Home Secretary's speech at the Santa Marta conference

Speech given by Home Secretary Theresa May at the Santa Marta conference in London

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP

Thank you. It gives me great pleasure to welcome you here today. I am very pleased and indeed proud that Britain is hosting this Santa Marta conference following our first meeting at the Vatican. I know some of you have travelled great distances to be here and your presence sends a powerful signal about our determination to stamp out the evil of modern slavery. I would particularly like to thank Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, whose commitment and leadership have been so important in bringing us together again.

Few of us in this room today can truly know what it is like to become a victim of modern slavery. We can only imagine the lives of the men, women, and children who are forced into a horrendous existence of abuse: people who have been sold with the connivance of their families; women who have been tricked by those they trust, forced into prostitution and who suffer continuous assaults and rapes; young girls passed from abuser to abuser; men who have travelled long distances believing they are heading for legitimate jobs, only to find they have been duped, and forced into backbreaking and inhumane work; children who are systematically exploited; people who have no way of escape, and who live a life of shame, torment and fear.

Life for those victims must be utterly traumatic.

That is why the first contact between a potential victim and those in authority – very often the police – is so very important. This conference brings together senior police chiefs, the clergy and civil society organisations from around the world. By working together we can help get that first contact right, protect and support victims, and ensure that we can effectively pursue those responsible for these appalling crimes.

And in this we must hear the voices of victims. I know that earlier today you heard from Diane Martin who spoke so bravely about her own experience. Speaking in front of an audience can be daunting at the best of times, so I can only admire Diane’s tremendous strength and courage. We must listen so that we can learn the lessons for the future.

As the presence of so many police chiefs here today shows: if we are to put a stop to modern slavery we must disrupt, convict and imprison the criminals that lie behind the modern day slave trade.

More arrests and more prosecutions mean more slave drivers and traffickers behind bars where they belong: putting them out of business and stopping others from becoming victims.

But if we are to succeed in doing this, we must all work together. We must identify victims, encourage them to come forward in confidence, and ensure that when they do, they are met with understanding and compassion, and given the help they need to recover from their traumatic ordeal.

That is why – as I am sure everyone in this room will agree – in our fight to eliminate modern slavery we must place victims at the heart of everything we do.

When we last met at the Vatican in April, I shared with you some of the work we are doing here in the UK to increase prosecutions and identify and protect victims.

I spoke about the Modern Slavery Bill – the first of its kind in Europe – which is at this moment progressing through our Parliament.

When that Bill becomes law, it will ensure that tough penalties are in place, including life imprisonment.

The Bill will provide vital new policing tools to help prevent further cases of modern slavery from taking place.

And importantly, it will enshrine protections and support for victims in law, ensuring that they get the help they need and deserve.

But I am pleased to say that the Bill will now go even further.

Tackling modern slavery is not something that can be done in isolation. It requires positive action by all of us.

We will be the first country to introduce legislation that will encourage businesses to make sure that supply chains for goods and services sold in the UK are not tainted by slavery.

We know that the supply chains of many companies are often long, complex and have an international reach.

Many businesses are already taking important steps to ensure that their supply chains are slavery free. This measure will make those steps clear so that consumers, share-holders and campaigners can understand what action is being taken.

I hope that once we can see what activity major businesses are undertaking, both the private sector and consumers will be able to drive real and long-lasting change.

And finally the Bill – as I am sure many here are aware – creates a new Independent full-time Anti-Slavery Commissioner. I am delighted that Kevin Hyland – the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s Human Trafficking Unit – has accepted the role as the UK’s first ever Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

His expertise is first rate. His understanding of the many complex issues involved, mean he can get behind police forces and drive an improved law enforcement response in this country and pursue collaboration with law enforcement internationally.

And I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate him on the tremendous job he has done working with the Catholic Church to establish the Santa Marta Group.

The Modern Slavery Bill clearly signals the UK’s determination to be at the forefront in the fight against modern slavery and human trafficking.

But the Bill is only the start, and Government action can only be part of the answer. The battle to eradicate modern slavery will be hard and it will be difficult. We know that exploitation can be subtle, deep rooted and complex, and that it can take different forms in different countries.

That is why this event is so important. In bringing together police chiefs, senior clergy, ambassadors and civil society partners from around the world, we can share knowledge about the forms of modern slavery in our own countries and the different types of criminality, and so develop solutions that work.

Earlier today you heard from Karen Bradley, the UK’s Minister for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime, about the launch of the Government’s Modern Slavery Strategy.

It sets out the wide-ranging action we expect from Government departments, agencies, and partners. And it details the work we will do internationally.

We cannot tackle modern slavery meaningfully unless we work together, raise awareness, and help prevent vulnerable people from becoming victims in the first place.

When I last spoke at the Vatican, I talked about the need for law enforcement to work collaboratively in Europe and across the world.

We know that some perpetrators are opportunistic individuals, who take advantage of the vulnerable.

But we also know that behind much of the modern day slave trade, are pernicious gangs of organised criminals who operate across borders and jurisdictions, and who exploit modern and relatively cheap modes of transport.

I spoke about the Joint Investigation Team mechanism, which allows police forces in Europe to tackle crime which stretches across borders.

We must work together to find practical policing solutions such as this, so that we can drive up prosecution rates which are still shamefully far too low.

At the Vatican, many here signed a pledge making a commitment to combat modern slavery and human trafficking.

This conference provides a unique opportunity to build upon that commitment.

You will have heard today about the Catholic Church’s Bakhtia House, a centre which will provide care and rehabilitation for women, from all over the country, who have been victims of human trafficking.

I hope that in the future we will see more practical support such as this – in this country and in other parts of the world.

So my challenge to you this weekend, is to develop new relationships and practical ideas that you can implement.

In April His Holiness Pope Francis said: ‘Human Trafficking is an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ, it is a crime against humanity’.

The world is now waking up to this appalling crime against humanity that is taking place in our midst: the unimaginable suffering that is taking place down our streets, in our towns and in our villages.

We can no longer turn away and say we didn’t know.

We can no longer refuse to see the dark, hidden trade in human beings which exploits people over and over again for profit.

The momentum for change is building, and we have a chance to truly make a difference.

We must start by recognising and identifying victims – and only end when we can lock up the perpetrators and secure their freedom.

At the end of this conference there will be re-affirmation of the Santa Marta commitment. Through this commitment, we will send a powerful message to the world that we stand united in our fight against this evil trade, and that together we are determined to put an end to the misery endured by so many millions across the world.

Published 5 December 2014