Theresa May stands accused of “foot dragging” over appointing a new anti-slavery tsar after it emerged the key independent post will sit vacant for half-a-year.
Last year, there was a 300% increase in the number of modern slavery victims referred for support, with experts estimating 13,000 could be suffering under slavery offences.
Most (48%) of those referred were trafficked for sexual exploitation, while 39% were brought to the UK for labour exploitation, and 13% for domestic servitude.
But the Government’s response to the sharp uplift has been mired in criticism.
Kevin Hyland, who was appointed by May four years ago when she was Home Secretary to make prosecutions easier, resigned as the UK’s first anti-slavery tsar on May 4, complaining his independence from the Government “felt somewhat discretionary”.
During a recent trade mission to Nigeria, the Prime Minister vowed to foreign dignitaries she would tackle soaring levels of trafficking and trumpeted new initiatives.
She told reporters that “modern slavery is one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time” and that “the UK is a world leader in making it an international mission to end this heinous crime”.
As Home Secretary, May also made cutting trafficking a central part of her policy agenda.
In 2015, she introduced new legislation to tackle the crime with the National Referral Mechanism, the appointment of a commissioner and child trafficking advocates.
Stephanie Peacock, Labour MP for Barnsley East, said May’s pledge to African nations to tackle the crime stands “in stark contrast to her ministers’ foot-dragging” and that the Government’s track record on public appointments “simply does not inspire trust”.
She said: “To lose one independent commissioner might be unfortunate, but to have two entire commissions vacant for the best part of a year starts to look careless.
“They give every impression that they’d rather dodge independent scrutiny than welcome it, and no wonder when the Tory austerity is so badly damaging the very services that tackle modern slavery, protect the vulnerable and support the victims.”
Peacock called on the new anti-slavery commissioner to make a priority of ensuring victims were given access to free education - something she has said Home Office bureaucracy was blocking.
She said: “Ministers should end the cuts to the agencies that defend vulnerable workers, and listen to the calls for survivors to be allowed access to education, which will benefit both them and the whole community. That is an issue that I hope the new commissioner will look at, whenever they are appointed.”
In the wake of Hyland’s exit, anti-trafficking campaigners also argued the Government’s “muddled and inconsistent” approach was failing victims.
And Westminster’s spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, also lambasted the “extreme” variation between the vast number of referrals and the relatively low number of prosecutions, adding that victims were waiting “far too long” for help.
The delay follows criticism over a series of Government public appointments.
A new social mobility commissioner was not put in place for almost eight months in the wake of Alan Milburn’s resignation over claims ministers were “consumed by Brexit” rather than closing the gap between rich and poor.
Toby Young was also appointed to the board of the Office for Students despite being responsible for a litany of sexist and abusive publicly-available social media messages.
A Home Office spokeswoman said the new commissioner will have a UK-wide remit to encourage good practice in the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of modern slavery offences and the identification of victims.
She said: “A recruitment campaign is currently underway for a new Anti-Slavery Commissioner who will work alongside Government and its partners to effectively tackle modern slavery both nationally and internationally.
“It is important we appoint the right candidate for this role to ensure effective work continues on the prevention and detection of modern slavery.”