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Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the report by the Public Accounts Committee, which looked in detail at the smuggling of tobacco? It specifically mentioned Imperial Tobacco and the lack of co-operation at that time with Her Majesty's Customs and Excise in reaching a memorandum of understanding. Is he aware of any information relating to China or anywhere else which would put Imperial Tobacco in the frame in the same way as BAT is now in the frame?
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon) (Lab): My constituents have written to me in support of this Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not only conditions of workers that are at issue, but activities such as supply of baby milk to countries where it can lead to deaths of infants and what companies are doing to promote GM crops, which perhaps our constituents would not want? What about the mining activities by companies in the great lakes region in Africa? Are those companies stimulating some of the civil war that has affected Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo? People want some reporting on those issues.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes the point strongly. There is a range of issues, such as those to which she refers, on which companies must take greater responsibility. My sole concern is that this Bill is only being introduced this yearwe should have had such a Bill decades ago. I remember looking at reports of cases of asbestos workers in South Africa who were poisoned by big asbestos companies and are now trying to fight for compensation. Their claims were resisted tooth and nail by those companies all the way up through our courts here, until finally, for once, the judges got it right and allowed those people properly to bring claims for compensation. That is exactly the sort of problem with which we should be dealing.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): What would the hon. Gentleman say to the organic farmers of Herefordshire, which has more organic farms per hectare than any other county in England, whose crops might be contaminated by genetically modified crops? What would he say in defence of his Labour colleagues who have just caused a Division that has effectively meant that an important private Member's Bill has now been lost, which might have had a chance for further debate?
Mr. Dismore: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. All I would say is that the hon. Gentleman makes an important point about genetically modified organisms, which raises an issue in relation to corporate behaviour. He may be interested to know that I share his views about corporate behaviour in relation to genetically modified food, and I regret that he could not summon enough Liberal Democrat Members to support the previous Bill, or enough Conservative Members, or enough between them, to do so.
Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes an important point about looking at the performance of companies in this respect. We have all read stories and seen television documentaries about companies in the far east, for example, employing child labour on a penny or two a day. That is completely exploitative and outside any form of proper reporting and control. If companies are engaged in those practices, shareholders and the wider public ought to be aware of it. Of course, the issue goes beyond unfair labour practices elsewhere, to fairness of competition and trade with legitimate companies such as that in my hon. Friend's constituency. How can that company compete fairly when other companies behave so improperly and badly, undercutting its legitimate business?
Andy King: I am sure that my hon. Friend is also aware that large multinational companies do not just behave disgracefully towards their work force, as in terms of the computer issue. In places such as Plachimada in India, Coca-Cola took away drinking water, which is necessary to sustain life, and Shell is of course notorious for its activities in the Niger delta. Such companies put whole communities at risk, yet they are not held to account by their shareholders.
Mr. Dismore : My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about Coca-Cola and water. Recently, there was a scandal in our own country when Coca-Cola had to withdraw its bottled tap water because it was not safe. That was a rip-off, if ever there was one. That is an example from the developed world of a company that has misbehaved in the developing world, in India.
Mr. Gardiner : Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill will provide tremendous assistance to pension funds? The Government introduced a provision whereby investment companies must issue a statement of investment principles by which the funds must abide, and which their trustees must observe. That is especially relevant in the context of exercising corporate social responsibility, given that those companies are some of the major shareholders in many multinational companies on the index. Having analysed their investments, their shareholders will be able to exercise their vote at annual general meetings. The Bill would allow the shareholders of those companies to analyse their investments and to vote at annual general meetings with a clear knowledge of the social responsibility of the activities in which they are engaged. That will
I want to put my hon. Friend's point in a slightly different light in relation to ethical investment companies and pension funds. When I recently had a financial health check with my financial adviser, who no doubt tried to bamboozle me, I was astounded, when I looked at my pension, that the small amount of money that I had put into an ethical fund had performed much better than the funds in the general market. That is a sign of the times. People are much more interested in knowing where their money is going and what the companies that they are investing in are up to. That is why my hon. Friend's Bill is so timely. It catches the spirit of the agethe zeitgeist that allows us, as investors, to ensure that our money is invested properly based on companies' reports of what they are doing.
Ms Drown: Does my hon. Friend agree that that is true not only of investment companies? Many people have expressed concern about call centres going abroad. Nationwide, whose headquarters are in my constituency, recently stated that it was going to keep its call centres in Swindon, which is a great reflection on the staff there. That is the sort of decision that people want to know about; certainly, Nationwide's financial performance is reflecting it. Similarly, there is huge increase in interest in fair trade. People want to know about what companies are doing, and the Bill would assist that.
Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; she makes a good point. The issue of call centres is a difficult and thorny one. Personally, I do not necessarily object to their going overseas. The real question is whether the people who work in them are being exploited, and that would emerge clearly from corporate reports that deal with the subject, as they would have to under the Bill.
Mr. Gardiner: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will recall that earlier in our debates a point of order was made to Mr. Deputy Speaker, who was then in the Chair, stating that there was not an appropriate departmental Minister on the Front Bench. That matter was pursued extensively by Conservative Members, yet the Members on their Front Bench are not the appropriate shadow Ministers for the relevant Departmentthe DTI.
Before the last round of interventions, I was talking about the problems in Nigeria in relation to Shell's operations, especially in the context of oil spills. We have all read a great deal in newspapers recently about that company and its lack of social responsibility towards the people of Nigeria.