David Cameron pledged last night to make Britain a "world leader" in the fight against human trafficking as he confirmed that the Government would join Europe-wide measures to combat the crime after a five-month campaign by The Independent on Sunday.
Last week Anti-Slavery International and the campaigning website 38 Degrees delivered a petition, organised in conjunction with this newspaper and bearing more than 46,000 signatures, to No 10 Downing Street demanding that the Government opt in to an EU directive aimed at tackling the criminal gangs behind the trade.
The coalition announced its U-turn on the issue in Parliament on Tuesday after the Prime Minister had faced criticism over the fact that only Britain and Denmark had failed to signed up to the measures.
"Fighting human trafficking is a priority for this government," Mr Cameron said. "This move will send a powerful message to traffickers that the UK is not a soft touch, and that we are supportive of international efforts to tackle this crime.
"We are and will continue to be world leaders in tackling this terrible crime and ensuring victims are protected."
The directive will extend Britain's power to prosecute UK nationals who commit trafficking offences anywhere in the world, as well as binding Britain to providing better protection for victims.
Welcoming the move, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said: "Thanks in no small part to the campaigning work of The Independent on Sunday, the Government has finally signed the directive on human trafficking. It shows persistent campaigning can get results and, for the sake of those still enduring modern-day slavery, we mustn't stop here.
"Sadly, it is a sign of the times that ministers chose to shuffle out the decision without a press release or proper announcement as if they were ashamed of it.
"The Government should be embarrassed, not because it has dared to sign an EU document, but because it took 10 months to do it and [the UK] was one of the last countries to sign up."
Government officials said the delay in opting in to the directive had been because ministers had wanted to wait for it to be finalised before making a decision. Campaigners were sceptical. Christine Beddoe, director of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking UK, said: "We welcome the fact that David Cameron has made this commitment to the protection of victims of trafficking. What we don't understand is why it took 46,000 people to bang on their door before the Government took this sensible step forward.
"We hope this means that plans to implement guardianship for trafficked children will be brought forward, as this is central to the child-protection measures embedded in the directive."
Dr Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, said: "The Government should be congratulated for making the right decision in opting in to the directive.
"It represents a commitment to ensure trafficking is not tolerated in the UK and a recognition of the urgent need for a strengthened response across Europe to combat this horrendous crime.
"We hope that the concerns of the 46,000 people who signed the petition are taken into account as the Government prepares its trafficking strategy, which must ensure better identification and protection of victims."