David Lammy, the Member of Parliament for Tottenham and Culture Minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, took the opportunity to distance himself from Nestle UK at a Labour Party conference fringe meeting organised by the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) earlier this week.
Mr Lammy, himself a Christian and a one-time member of the Church of England Archbishopsí Council, was speaking on the theme ëIs slavery history?í, looking at the question of modern indentured labour and how to act in the light of the political and economic debts of the colonial era.
The meeting, also addressed by Sarah Williams (Anti-Slavery International), marked 200 years since the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Speakers asked what governments, business and civil society are doing about the disturbing persistence (and in some areas, growth) of global forced labour.
But there was controversy before and during the event about NestlÈ UKís sponsorship of it. Hilary Parsons, for the company, defended its record in the developing world. But speakers from the floor pushed tough questions and criticisms.
Mr Lammy began his own speech by making it clear that his presence at the meeting should not be taken as an endorsement of the company, which has been actively boycotted by churches, development agencies and human rights groups.
The Culture Minister said he believed that the meeting was a very important one, and that the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) had taken the money mainly because they had not been able to get other financial backers. CSM has responded to criticism of its move by talking of ëpositive engagementí.
But some members, including the director, Dr Andrew Bradstock, are known to be unhappy about the decision ñ and are likely to welcome Mr Lammyís sanctioning of their concern in CSMís Labour conference post mortem.
In other respects the organisation is likely to feel that it had a very effective conference, with a record number of large and successful meetings on major topics and a role in the Darfur action resolution. The NestlÈ issue is the one significant debacle.
"NestlÈ is keen to link with reputable organisations in its attempts to counter its reputation as the world's 'least responsible company'" Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator at Baby Milk Action told Ekklesia before the meeting.
"We participate in public debates with NestlÈ to expose its baby food marketing malpractice, but the publicity for this event implies NestlÈ is a partner in taking action against forced labour. It is not billed as a debate into NestlÈ's appalling record of human rights abuses, which, as well as the baby milk issue, include failing to act over alleged child slavery on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast, exploiting coffee farmers and other suppliers and abusing trade union rights in Colombia, the Philippines and elsewhere.î
[Also on Ekklesia: Christians to challenge Government and big business at Labour conference in Manchester; Christian Socialists defend NestlÈ sponsorship 13/09/06; CSM and Nestle (a statement - *.PDF file); Methodists criticised for opening the way for investment in Nestle; Methodists seek a hopeful way to handle diversity; Clinton stresses faith, hope and clarity to Labour]