Modern Slavery Act 2015

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:10 pm on 26th October 2017.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North 2:10 pm, 26th October 2017

I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this debate on a subject that I feel strongly about. It gets to the very root of who and where we are as society. It tells us an awful lot about whether we truly are the peaceful, free and modern 21st-century democracy that we strive to be and support others to become and, as we have heard, there is much to be proud of. I am new to this place, but I am well aware of the 2015 Act that is under consideration today. It was described earlier as trail-blazing, and we should celebrate the fact that its protections for individuals are in law. We should celebrate the obligation for businesses to be transparent about modern slavery and the possible risk, and we should celebrate the greater legal powers for authorities to bring to justice those who do the awful things that we have heard about. However, as we celebrated Anti-Slavery Day last week, it is right to consider how the law is doing and how we can ensure that it delivers what we want it to. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker on securing this debate, which I am proud to support, and on his work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, in which Members across the House and in the other place are active.

I want to focus on two things: awareness, and what we might do to the current legislation. I will start with awareness, because I have already learned something during the course of this discussion—as one would hope. Dame Caroline Spelman highlighted a scheme that is apparently operating in my local diocese, so I will be seeking it out following this debate to see how I might be able to help. Having laid my ignorance on the table, I must say that I was shocked to read the results of the poll conducted by the Co-op group that show that one in five people in Britain have never heard of modern slavery and that two-thirds—this is critical—do not know how to spot the crime. Furthermore, the poll showed that a 10th of Britons think they may have come across a victim, yet half say they would not know how to react or who to talk to. That was a poll of 2,000 people, so something clearly must be done. There is a role for us, both here and as leaders in our community, but there is also an important role for businesses and local authorities to play in heightening awareness and using whatever power or influence they have to ensure that people know what is going on, how to spot it and what they might be able to do about it.

Local authorities seem a good place to start. Before I came to this place, I was a member of Nottingham City Council, and one of my special responsibilities was procurement. A monthly procurement committee sees an awful lot of important things commissioned from public, private and community and voluntary sector sources, and it is difficult to follow the pound through the process. As my hon. Friend Darren Jones said, it is difficult to know where things go next after the first commissioning process. Perhaps we could learn from the Welsh Assembly Government about their code of practice to ensure that local authority leads are able to follow the money properly and ensure that things are not happening that they would not countenance.

Similarly, outside of statutory services, there are innovative employment programmes, such as the “Bright Future” programme of the Co-op and City Hearts, an anti-trafficking group, which aims to offer proper work to victims of modern slavery to enable them to get their lives back to normal and be treated properly. Those are the sorts of things that we can do around awareness, and I want to associate myself with the comments from across the House about the Prime Minister’s lead on the Modern Slavery Act. She hoped that we would reimagine the British dream and told us that it was

“time to forge a bold, new, confident role for ourselves on the world stage…
Taking the lead on cracking down on modern slavery wherever it is found.”

Moving on to the Act, Maggie Throup said that she did not feel that the estimated 10,000 to 13,000 exploited people was accurate, and I share that view. The police think that it is the tip of the iceberg, and Britain’s anti-slavery tsar Kevin Hylands has described the estimate as far too low, so we know that we need to do more to find and help victims. A good place to start is to see whether the transparency obligation on any business operating in the UK with a global turnover of more than £36 million is working. I have been tabling written questions to Minister, not because I am seeking to show anyone up, but because I am trying to build up a picture of what has happened.

I know that the picture can vary in terms of how firms have treated that obligation and of what we as a Parliament understand as the aggregate impact. We need to look at the obligation and consider what we can do with the public sector. Is £36 million an effective threshold, for example? I am particularly concerned about the 2022 World cup in Qatar. At the moment, a loophole in the legislation means that there is no obligation to report on wholly owned subsidiaries operating overseas. People could be working on a construction project in Qatar, but there is no obligation to report on activities there, so firms may unwittingly be involved in things elsewhere that they would not countenance in Britain.

There are other things that we can do. Others have discussed the 45 days of support, but Scotland is moving to 90 days, so we should look to do the same or perhaps go further. We also need to put in statute what that offer of assistance and support ought to be so that there is no variation. As I said, we could also revisit the £36 million turnover threshold. Eventually—this touches on what my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West was saying—the other shoe has to drop for non-compliant companies. I might not say this myself, but I could understand it if people said that there should be some patience while firms get things right under this new, trail-blazing legislation. However, we are reaching the point by which accurate reports have to be completed, and the penalties for not doing so should be considerable. There is lots to do, and all those things would improve the legislation and our society’s approach to modern slavery.

The House may not know that I am one of the 38 Labour and Co-operative Members, and this topic is one of our key issues for this year and beyond. I will certainly be using my place in the Chamber, and all the other great opportunities that MPs have to raise matters both inside and outside the House, to ensure that we make the legislation as good as possible and that we shine light into the dark corners.