The new Anti-Slavery Commissioner has said her budget will be cut by 5% annually as she acknowledged modern slavery and human trafficking is “no longer the priority that it was” for the Home Office.
Eleanor Lyons, appearing before the Home Affairs Committee for the first time in her new role, described the Government department as “uniquely challenging” in trying to get information from.
But she insisted she is willing to speak out on the issues that matter, as she works to build up her current team of just two staff.
Ms Lyons came to the post in mid-December, following a near two-year vacancy after Dame Sara Thornton finished her term in April 2022.
The independent office will have a budget of £500,000 from April next year, down from the £605,000 budget for the previous commissioner, the committee heard.
Ms Lyons said: “I’m absolutely pushing for more resource and budget because I think it’s very important, but I’ve been told by the Home Office that my budget will be cut every year that I’m in role.”
The commissioner also told of the difficulties she faces in the process of recruitment, needing special sign-off for anyone she wants to hire from outside the Home Office.
Committee chairwoman Dame Diana Johnson said: “So let me get this straight – so your budget is going to be cut by 5% for every year you’re in post, and anyone you appoint has to be from the Home Office, otherwise you need special permission?”
Ms Lyons confirmed this is the case.
The commissioner said she aims to have a team of up to seven people, noting that in her previous role as deputy children’s commissioner there was a team of around 30.
Describing trying to retrieve information in that previous role, Ms Lyons said the Home Office had been “a uniquely challenging department to navigate and push for things” they were entitled to access.
Conservative committee member Tim Loughton asked: “How are you going to stand up to a Home Office which appears increasingly indifferent to this subject?”
“I plan to initially work collaboratively with the Home Office to push for changes that I want to see. But I am aware of the challenges in this space.”
Ms Lyons said she thinks the scale of human trafficking and modern slavery across the UK is greater than previous estimates.
She said: “I think it’s very important that we look at prevalence of modern slavery and human trafficking in this country afresh. I think that the scale of the issue is far greater than 100,000. I think it’s likely to be 130,000.”
A report from the committee in December concluded that the fight against human trafficking appears to no longer be a Government priority as it instead focuses on irregular migration, with MPs warning this approach has led to some UK national victims falling through the gaps.
Labour’s Kim Johnson put it to Ms Lyons that “human trafficking is no longer a priority for the Home Office because small boats and the Rwanda policy are being prioritised” and asked her to respond.
Ms Lyons said: “I think human trafficking and modern slavery was absolutely a priority for this Government in 2015 when the Modern Slavery Act passed, and I think actually there’s been an incredible amount of work since then that we can be proud of in the support that it’s provided for victims and those with lived experience.
“I think it’s fair to say now that the focus of the Home Office is on tackling illegal migration and small boats, and that modern slavery and human trafficking is no longer the priority that it was.”
The Home Office said it does not recognise the 5% budget cut figure and added that it will continue to engage with the commissioner on future funding requirements to inform bids for the next spending review.
Regarding the apparently higher level of funding for the previous commissioner, the department said it understood that had included money from the devolved administrations, which it said was separate from the budget provided by the Home Office.
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 £379 million 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.”