(Recasts and adds reactions throughout)
By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, May 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's inaugural anti-slavery chief Kevin Hyland has resigned after almost four years, saying he was proud to have put the fight against slavery firmly on the national agenda but frustrated by government interference in his role.
Hyland, appointed independent commissioner in 2014 as part of Britain's widely lauded Modern Slavery Act, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an exclusive interview that he would leave the post by August to run a children's charity in Ireland.
Over the past four years the former police officer, who led the human trafficking unit of the London Metropolitan Police, was widely praised for helping to enact a landmark law and spearhead a global drive to end modern slavery by 2030.
He said the world-leading law had been a "game-changer in many ways", but acknowledged criticism from anti-trafficking campaigners about a lack of convictions, mixed support for victims, and limited action from businesses to address slavery.
Hyland said he had been frustrated by the government interfering with a role intended to be separate from the state, although he declined to elaborate, and urged autonomy for his successor - a call echoed by leading anti-slavery activists.
"As the inaugural incumbent in a unique role there have predictably been some learning points for all around the precise nature of the independence set by the founding legislation, but I leave the role confident that my successor can only benefit from this learning," Hyland said in a later statement.
British Prime Minister Theresa May praised Hyland for his service, saying he should be proud of his achievements.
PROMISES AND FRUSTRATIONS
This year, however, Hyland's term was only extended by a year after the Home Office said the commissioner was the subject of an inquiry following a query about his conduct by a charity running a national modern slavery helpline.
"As the first incumbent of the role, you made a significant contribution to shining a spotlight on the scale and nature of modern slavery in the UK and internationally," said May.
More than 40 million people are estimated by the United Nations to be trapped globally in forced labour, forced marriages and sexual exploitation.
In Britain, at least 13,000 people are estimated to be victims of modern-day slavery, but police say the true figure is likely much higher.
The Modern Slavery Act introduced life sentences for traffickers, measures to protect people at risk of being enslaved, and made large companies scrutinise their supply chains for forced labour.
Hyland said law enforcement agencies need to ensure tackling slavery is a priority and pursue more prosecutions, while firms who flout the law by failing to disclose what action they have taken to clean up their supply chains should be penalised.
"The legislation is not yet being fully utilised or enforced ... but it is still in its infancy," said Hyland.
But he said Britain has set an example for other nations to follow - Australia is expected to pass a similar law this year - and was instrumental in securing a U.N. target to end slavery as part of 17 global development goals adopted in 2015.
"That was a major achievement on the global stage," he said.
Nick Grono, chief executive of the Freedom Fund, the first private donor fund dedicated to ending slavery, said tackling slavery at home gave Britain the authority to talk to other countries about their efforts to address the issue.
"But to do that effectively, the next commissioner needs to be able to assert their independence in the role," he said.
Cardinal Nichols, head of a global alliance of the Catholic Church and law enforcement officials set up at the request of the Pope, praised Hyland's dedication and leadership.
"As Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin has always argued for greater resources that have often been promised. He has also argued for a more co-ordinated approach to combating this terrible crime," Nichols said in a statement.
"I also hope that the government will not only speedily appoint an independent commissioner but also increase its active support for the commission's work." (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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