Baroness Butler-Sloss has said she believes the Modern Slavery Bill currently passing through Parliament will become law by February.
The bill includes a clause that requires large firms to report on efforts to ensure their supply chains are slavery-free, though where the revenue threshold should be set to define a large firm has not been decided.
Butler-Sloss, speaking at a Westminster Legal Policy Forum on the new law in London this morning, said there were between 13,000 and 15,000 slaves in the UK.
“I would be surprised if it wasn’t law by February,” she said.
Giving an example of how the law affects a firm such as Primark, she said: “Primark sells clothes. They need to find out not only who makes the clothes, but who produces the material. You need to go right down the supply chain, sometimes 10 or 12 areas, to see the business whose making what’s sold in this country. That’s what companies have not been doing.
“I think there will be very few companies who go down to the sub, sub, subcontractors to see how it’s done on the ground, and that’s what the transparency clause is meant to do.”
Klara Skrivankova, Europe programme and advocacy coordinator for Anti-Slavery International, called for the new anti-slavery commissioner - Kevin Hyland, former head of the Metropolitan Police's human trafficking unit who was appointed last month - to be given powers to enforce the clause.
“It will be important to ensure somebody is given the role of enforcing this,” she said. “The anti-slavery commissioner would be an ideal role to do that, but at the moment his remit is limited to prosecutions.”
Cindy Berman, head of knowledge and learning at the Ethical Trading Initiative, called for a government department to monitor compliance with the transparency clause. “Unless there is a specific requirement on firms to report certain things it will be very difficult to make comparisons,” she said.
Giles Bolton, responsible sourcing director at Tesco, who is in charge of a team of 45 people operating around the world, said firms should assess their commercial relationships, check their capability, identify areas of risk and make a commitment to ethical supply chains.
He said he was “cautious” about the government becoming involved in assessing compliance with the transparency clause, which would affect 10,600 firms if the threshold was set at a suggested £60 million turnover. “I would worry about creating large teams of people who analyse reports,” he said.
Bolton also called for more detail on what should be reported. “I think criteria would be useful on this,” he said.
2 December is the United Nations' International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.