Home Office accused of deliberately leaving anti-slavery post unfilled | Slavery

The Home Office is accused of deliberately failing to appoint a new anti-slavery commissioner to avoid scrutiny while trying to push through legislation on the issue.

It has been a legal requirement to have an independent commissioner since the post was created as part of the Modern Slavery Act in 2015.

Yet this week will mark four months with nobody in the role, despite sources saying that the interview process concluded two weeks before the previous incumbent, Sara Thornton, left.

Thornton, along with other experts, is calling for a replacement as soon as possible. She argues that the risks of exploitation have increased and that planned legislation on modern slavery needs scrutiny.

The number of potential trafficking victims identified has reached record levels this year, with 4,171 referrals recorded between April and June 2022.

Thornton, who left on 30 April when her three-year tenure came to an end, said it was a “critical time” to have someone in post and urged the home secretary to make the appointment.

Thornton, who is now a professor of modern slavery policy at the University of Nottingham, said: “The commissioner has a really important contribution to make to eradicating modern slavery, particularly when the government is proposing new measures to tackle this abhorrent crime. I would urge the home secretary to appoint a new commissioner as soon as possible.”

Factors increasing the likelihood of trafficking and labour exploitation include a workforce shortage caused by Brexit, the fallout of the rapid expansion of the seasonal worker scheme and the cost of living crisis.

The role was advertised in December 2021 and the final interviews took place on 14 April this year. It was then up to the home secretary, Priti Patel, to decide between two candidates and interview them if she wished – but nothing further was heard on the matter.

No commissioner means less scrutiny of the planned modern slavery bill as it goes through parliament.

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this month that Patel had “signalled a crackdown” on abuse of the Modern Slavery Act.

The newspaper reported that Patel planned to legislate to reform the national referral mechanism (NRM) used to identify and support trafficking victims, so that it would only look at cases in the UK; ensure thresholds are not set too low; limit the number of claims that come forward, and make sure the NRM was about “recovery of victims rather than an open immigration route”.

Andrew Wallis, the chief executive of the modern slavery charity, Unseen, said it was “hugely telling that we haven’t had an appointment”.

Wallis said that questions needed to be asked about whether the delay was motivated by a desire to push through legislation without scrutiny: “The question is, why wouldn’t you want a commissioner in place?”

He added: “One has to question what is the seriousness with which this role is viewed by government? If this was a children’s commissioner, or a victim’s commissioner, would we have such a slow level of response?

“The role is enshrined through parliament and yet it’s not in place. We’re playing fast and loose with the law now.”

The commissioner’s role is to “encourage good practice in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of slavery and human trafficking offences, as well as in the identification of victims”.

Without a commissioner, however, the office is rendered powerless. According to a post on its website in May, the situation means “staff attending meetings or engaging with stakeholders will have no remit to provide views or take on or contribute to new work”.

About half of the staff have left while its future remains unclear.

Jamie Fookes, anti-trafficking monitoring group coordinator at Anti-Slavery International, said the “concerning” situation had created “a vacuum of independent oversight at a time when it is critically needed”.

He added: “Intentionally or not, with no commissioner in post, modern slavery victims are being neglected and scrutiny of the upcoming modern slavery bill is missing.”

When Thornton was commissioner she was critical of the fallout of the government’s immigration policies on trafficking victims. Her predecessor, Kevin Hyland, resigned four years into the position, saying his independence “felt somewhat discretionary from the Home Office, rather than legally bestowed”.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has led the world in protecting victims of modern slavery, and we will continue to identify and support those who have suffered intolerable abuse at the hands of criminals and traffickers.

“A fair and open recruitment campaign is under way for the new anti-slavery commissioner and it would be inappropriate to comment any further while this process is ongoing.”

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