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Modern Slavery Act 2015: What does it mean for local authorities?

Modern Slavery Act 2015: What does it mean for local authorities?

Modern Slavery. Perhaps more than any others, these are two words that sound like they should be an oxymoron in 21st century Britain.

But the Centre for Social Justice's starkly-titled 2013 report It Happens Here found crucial failings in tackling slavery and servitude, describing a 'tide of indifference' and a 'leadership vacuum at the heart of Westminster' that caused this 'once great nation of abolitionists' to be relegated to a 'shameful shadow of its former self'.

To its credit, Westminster listened and the Modern Slavery Act 2015 is the result. The Act provides a modern definition of slavery and human trafficking, establishing them as serious criminal offences meriting punishment up to and including life imprisonment. It allows the courts to impose orders aimed at preventing the commission of these offences and creates a new independent anti-slavery commissioner.

Local authorities are, under section 52 of the Act, under a new duty – shared with police bodies and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority – to notify the Secretary of State upon developing reasonable grounds to believe that a person may be a victim of slavery or human trafficking. New regulations (SI 2015/1743) coming into force on 1 November set out the contents of these reports, which are anonymised in the case of suspected adult victims but specific in the case of child victims or where the adult victim consents to the report. A report must be made even if the information is received in confidence, and no breach of that confidence will result from the report.

A major provision of the Act, introduced late in the parliamentary process, is section 54, dealing with transparency in supply chains. The rationale of this provision is that, whilst most UK businesses will themselves have nothing to do with slavery or trafficking, their supply chain (which may involve seeking the lowest-priced goods from developing countries) presents a higher risk. The provision, which is likely to come into force this autumn, will require large businesses to prepare an annual 'slavery and human trafficking statement' and publish it on their websites. The precise threshold what constitutes a large business is likely to be a turnover of £36m per year.

The statement should detail what steps the business has taken to eradicate slavery from its own business and its supply chain. Alternatively, because only the statement itself is compulsory, a statement could lawfully state that the business has taken no anti-slavery measures at all.
Public authorities will wish to avoid any trace of slavery within their own supply chains. The Public Contracts Regulations 2015 will now require the exclusion of any supplier which has itself committed a slavery offence. The direct evaluation of slavery and human trafficking statements in procurement exercises will require careful thought, given that smaller organisations are not required to prepare them and, in any event, each statement will need to be bespoke to the circumstances of each organisation.

However, authorities are now freer to impose 'social' award criteria and contract conditions, so long as they are relevant to the subject-matter of the contract, and anti-slavery considerations are likely to become a routine part of the procurement thought process for high-risk procurements. This can only be a good thing.

Sunday 18 October 2015 was Anti-Slavery Day in the UK.


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