(Andy Davies, author of this article, is Director of the London Universities Purchasing Consortium, and a leading player in the fight against modern slavery and for human rights in the supply chain. LUPC is a founder member of Electronics Watch).
March was looking like a less promising month for those working to promote respect for human rights through public procurement. The news had come that the Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill, sponsored by Baroness Young of Hornsey and Maggie Throup MP, had not succeeded in gaining its second reading in the Commons.
The Bill aimed to extend key supply chain transparency requirements to public authorities, such as publishing an annual Slavery and Human Trafficking Statement, and require firms neglecting their transparency duties to be excluded from bidding for public contracts. We hope very much that Lady Young and Mrs Throup will try again.
Then on 29 March, another ray of hope. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by Harriet Harman MP, publishes the report of its inquiry into Human Rights and Business 2017: Promoting responsibility and ensuring accountability, in which public procurement features prominently.
The report finds the Government lacking in its commitment to look upon its own procurement as an instrument by which it can demonstrate its commitment to promoting respect for human rights in business. It finds that:
“If the Government expects businesses to take human rights issues in their supply chains seriously, it must demonstrate at least the same level of commitment in its own procurement supply chains.”
This means applying public sanction on those businesses that neglect their duty to protect human rights by conducting proper due diligence in their supply chains.
“The Government should exclude companies that have not undertaken appropriate and effective human rights due diligence from all public sector contracts, including contracts with local authorities, which could be over a specified threshold. This should also apply to export credit and other government financial incentives for companies to operate overseas.”
The report goes on:
“Companies that have been found to have been responsible for abuses… or where a settlement indicates that there have been human rights abuses, should also be excluded from public sector contracts for a defined and meaningful period.”
Of course, this report does not represent Government policy. And there has been criticism of using public procurement as a vehicle to deliver public policy. But there is a growing groundswell of opinion in our democracy that public procurement must play its part in the battle against the suffering, abuse and exploitation of people – even slavery. Not only will this add legitimacy to the pressure Government applies to business, through the statute book, to step up its game, but it will also end the absurdity of public services – the NHS, for example – unwittingly patronising human rights abuse and abusers through the goods and services it buys on a daily basis.
The Joint Committee also believes that the Government has given public procurement officers a confusing message. Firstly we are encouraged by “procurement rules [that] allow for human rights-related matters to be reflected” in purchase decisions, before a policy note warns us against boycotting suppliers from countries, even those where human rights are clearly under serious threat. The report goes on:
“While we acknowledge that blanket boycotts of particular countries would be hard to defend, public procurement officers do need clear and unambiguous messages: they cannot be expected to take human rights considerations into account if they are confused about the rules, especially in a process that is often subject to legal challenge and where, as a result, rules must be followed to the letter.”
The report also concludes that:
“… Current Government guidance on the application of human rights considerations to public sector procurement is confusing, and may deter procurement officers from factoring in human rights.”
We at LUPC, along with our partners, will be aiming to put this right when we publish our own practical, step-by-step and free-to-download guidance for public procurement practitioners next month at our Members’ conference in London.
Watch this space!