Minister tells Wisbech summit on modern slavery of new initiatives being tried to tackle exploitation of foreign workers in this country
PUBLISHED: 16:40 31 March 2017 | UPDATED: 16:40 31 March 2017
Workers arriving in The Fens from countries such as Lithuania are being warned about possible exploitation before they leave home, a Government minister said today.
Sarah Newton, the minister for vulnerability, safeguarding and countering extremism, was in Wisbech to address a summit on modern slavery chaired by the Bishop of Ely, the Rt Rev Stephen Conway.
The minister said: “They believe they are coming here under a legitimate scheme for seasonal work only to find themselves being poorly treated.
“We are giving them information before they get here so they know their rights; we include a contact number they can ring when things go wrong.”
She said the government has been working particularly with the Lithuanian ambassador to help get the message across in that country.
Mrs Newton was impressed with the work carried out in Fenland but emphasised worker exploitation is a nationwide problem.
“It may vary from one area to another such as in nail bars, and children ferrying drugs out from the cities to the countryside, to land workers and in construction but it is happening in every part of the UK.”
She said part of the government’s approach is to tackle the issue in countries where people are being trafficked from.
“Preventing it from happening in the first place is a key part of tackling this problem. We are working with countries where people are being trafficked to send out a strong message.
“People are promised all sorts of things and believe the streets of London are paved with gold, they are lured here under false pretences.”
The summit at Wisbech Boat House was organised by NE Cambs MP Steve Barclay who was keen to highlight the work undertaken in Fenland to tackle the issue.
He said that Fenland is at the forefront in the fight against modern slavery with initiatives such as Operation Pheasant and Operation Endeavour - which have seen successes in tackling rogue landlords and illegal gangmasters since their launch four years ago.
Operation Pheasant has seen co-ordinated action spearheaded by Cambridgeshire police and also involves HM Revenue and Customs, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA), Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue and Home Office Immigration Enforcement.
Mr Barclay said a multi-agency approach is key a view endorsed by the minister who highlighted the government’s commitment to tackling the issue with an additional £2million funding and much stronger powers for the GLA.
Mr Barclay said the problem of modern slavery is no more prevalent in one part of the Fens than any other and urged the community to join in helping to beat the problem.
He said Fenland has stepped up to the challenge with initiatives like Operation Pheasant which have helped make the issue more visible but he said there is still more work to be done and that is where the community can help.
Identifying potential victims is a step towards stamping out the issue. BT who had a representative at the summit has produced a video highlighting the typical signs of exploitation.
These include someone who is malnourished, isolated, look tentative or fearful, can not speak English and relies on somebody else to speak for them, and living in a house with many other people.
Mr Barclay said schools and hospital A&E departments could help identify potential victims which is why he was pleased that Tracy Dowling, chief officer of the Peterborough and Cambridgeshire Clinical Commissioning Group and Anne Hill, principal of the Thomas Clarkson Academy were among representatives at the summit.
Many victims of modern slavery are not registered with GPs and so turn to A&E departments when they need medical treatment.
Mrs Newton said intelligence is vital to agencies like the GLA and the police in helping them identify those involved in the activity.
That was a view backed by Cambridgeshire’s police and crime commissioner Councillor Jason Ablewhite.
He said reduced resources means the police are having to be more innovative in the way it tackles issues like modern slavery which is why, he said, it is important to work closely with partner agencies and to encourage the community as a whole to get involved.
“Everyone can do they bit and I would encourage everyone to look out for the signs and if they spot something suspicious to report it.
“Modern slavery is a heinous crime, there are some very unscrupulous people out there who are happy to prey on the vulnerable, to coerce them into debt so they feel there is no way out,” said Cllr Ablewhite.
He said victims often fail to realise they are victims of exploitation, or they do not want to be labelled as victims, which is another issue in trying to beat those perpetrating this kind of crime.
Mr Barclay concluded: “This has been a fantastic event for Fenland putting it at the forefront of this national debate on what is rightly a crucial issue because this is about some of the most vulnerable people in out community.
“It is great to have the Home Office minister here and shows how important Fenland is in leading this debate.”