Commercial Organisations and Public Authorities Duty (Human Rights and Environment) Bill [HL]

Lord Prentis of Leeds Excerpts
Lord Prentis of Leeds Portrait Lord Prentis of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, the Bill before us is not a panacea for all the harms caused by our global economic system, but if passed it will be a significant milestone in the continuing work to offset the negative impacts of some companies on communities, the environment and human rights. It will create a level playing field. It seeks to tackle forced labour, child labour, sexual abuse and union busting, so endemic in global supply chains. But it is not just about corporate responsibility; it is also about access to justice for the victims.

This new UK legislation, modelled on the failure to prevent provisions of the UK Bribery Act 2010 and recommended by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, would give teeth to the Modern Slavery Act, which we now know places few sanctions on employers who fail to comply. As Parliament’s BEIS Committee stated in 2021, in reference to Xinjiang, the Modern Slavery Act is “not fit for purpose” in ensuring that supply chains are free from forced labour.

This Bill is about having new legislation which reflects the calls for action, as we have heard from my noble friend, from so many UK businesses—from the British Retail Consortium and the John Lewis Partnership through to Sainsbury’s and Tesco—and it mirrors developments in Germany, France, Norway and the United States. Most importantly, it would place a requirement on not just commercial organisations but public authorities to conduct due diligence on their own operations, their subsidiaries and their supply chains. The public sector procured almost £400 billion-worth of goods and services in 2022 and 2023, but public service contracts are often weak, with the wrong priorities at the tender stage, poor contract management and limited knowledge of the exploitation that is happening. If public authorities are excluded, as they still are, from the Modern Slavery Act, they themselves become part of the problem.

An intensive care nurse in our health service may use electronic goods made by forced labour in Malaysia, possibly powered by solar panels made with the forced labour of Uighurs in Xinjiang province. She may be using cannulas made by child labour in Sialkot, Pakistan. Maybe her patient is then referred to a private care home, commissioned by a local authority and staffed by care workers and nurses from the Philippines who have had their passports taken by their UK employer. It is all too easy to see how public authorities have become part of the problem. That is why this Bill is so important, in ensuring that the requirement of due diligence is extended to the public sector.

I support this Bill, but with hindsight there are a couple of sections where the role of trade unions, especially public service unions across the world, could have more emphasis. Clause 3 could reinforce trade unions as key stakeholders to be consulted and Clauses 7 and 8 could include provisions to make it clear that trade unions can take the complaints of affected workers. I mention this to my noble friend only because it is unlikely that vulnerable workers in the supply chains of large companies will be aware of the new legislation or have the resources to bring a claim. Vulnerable workers in overseas jurisdictions may find it exceptionally difficult to lodge a claim with a UK regulator or court.

We urgently need new UK legislation to hold companies and public authorities to account if they fail to prevent human rights abuses and environmental harms in their operations and global supply chains. We urgently need clear and comprehensive legislation, which is vastly preferable to delaying the inevitable under the mistaken impression that inaction is more business friendly. Nothing could be further from the truth. That is why I ask this House to support the Bill.

Employment and Trade Union Rights (Dismissal and Re-engagement) Bill [HL]

Lord Prentis of Leeds Excerpts
Lord Prentis of Leeds Portrait Lord Prentis of Leeds (Lab)
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My Lords, what happened at P&O was a dreadful abuse of employment rights—an abuse that was rightly condemned but one that, regrettably, is not limited to a few ruthless employers such as P&O. Employers across our economy, public sector and private sector alike, are now routinely using fire and rehire to force through unilateral changes to employment contracts—British Gas being among the worst.

During the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, while the nation applauded our essential workers, British Gas, unbelievably, threatened to fire and rehire its entire workforce of 20,000. In May 2020, all employees were told that they would have to sign new contracts—contracts far worse than the ones they had—or face redundancy. The new contracts increased hours with no extra pay, took away payments for weekend working and undermined the long-standing pay agreements within gas. Trade unions such as mine that stood up for the workforce were threatened with derecognition; for British Gas, the current legislation is an irritant to be ignored.

Many in this Chamber have expressed their concern at the dreadful salaries earned by our care workforce. The care service is on its knees, with hundreds of thousands of vacancies, yet who would believe that care workers could be the victims of fire and rehire? But that is what is happening to care workers employed by Shaw healthcare in Powys. Carers, already the lowest paid, are losing their contractual 30-minute paid break; their shifts are being extended with no extra pay; their contractual right to eating prepared food with residents is being snatched away; and their livelihood is gone if they do not sign new contracts.

Fire and rehire is now routinely used across our public services to undermine employment rights. Sandwell Leisure did not want to pay the nationally agreed 2.75% pay increase. So what did it do? It fired and rehired its entire workforce of 280. Bristol-based St Monica Trust, a care trust, in seeking to cut the pay of senior staff by 21% and all other staff by 10%, threatened to sack care workers if they did not accept the pay cut. For some, the pay cut was over £3,000. Clarion Housing, the UK’s largest landlord, is using the threat of fire and rehire to force through worse pension arrangements for staff transferred from local government. Councils, too, from Tower Hamlets to Caerphilly and Wiltshire, are issuing new contracts with care workers and social workers told to accept worse conditions or be dismissed. The list goes on.

I make it clear that today is not about seeking to improve the pay and conditions of vulnerable workers; that is for another day. Today I want to impress on noble Lords that the devastating use of fire and rehire, dismissal and re-engagement, is not the tool of a few recalcitrant employers who can be ignored. When we talk about fire and rehire, we use terms such as “unscrupulous”, “abhorrent”, “cynical” or “a few bad apples”. The implication is that we are dealing with a few ruthless employers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Employers across the whole economy, including public service employers, are increasingly using fire and rehire and increasingly just paying lip service to current legislation.

The draft code of practice from our conciliation service will do nothing to constrain employers while the current legislation is so weak. That is why I ask this House to support my noble friend Lord Woodley’s Bill, rather than relying just on a draft code of practice—a code which is not fit for purpose and which we all know is toothless.