The Liberal Democrats have tabled legislation in Parliament to allow MPs to appoint an independent anti-slavery commissioner because the role has been left controversially unfilled since April 2022.
Under the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (Appointment by Parliament) Bill, MPs would be granted the power to appoint someone to the post if the role remains unfilled for three months.
The leglislation was introduced by Alistair Carmichael, Lib Dem home affairs spokesperson, as a presentation bill, but it is largely symbolic because it does not have to be debated or voted on by MPs.
The role has remained unfilled since Dame Sara Thornton’s three-year tenure came to an end in April 2022. It was established as a legal requirement in the Modern Slavery Act 2015.
The Lib Dems claim the unfilled role and other legislation is weakening scrutiny of modern slavery in supply chains, leaving vulnerable people at risk.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak told Parliament in December migrants were claiming to be victims of slavery to avoid deportation, and “the threshold for someone to be considered a modern slave will be significantly raised”.
The United Nations Human Rights Council responded at the time: “There is little evidence to support these claims and generalising them is dangerous and regressive.”
Meanwhile, cases of modern slavery reported to the Home Office rose by 38% year-on-year to 4,586 in the third quarter of 2022, according to government figures. This was the highest quarterly figure ever recorded since records began in 2009.
Carmichael said: “Yet again, the Conservative’s dither, delay and broken promises are letting vulnerable people down.
“By refusing to appoint a new anti-slavery commissioner while cases soar, this government is shutting down scrutiny. It’s a deeply cynical move as they act to weaken protections for modern slavery victims at the very same time.
“People will rightly feel the need for action. That’s why it’s time for parliament to take matters into its own hands and appoint a new commissioner without delay.”
The Lib Dems cited the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which campaigners say makes it more difficult to assess modern slavery abuses because it creates higher thresholds and time restrictions for victims to report it.
According to the government’s website, applications for the independent anti-slavery commissioner closed in January 2022, with final interviews scheduled to have taken place in April.
Malcolm Harrison, CEO of CIPS, said “the government is falling short” on modern slavery commitments.
“Failure to appoint a new commissioner sends the wrong message at the wrong time,” he said. “Complex international supply chains, high levels of potential victims being trafficked and an economic downturn calls for greater scrutiny and accountability, not less.
“Whatever the reason for this latest delay, it is unacceptable.”
Harrison, who has written a blog on the topic, said a Modern Slavery Bill, which amends the Modern Slavery Act, was due in the coming months.
“It offers a golden opportunity to reiterate our commitment to tackling modern slavery, to demand transparency across supply chains and ensure processes are in place to minimise instances of exploitation,” he said.
“As individuals, procurement professionals and business owners we owe it to those trapped in a cycle of abuse and exploitation to not close our eyes. Now is not the time to let up. Government must act with haste to appoint a new anti-slavery commissioner and send a clear message that it is serious about tackling these despicable crimes.”
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.
“The home secretary recognises the importance of the role of independent anti-slavery commissioner, and has committed to running a new open competition to recruit for this role.”
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