By Sarah.Aston

26 Feb 2015

As Britain’s first anti-slavery commissioner, Kevin Hyland is on a mission to set people free – with the help of some friends in very high places. Sarah Aston spoke to him.

Like William Hague, Kevin Hyland understands the publicity, and panache, a famous face can add to a campaign. Who could forget Hague’s showbiz entrance to last year’s End Sexual Violence in Conflict summit? Dapper suited alongside Hollywood’s most famous faces, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, the then foreign secretary hit the headlines, and so did his cause. 

Likewise, Hyland – appointed by Theresa May as the UK’s first anti-slavery commissioner last November and serving as designate commissioner until the Modern Slavery Bill achieves royal assent – has used celebrity to his advantage. Except, in this case, Hyland’s gone more Holy than Hollywood by joining forces with Pope Francis. 

The two men might seem a rather unlikely duo – Hyland is a London-born former policeman with 30 years in the force and the Pope is, well, the Pope. However, their partnership could be a key weapon in the battle against slavery – something many of us associate with the days of empire but which, in our globalised world, is still a blight on modern society. 

Together, Hyland and his Holiness have worked to promote the Santa Marta Group – a strategic partnership between international law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church which Hyland helped establish to eliminate modern slavery and human trafficking. In addition, in April 2014, Pope Francis hosted the two-day human trafficking conference ‘Church and Law Enforcement in Partnership’.

For Hyland, the relationship is not as unusual as it first appears. A committed Catholic himself, he spent the last years of his tenure at the Met heading up its Human Trafficking Unit, while the Pope has been vocal about the role all parts of society have to play in eradicating slavery. In December 2014 Pope Francis, alongside Orthodox, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim clerics, signed a joint statement for the engagement of religions in the elimination of modern slavery and human trafficking by 2020. 

“Having all these ways of accessing different communities is so important and to have a global leader, as we’ve got in Pope Francis, is particularly important,” says Hyland. “The way he has taken this as something that he is going to lead on really fits well with the plan for the UK to lead on this globally.”

This plan revolves around the Modern Slavery Bill, which set out the case for the creation of Hyland’s role. Put forward by the Home Office, the bill – once given royal assent – will create law enforcement tools to tackle modern slavery and enhance protection and support for victims.

“Modern slavery shouldn’t be here any more – it’s an awful crime,” says Hyland – whose passion for the cause is palpable. “Those who suffer need to be supported and those who commit these crimes need to face the weight of the law - they need to be stripped of their assets.”

Hyland on...his independence
My role is independent and that means it is independent of everyone, whether that’s government, whether it’s law enforcement, public authorities or indeed the private sector or the voluntary sector. That doesn’t mean that I don’t work with people, in fact it means that I should be working with all the parties and all the actors involved. It’s about bringing all the ideas together, all the plans together. It’s about asking: what is the objective here? Also it’s me raising issues which I think need to be addressed in a certain way.

Well-publicised exposés have highlighted the extent of modern slavery in the UK. In 2013, The Sunday Times revealed that many high street nail bars and restaurants have used slave labour and, in January 2014, the paper exposed slavery among British trawlers dredging scallops in Plymouth. Last year alone, the Home Office estimated that the number of slaves in the UK  in 2013 ranged between 10,000 and 13,000. 

Currently, the number of convictions for crimes relating to modern slavery is exasperatingly low, Hyland says: out of 226 prosecutions last year, only 155 people were convicted. Faced with the task of monitoring and co-ordinating the UK response to modern slavery, it is clear from talking to him that Hyland is impatient to get started. So much so, that he has already started to implement strategies around draft legislation, despite the fact the bill has not yet passed in law. 

The commissioner’s remit is a difficult one, and requires him to be both a supportive figure, helping and guiding agencies in their attempts to tackle slavery, and a hard taskmaster when things go wrong. 

Hyland’s role – which requires him to work directly with police agencies, the National Crime Agency, charities and companies – is broad but he has been vocal about the areas in which he wants to see change, not least the adoption of a victim-led approach. “When I was a police officer I always placed the victim at the centre of everything I did,” he says. “That’s why people become police officers: to look after people, and to catch those that commit the crimes.”

But with ever diminishing resources, police officers are under increasing pressure to deliver results on smaller budgets. Last month, a police detective told Civil Service World of the almost constant tension between supporting the victim and carrying out the day-to-day work – interviewing victims, witnesses and suspects, as well as other investigative tasks such as gathering CCTV footage, dealing with forensic evidence and conducting house-to-house enquiries – needed.

With his decades of police experience, Hyland understands the pressures of working on the frontline all too well: “There is a demand on resources, there are competing demands for other crimes and other activity, but actually this is as important, if not more important, than a lot of those,” he says.

For Hyland, working collaboratively is the key. “Using the services of EuroJust, Europol and Interpol, through my own experience, can increase effectiveness immensely without requiring extra resources. The intelligence you can get from using those organisations can be the evidence you require, meaning you don’t have to put a lot of resources into the investigation in the UK.”

But resources, staff numbers and crime rates vary from region to region. Without a level playing field, how can Hyland hope to fairly monitor each force’s success? 

“It will have to be different in each region because that’s the way it operates,” he acknowledges, but adds: “It’s about thinking wider than we do at the moment.”

So what is Hyland’s message to police forces worried about an uneven distribution of resources?

“My main role is to actually lead the police, to direct them and to get them being more effective. If you look at what the police want to do, what individual police officers and investigators want to do, they want to catch the criminals that are committing these crimes, and they do want to support victims. I think generally the police welcome this bill, as it’s about co-ordination. I see my role as supporting all agencies, but it is also about giving the police leadership and assisting them in finding best practice and routes to solve these crimes and support victims.”

Hyland on…criminals
I’d like to think that I look on everybody equally and the only time I don’t look on people the same way is when they commit serious crimes against others. They will still be treated the way they should be treated, and there is always rehabilitation, but I think it’s wrong that sometimes the victims don’t get the same justice as criminals

Eleven years ago, the Morecombe Bay tragedy – when 23 Chinese cockle pickers, discovered to have been working under terrible conditions, drowned – raised awareness of employers using slave labour to maximise profits. Fast-forward to 2015 and Hyland is determined to eradicate the existence of slavery in company chains. 

He says he is hearing all the right noises from company executives. However, in a globalised world, where supply chains frequently disappear into other countries, how can Hyland encourage British companies to be transparent when they themselves might not even be aware that they are profiting from forced labour abroad?

“It is a very difficult task and what we’ve got to be careful about is that we don’t take things at face value. You can’t say that you are going to get rid of this, and hold your hand on your heart and say you are going to get rid of it everywhere, because that might be saying you are going to achieve the unachievable.”

Mirroring the tactics used by another former police chief, John Vine, who set up the office of the chief inspector of immigration and borders, Hyland believes spot checks will make a difference: “By bringing in processes of spot checks, and asking companies to have people go right back to the seed, as it were, you can start to change the culture.”

For now, Hyland must wait for the Modern Slavery Bill to receive royal assent, but once that’s happened, he will be quick to start work: “I like to think that once the legislation is in, we’ll be up and running immediately,” he says.

Ask what Hyland ultimately hopes the bill will achieve, and you get a surprising answer. “It always sounds very odd, but I would like there to be a significant increase in crimes,” he says. “Because that means people are coming forward. I would like to see that we are catching far more people – certainly double what we are catching now per year. Then I would like to see a culture in the UK where this crime is not tolerated. That’s actually the first thing we need to do.” 

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