A poisoned chalice? Challenges for the UK’s next anti-slavery commissioner

Thursday, 10 January 2019 14:00 GMT

The shadows of workers are seen in the City of London financial district, London, Britain, January 25, 2018. Picture taken January 25, 2018. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Effective anti-slavery action by the UK is marred by other policies that have detrimental effects on those affected by slavery in the UK

Aidan McQuade is an expert on slavery and forced labour and former director of Anti-Slavery International.

A couple of months ago I got one of those polite “get lost” letters we have all received. This one came from the UK Government in response to my application for the role of the UK’s Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. Nothing personal, it said, but there were better people for them to be considering.

I’ve no reason at all to doubt that. Indeed, it was something of a relief to get the rejection, because, having spent well over a decade leading Anti-Slavery International and thinking about anti-slavery law, policy and practice in the UK and beyond, I am aware of the gargantuan challenges that the Commissioner will face when the government finally gets around to making that appointment –  something that has already taken a tortuous 6 months.

Theresa May has made it clear that slavery is an issue of enormous importance to her. When Home Secretary her department piloted the 2015 Modern Slavery Act onto the statute books. It was this act that created the role of the Commissioner, to encourage good practice in “The prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of slavery and human trafficking offences… [and the] identification of victims of these offences.”

May’s leadership has also prompted impressive array of initiatives, including the Modern Slavery Innovation Fund that supports direct interventions on the ground, and the Global Call to Action against Modern Slavery endorsed by almost a hundred other countries. The impact of the initiatives in other parts of government has also been apparent. For example, the Department for International Development in Myanmar has led on the incorporation of an anti-slavery approach into livelihoods work there and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has engaged with other governments in efforts to reduce forced and child labour in key export supply chains.    

However, in spite of these achievements the UK’s approach to slavery is a muddled one. Luis C deBaca, Barack Obama’s anti-slavery tsar, recently noted in an article for Conservativehome.com that May’s “mantle of leadership [on the issue of slavery] is at risk.”

deBaca focused on the issue of victim protection, an ideal he argued, which was rendered “almost meaningless by the lack of long-term care and alternative to removal. Simply put, a country cannot be a global leader against modern slavery when its own official determination that someone is a victim is undercut by artificial deadlines, lack of services, or even deportation.”

A private member’s bill championed by Lord McColl and Ian Duncan Smith currently seeks to remedy these problems. But the problems that deBaca rightly identifies, are merely one manifestation of much wider policy incoherence on the issue of slavery.

Most dangerously effective anti-slavery action by the UK is marred by other policies that have detrimental effects on those affected by slavery in the UK. The ferocious “hostile environment” which Theresa May initiated as Home Secretary did not just result in the deportation of British citizens of the “Windrush” generation. It also gave rise to the 2016 Immigration Act which created the criminal offence of “illegal working.” This new offence makes an additional direct threat to the protection of slavery victims as many who are enslaved in the UK will be “illegally working” as a result to the machinations of their traffickers. This poses the troubling question that if a victim of trafficking is found “illegally working” will they be protected or prosecuted?

Of course, one would hope that the police would treat any trafficking victims they encounter with the necessary compassion. But this presupposes they have the knowledge, training and above all resources to do just that. After years of economic austerity resulting in eye-watering cuts to all public services, including the police and Crown Prosecution Service, it is highly questionable whether they have that sufficiently everywhere.  Furthermore, following Brexit, it is as yet unclear what impact the UK’s changed relationships with Europol and Eurojust, the EU’s police and judicial cooperation agencies, will have on law enforcement cooperation across Europe against trans-national human trafficking networks, something which, until now, the UK has been a leader in.

So, an effective Commissioner must seek to grapple with these policy inconsistencies and try to negotiate a more coherent anti-slavery approach across the breadth of government.  But this is a challenge which may be gravely hampered if the independence of the role is not properly ensured.

The first interim report of the review of the Modern Slavery Act, chaired by Frank Field MP, which focussed on the role of the Commissioner identified a range of constraints on the Commissioner’s independence including, “For example, he/she must only report on permitted matters (those matters agreed to in his/her strategic plan, or requested by Ministers); the Secretary of State must approve his/her strategic plans; and Ministers can redact or omit any material from the Commissioner’s reports that would be against the interests of national security, or prejudice an ongoing investigation or a person’s safety…We are concerned by the statements of several stakeholders that the Commissioner was not free to scrutinise and criticise Government policy and performance in addressing modern slavery.” Such constraints render the role problematic because, the report recognises, the Commissioner’s “duties will also, from time to time, require the Commissioner to express criticisms, to tread on toes and to make recommendations.

The Interim Report makes a number of solid recommendations to strengthen the independence of the Commissioner’s role. But the underlying causes of some of the most serious challenges to good anti-slavery policy and practice lie in a range of ideological convictions, from austerity to xenophobia and Brexit. As these are currently prized at the highest echelons of the UK government is it likely that they will ever empower someone to, potentially, propose that their most sacred political cows should be skinned and eaten?