UK business and human rights report

16 December 2009

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights in a report published today, calls on the Government to develop a strategy that clearly sets out the human rights standards which UK businesses are expected to meet. The objective should be an international agreement on business and human rights

Chair of the Committee, Andrew Dismore MP, said:

"Human rights law is designed to protect the individual against the State. In the modern world, the law is increasingly failing to address the impact of the private sector on individual rights.

"Businesses work globally across borders; and at home, public services are increasingly provided by the private sector.

"When businesses incorporated in one country operate across the globe the only way properly to address this is a binding international agreement.

"UK multinationals may present a compliant face at home but show quite a different approach when operating elsewhere and some have a woeful record abroad.

"We were most concerned about the range and seriousness of allegations both in the press and in the evidence we received, including against 18 British companies which are household names.

"There is much that the UK Government can do to provide guidance to business on human rights and to set the standards which the UK considers business should meet.

"We are not convinced by the argument that if the UK takes a lead in this area it would impact on UK business competitiveness."

The Committee calls on the UK Government to continue supporting the UN Special Representative Professor John Ruggie, who leads international work in this area and notes that few UK firms meet the due diligence standards he recommends.

The report follows a major inquiry by the Committee which heard from all sides of the debate including UK multinational firms, unions, campaigners, lawyers, government ministers and the UN representative.

The Committee notes that the UK’s current strategy gives undue priority to voluntary initiatives, without clear guidance.

Business compliance with the voluntary OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises is monitored by 'national contact points' or NCPs. The Committee says the UK’s NCP "still falls far short" of being an effective remedial body.

It considers that the UK Government should clarify its policy on business and human rights both at home and overseas.

It recommends that the Government should produce new guidance for businesses. It believes that the UK Government should use its position as major purchaser and investor and recommends that the Government review public procurement rules, Export Credits Guarantees, company law, investment policy and listing rules.

The Committee recognises the need for a particularly robust approach to business in conflict zones.

It calls for the Government to undertake a review of the compatibility of domestic labour and trades union law with the UK’s international obligations.

The Committee questions new draft regulations on black-listing and calls on Government to provide a full explanation of the compatibility of its proposals with international law.

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