My Lords, more than 200 years after the abolition of slavery, there are still an estimated 45.8 million men, women and children trapped in modern slavery, and up to 11,700 potential victims in the UK alone. It is unacceptable that in our society there are vulnerable people who find that they have been duped, forced into hard labour, locked up and abused. Therefore, I am pleased to note that in the gracious Speech tackling human trafficking and modern slavery remains a priority for this Government and that we are committed to stamping out this abhorrent crime.
Much has been achieved by the Government in the relatively short two years since the Modern Slavery Act was enacted in 2015. An Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner whose office is working in partnership to tackle modern slavery in all its forms is now fully established, and the Government made available a £33.5 million package to support victims from countries where they are regularly trafficked to the UK. Part of this was £11 million invested to tackle modern slavery in the community. But more needs to be done, as we heard earlier from my noble friend Lord McColl in relation to victims.
An independent review in 2015 alone found that there was a 40% rise in the number of victims identified and hundreds prosecuted for this crime—and, as we heard from my noble friend Lord McColl, this number continues to rise. But we need to further strengthen our law—and I mean our company law. To that end, it is right that the debate now moves to the question of what should be the legal obligations on business to ensure that there is respect for human rights throughout company activities and business relationships, including their supply chains. Evidence from the European Coalition for Corporate Justice shows a welcome increase in initiatives to improve corporate accountability at national, European and international level. But more still needs to be done. It is interesting to note that the French have gone further. They have been bold and made new company law. The new French corporate duty of vigilance law, applicable only to the largest French companies, shows that respect for human rights and the environment can be legally mandated into business activities. This is a first.
The French law establishes a legally binding obligation for parent companies to identify and prevent adverse human rights and environmental impacts resulting from their own activities, from the activities of companies they control and from the activities of the subcontractors and suppliers with whom they have a commercial relationship. This is a great enhancement of French company law, bringing a greater focus and clarity of responsibility to company directors and their shareholders in a key priority area.
In my view, UK company law could likewise be amended to reflect this kind of law in relation to Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act. Currently, directors of UK public companies have to report on “human rights” matters in the directors’ strategic report, but under Section 54 of the MSA they have a separate obligation to report on supply chains via a website. This makes little sense. How can the issue of human rights be separated from the supply chains of the companies? Regrettably, in my view, when the human rights reporting requirements were put into UK company law, an opportunity was missed to include five small words: “including in its supply chain”. The Government now have an excellent opportunity to correct and strengthen this in UK company law.
There are very few good companies or consumers who would wish to provide or receive goods and services made on the backs of the most vulnerable people in the world. No one needs to turn a blind eye. Despite modern slavery and trafficking being illegal in many countries, sadly it remains very profitable, especially if the fruits can be sold into the legitimate business sector unwittingly through its supply chains and subcontractors. It will not escape noble Lords that many countries do not have a modern slavery Act, but that every country does have a company Act, which is the best vehicle to strengthen and amend the law to prevent modern slavery.
I will conclude by asking my noble friend the Minister two questions. First, what further action are the Government taking and what resources are they making available to ensure that they continue to tackle modern slavery? Secondly, will the Minister give consideration to the French duty of vigilance law and/or incorporate or link Section 54 of the MSA into UK company law?