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

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Department: Department for Business and Trade

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.