Irvine Times column, 23 October 2018

Last Thursday was Anti-Slavery Day, which shone a light on the growing problem of modern slavery and human trafficking within Scotland and across the UK. 

Slavery is not something that has been consigned to history. Many people are trapped and exploited for their labour, whilst others are enslaved through commercial sexual exploitation in areas such as prostitution, pornography and lap dancing. Other areas of concern include domestic servitude, forced and sham marriages, and forced organ removals.

In 2017, 207 cases were identified as potential victims of trafficking and exploitation in Scotland, a shocking increase of 38% on the previous year. The crimes are complex and hidden, and involve serious abuses of both human rights and dignity.

Last year the Scottish Government adopted its Human Trafficking and Exploitation Strategy, following the passing of the Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Act in 2015. This aims to identify victims and support them to safety and recovery, to locate the criminals involved and disrupt their activity, and to address the conditions, both locally and globally, that foster trafficking and exploitation.

I would urge anyone who suspects that a person is being trafficked and in immediate danger to immediately call 999. The Modern Slavery Helpline at https://www.modernslaveryhelpline.org/scotland provides information from the ‘Spot the Signs’ campaign on how to identify potential abuses, as well as help numbers for groups such as TARA, which supports women previously trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation, and Migrant Help, for assistance for all other adult victims.

The Scottish Government’s actions on this issue contrast sharply with those of the UK Government, which through the Home Office’s hostile environment policy has made it considerably harder for victims to step forward. Last week, Esther McVey MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, also coldly told the House of Commons that “there are other jobs on offer” for women who are turning to prostitution because of the hardships endured through the botched roll out of Universal Credit.

This week, our own Cabinet Secretary for Social Security, Shirley-Anne Somerville, has written to Ms McVey to ask her to halt the rollout of Universal Credit, a system which has failed utterly in every area where it has been introduced, including North Ayrshire.

Universal Credit claimants are not the only people to suffer hardship. Next month the UK Government’s Chancellor will freeze the rate of all benefits, including Universal Credit, for the fourth year running, despite inflation now sitting at 2.4%. On average, this will see families lose another £200 annually, with the combined impact over the last four years being £580. This benefits freeze is simply theft by another name, and must end immediately.

Whilst the UK Government holds the poorest in society hostage to its immoral austerity policies, the Chancellor may soon find that he himself will be held hostage over his own Budget proposals. With Brexit once again hitting a crisis point over the Irish border issue, the DUP is threatening to impede the Budget vote if the Prime Minister seeks to keep Northern Ireland within a custom’s union with the EU.

Far from being ‘Better Together’, it seems a shackled Scotland will once again find itself the victim of circumstances it did not create.