Modern slavery is less of a priority under Rishi Sunak than it was under previous Tory governments, the anti-slavery commissioner has warned, as she revealed her budget has been cut by over £100,000 and would continue to fall.
The anti-slavery watchdog post had been vacant for 18 months before Eleanor Lyons began her role in December, with the government introducing several new laws and regulations during that time that affected trafficking victims.
Speaking to MPs at the home affairs select committee on Tuesday, Ms Lyons, who was previously the deputy children’s commissioner, suggested that the budget being cut from £605,000 to £500,000 was evidence that the Rishi Sunak’s government did not take the issue seriously enough.
She said the Home Office would also cut this budget by five per cent for every year that she is in post. She added: “As I’m coming into the role halfway through the year, a lot of my budget has been reallocated so as of April next year, my budget for that year will be £500,000.
“I am absolutely pushing for more resource and budget because I think it’s important but I have been told by the Home Office that my budget will be cut every year that I am in role–- by five per cent every year.”
Quizzed by Tory MP Tim Loughton over whether the Home Office saw tackling modern slavery as a priority, Ms Lyons said: “I think I could say that modern slavery and human trafficking was more of a priority back in 2015 and I think it is less of a priority now.”
Ms Lyons also explained that she currently only has two members of staff who are on fixed-term contracts. One of the contracts ends this month and the other in April.
She said the speed at which she could build her team was being curtailed by the fact that senior civil servants within the Home Office had to sign off every new appointment. She also needs special permission to recruit anyone from outside the Home Office or the civil service to her independent team.
She said this was impacting her ability to reflect a wide cohort of expertise in her team. Under the current budget projections, she would be able to recruit six or seven members of staff.
This is compared to some 30 members of staff who worked under her in her previous job as deputy children’s commissioner.
Ms Lyons also shared her concerns that the scale of modern slavery and human trafficking was going underreported in the UK, estimating that there were likely to be some 130,000 victims.
She said that prosecution rates for modern slavery offences were far too low, and expressed support for a push to characterise cuckooing, a practice where drug dealers take over a vulnerable person’s home, as modern slavery.
Her comments came after new research from the International Organisation for Migration showed that potential victims of modern slavery are now waiting 10 times longer than the five-day target to receive an initial decision on their case.
It also noted that, since changes to the modern slavery referral scheme were implemented a year ago, a considerable gap has emerged between the support offered to UK and foreign nationals. The latter are now much less likely to receive an initial positive decision on their case, whereas this had been almost equal previously.
UK nationals still make up the largest cohort of people referred for help under the government’s modern slavery and human trafficking support scheme.
A Home Office spokesperson said:
“We were delighted to appoint Eleanor Lyons to take up the role of independent anti-slavery commissioner and will continue to support her as she builds on progress already made to improve the detection and prevention of modern slavery and support for victims.
“This is alongside our continued commitment to funding the £379m modern slavery victim care contract, which provides specialist support to adult victims, as well as additional and tailored support for children through the independent child trafficking guardian service.”