Migrant crisis: Home Office ‘appears to be acting unlawfully’ by failing to appoint Anti-Slavery Commissioner

The Government has a legal duty to appoint an anti-slavery chief - so why has it left the job open since April, during a refugee and migrant crisis?

The Home Office appears to be acting unlawfully by failing to appoint a new anti-slavery champion six months since the role became vacant, a leading human rights group has said.

It comes amid increased attention on the refugee and Channel boat crossing crises and efforts to stamp out criminal gangs trafficking people into the UK. There has also been a significant increase in the number of modern slavery victims recorded in the UK, which the government puts down to bogus claims – a position charities say is entirely “unsubstantiated”.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman is under a legal obligation to appoint an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, a statutory role created by the 2015 Modern Slavery Act. But there has been nobody in the job since the end of April, when Dame Sara Thornton left office – and when Braverman’s predecessor Priti Patel was at the Home Office helm. Human rights group Liberty says failure to appoint one appears to be unlawful.

The Home Office told us a “fair and open recruitment campaign” is underway and it would be inappropriate to comment further while the process is ongoing. It gave the exact same statement to the Guardian over two months ago, while charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) said the Cabinet Office website previously listed the final interview date as 14 April, before Ms Thornton left. There has been no explanation for the delay, the charity said.

The Anti-Slavery Commissioner role was created to promote good practice in “the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of slavery and human trafficking offences”, alongside better identification of victims. Legally, the office holder must publish an annual report, which scrutinises progress by the government and other authorities to stamp out slavery.’

‘Grave concerns’

In her last report published in April, Ms Thornton was highly critical of the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill, which it recently pushed through Parliament, writing that she was “gravely concerned” about the consequences it would have on vulnerable slavery victims. She was also ‘alarmed’ to see sections of the Bill “fundamentally fail to grasp what being a victim of modern slavery means”.

The ongoing vacancy means boss-less staff at the Commissioner’s office are not currently allowed to provide views on slavery issues, or take on or contribute to work. FLEX says it is a “crucial time” for anti-slavery efforts, with the government in the process of producing a new modern slavery strategy and planning a new Modern Slavery Bill, which the charity says will “potentially further restrict already limited support and protection for survivors”.

Justine Carter, director of anti-slavery charity Unseen, said her charity, other human rights groups, and politicians of all persuasions were “extremely concerned” about the failure to replace Ms Thornton. “You have to ask why ministers have let the matter drift for so long,” she said. “It suggests a lack of commitment to addressing a terrible crime that is ruining the lives of thousands of people and costing the country billions of pounds.”

It is a “crucial” time for slavery work - but the Government has left the anti-slavery champion job empty for six months(Image NationalWorld/Kim Mogg)

There is also not currently a Victim’s Commissioner in England and Wales, after the previous incumbent, Dame Vera Baird, sensationally quit in September, accusing the government of sidelining her and “downgrading” victims’ interests while allowing the criminal justice system to descend into chaos. “The role must not be allowed to lie dormant like the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner,” she wrote in her searing resignation letter.

The government has taken an increasingly hardline approach on slavery recently, with Suella Braverman claiming that people are “gaming the system” by making bogus claims that they have been trafficked. On Monday (31 October) she told MPs: “This year has seen a surge in the number of Albanian arrivals, many of them I am afraid to say abusing our modern slavery laws.”

As NationalWorld reported this week, the Home Office’s own figures show that the vast majority of potential slavery and trafficking victims referred to them by government, charity, police and council first responders are judged to be genuine victims by assessors in Braverman’s own department. This would include Albanian victims.

‘Vital the role is filled’

Charities rigorously dispute Braverman’s claims. Kate Roberts, head of policy at FLEX, said the government was trying to reframe an increase in victim referrals as abuse of the system “against all evidence to the contrary”. Andrew Wallis, chief executive officer of Unseen, said his and other charities had repeatedly asked the Home Office for evidence that the system is “awash with fake claims” but have so far seen nothing, while Robyn Phillips, director of operations at the Human Trafficking Foundation, said the claims were “unsubstantiated”.

Given such rhetoric, it is “vital that the role of the commissioner is filled urgently to ensure independent scrutiny”, Ms Phillips said. The previous Anti-Slavery Commissioner had also been critical of the government’s claims in her last report, saying “there is a lack of clear evidence on the alleged abuses of the system”.

Home Office figures released on Thursday (3 November) show the number of potential trafficking or slavery victims referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the UK’s system for identifying and supporting victims – continued to climb in the three months to September, with 4,586 referrals compared to 4,169 the three months before. There were 3,317 in the same period in 2021, meaning a 38% increase year on year.

There was also a 62% annual increase in the number of ‘duty to notify’ referrals. This is where an adult victim did not give the required consent to enter the NRM system, but first responders must tell the Home Office they found a potential victim anyway.

During the same three-month period, Home Office assessors agreed that 88% of the people referred to them were likely genuine victims of slavery or trafficking, a similar proportion to previous months.

In its full statement on the appointment of a replacement commissioner, the Home Office 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 underway for the new anti-slavery commissioner and it would be inappropriate to comment any further while this process is ongoing”.