Conservative MP and former prime minister Theresa May gave the Bill a damning assessment © Photo by Tolga Akmen - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Conservative MP and former prime minister Theresa May gave the Bill a damning assessment © Photo by Tolga Akmen - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Lack of slavery commissioner creating ‘vacuum of oversight’ at crucial time, campaign groups claim

12 July 2023

The Illegal Migration Bill returns to the House of Lords, but the role of anti-slavery champion has been vacant since April 2022, leading to concerns over a “rollback” of safeguards.

Campaign group Anti-Slavery International’s UK and Europe advocacy manager, Jamie Fookes, said the position of the independent anti-slavery commissioner being unfilled while the government pushes through its Illegal Migration Bill “creates a vacuum of independent oversight at a time when it is critically needed”.

The role of the independent anti-slavery commissioner has remained unfilled since April last year, when the previous commissioner – Dame Sara Thornton – came to the end of her tenure. The role became a statutory requirement as part of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. 

Fookes told Supply Management: “Key legislation is racing through parliament, including the Illegal Migration Bill, which will directly affect victims and survivors and new policies have been introduced which rollback vital support for survivors of modern slavery.”

The Illegal Migration Bill looks to reduce illegal immigration, however, it also includes provisions to prevent people from “misusing modern slavery safeguards”, according to the government. 

Fookes continued: “To better protect individuals from terrible exploitation, the role of the independent anti-slavery commissioner is essential in encouraging good practice in dealing with slavery and human trafficking offences, alongside examining the effectiveness of identifying victims and survivors. Without a commissioner in post, there is no independent body providing essential oversight or scrutinising new policies and legislation affecting victims and survivors.  

“Intentionally or not, with no commissioner in post, modern slavery victims are being neglected and scrutiny of the Illegal Migration Bill is missing. The UK government needs to fill the post as a priority if we are to meet our obligations to victims of modern slavery.”

The Home Office told SM that the recruitment for the commissioner role began in February, and remains “ongoing”, but it could not provide an estimate over when the role will be announced. 

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The Home Secretary recognises the importance of the role of independent anti-slavery commissioner, a new competition to recruit for the role was opened in February and is now at an advanced stage.”

The Illegal Migration Bill was debated yesterday (11 July) in the House of Commons, which rejected amendments proposed by the House of Lords that would have retained protection for victims of modern slavery. Amendment 56 aimed to ensure slavery victims would not be detained and removed from the UK. MPs rejected this by 285-243, with 16 Conservative MPs rebelling against the government. The Bill will now return to the Lords for a further reading.

Speaking in the Commons, former prime minister Theresa May gave the Bill a damning assessment, and claimed it would drive slavery and reduce support for victims.

She said: “I know that ministers have said that this Bill will enable more perpetrators to be stopped, but on modern slavery I genuinely believe it will do the opposite: it will enable more slave drivers to operate and make money out of human misery. It will consign more people to slavery. There is no doubt about it.”

May – who previously acted as home secretary and adopted the “hostile environment” approach towards illegal immigration – said “modern slavery should not be seen as part of the immigration issue”. 

She said the government’s position towards slavery under the Bill was: “We don’t care that you have been in slavery in the UK. We don’t care that you’ve been in a living hell. We don’t care that you have been the victim of crime."

MPs cited the motivation behind rejecting the amendment: “The Bill already makes sufficient provision to enable a potential victim of modern slavery to remain in the UK where the Secretary of State considers it necessary for the person to do so for the purpose of cooperating with a public authority which is investigating their exploitation.”

A Home Office spokesperson continued: “Modern slavery is a barbaric crime. We are committed to tackling it, and ensuring victims are given the support they need to rebuild their lives.

“The National Referral Mechanism provides support to thousands of victims of modern slavery each year, unfortunately some people seek to exploit the system. The Illegal Migration Bill includes measures to prevent misuse of the National Referral Mechanism, and to stop the boats.”

Anti-slavery charity Unseen CEO, Andrew Wallis told SM the Illegal Migration Bill will ban support for victims of human trafficking and other forms of modern slavery, “treating them like criminals”.

“The government says there is a ‘massive abuse’ of the modern slavery system by people arriving in the UK by ‘irregular’ means, such as small boats crossing the Channel. This is simply untrue.”

Only 6% of people that travelled across the channel in a small boat in 2022 claimed they were victims of modern slavery, he said.

“The law is an effective green light for traffickers to carry on doing what they are doing, as it focuses on the victims of trafficking and not the perpetrators. Modern slavery is a crime; being a victim of modern slavery is not.”

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