Public sector procurement focus for anti-slavery tsar

22 October 2019

Public sector procurement has an important part to play in preventing modern slavery in supply chains, says the UK’s anti-slavery tsar. 

Dame Sara Thornton, the independent anti-slavery commissioner, highlighted the role of public sector procurement in her strategic plan for 2019-21

The UK’s central government spends up to £49bn each year on goods and services, while the wider public sector spends a further £200bn. 

“As citizens, we do not exercise choice in purchasing decisions made by public authorities,” Thornton said. “We rely on those in procurement departments to do that for us.” 

As part of her priorities, Thornton said she will be monitoring the policy response and implementation of any new arrangements, following a UK government Cabinet Office consultation held earlier this year on social value, including the prevention of modern slavery in public procurement.

She added that the consultation presented an “opportunity to ensure that government is using all its levers to tackle modern slavery”.

Thornton also promised to scrutinise the effectiveness of government-issued guidance on slavery for public sector buyers. A number of documents have been published to encourage ethical employment practices and supply chains for commercial and procurement staff. 

She insisted the government must lead by example in publishing its own modern slavery statement. The government confirmed it will be publishing a statement in 2019. The statement should explain how the government is addressing modern slavery in its supply chains, identify the biggest risks, and set out a plan of action for the coming year, Thornton said. 

Ministerial departments are also expected to publish their own modern slavery statements from 2020/21.

Meanwhile, in the private sector, Thornton raised concerns over low compliance in publishing modern slavery statements.

“In October 2018, the Home Office wrote directly to the chief executives of 17,000 businesses with clear instructions about reporting,” she said. “To date, 4,000 organisations have registered on the modern slavery contact database to receive updated guidance.” 

The letter also set out the plan to audit for non-compliance after March 2019, with a list of non-compliant companies published. “This audit is important and I will be monitoring its progress and the results produced,” Thornton added. 

The strategic plan focusses on four key areas: the prevention of modern slavery; supporting law enforcement and prosecutions; improving victim care and support; and getting value from research and innovation. 

“Protecting victims and prosecuting traffickers is not enough,” Thornton stressed. “To stop this crime from happening in the first place, we need to do much more to tackle the systems and structures that allow modern slavery to thrive.

“I want to see a focus on prevention spanning the whole spectrum of our response to combatting modern slavery – from raising awareness of consumers and citizens, to ensuring that businesses, public services and government are doing all they can to prevent trafficking from taking place in their organisations and in their supply chains.”

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