A former anti-slavery commissioner has described the failure to find someone to replace her as “deeply regrettable” and suggested there could be a conflict of interest with the Home Office being in charge of the appointment.
Dame Sara Thornton left the post – which she said is a key appointment – in April last year and it has been vacant since.
The ex-police chief said she does not know whether the lack of a replacement is deliberate or down to poor administration and bureaucracy.
She was asked during the opening session of the Home Affairs Committee’s new inquiry into human trafficking whether she thinks the failure to make a new appointment is international.
“Whether it’s deliberate or whether it’s just poor administration and poor bureaucracy, I don’t know.
“But, given the level of public discourse about modern slavery, given that we had the Illegal Migration Bill and also lots of issues about implementation of the Nationality and Borders Act, it seems to me that this is a key appointment and Parliament surely should be informed by the expert views of an independent slavery commissioner.”
She suggested recruitment to the role should be overseen by the Cabinet Office rather than the Home Office, and that it should be for a longer term.
She said: “I do think potentially the Home Office has a conflict of interest. I also think that a three-year appointment for this sort of role is not long enough – it needs to be five or seven years so that a commissioner can act without fear or favour.”
Baroness Butler-Sloss, a former senior judge and independent crossbench peer, said Dame Sara had been “outstanding” in the role.
“It’s inconceivable that if this had been a totally objective approach to who should be appointed, that she wasn’t reappointed, and it seems to me that lies exactly in the fact that the Home Office has control.”
She said the fact that the role has been vacant for a year “adds huge weight to the fact the Home Office should not be appointing the anti-slavery commissioner”.
According to the Government website, the commissioner’s role includes encouraging good practice to increase the identification and protection of victims of modern slavery, and ensuring victims and survivors in the UK are supported.
It also involves enabling effective prevention of slavery and human trafficking offences and promoting an improved law enforcement and criminal justice response to modern slavery across the UK.
Dame Sara criticised “really concerning” rhetoric around immigration, saying it “undermines the Modern Slavery Act, and it has a hugely chill effect on victims and survivors”.
She added: “They won’t come forward if they hear all this rhetoric.”
Research published by the Home Office last month showed that 92% of those referred to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the framework for identifying and referring potential victims – while detained for return from the UK had been given a positive “reasonable grounds” decision – indicating they were believed to be potential survivors of modern slavery.
Dame Sara claimed an “overlap between small boats and modern slavery has been greatly exaggerated”, a sentiment echoed by Baroness Butler-Sloss who said “the idea that the boat people are abusing the system of the Modern Slavery Act doesn’t seem to be so”.
Dame Sara said non-governmental organisations working to help in the sector have told her they are facing a “terrible dilemma”.
She told the committee: “When they find a victim in future if this legislation is passed, do they leave the victim in exploitation or do they support them knowing that they will be detained and possibly removed? How on earth do they work their way through the ethics of that?”
She said the Bill “just hands control to the traffickers, because the traffickers will say to the victims ‘You cannot go for help because if you go for help you will be detained and removed’.”
The Bill, which sparked controversy when it was first announced last month, is currently going through Parliament and will see people who come to the UK by irregular means face detention and the prospect of being returned to their home country or nations such as Rwanda, where a deal has been struck to send them.
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, which is currently under way.”