The commitment to proactively working to reduce the risk and harm of modern slavery is one that Birmingham’s politicians and people are taking seriously – both in light of its history as a City, and in our Council’s activities as a dedicated member of the West Midlands Anti-Slavery Network.

Modern slavery is very much present in Birmingham today, and West Midlands Police recorded over 600 suspected modern slavery offences in Birmingham over the past two years. It’s a hugely complex issue, and as with any form of violence in our communities, other vulnerabilities can exacerbate the likelihood of modern slavery, including homelessness, migration policy, the lack of support structures, and the impacts of austerity. As a result, it’s highly unlikely that the statistics will ever be able to fully represent how this issue plays out, or how it truly affects our diverse community.

Seeking to reduce the risk and harm of modern slavery as a local authority is something that we’ve been committed to some time. One of the ways in which we do so is by looking closely at our supply chains and procurement practices. As a result, signing the Co-op Party’s Modern Slavery Charter in July 2021 was a natural next step for the Council.

The Co-op Party’s Modern Slavery Charter is a procurement-focused initiative. As a progressive city, we’ve been using the leverage of our procurement spend for some time for the benefit of the local community. The Birmingham Business Charter for Social Responsibility is a set of guided themes which we adhere to as a council and encourage others to adopt: together, Birmingham’s anchor institutions have played a big role in keeping the economy moving forward during the pandemic. Data from the spend of 20 of our largest contractors indicates that we’ve increased local spend from £166.4m last year to £194.6m this year. We aim to boost the local economy, create ever stronger local supply chains, create job opportunities for local people, and ensure employees are paid a fair wage. But we felt we could do even more, and now seek to implement best practice on reducing the risks of modern slavery in our supply chains.

Of course, the Charter is only one of our commitments to reducing the risks and harm of modern slavery.  This year, we published a Modern Slavery Transparency Statement which made some ambitious commitments – including reviewing our support for adult survivors of modern slavery; ensuring the use of ethical imagery and language around modern slavery; and embedding co-production and survivor expertise in the development of our work. We wanted to ensure we were framing this as a structural issue of safeguarding and abuse, where a survivor has agency and dignity, and not resorting to language centred on ‘saving’ and ‘rescuing’ helpless people.

We also employ a Modern Slavery Co-ordinator to drive forward change within the Council, and work closely with partners across the City and wider West Midlands to improve responses and support for survivors, including the Violence Reduction Unit, West Midlands Police and the hugely valued members of our West Midland Anti-Slavery Network.

We want our approach as a local authority to ensure respect, dignity, and choice for survivors of modern slavery, and we would encourage other local authorities to both hold us accountable, and consider how they might do similar in their work. Where councils have not adopted the Co-op Party’s Modern Slavery Charter we would recommend that they do so. The Co-op Party has been hugely supportive in explaining how the Charter works – and if you are a councillor or a council candidate for an area which has not signed the Charter, I encourage you to look into it.

There’s one other practical thing that you can do, and that is to be aware of the signs of modern slavery and what to look for. I know that councillors and council candidates will be out and about and knocking on hundreds of thousands of doors in the run up to elections next May. You can be the eyes and ears of your community, and if you see anything suspicious, you can always call the UK Modern Slavery Helping on 08000 121 700, or 999 if someone is in immediate danger. For adults though, it’s also useful to remember that individuals still have agency over their own decisions, even if they are experiencing modern slavery. Reporting an adult to the police without their consent may carry risks for them, particularly if they are fearful of authorities. Depending on your capacity, it may be more helpful to signpost someone to a specialist third sector organisation who can discuss their rights, entitlements and options in a confidential setting.