‘Heartless’ government fails to fill two key human rights watchdog roles

Government ministers have “heartlessly” betrayed rape and trafficking victims after failing to fill two key independent watchdog roles designed to defend human rights, campaigners have said.

Next month, the role of the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales will have been left vacant for a year, at a time when vital legislation is passing through parliament.

Rishi Sunak has also failed to appoint a new anti-slavery commissioner – a legal requirement for his government – with critics claiming it is to avoid criticism of controversial policies that risk sending trafficking victims to Rwanda.

Cases of suspected trafficking are running at an all-time high – yet the post has remained vacant for nearly a year and a half. Officials admit the failure to appoint an anti-slavery watchdog has meant its “reduced office” cannot commission research or publish new work on the issue.

The last victims’ commissioner, Vera Baird, said that it appeared that ministers would rather leave the high-profile positions unfilled than face extra scrutiny.

Campaigners said the refusal to fill the roles exposed the government’s true attitude to rape and trafficking victims.

Deniz Uğur, deputy director of the End Violence Against Women coalition , said: Despite countless promises to overhaul the criminal justice system for rape survivors and prioritise ending violence against women and girls, the government’s failure to prioritise appointing a victims’ commissioner speaks volumes about its commitment to actually delivering on these promises.“It is unthinkable that at such a critical time for tackling violence against women and girls, the government has left this vital role vacant for almost a year. This has only heightened the instability survivors face.”

The news comes as the victims and prisoners bill makes its way through parliament, with groups saying the lack of a victims’ commissioner has effectively silenced victims and limited scrutiny of the key legislation.

“We need independent and consistent oversight of the government’s actions against its stated commitments to improve the response to violence against women,” Uğur added.

Baird, a former Labour MP who will chair a new commission to help increase the number of crimes solved if the party wins the next election, said: “The government seems to have concluded: ‘Why are we paying for these positions so they can complain about us.’ It has no regard for democracy.”

Natasha Tsangarides, associate director of advocacy at Freedom from Torture, said it was “staggering” that the government had left the anti-slavery post unfilled.

She said: “At the same time it is simultaneously dismantling key safeguards for trafficking survivors.

“With cases of suspected trafficking at an all-time high, it shows just how deplorable they really are. This is symptomatic of a heartless government that is content to fail victims over and over again. They need to fill this post immediately.”Baird had hoped to be reappointed when her three-year term came to an end in 2022 but was forced to reapply. She stepped down after being told that she had not been successful in the recruitment round, despite officials having judged her to be “appointable” to the position.Sources say Dominic Raab, the former justice secretary, intervened to block her reappointment. In her resignation letter, Baird wrote: “A strong, independent victims’ commissioner has never been more important. The role must not be allowed to lie dormant like the independent anti-slavery commissioner.”

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A statement dated 5 October 2022 on the victims’ commissioner website says that the role “is currently subject to an open recruitment process”, though no deadline or progress update is supplied.

On the site of the vacant anti-slavery commissioner, a statement reads: “In the absence of a commissioner, staff attending meetings or engaging with stakeholders will have no remit to provide views or take on or contribute to new work.” The role was initially advertised in December 2021.

Evaluating applications for the victims’ commissioner role was meant to have happened by last November, with interviews taking place at the end of last year. Sources said suitable candidates had been identified but subsequently blocked by Raab’s successor, Alex Chalk.

The failure to fill the two positions is another blow to the legacy of former prime minister Theresa May, who made tackling modern slavery a centrepiece of her tenure.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The UK has led the world in protecting victims of modern slavery and we will continue to identify and support those who have suffered intolerable abuse at the hands of criminals and traffickers.“The home secretary recognises the importance of the role of independent anti-slavery commissioner – a new competition to recruit for the role was opened in February and is now at an advanced stage.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson added: “We understand how important the role of victims’ commissioner is and there has been no attempt to deliberately delay the appointment of the next one. The recruitment is under way and we will confirm the outcome of this process as soon as possible.”


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