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Why the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner vacancy should concern us all

3 min read

It has been almost ten months since Dame Sara Thornton stepped down from her three-year tenure as UK Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC).

During this time, major changes impacting victims of modern slavery have been implemented and new changes are in the offing: all without the expert scrutiny of a Commissioner whose role I created as part of the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

As the former Minister for Modern Slavery and now co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery, I have seen first-hand the value added by the Anti-Slavery Commissioner and the powerful insights they bring. By encouraging good practice, a Commissioner can help ensure our legislation to tackle human trafficking and modern slavery is the best it can be.

If we want to continue to lead the way in tackling modern slavery, we must – as a minimum – abide by our own modern slavery legislation. The legislation doesn’t say that a Commissioner could be appointed – it clearly sets out that a Commissioner must be appointed. We have a duty under the legislation to ensure this post is filled.

Not only that – we should welcome the appointment of a new Commissioner to support us in ensuring our legislation is robust and effective – and that it is also informed by a correct understanding of human trafficking and modern slavery.

This is particularly critical at a juncture where the issues of human trafficking and people smuggling are being incorrectly conflated and misunderstood. There is a renewed sense of urgency for an objective voice to weigh into the conversation and to ensure correct framing of the issue.

Human trafficking is not people smuggling. It is a horrific crime which involves the exploitation of vulnerable people for gain. Comparatively, people smuggling is a financial transaction to facilitate an irregular border crossing. Having an IASC in post would help us navigate the nuances and complexities of human trafficking, which we know can take place both across borders and within countries. The expert scrutiny provided by a Commissioner would help shape and inform our legislation, ensuring we have evidence-based policy which serves the victims of human trafficking well.

I recently met International Justice Mission who shared with me the experience of Antonia*, who was trafficked to the UK. She was lured here by a false job offer – but when she arrived, she had her passport taken and was forced to sleep with multiple men every day. The violence and trauma experienced by this young woman are too brutal to describe in this piece, but her experience is a reality we cannot ignore.

Appointing an IASC now would help us guarantee the correct legislative framework is in place to serve people like Antonia well – ensuring they are identified quickly and provided with the support they need to begin to recover. However, without an IASC, we risk creating legislation which doesn’t provide the best for victims – and at worst harms them.

Parliamentarians know this is urgent.  Questions have been asked and a Private Members Bill introduced to make provision for Parliament to make an appointment if the position has been unfilled for three months.

If we are truly striving for best practice in tackling modern slavery, legislation which will impact victims of modern slavery should not be created in the absence of an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. We should welcome having a watchdog appointed to the role.

I encourage the government to demonstrate their commitment to creating expertly informed, evidence-based policy and legislation by getting on with filling the vacancy so we can continue to be a global leader in the fight to end modern slavery.

*name changed

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