Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill [HL] – speech by Bishop of Derby

On 8th July 2016 the House of Lords considered the Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill [HL],  a Private Members’ Bill from Baroness Young of Hornsey. The Bishop of Derby spoke in the debate:

Derby 191115cThe Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I too thank and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and support these suggestions. I declare an interest in that I am the chairman of the advisory panel to the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and am therefore, among other things, quite heavily involved in some of these issues.

My first point is that the Modern Slavery Act recognised very clearly the importance of information, which gives power. If you hide information, people get the wrong kind of power to behave badly. Besides trying to press companies to behave well and have good practices, we need to remind ourselves that this is not simply to fight on behalf of victims—although that is of course the priority—but to fight against serious organised crime, which in itself is a very successful business model that is expanding all the time, as we speak. It is therefore in the interests of proper companies to help us all to push back against criminal business behaviour, which has these appalling human consequences and is also enormously damaging to the health of our economy and the well-being of business more generally.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, mentioned that the Modern Slavery Act asks companies to provide information, in a self-regulatory way, about their performance in this area. The research that she mentioned shows very clearly that the Act highlighted six areas on which it would be sensible for companies to report, so that one could see that they were doing all that they could to fight slavery in their supply chains. The research done recently shows that only about 10% of the companies that have even filed any kind of report are looking at those six key areas, which are essential to give anybody a sense of how they are performing, what their aspirations are and where they might be going.

The desire to have companies report in the way that the Act has sketched it out is not working in terms of the performance and response of companies. As the noble Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said, there is a big issue about how to get companies to pay attention to responsible reporting. One way, which I spoke about in the debates on the legislation, would be to make a small amendment to the Companies Act 2006 to simply require this degree of reporting. The Government were not keen on that; the Minister may want to comment on the latest thinking about that slight legislative change that would deliver some important steps in this direction.

If we are to maintain the understandable line that we do not want to burden businesses, but want them, for their own good, to develop good practice and create a positive business culture, how are we going to enable them to get over the line and work properly? Let me give noble Lords some encouraging signs and then end with a question for the Minister about a particular concern.

I do a lot in this area in Derbyshire, where I work as the Bishop. The University of Derby, with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, offers a course on which businesses can send the people they employ to learn how to monitor supply chains, and how to organise supply chains and procurement contracts to develop good practice. That is one tool that is being developed. It is a simple one, but people in offices need to learn how to do it.

We have done some work with businesses in Derbyshire. I get the heads of businesses to meet the police, and when the police explain how unscrupulous agencies can filter people into the system and apparently give them a good deal, eyes are opened and they immediately see the importance for procurement contracts and for every kind of occasional supplier, down to the people who clean the windows in their factories. We must encourage businesses to recognise the scope of the crime and how vulnerable many of them are—especially the large ones—and show them the simple steps, such as this one, that can be taken.

Two weeks ago, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury was in our diocese for a few days. He and I convened a meeting with business leaders, at which a number of significant businesses—JCB, Bowmer & Kirkland and other large businesses in our culture—signed the Athens ethical principles about having good auditing practices to try to stamp out slavery in the supply chain. This is another voluntary effort. It is great that those companies are signing up, and it is an example and a model for others. However, it is very patchy, and it depends on someone like me having the passion to get people into a room and help them to get on the same page.

Another ray of hope is the fact that, with the Roman Catholic Church and on behalf of the Church of England and the Anglican communion, we are working under the banner of the Global Sustainability Network. It is trying to help companies internationally and Governments in relation to their legislation to occupy this space creatively, learn from each other and develop good audit practices. This was much influenced by the Pope’s encyclical last year, Laudato Si’, which brings together care for people and care for the planet. With good auditing practices, businesses can show that they are being positive in both those areas. Such auditing can help them to perform better and it satisfies public demand better.

I have a concern about the mechanism, which was discussed during the crafting of the legislation, for some kind of central repository. As other speakers have said, how can we know what businesses are doing, and how can a good business—such as the businesses that have signed up to the Athens ethical principles in Derby—show how it is performing? There is a free market, and a number of operators in it are offering services to help businesses. If they divide up the market, it will be even more difficult for anybody to know what a particular business is doing, whether it has registered and whether it is meeting the right criteria.

I want to ask the Minister about two organisations based in Bristol, Semantrica and a charity that works for victims called Unseen, which offer services that people will have to pay for using. Some of the information will be publicly available, but some will be available only to those who pay for it. This organisation, which is backed by Google and Polaris—some large operators are involved—claims to work in close collaboration with the UK Government. I would be very interested if the Minister commented on what that means. Are the Government trying to develop an official arm? If so, it would be helpful to know what investment the Government are making, what other models they have looked at and what processes have been considered in discerning this as the way ahead. If the Government are not involved, what are we going to do about this growing unregulated market of people trying to offer central repositories? By definition, such repositories will be not central, but partial. They are themselves businesses that are trying to do good work, but they are making our task more difficult.

The organisations I have mentioned are linking a central repository with the provision of a helpline. We also talked about this during the crafting of the legislation. It is absolutely crucial to have a proper helpline both to identify victims and, within that, to identify bad practice in businesses. What are we going to do about inviting in the people who provide intelligence—for the police, for the Government and for others—that might help us to fight this crime and about developing practices to enable us to do so efficiently? Has this particular initiative, which claims to be supported by the UK Government, looked at the practices followed by other helplines and learned any wisdom from them? Do the Government have a view about the role of helplines in this whole enterprise?

This issue is very difficult because of its sheer complexity and volume. If, like me, noble Lords occasionally meet victims, they would not hesitate to do everything they could to help businesses beyond the front line of this terrible exploitation and abuse of human beings. If, as I sometimes do, they meet business leaders, they would not hesitate to help them perform responsibly in a system that allows them to do so, sets benchmarks for them and gives them a way of letting their customers know that they are trying hard in this area. People are anxious to do that, but they need the right tools and structures. I would be very grateful if the Minister commented on what kind of tools and structures the Government want to endorse, given that, as I said at the beginning of my speech, the initial research shows that performance on the aims—I understand them to be to encourage businesses to self-regulate and to develop this themselves—is very skewed, very unsatisfactory and not very helpful to anybody.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB) [extract]: We have also heard some concerns raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby, my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss and others about other issues in the Bill: everything from domestic visas to the national referral mechanism and the central repository, which was alluded to by the right reverend Prelate and which I will return to in due course.

Lord Boateng (Lab) [extract]: I refer the Minister and the House to the work of the Independent Anti-slavery Commissioner, specifically in relation to what he calls targeted international collaboration. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby know this well, as they have served and are serving on the advisory committee of the independent commissioner.

Lord Kennedy of Southwark (Lab) [extract]: Clause 1 also requires the Secretary of State to publish a list of all commercial organisations that are required to publish a statement. This was a matter under much consideration last year, and for some reason the Government were resistant to being required to publish such a list. The compromise I recall was that we were told that some other body in the voluntary sector may publish a list. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby was right when he said that the Government should not hesitate in finding the tools for business to get these matters right. The Government should produce such a list and categorise it in sectors, so that it is as easy as possible to access the information; that seems the most sensible way forward.

Lord Keen of Elie (Minister) [extract]:

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby raised the question of central repositories, and mentioned an instance of an organisation in Bristol. I am not in a position to go into individual cases at this time. As noble Lords are well aware, the Government have not launched an online repository, although we are aware of a number of proposals from third parties who suggest that they could develop a website to host these statements and to help people to search for them. I would like to complete a quotation that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, made regarding an answer I gave in April this year when I said:

“There never was an intention to establish any central monitoring system with respect to these provisions”.

That was in the context that there was never any government intention, which was perfectly clear. I went on to say:

“The Government have always been clear that it is for others to establish such a mechanism. We are aware of a number of organisations that propose to set up a central repository”.—[Official Report, 13/4/16; cols. 256-58.]

The right reverend Prelate went into some detail regarding a particular development in this regard, and I undertake to write to him on that matter because he raised a point that I am not in a position to address this stage.