Local Authorities at the Forefront of the Modern Anti-Slavery Campaign

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By Anna Gorna

The BHRE has published its second report in the BHRE Research Series titled “UK Modern Slavery Act Transparency in Supply Chains: Reporting by Local Authorities”. In the months since our UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 Transparency in Supply Chains: The First Year of Reporting by Universities report, BHRE has compiled and carried out qualitative analysis of the Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement (a Statement) produced by Local Authorities.

The Transparency in Supply Chains Provision under section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 (MSA) requires commercial entities with a turnover over £36 million to report annually on their actions to identify, prevent and mitigate modern slavery and human trafficking in any part of their own business and any of their supply chains.  It quickly becomes obvious that many entities are not covered by the requirement of producing a Statement, including Local Government Authorities.

As far as Local Authorities are concerned, they could have, for all intents and purposes, dismissed the calls of producing a Statement. Despite that, we have seen that Local Authorities were not discouraged. Demonstrating notable awareness and ethical leadership, many decided to voluntarily report on their activities and published their own Statements. Local Authorities, along with Universities, who in contrast are legally required to report under the MSA, are at the forefront of the modern anti-slavery campaign within the public sector.

The first years of reporting have provided an intense learning period for public bodies, in terms of their obligations and responsibilities under the MSA in particular and more generally regarding the human rights of those in their supply chains. This learning process has even been apparent, including for those who are not actually obliged by the act, such as local authorities.” [UK Modern Slavery Act Transparency in Supply Chains: Reporting by Local Authorities, March 2018, p.3]

Over the two years of modern slavery reporting [up until 31st January 2018], 43 Councils have published a statement. Although this number is by no means a majority, it is encouraging to see that many Councils are reporting voluntarily.  The wide range of services that Councils contract and the many goods that they procure, coupled with their broad outreach to the public, will allow for modern slavery awareness to spread to the wider society.

Our research has found that statements published to date, demonstrate a clear understanding of several reporting requirements.  Policies are coherently identified and presented by Councils, with most putting a great emphasis on whistleblowing procedures which could prove key to mitigating modern slavery. Crucially, most Statements identify some due diligence measures in relation to modern slavery. Most Councils take measures to ensure their suppliers are committed to combating abuses.

One of the formal reporting requirements stipulates that a Statement needs to be signed by a person of senior status within the organisation. The Government Guidance on Transparency in Supply Chains indicates that this requirement exists to ensure a “senior level accountability, leadership and responsibility for modern slavery and [to give it] the serious attention it deserves” (p. 13). With over half of all Statements published by Local Authorities being signed by members at senior level of responsibility within the Councils, we can hope that the issue of modern slavery will remain under constant consideration and review by Councils.

As always, there remains room for improvements. It is imperative that Councils’ ensure that their statements are easily available. There are discrepancies as to where statements are being published – some may be found under information about the Council, or for residents, or for businesses. BHRE suggest that Councils follow the legislation, where s.54(7)(b) states that a link to a Statement should be provided in a prominent place of the Council’s website’s homepage. Where a Council has committed to creating a statement, put in the time and effort to create it, if the statement cannot be found or accessed then it does not have the necessary and intended impact.

“In the case of local authorities, making the statement easily accessible should be not for academics or governmental officials to access, but for the members of the public so that they are able to see what their local council is doing towards eradicating human rights violations and prevent being part of abusive supply chains.” [UK Modern Slavery Act Transparency in Supply Chains: Reporting by Local Authorities, March 2018, p.4]

Unfortunately, most Councils display a degree of naivety where they declare a lack of modern slavery, or even a lack of such risks, in their supply chains, more often than not, based on the fact that they procure locally and from within the UK. The reality is that the supply chains of goods purchased and services contracted, spread wider than imaginable. There is no question that some, if not most, Councils sub-contract services such as cleaning or purchase electrical goods – both of which have been identified as being at a high risk of modern slavery.

We understand that the limited resources available to Councils mean that their ability to analyse and report on their supply chains is also constrained. Full supply chain mapping is a feat for a large business and may not be immediately feasible for a Council. Still, Councils should not feel discouraged. Systematic work with a direct focus on high-risk areas should allow for a thorough analysis.

“The first step within the due diligence process should be to identify potential risks within the supply chain, and prioritise action over them. It is not possible to map all supply chains and identify all risks at once. Local authorities are faced with the pressing challenge managing diminishing resources to address increasing local needs.” [UK Modern Slavery Act Transparency in Supply Chains: Reporting by Local Authorities, March 2018, p.9]

We encourage collaborations between Councils, as well as with external third parties, such as NGOs and government departments including the Anti-Slavery Commissioner, which will prove instrumental in ensuring a continued investigation into transparency in the supply chains. The pooling of resources of neighbouring Councils should allow for more detailed analysis of risks of exploitation, especially if the Councils already collaborate in other areas.

Local authorities are demonstrating commitment and leadership towards combating modern slavery reporting under the MSA when they are not required to. They need more guidance and support to continue to drive this process. We hope our report support those Councils who have already taken this step providing them with useful pointers as to how they can improve their analysis and reporting techniques and encourages more Councils to undertake the challenge of producing a Statement.

For more information, please see the report here.

Anna is Research intern at the BHRE and project manager on the joint LUPC-BHRE Modern Slavery Project. For her profile please follow this link