The following appeared as my column in the Barnsley Chronicle on 13th September:
As an MP, I help many constituents with terrible problems but among the most serious are the victims of so-called ‘modern slavery’, literally used as slave labour – enduring not just work without pay but life without freedom.
Over five thousand people were victims of this barbaric practice in 2017. So I’m proud of the effort made by the Northern College in Barnsley to educate survivors of modern slavery and human trafficking, allowing them to adapt to freedom.
In May, they welcomed 14 students to a pilot course to develop functional skills and knowledge, rebuild self-confidence and prepare them for living and working in the UK, or returning to their home country, and in October, they’re welcoming a new group of students to the second run of the course.
The students so far range from a graduate with a degree to those yet to experience formal education. Many speak two languages, but need help developing their English. The College has done an amazing job in designing a course that will help all of them develop, despite this diversity.
It is fitting that the College is using Wentworth Castle, built on the profits of the historic slave trade, to showcase a different kind of Britain.
But that is where we must also address another modern day injustice as well.
Recently liberated survivors struggle to access public education. Even if eligible, they are often unable to follow the complicated bureaucratic process or provide the right paperwork, while many colleges simply won’t accept them because even they find the system impossible to understand.
The Northern College had to draw on its reserves to fund this course, potentially limiting it in future.
I’m calling on ministers to think again and accept a simple solution. Victims of slavery or trafficking are entered into the ‘National Referral Mechanism’. Anyone in that system could be allowed publicly-funded education, preparing them for life again.
Next week I will be meeting with Civil Servants from the Department for Education, and tutors from the Northern College, to discuss how we can make progress on this.
Denying survivors of slavery and trafficking an education is both cruel and stupid. Empowered with skills and knowledge, they could make a great contribution to society – and we can address a terrible injustice.