Modern Slavery Bill — Report (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 25th February 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Baroness Kennedy of Cradley Labour 9:00 pm, 25th February 2015

My Lords, I, too, support the amendments in this group. I shall speak particularly to Amendments 97A and 98A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool. First, as other noble Lords have said, we must give credit where credit is due. The Government have engaged with the issue of transparency in supply chains and have come a long way on this issue since the Bill was first published. Part 6, on transparency in supply chains, was a welcome addition, as is government Amendment 97. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bates, for his positive engagement with this issue.

Having minimum criteria in the Bill will not only help business, it will help consumers and civil society. It will also help the Government as, with minimum criteria, there will be clarity about what businesses have to provide, thereby creating the level playing field that good businesses need and deserve. Comparisons between companies will be easier to make, helping consumers and civil society to make choices and to apply the pressure needed to make real change happen—to be catalysts for change. Having minimum criteria in the Bill will help give the Government the transparency and the world-leading legislation that they say they want to achieve, but the word “may” in line 2 of Amendment 97 has to become “must”. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, sets out in his Amendment 97A, without this change, the amendment setting out the minimum criteria that we all now agree needs to be in the Bill is made less effective. The element of uncertainty remains and the level playing field is gone.

I understand the argument that these are minimums, that we should give flexibility to allow more information to be given, not less, and that we want businesses to be able to report appropriately for their business and circumstances, but the lesson from the application of the Californian legislation is clear. While hundreds of organisations issued statements in line with the Act in California, some did not. Some businesses disclosed meaningless information, some disclosed misleading information and, worst of all, some disclosed that they do nothing, as my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss said. Some have even ignored the legislation and been completely silent. We do not want that to happen.

Part 6 is not a paper exercise for businesses; it is a serious measure that good businesses will want to engage positively with and on an equal footing with each other. It is not fair that the good businesses that are doing excellent work are being undercut and undermined by the bad. Clauses that allow uncaring businesses to write down in less than 200 words, “We don’t do any of this work, and we don’t intend to start”, like the submission—and I will name the company—from the multinational Krispy Kreme doughnuts in California, have to be tightened. That is why I support Amendment 97A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and why I have added my name to Amendment 98A.

As monitoring and enforcement of this part of the Bill is crucial, it is not adequate enough to leave monitoring and enforcement to be fulfilled by consumers and civil society alone. It is the job of government to ensure compliance with its legislation. Therefore, I support the proposition put forward in both Amendment 98A and Amendment 98, in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. I was convinced by her argument in Committee that the part of government that should monitor and be responsible for this part of the Bill is the commissioner.

Amendment 98A introduces a requirement for a central government portal where all the annual statements are aggregated online, maintained and overseen by the new commissioner, a role that I understand the commissioner is supportive of. But even if this current commissioner is not supportive of it, we are clearly making legislation for the future, and it should be a role of such a commissioner. Leadership on this issue has to come from government, so the legislation needs to allow for the monitoring, enforcement and review. A government portal will also allow consumers and civil society more easily to fulfil their role of community enforcers. Having one central place that we can all go to to compare businesses, research best practice and analyse reports is simple and practical and an important initiative in our shared fight against slavery and forced labour in supply chains.

Finally, I refer to the last part of Amendment 98A, which will mean the issue of slavery and forced labour will be put on the desk of multinational CEOs around the UK and the world. Many noble Lords in this House have emphasised the need for supply chain transparency to be a corporate responsibility, as it is in the boardrooms of multinationals where real change can be made to happen. Multinational corporations have the power to insist on decent wages and formal contracts for all their workers here and across the world. They have the power to insist on inspection regimes and the power to improve the working conditions of those enslaved by exploitative suppliers. Amendment 98A helps them realise more acutely that they have this power and also encourages them to use it. I support the amendment and hope that the Government will, too.