Hastings councillors have unanimously backed plans intended to deter modern slavery.
On Wednesday (October 23), Hastings Borough Council agreed to bring in new protocols and training to ensure any contractor hired by the authority both fully complies with the law and has whistle-blowing systems in place to flag up concerns.
The new policy was put forward as part of a motion by council leader Peter Chowney (Lab, Tressell), which also called on East Sussex County Council to adopt the same measures.
Cllr Chowney said: “This is about how we can use our procurement policies to ensure that none of the contractors we use have anything to do with modern slavery.
“It is a small, small part of this and obviously passing this motion isn’t going to end modern slavery, it isn’t even going to end it in Hastings.
“If you look at the sectors that modern slavery mostly occurs in, it is; nailbars, car washes, the sex trade and cannabis farms. Most of these are not things the council procures.
“But it is beyond these sectors so there are services out there that we need to be absolutely certain we are not procuring from anyone who has had any involvement in modern slavery and that they take all the steps possible to make sure they are not involved.”
The full motion also calls for stronger whistle-blowing systems, requiring council contractors to adopt their own policies as part of the conditions of their contracts.
It will also see council officers challenge any abnormally low-cost tenders and regularly review its spending on contracts to ensure they do not rely on slave labour. Concerns raised by these reviews will be referred to the National Crime Agency.
The motion gained the unanimous support of the council and was adopted following a short debate.
Rob Lee, leader of the council’s Conservative group, said: “Obviously we are in support, we fully support this motion.
“I think it is right also to reference the Modern Slavery Act 2015. We often talk about national government policy, we often disagree with it. However, I think we can be very proud of any government, whoever is in charge, that passes legislation like that.
“It is a very grave issue and one we are very happy to support a motion on.”
While there was strong agreement for adopting the new policies, the debate threw up some flashpoints of disagreement between the council’s political groups.
During the debate, Labour councillor and cabinet member for climate change Maya Evans argued that the UK and other countries in the global north were responsible for creating conditions which lead to modern slavery.
In making her point, Cllr Evans quoted from a book she had written about her experiences in Afghanistan as a humanitarian worker, seeing her come under fire from Conservative councillors for “plugging her book”.
There was also criticism for Ashdown councillor Mike Edwards (Con), who said: “The real problem is not here in Hastings, it is not even in this country I would suggest.
“The real centres of slavery are in India, in China, in Pakistan and probably in Afghanistan, in the Middle East. This is where it thrives, it is part of their culture. It is accepted in these countries.
“We shouldn’t pretend we are holier than thou, we do our best here but at the same time the real problem is abroad.”
Cllr Edwards’ comments saw criticism from several Labour councillors, including Cllr Chowney who described the comments as “shocking”.
Cllr Chowney said: “The idea you can minimise and say it is not really a big problem in the UK and its a cultural issue in the countries abroad. That is quite shocking, it really is.
“It certainly isn’t recognised by the current government. As Cllr Lee explained the Modern Slavery Act 2015 was brought in by this government and quite right too. It is a serious problem.”
Following further discussion the motion was passed unanimously.