contemporary trafficking and forced labour in the United Kingdom and have set forth clearly the fundamentals of what is necessary to tackle it effectively.”
Several thousand adults and children – two thirds of whom are female – are believed to be held in virtual slavery across the United Kingdom. Thousands are forced into prostitution, including British children who are groomed, abducted and compelled to have sex.
Unicef UK says at least 10 youngsters are smuggled into the country every week and yet more than nine in 10 Britons do not regard the UK as a child trafficking hotspot.
Other victims are put to work in factories or farms or in domestic servitude.
The committee called for Mrs May’s Bill to be more focused on the victims of slavery, in particular youngsters who fall into the clutches of traffickers and pimps.
Under her plans, all the existing anti-slavery measures will be incorporated in one wide-ranging Bill.
But the committee warned that, as drafted, it would do little to protect victims or to tackle the problems in securing the convictions of traffickers and slavemasters.
It called for the creation of specific offences of exploiting and trafficking a child and for a statutory system of children’s advocates to be established.
Moves to seize the illicit gains from modern slavery should be bolstered and victims given immunity from prosecution for crimes they were forced to commit while they were enslaved, the committee said.
Its chairman, Frank Field, said: “The shift to the focus on victims is not only the morally right thing to do in and of itself, it is essential if we are to get the prosecutions necessary to try to end this evil.
“We must conclude that for parts of this Bill, amendments will not be sufficient to make good, workable, effective legislation. Some parts of it need a rewrite.
“This is ground-breaking legislation that will influence law and the fight against modern slavery around the globe. The world is watching: we have to get this right.”
Karen Bradley, the minister for slavery, said the Home Office would study the recommendations very carefully. She said: “The Home Secretary and I gave evidence to the committee and we both appreciate the shared commitment to legislate this Parliament to tackle this appalling crime.”