EXCLUSIVE-UK anti-slavery drive 'thwarted' by failure to replace commissioner: sources

by Kieran Guilbert | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 12 December 2018 20:29 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A police officer is silhouetted against the sky next to the Big Ben clock tower during sunset in central London, January 13, 2015. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

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"Britain has lost its figurehead, and hamstrung advisors who are deeply embedded and knowledgeable on the issue"

(Adds comment from Home Office in paragraph 9)

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, Dec 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain's efforts to be the global leader in fighting modern slavery have been "thwarted" by a failure to replace its anti-slavery chief who resigned seven months ago citing government interference, two sources told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kevin Hyland was appointed as the inaugural independent commissioner in 2014 as part of Britain's landmark Modern Slavery Act, but he resigned in May and left in August, saying he had been frustrated by government meddling.

Hyland was widely hailed for helping to champion the world-first law and pushing the United Nations to adopt a target to end slavery by 2030 among a set of global goals agreed in 2105.

But the delay in replacing him has prevented the commissioner's seven-staff office from driving forward Britain's strategy, holding the government to account, and cementing the nation's status as a world leader, according to the two sources.

"The office has been thwarted (by the delay)... totally prevented from doing new work, taking the next steps on existing projects, and keeping up pressure on the government," said a former staffer who worked under Hyland, requesting anonymity.

"Britain has lost its figurehead, and hamstrung advisors who are deeply embedded and knowledgeable on the issue."

The former staffer said the team had stalled in efforts to push for better support to slavery victims and improve a legal requirement for big firms to report their anti-slavery measures.

The Home Office (interior ministry) has advertised twice to replace Hyland - offering a three-year contract with a salary of up to 140,000 pounds ($178,192) - according to the two sources who said they expected an appointment in the coming months.

A statement from the Home Office echoed that assessment.

"A recruitment campaign is currently underway and we look forward to appointing Kevin Hyland's successor in the new year," the ministry said in an emailed statement, adding that work against slavery is continuing without a commissioner in place.

CONCERNS OVER INDEPENDENCE

Hyland in October told parliament that he resigned after his independence had been "heavily compromised" by Home Office officials over issues ranging from budgets to recruitment.

He told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he feared his successor might struggle to assert their independence.

"The job advert says the commissioner should report to the Home Office. That was never intended by parliament and it goes against what was set out in the Modern Slavery Act," said Hyland on Wednesday, adding the tsar should report into parliament.

A public spending watchdog and parliamentary committee have said Britain is struggling to track progress in its anti-slavery fight as it does not know how much is being spent and lacks data on a crime estimated to be worth $150 billion a year globally.

Britain announced in July it would review its 2015 law amid criticism that it is not being used fully to jail traffickers, drive firms to stop forced labour, or help victims.

At least 136,000 people are enslaved in Britain, according to the Global Slavery Index by the Walk Free Foundation that estimates about 40 million people worldwide are enslaved.

A second source familiar with the situation said the delay in replacing Hyland was "ridiculous" given that "modern slavery continues as usual".

"If there was political will, things would move quickly," the source said on condition of anonymity.

The source hoped the review of the legislation would lead to recommendations about the independent nature of the commissioner and help the new chief keep a distance from the Home Office.

Britain-based charity Anti-Slavery International - the world's oldest human rights organisation - said the delay was "concerning" and added to the impression that the government was "not keen on being held to account" on its anti-slavery policy.

"And held to account it should be since there's plenty to improve - from protecting the victims to bringing the traffickers to justice," said spokesman Jakub Sobik. (Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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