My Lords, it will take time to see the full benefits of the Modern Slavery Act, but the requirement for businesses to publish slavery and human trafficking statements has already had a significant impact. The first year of compliance with Section 54 of this Act has only just passed. It is therefore too early to make a formal assessment of its impact. However, we know that thousands of statements have been published, with many examples of good practice emerging.
My Lords, research by the CORE Coalition has shown that overall compliance with this section of the Act is low. Thousands of companies may well have complied but thousands have also failed to provide a statement, and those that have show that there are varying levels of quality. For example, the Co-operative Group has produced a nine-page document, yet Halfords could manage only nine sentences and has not put a link on the front page of its website. Civil society cannot enforce this section of the Act on its own. Will the Government seek to develop infrastructure to enforce compliance with this section of the Act, to revise Home Office guidance to ensure statements cover all six areas required by the Act, and to specifically state that non-reporting, or reporting that no action has been taken to root out slavery, is frankly not good enough?
The noble Baroness raises many interesting issues. Our view is that this new legislation will take time to embed. We want to work in partnership with organisations, not create burdensome legislation. However, on 28 September the Government wrote to all 10,000 companies that are required to make these statements to remind them of their obligations. The noble Baroness mentioned updating the guidance. I am pleased to say that it has been updated, so on 4 October the Home Office issued revised guidance that specifically sets out the six areas she referred to, but which also doubles down on the deadline. It makes absolutely clear what their responsibilities are and within what timeframe.
My Lords, do the Government intend to review the efficiency and effectiveness of Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act, on transparency in supply chains? Are they prepared to remedy the demonstrable weaknesses that have already occurred and will do so in the future?
I think that I have gone as far as I am able to. Obviously, there will be a formal assessment in due course and Section 54 will be looked at. Indeed, it will be looked at constantly because it is an absolutely critical part of the Modern Slavery Act. There are remedies for non-compliance. The Government can apply for an injunction requiring compliance but we feel that it is still too early. Educating and raising awareness among businesses, law enforcement and consumers is the way we have to go in the first instance.
My Lords, I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Trafficking and Modern Slavery. As far as Section 54 goes at the moment, it is very good news, but what is really needed is an independent website to which every company has to send its report. Will the Government apply some pressure, saying that such a website should be set up?
As I am sure the noble and learned Baroness already knows, two NGOs are very interested in this: the TISC Report and the Modern Slavery Registry. We will of course continue to review whether we need a third website, but for the time being we are pleased with where we are.
My Lords, tomorrow the Church of England launches the Clewer Initiative to raise awareness of modern slavery both locally and regionally. Does the Minister agree that such awareness-raising campaigns have a vital role in encouraging the public to hold businesses to account?
The right reverend Prelate is absolutely right. As I just said to the noble and learned Baroness, awareness is absolutely critical. What astonished me—as it would many other noble Lords, I am sure—is that 10 years ago we simply were not talking about modern slavery, but now we are. Now we have a Conservative Prime Minister who has said:
“This is the greatest human rights issue of our time”.
When it comes to engagement and awareness, consumers are as important as everybody else. We can question the brands that we buy from and we can take care to spot signs of abuse of when we see them.
My Lords, currently companies have to have regard to the Equality Act and have to discuss issues at board level. There is no reason why the Companies Act could not be tweaked slightly to incorporate Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act, which would bring much greater transparency and accountability at board level.
I am certainly not going to say that that will never happen. Businesses understand that this issue is not going away and that these statements have to be signed off by the board of directors. That means that these issues are discussed at the very top of a company, and that is important.
I do not think it would be wise to say when the review will take place. As we have said, the legislation in its early stages. We have to get to a situation where we believe that those who are not complying are doing so for a reason other than that they simply do not know about their obligations.
My Lords, the Minister has talked about the provisions in the legislation as if most of them are mandatory, but in fact, very few actually are. First, will the Government work towards toughening up the legislation? Secondly, since, as she rightly acknowledges, this is such an important issue of transparency and accountability, are the Government considering applying rules regarding transparency in supply chains to their own procurement?
Obviously, it would be unwise for me to discuss future legislation, but that is a very important point about government supply chains and the Government are committed to working with their suppliers to improve the action that we can all take together. For example, all government departments require would-be suppliers to tell them whether they are compliant with the transparency requirement in the Modern Slavery Act. The Home Office, FCO, BEIS and the Crown Commercial Service are all piloting a new detailed questionnaire to get more information about our supply chains. This will help us to identify the risks.