Modern Slavery Act: Business Compliance

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Labour, Lewisham West and Penge

What steps his Department is taking to monitor business compliance with the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

Around 16,400 UK businesses are within scope of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. The Home Office has commenced the first stage of a compliance audit, following which non-compliant businesses will risk being publicly named. We are developing a Government-run registry to track compliance and make it easier for consumers and others to scrutinise business action. We are also consulting on strengthening modern slavery reporting requirements, including improving compliance and the quality of business statements.

Photo of Ellie Reeves Ellie Reeves Labour, Lewisham West and Penge

I thank the Minister for her answer, but the number of potential victims of modern slavery identified in the UK each year has more than doubled since 2015 and now stands at just under 7,000. The Modern Slavery Act was a step in the right direction, but it has been left to go stale due to lack of enforcement, with a staggering 40% of companies not complying with it at all. Will the Minister take urgent action to commit to an enforcement body to enforce sanctions against non-compliant companies?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I think that, when we have the opportunity to do so, we should talk up our country and what we are doing to lead the world in tackling modern slavery. We really are leading the world; the Prime Minister hosted a dinner last week with the McCain Institute, at which people from across the world acknowledged the world-leading work we are doing in this country. Of course there is more to do, which is precisely why we asked Frank Field, my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller and Baroness Butler-Sloss to conduct an independent review of the Act to ensure that it is up to date and working. We know that modern slavery criminals change their mode of working. From that, last week we announced £10 million over five years to establish cutting-edge policy and evidence centres on modern slavery and human rights. We also responded to the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act and accepted the majority of its recommendations. I really believe that this work on transparency in supply chains will be groundbreaking.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I entirely endorse what the Minister said about how this country leads the fight against modern-day slavery, which is a great credit to the Prime Minister, but should she not encourage all businesses to report possible victims as they come across them in their daily business? Police would prefer to have an investigation that leads to nothing than leave victims in modern-day slavery.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, who has done much work in this field. We have only to look at the terrible case that was finalised last week to see the breadth and range of ways in which people who indulge in modern slavery torture and enslave their captives; some of the details of that case were truly shocking. It absolutely underlines the fact that every single business that meets the criteria in the Act is obliged by law to report and ensure that its supply chains are free from slavery. That has a trickle-down effect for smaller businesses that are contracted to those larger businesses, because they have to make sure that they are doing the right thing too.

Photo of Frank Field Frank Field Chair, Work and Pensions Committee

Will that requirement be carried out in the public sector? Given the size of the procurement budget, will the Minister tell the House what plans the Government have to ensure that Government spending is within the scope of the Act?

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman, as I said, for the work that he and his colleagues did on the review? It was an extraordinary piece of work and very thorough, and I know that he was pleased that we were able to accept the majority of its recommendations. We absolutely accept the point about the public sector, and he will know that the Prime Minister recently made an important announcement to confirm that Departments will make modern slavery statements to ensure that their supply chains are free from slavery. As for the further details, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman in due course.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

We on the Labour Benches appreciate the progress that has been made on modern slavery thus far, but the House will be aware that there was recently a shocking case of agricultural slavery. A fresh produce supplier to major US supermarkets was using slave labour in its supply chain. Does the Minister accept that consumers who are conscious of issues such as organic production and sustainable food production will not appreciate unwittingly purchasing fresh food with slave labour in its production? Will the Government act more swiftly? We need faster action than she is suggesting to get proper business compliance with their modern slavery legislation.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I am delighted that this is one of those issues that enjoys the support of Members from all parts of the House. The right hon. Lady will know from the announcements last week on our response to the independent review that we are very much seeking to toughen the regulations and requirements for the largest businesses. For what it is worth, some 75% of businesses that are in scope have set down a modern slavery statement, but we want to make it easier for civil society and others to judge how effectively businesses are doing, which is why we are looking into setting up a central Government registry to help that happen. We are conscious, too, of the role that non-governmental organisations can play in this space. Only last week, Oxfam released its new behind barcode supermarket scorecard, which shows how the sector as a whole needs to step up activity to identify and rectify labour exploitation risks. I am delighted that many UK supermarkets have signed up to that.