More than 200 years ago William Wilberforce led Britain in the fight against slavery – opening the eyes of the world to the horrors and indignity of human servitude.
Giving voice to the plight of innocent men, women and children.
Speaking out about the reality of what was happening.
And helping to establish the principle that everyone has the right to live their life free from slavery.
Today that fight is not over – slavery has not been banished to the past – and right now people are living through experiences horrifying in their inhumanity in our own countries.
Modern day slavery, perpetrated by human traffickers and slave drivers are illegally committing innocent lives to exploitation and abuse.
So, as we gather here to honour William Wilberforce’s memory, I think of his extraordinary strength and courage… and how we need such strength and courage today.
And I also think of the urgency needed if we are to put a stop to the very real suffering that continues to be endured by thousands in this country, and millions around the world.
Our challenge – the challenge for each and every one of us here today – is to ensure that the fight against slavery carries on – to free people from the bonds of servitude, to free those in mental chains, and to free people from the clutches of slave drivers and traffickers.
As Prime Minister, I want Britain at the forefront of this fight, leading the world with our efforts to stamp out modern day slavery and human trafficking.
A little over a year ago, the Modern Slavery Act came into effect. We now have some of the toughest new penalties in the world, including life sentences for the worst offenders. I have established a taskforce to ensure a coordinated operational response, and we will use £33 million from our aid budget to focus on high risk countries, from where we know victims are regularly trafficked to the UK.
And of course we have Kevin Hyland – the UK’s first ever Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner – who is helping us to spread best practice and to accelerate progress.
This is a global phenomenon that knows no geographical boundaries, crossing not just borders but over the internet.
So we need a radical domestic and international approach to target every aspect of this despicable trade and strip the slave drivers of the profit they make out of human suffering by putting them behind bars.
Every one of us must now act. And we must do so resolutely.
So let us send out this message. To the victims of modern slavery: we will not ignore your plight. We will not turn away. We will not shut our eyes and pretend your suffering does not exist.
We will work tirelessly, relentlessly pursuing the perpetrators of these appalling crimes so that victims of slavery can go free.
And my message to these criminals is simply this: we are coming after you.