‘Flesh out’ Modern Slavery Act with tougher policies, former Bishop of Derby says

25 January 2019

Act must be stronger in holding companies to account, says Dr Redfern

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A student from Hull University, Courtney Derrico, is pictured inside a “human vending machine” outside St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on Human Rights Day, in December. The installation was designed to raise awareness of modern-day slavery practices in the food supply chain

A student from Hull University, Courtney Derrico, is pictured inside a “human vending machine” outside St Paul’s Cathedral, London, on Human Rig...

THE Modern Slavery Act 2015 needs “fleshing out” to ensure that companies with business in the UK take steps to identify slavery in supply chains, or are held accountable, a former Bishop of Derby, Dr Alastair Redfern, has said.

Dr Redfern, who was on the original select committee that designed the Act, is one of the “expert advisers” to an ongoing independent review into its effectiveness in holding companies to account. An interim report from the review group, led by the independent MP Frank Field, was published on Tuesday.

Dr Redfern said on Wednesday: “The principles need fleshing out in terms of the way companies behave, but equally significant, [the report] recommends that the public sector are subject to the same requirement; that is the Government practising what it preaches to businesses. We did raise that on the floor of the House [of Lords] during the debate, but didn’t manage to get it in.”

The report was written by Mr Field, Maria Miller MP and Baroness Butler-Sloss. It calls on the Government to put stronger language and statutory guidance in the Act, as well as clearer legislation, to hold to account companies that are not complying.

Under section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, every large commercial organisation that supplies goods or services and has business in the UK must prepare a statement each financial year confirming that it has (or has not) taken steps to ensure that slavery and human trafficking is not taking place in its business or supply chains.

While the section has raised awareness, the report says, “the impact of the section has been limited to date. Evidence gathered by our expert advisers shows that there is a general agreement between businesses and civil society that a lack of enforcement and penalties, as well as confusion surrounding reporting obligations, are core reasons for poor-quality statements and the estimated lack of compliance from over a third of eligible firms.

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“It is clear the current approach, while a step forward, is not sufficient, and it is time for the Government to take tougher action to ensure companies are taking seriously their responsibilities to eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains.”

Businesses should be required to have a “named, designated board member who is personally accountable” for producing a “clearly-dated” anti-slavery statement, which should be freely accessible to the public via a government repository. Failure to comply should result in fines, warnings, and court summons.

Reporting modern slavery must be “embedded” into the business culture, it says.

Bishop Redfern went on: “All the evidence shows that for this work to have credibility we have to show that we are serious: have proper penalties and board-level responsibility. These are significant shifts. If the Home Secretary listens, it will make what they call a world-class piece of legislation stronger and more effective.

“We highlight again the importance of consumers, and, again, faith groups, churches, and congregations are potentially people who might care enough to campaign to invite companies to fulfil their obligations.

“Because the documents are public, whatever the Home Secretary and others do about it in Parliament, it does provide a public platform for others to say that this is important, and should we be doing that, too. . . it gives all of us as concerned citizens a tool, evidence, and expert-thinking to push on some of these things.”

The authors of the report write: “We believe that Government should establish an internal list of companies in scope of section 54 and check with companies whether they are covered by the legislation. To avoid companies’ non-compliance, individual companies should remain responsible for determining if they need to produce a slavery and human trafficking statement.

“Non-inclusion in the list should not be an excuse for non-compliance.”

Other recommendations in the report include clarifying more specifically what defines a “large commercial organisation” under section 54, other than that it must be commercial, supply goods or services, have business in the UK, and an annual turnover of at least £36 million.

“The Modern Slavery Act is due an upgrade,” Mr Field said. “We set a kitemark with the original legislation, but are now falling behind in the global race to bring an end to slavery in supply chains. We need to be building accountability into the legislation all the way up to board level.”

The first interim report of the independent review, published last December, called for the appointment of the next Anti-Slavery Commissioner to be halted while the post was strengthened to make it more independent (News, 21 December).

The final report is due to be published at Easter.

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