My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I am grateful to him for tabling it.
I have put my name to this amendment because it would do two important things. First, it will give businesses more certainty and clarity when producing the slavery and human trafficking statements required of them. That clarity is vital in saving businesses time. Secondly, however, it would also provide consumers with the information they need to hold businesses to account. Without the clarity that the amendment would provide, I am concerned that stakeholders, investors and campaigners will not be able to play their part effectively in helping stamp out the abhorrent practices that exist in some of our supply chains.
The media have done an excellent job in highlighting just how far slavery and forced labour have penetrated the supply chains for many of the goods and services that we take for granted, from basic foodstuffs to electronic goods, clothing and fashion. But modern slavery exists across the globe, and whichever form it takes, business supply chains are involved in some way or another. Slavery in supply chains is closer than we often realise. A couple of weeks ago, the owner of a bed factory in West Yorkshire that supplied retail chains such as Next and John Lewis was charged with human trafficking and slavery offences.
I believe that it is not for government to keep legislating. One could say that we should deregulate in order to get the economy going. Indeed, we must work with private sector organisations, such as the Federation of Small Businesses and the CBI, to take the lead in education within various industry sectors. However, when considering any new regulation to impose on business, we must answer three important questions: is it necessary, is it clear, and how much will it add to the bottom line?
On the first of these questions, I am left in no doubt as to the necessity of the amendment. It is rare for business groups and civil society organisations to reach common agreement on new regulation, but in this instance that is exactly what they have done. All are calling for minimum measures of disclosure, greater clarity in reporting, and tougher monitoring, enforcement and compliance. On the second question, the amendment would make it clearer for all those who have to produce these statements what they need to include, where the statements need to be lodged and what they can expect if they do not comply. Thirdly, I believe that the amendment would actually be good for business. It would help protect businesses, because constant stories about the failure of companies to monitor their supply chains will cause significant harm to their reputation and brand, and thus their bottom line.
Transparency in supply chains is the first step in the journey of rooting out slavery and forced labour from supply chains for good. The more explicit we can be at this stage, the more effective we will be over the long term. Both the Ethical Trading Initiative and the British Retail Consortium have written to me in support of the amendment. Their members include global companies with thousands of suppliers—familiar high street brands such as Asda, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer—so their views on this issue should carry significant weight.
As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has indicated, there is a consensus across civil society groups as well as businesses that the amendment is needed, and that it would provide the information they need to play their part. I would also bring to noble Lords’ attention the fact that more than 20 asset management providers have added their support for the inclusion of supply chain reporting requirements in the Bill, including Hermes, Rathbone Greenbank Investments and Alliance Trust.
I recently spoke with Katherine Garrett-Cox, the chief executive of Alliance Trust, who is a highly respected figure in the Scottish business community. She says:
“We have been passionate advocates of a greater level of transparency in the management of supply chains and believe that the UK has a unique opportunity to lead the way in recognising those that do this well—by rewarding companies that promote and practise strong values. As a leading investor we also believe that by focusing upon this critical topic, our industry will increasingly differentiate between good and poor practice and can rightly hold those who violate basic human rights in their business models to account.”
Finally, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Bates for all his efforts in steering this important Bill through the House, and ask him to bear in mind that Clause 51 has been added because there is a genuine effort on the part of the Government to progress this matter. I hope that he will be able to respond positively to the amendment, which I believe would make what is already a good Bill even better.