Exclusive:‘Illegal Migration Bill a gift to criminals and devastating to victims’: ex-Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioners

The only two people to have held the government's top anti-slavery job have spoken out against its new law which will see modern slavery victims become "collateral damage".

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The government’s Illegal Migration Bill will be a “gift to criminals” and “devastating” in its impact on slavery and human trafficking victims, the only two people to have held the UK government’s top anti-slavery job have said.

In exclusive interviews with NationalWorld, the two former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioners outlined profound concerns about the Bill, which will block anybody who enters the country 'illegally’ from accessing modern slavery protections and support, and allow the government to detain and deport them automatically – even if they were tricked and trafficked against their will. 

They also criticised the government for failing to appoint a new commissioner to provide independent expertise, advice and scrutiny while it wages a war against small boat crossings, which will see safeguarding for vulnerable victims become “collateral damage”. 

Dame Sara Thornton, who left the commissioner role in April 2022 after a three-year term, said it was “deeply regrettable” the post had remained vacant since, adding that while she did not know for sure what had caused the delay she could see “that it would be quite convenient for the Home Office to have a gap” while pursuing “severe” legislation that will have “a devastating impact” for victims. 

“There’s a really strong desire on the side of government I think to pass it as soon as possible and there is no independent voice,” she said, adding that the objectivity provided by the commissioner was particularly important given government claims that modern slavery protections are being abused by migrants – claims it has provided no evidence for despite persistent calls to do so from charities.

The former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioners have spoken out about the government's Illegal Migration Bill (Image: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)The former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioners have spoken out about the government's Illegal Migration Bill (Image: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)
The former Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioners have spoken out about the government's Illegal Migration Bill (Image: NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)

Kevin Hyland, who was the first ever commissioner and helped develop the 2015 Modern Slavery Act, said the government’s approach to policing the borders showed a lack of “sophistication”, and suggested the Home Office had deliberately avoided appointing a new commissioner in case they “say something that is uncomfortable”. 

Mr Hyland resigned from the post in 2018 citing political interference, and now works for the Santa Marta Group, a Catholic anti-slavery charity endorsed by the Pope. He told NationalWorld that he had been frustrated by the Home Office’s apparent efforts to “dilute the seniority” of the role during his tenure – where he had once reported directly to then-Home Secretary Theresa May, he was later asked to report to civil servants instead. 

The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner is a statutory role created by the groundbreaking 2015 Modern Slavery Act. The Home Secretary is legally required to appoint a commissioner, who is tasked with encouraging good practice in preventing, detecting, investigating and prosecuting slavery and trafficking offences, and identifying victims. 

Recruitment for Dame Sara’s replacement was purportedly ongoing when she left office last April, but a successor has never been appointed. No explanation has been given for the delay. A job advert was recently listed on the government website, with interviews expected to end in mid-May according to a preliminary timeline. The Home Office told NationalWorld that Home Secretary Suella Braverman recognises the importance of the role.

The Illegal Migration Bill meanwhile is making rapid progress through Parliament, entering committee stage last week – the period in which MPs examine legislation in detail and propose changes. The former commissioners say they would have normally played a significant role in this process, providing an objective viewpoint for Parliament. Both the Scottish and Welsh governments have slammed the Home Office for leaving the commissioner post empty while pushing “regressive” legislation and “extreme rhetoric”. 

Currently, people suspected of being modern slavery and trafficking victims referred into the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) are provided with support and protection from being deported while it is decided if they are genuine victims. The government plans to strip these rights from anybody who did not enter the country legally, and deport victims to their home country –  or Rwanda – unless they are actively supporting a police investigation or prosecution.

The former commissioners also raised concerns with the government’s ‘conflation’ of people smuggling with human trafficking. Smuggling, a crime against the state, usually involves migrants paying money to be moved across a border, whereas human trafficking involves a criminal moving victims into, out of, or within a country with a view to exploit them through forced labour or sex work, often using force, fraud or coercion to do so – “very, very different sorts of things”, Dame Sara said. 

The Home Office says only 6% of small boat arrivals result in a modern slavery referral.  “The concern is that in order to stop the smuggling, stop people taking those dangerous journeys in small boats, there’s going to be substantial collateral damage to the protection to victims of modern slavery, that’s the worry,” Dame Sara said. “And so keen is the government to solve the problem about the small boats, they’re not thinking about the impact on a very vulnerable group of people who are victims of serious crime.”

In her last report before leaving office, Dame Thornton wrote that she was ‘alarmed’ to see the Home Office “fundamentally fail to grasp what being a victim of modern slavery means”. She had been criticising sections of the then Nationality and Borders Bill, which subsequently became law. 

Mr Hyland, a former police officer of 30 years who investigated serious organised crime before heading up the London Metropolitan Police’s human trafficking unit, said that while the UK had to be able to police its borders it needs to be “smart enough …sophisticated enough to be able to work out who is the victim of a serious crime of trafficking and who is a criminal”. 

“I totally agree we have to be able to police the borders, there's no doubt about that,” he said. “I totally agree that what's happening across the Channel needs to be addressed, we can’t continue allowing that risk there, we can’t continue to allow smugglers to continue to make money…. But we have to be more sophisticated about it.”

He added: “When you look at [slavery and trafficking] in the UK and globally, this is a crime that is as pervasive and as worrying as terrorism and yet we have not pushed the agenda forward, there’s no real funding for it, law enforcement aren’t giving it the commitment that they need, the political will has gone away, and so the criminals are winning.”

Some of the government’s Illegal Migration Bill is “a gift to criminals”, Mr Hyland said, as traffickers will feel confident that their victims will be deported out of the UK no matter what they say, reducing the risk that the trail will lead back to them. “So actually it’s an insurance policy if you're a trafficker,” he added. 

Deporting trafficking victims automatically also ignores their vulnerability and the extent of the maltreatment they may have suffered, Mr Hyland argued, with trafficking and slavery often going hand in hand with sexual violence or other abuse. “Are we going to do that when a traffick victim arrives who's been raped?” he said. “Are we going to do that? Are we going to do that as the UK? Would we be happy with that? You know, that’s the question. If a traffick victim has been tortured, are we going to say ‘you’re not welcome’?”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Modern slavery remains a barbaric crime which we are committed to stamping out. The Illegal Migration Bill will change the law so that if someone who arrives in the UK illegally is identified as a potential victim of modern slavery or human trafficking, we will ensure they are safely returned home or to another safe country.”