Modern Slavery Act - first seminar with general counsel and in-house lawyers

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Yesterday I chaired the first of a series of Blake Morgan hosted seminars dealing with the upcoming requirement in the Modern Slavery Act to prepare an annual 'transparency in supply chains' statement. The seminar was intended as an exchange of ideas and was attending by over a dozen general counsel / in-house lawyers of companies with a turnover of at least £36m per annum.

I was a bit disappointed that I wasn't able to give more details on what will actually be required in the statement. The Home Office had promised to publish statutory guidance by October and we optimistically thought that it would be published by now, but sadly not. At the moment all we have is s.54 of the Act which, not very helpfully, sets out what MAY be in the statement and not what must be. There are still so many questions to be answered that I was tempted to borrow a crystal ball!

Still, the lack of information allowed me to indulge a little in giving a brief recent history on the development of business and human rights, which has come on leaps and bounds in the past few years. Anyone interested in the subject will know that we now have the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the UK was the first country in the world, in September 2013, to introduce an 'Action Plan' to implement the Guiding Principles. We also discussed companies that are already well ahead of the game, such as Unilever and Hitachi. Earlier this year Unilever published the world's first report under the Guiding Principles Reporting Framework - see my post here on this.  Although this report probably goes way beyond what will be required by the Modern Slavery Act, it is extremely useful to see how Unilever has done it.

We also talked about the terminology used in the Act, which will not be familiar, in a legal sense, to most lawyers, such as 'trafficking' and indeed 'modern slavery'. I think the delegates quite enjoyed talking about something which a year ago they could not have known they would need to know! The Act itself has been criticised by lawyers and campaign groups for providing too narrow definitions and it remains to be seen whether the definitions in the Act will be self-contained or whether corporations will have to look outside the Act for wider interpretation, as defined by the jurisprudence and international treaties.

There really are so many questions to be answered in this new reporting requirement, and not just what will need to be in the report. Other issues that we discussed included which part of complex organisations would be required to prepare the statement, how far will an organisation have to go in the supply chain, what happens if a supplier refuses to cooperate, and more.

Our next seminar on the Modern Slavery Act is in our Oxford office on 22 October at 8am. Like yesterday, I will be joined by Jon Belcher of Blake Morgan, who will be talking about data protection regime changes and running a work-shop. Of course I am not sure if we will have the statutory guidance by then, but if not I will enjoy talking about the issues and making predictions!