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Modern Slavery: Indian Supply Chains

Volume 788: debated on Monday 5 February 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many British businesses have taken action and reported their efforts to prevent modern slavery in supply chains from India.

My Lords, the UK is the first country to require businesses to report on the steps that they have taken to tackle modern slavery. Thousands of businesses have published transparency statements, with many examples of good practice emerging in India across a range of industries, from textiles to landscaping materials. I encourage businesses to stay vigilant and to work with local NGOs to understand the risks in their supply chains.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. According to the Government’s estimates, between 9,000 and 11,000 businesses with a turnover of more than £36 million a year are required to submit these statements, but the Government have not been willing to set up a central register. Groups of NGOs have set up two websites. According to them, less than 4,000 businesses have so far set up statements. Only 14% of these conform fully with the law. The NGOs further add that there is particular complacency among certain high-risk industries, which might also point to high-risk groups such as the Dalits and Adivasis in India. If the Government are still not willing to set up a central register, what steps will they take to ensure that all businesses comply with the law and provide a statement?

The noble and right reverend Lord gives a figure of 14%, but two independent NGOs have collated statements and found that between 32% and 50% of eligible companies have produced a statement. Clearly there is further to go. The legislation is relatively new. On compiling a register, we have considered in detail whether the Government could publish a list of businesses covered by the Modern Slavery Act. It is not easy to do so because it is not currently possible to filter the databases of Companies House by turnover size, but the Government are looking at this.

My Lords, it is not easy to find out whether the companies that are required to provide the annual report are complying. The companies we are concerned about operate right across the world, not just in India, although India is clearly very important. The Government really do need to take some action to ensure that there is pressure on these companies to comply with the Modern Slavery Act.

My Lords, part of the pressure is from the public, because the public are more and more concerned that their clothes are produced ethically—or whatever goods and services. The Home Secretary can apply for a court injunction requiring businesses to comply. If they still refuse, they will be liable to an unlimited fine for contempt of court.

My Lords, does the Minister realise how weak her answers sound? In response to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, she said that it is for NGOs to keep a list; to the noble and learned Baroness she said that the public have to put on pressure. There has to be a little bit more action from the Government. They have this requirement, so they have to get behind it to make sure it happens. We understand, as we heard earlier, that the Government set their face against any statutory regulation in this regard, but will the Minister tell us what action the Government will now take to do their utmost to ensure that these companies register and understand the risk in their supply chain, as has been highlighted by the Corporate Responsibility Coalition, which recognises that many companies just are not looking at this and taking it seriously? The Government have to step up to the plate.

My Lords, I did not absolve the Government of responsibility by saying that it is up to the NGOs to produce a list. I outlined the difficulties of producing a list, because of filtering by turnover size. The idea of public pressure is a strong one. In addition, I outlined the remedies available to the Home Secretary, which include applying for a court injunction requiring businesses to comply. They are liable to an unlimited fine for contempt of court if they do not.

My Lords, I believe that the Government have not yet taken the step, which I accept is something of a nuclear option, of applying for an injunction. Is the Minister aware that the National Audit Office, in its report in December on modern slavery, commented on the fact that,

“the Home Office does not produce a list of businesses that are expected to comply with the legislation and cannot say how many companies that should have produced a statement have done so”?

It also says:

“The Home Office has acknowledged that to date the quality of statements has been variable. Statements therefore do not provide equal levels of assurance to those scrutinising them”—

that is, the NGOs and members of the public. Do the Government have any ideas as to how to assist those who would wish to scrutinise them?

My Lords, in terms of the Government, all government departments require their suppliers to tell them whether they are compliant with the transparency requirement of the Modern Slavery Act. I accept the noble Baroness’s point that some of the statements vary in terms of the quality and the information that they provide, but I reiterate that the legislation is relatively new and I expect that the whole system will see improvements.

My Lords, the person who has done more than anybody else to further this cause is Mr Anthony Steen. Should not something be done to recognise that fact?

My Lords, that decision is probably above my pay grade, but I congratulate anybody who is helping to make improvements in this area. It is a major priority of this Government.