Regulaton & Policy
Baroness Young Inspires at Greenwich Symposium on Responsible Public Procurement

Last Thursday the third Greenwich Symposium on Responsible Public Procurement was held in the stunning surroundings of the Old Naval College, now home to Greenwich University. Andy Davies, Director of the London Universities Purchasing Consortium, has been one of the driving forces behind the event, along with the Electronics Watch organisation and Olga Martin-Ortega from the University.

Electronics Watch has been particularly concerned about the use of students in factories in the Far East; as more than one person pointed out during the day, it would be ironic (and just simply wrong) if students in the UK, including those from overseas, are using laptops and other equipment that has been made by students working as forced labour in other parts of the world.

The headline for the day was “Modern Slavery, Trafficking and Rights Risks in Global Supply Chains”. At the same event last year, around 30 of us sat around a large table. This time, there were over 100 registrations and around 75 very engaged people in the room, a sign of how these topics are getting greater attention from many groups.

That was reflected by the delegates, an interesting  mix of academics, campaigners and third-sector folk, other public institutions such as UNICEF and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and a decent sprinkling of procurement practitioners. An old friend of mine, David Gigg, is now leading on this agenda for the UK government’s central procurement body, Crown Commercial Service, so it was a pleasure both to meet him again and to see that CCS is now taking a real interest in these issues.

The format was heavily ‘participative,’ with three roundtables forming the major part of the day, looking at Labour Rights, Policy, Regulation and Advocacy, and public procurement (we will have more on that last discussion in particular here later this week).

Andy Davies opened the event and talked about the problems of modern slavery – “you cannot wave a magic wand and solve this problem” – and a piece of software won’t do it for you. But there is a lot of good practice around the world, and this event is an opportunity to share that. For instance, why, he asked, are the Nordic countries so strong in these areas? The UK and other countries need to catch up.

baroness-youngBaroness Lola Young of Hornsey was the keynote speaker. She has a fascinating background, has been an actress as well as an academic and is now a very active campaigning member of the UK House of Lords. She has been supporting a private members bill to strengthen the provision for transparency in the supply chain as part of the Modern Slavery Act. She talked about the history of the Act and how it could be improved further, comparing it to ground-breaking legislation such as the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act.

She made the point that good, professional businesses want this sort of legislation, it is in their interest to have a level playing field, rather than being undercut by less scrupulous businesses. Back to the Modern Slavery Act; firms whose revenue is over £36 million should report on supply chain activities. All corporate bodies must write a modern slavery statement covering a number of criteria. However, you can simply make a statement saying “we acknowledge all this but we’re not actually doing anything about it!” Which seems odd to say the least.

The Baroness talked about why the Act is not yet applicable for public bodies. There has been some feeling that contracting authorities already have many policies to consider. But the view from the private sector is that this is not a major regulatory burden – so that is not a good excuse. Of course, some public bodies such as MOD already take action in this area, but there is little consistency so it is hard to compare performance. She therefore argued that the public sector should be brought under Section 54 of the Act.

But the Act should be just the beginning – it is also not as strong as legislation President Obama brought in, and it contains no punitive measures. So, she said “it is up to us as consumers, taxpayers, and workers to eliminate this scourge”.

It was an excellent keynote and Baroness Young is about as far from the traditional image of a member of the House of Lords (a crusty old gentleman who owns a castle) as you can imagine! She certainly inspired the audience, and set the scene for a very interesting day – we we will have more later this week on the discussions around procurement in particular.