Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Extension to Michael Dottridge's ‘How did we get the Modern Slavery Act’

Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead and a driving force at the heart of the Modern Slavery bill, gives a first-person account of how the whole campaign began.

Frank Field
14 December 2016
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Labour MP Frank Field. Anthony Devlin/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Might I add to the excellent note by Michael Dottridge on the origins of the Modern Slavery Act? As with Wilberforce, a Clapham Sect was operative, who should claim the greatest credit for this initiative. Let’s call them the New Clapham Sect for that’s what they are. They are Sam Lawson Johnston, Harry Lawson Johnston, Edward Lawson Johnston, Jonathan Pugh-Smith, George Haddo, Oliver Scutt,Rory Codd, Charles Hart, Benjamin Grizzle and Cameron Young.

I only learnt about the New Clapham Sect on the day of the second reading of the Modern Slavery Bill, as it then was. The Legatum Institute had staged a major seminar which I was addressing, but I was called late in the debate, and came to give my contribution towards the end. Three of the New Clapham Sect attended: Sam, Jonathan and Oliver. Only afterwards did Jonathan introduce himself to me and modestly begin to draw back the curtain on the sect’s role.

Unlike Wilberforce, who was forced to take a highly public role, the New Clapham Sect practises British reserve to the extreme. One question I failed to ask them is what alerted them to the problem of modern slavery. But when I did begin to forge a great friendship with this new evangelical alliance, I learnt that it was at their initiation that the Centre for Social Justice produced its report on modern slavery. Let me paraphrase what I heard from the sect’s account.

Fishing in new waters

A number of them met initially with Gavin Poole, then-Director of the Centre for Social Justice, in 2010. Soon afterwards, they met Philippa Stroud, the centre’s co-founder, and asked how it could be possible for a body calling itself the Centre for Social Justice to exist in a country where there is modern slavery and not to have made this issue a major campaign. I think Philippa fought for time – I would have done so – probably suggesting that there was an issue of costs to undertake a new innovatory inquiry.

The New Clapham Sect said there was no problem with the funding; they would foot the bill, using their own money and funds raised from donors. And so the Centre for Social Justice began the inquiry that led to its path-breaking report, It Happens Here.

When the report was to be launched, I was invited to be one of the panel to welcome its publication at a press conference. The Library (misnamed, as all the books had all been flogged off by a crook who had bought the National Liberal Club many years before) was packed to the gills.

I said that I would take only thirty seconds. Two themes. The first is that we should stop euphemistically calling it ‘trafficking’ and call it by its proper name, slavery. Likewise we should demand a new bill.

There were four speakers including me. The first speaker, who is normally outstandingly brilliant, was the editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson. Unfortunately he had one of his very few days ‘off’. He went on too long, he was rambling, indeed very boring. So boring that my bones began to ache with the boredom to which he was subjecting me. There were then two other speakers to follow before I could speak. The other speakers were much more engaged than I was in the debate and had much to say.

I had been sent along by the head of my parliamentary office, Patrick White. He was always much concerned about my right wing tendencies, as he saw them, in being tougher than any other MP in the House of Commons over restricting immigration. Going along to the launch would, he thought, help to mellow the sulphuric impact of being for so long a near-lone voice from the centre left trying to represent working class views on the need to restrict immigration. I protested that I knew nothing about the topic to Patrick. He insisted I went. Of course, I went to the launch.

As I sat there, with bones aching, I thought ‘What can I possibly say that will add to the next stage of this campaign and release these poor two hundred souls locked in the National Liberal Club’s Library?’

My turn came and with enthusiasm I said that I would take only thirty seconds. Two themes. The first is that we should stop euphemistically calling it ‘trafficking’ and call it by its proper name, slavery. Likewise we should demand a new bill. The room screamed with approval. Although I was never sure whether it was approval of the idea that they would be released in thirty seconds, or approval of the two action points.

In fact only one or two people disagreed, and as I quietly walked back to the office with Tim Weedon, who acted then as Patrick’s deputy, Tim knew that we were going to spend that summer trying to get a campaign lobbying for a bill. And so it proved.

Waiting for a bite

Providential luck acted a second time in this affair. That evening, as I was coming up the lobby, Iain Duncan Smith was waiting for an opposition member to whom he wished to speak. I asked whether I might talk with him. Iain replied that this would be fine, as long as I didn’t mind him rudely looking over my shoulder for his appointed contact.

I said to Iain that he was probably too busy to have known but that his Centre today had published what I thought would be a political agenda changing report: It Happens Here. It was quite clear that Iain did not know about the report’s publication, but immediately he said all the credit goes to Philippa Stroud, the co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice. ‘You must meet Philippa.’ And that meeting took place within days of the launch.

Altruism is always stronger if it is scaffolded by self-interest.

Philippa, within 45 seconds, said that she was going to back the next stage of legislation and she was in a strategic place to help. As well as heading the Centre, she had become Iain Duncan Smith’s political adviser in the Department for Work and Pensions. But Philippa insisted that we speak to her opposite number in the Home Office, Fiona Cunningham, now Fiona Hill, who is now joint head of the prime minister’s Number 10 operation. The meeting was arranged.

And so, on and off, Tim and I spent the whole summer trying to persuade Fiona that a bill against modern slavery was crucial and it might even fit in with what the Home Secretary’s, Mrs May’s, instincts told her were right, and what her instincts also told her would be politically good for her. Altruism is always stronger if it is scaffolded by self-interest.

I do not fish. But spending with Tim that summer at a whole series of pleasant meetings with Fiona was, I imagine, like trying to catch eels. One thought Fiona was actually in the net only to find she was still swimming free, but not far from where the eel-net was trying to chase her. Then on one day a deal was clinched. Who would undertake this inquiry if the home secretary gave the go-ahead to investigate a new bill? It was obvious, I thought. The Centre for Social Justice had done all the work and it would be absurd for the work to be taken away from them. On that day I thought we would get a bill, and so we did.

The rest of the story then follows the account so well produced by Michael Dottridge.

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