Any of our business? Human Rights and the UK private sector - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Justice

  The purpose of this supplementary memorandum of evidence is to provide the Joint Committee on Human Rights with additional information for its inquiry into business and human rights. This is in light of the preliminary findings of the Private Sector and Human Rights Project, which is currently being taken forward by my Department in partnership with the Department of Health.

  The initial phase of this project consists of a scoping study via questionnaire and in-depth interviews to establish an understanding of how UK businesses are currently engaging with human rights and whether they see a need for any further guidance on how to integrate human rights into their business practices.

  As part of this scoping study, questionnaires have been distributed to a range of companies across the UK private sector, and in-depth interviews have been conducted with selected companies. The emerging findings from the scoping research have enabled the Government to provide the Committee with additional information for some of the questions outlined in your call for evidence.

1.  How do the activities of UK businesses affect human rights both positively and negatively?

  The scoping research conducted as part of the Private Sector and Human Rights Project has found to date that human rights issues are clearly understood by the majority of respondents as applying to the individual, with everyone having human rights. When asked in the survey what the term "human rights"' means to their organisation, themes that emerged were those of respect for the individual, fairness, equality, integrity and non-discrimination in the workplace.

  Although companies do not often use the term "human rights"' beyond the enclave of corporate responsibility, human rights issues are incorporated within other policies and referred to under broad, overarching terms such as equality and diversity, work-life balance and flexible work patterns to cover aspects of human rights. Therefore, although the term "human rights" is seen by companies as mainly applicable to overseas operations, companies recognise that their activities within the UK do affect human rights issues and these are addressed within a range of policies. The scoping research also found that companies place particular emphasis on human rights in employment issues.

2.  How do these activities engage the human rights obligations of the UK?

  As discussed above, the scoping study has found that businesses typically see the term "human rights" as mainly applicable to their wider operations only when they operate overseas, particularly in the least developed countries. Therefore, most companies do not conduct the same type of human rights risk assessments to their UK operations as they do for their overseas operations, but have integrated human rights issues into other relevant domestic policies.

  A notable exception to this is in relation to the farming, food processing and shell-fish sectors. The Morecambe Bay disaster and the on-going work of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority has established an awareness of the risks faced by migrant labourers in the UK amongst the industries concerned and the retailers they supply. In terms of addressing specific human rights issues, the survey carried out as part of the scoping research asked companied whether they had developed policies to address a range of human rights issues. The responses reveal that companies are most likely to have comprehensive management systems in place for the issues of occupatioinal health and safety, harassment and most forms of discrimination.

4.  Does the UK Government give adequate guidance to UK businesses to allow them to understand and support the human rights obligations of the UK?

  The scoping research conducted as part of the Private Sector and Human Rights Project has indicated that human rights are clearly understood by the majority of companies, although it is perceived that they are largely limited to employment issues. Both questionnaire and interview responses referred to a broad range of rights and principles including treating everyone with dignity and respect and without discrimination, equality, a safe working environment, fair pay, recognising trade unions and complying with employment legislation. Rights are viewed by many as a means of empowering individuals and realising their potential, for example through access to training and development, listening to marginalised voices and tailoring services to meet individual needs.

  The scoping research has also shown to date that UK businesses do have a significant desire for practival guidance on how to integrate human rights within their policies. Approximately half of respondents to the survey to date have indicated that they are working regularly with other organisations on human rights issues. Of these, Business in the Community is the organisation most commonly worked with, followed by the Employers Forum on Disability, International Business Leaders Forum and the United Nations Global Compact.

  There appears from the scoping research to be few obstacles to companies taking further steps to address human rights issues. Significantly, companies did not believe that cost or a lack of senior management commitment or stakeholder support present barriers to taking further action on human rights issues.

6.  How should UK businesses take into account the human rights impact of their activities (and are there any examples of good or bad practice which the Committee should consider)? How can a culture of respect for human rights in business be encouraged?

  The scoping study has found that most companies seek to meet the expectations of their stakeholders regarding human rights, rather than seeking to lead on these issues. The survey so far has revealed that in terms of the influence of stakeholders, the strongest is the personal commitment of business leaders.

  As mentioned in the response to Question 1, the scoping research so far has found that human rights are more often integrated into other policies, not handled through a stand alone policy. However, a minority of questionnaire respondents to date (17%) did not have a human rights policy or position statement and had not integrated human rights into other policies.

  In terms of addressing specific human rights issues, questionnaire respondents are most likely to have comprehensive management systems in place for occupational health and safety (OHS), harassment and most forms of discrimination. However, around 10% of respondents to date have taken no specific action on any human rights issues, including occupational health and safety. Privacy, sexual orientation, cultural and religious expression and bribery and corruption are issues where a proportion of companies have yet to make any progress.

  The most popular measures for integrating human rights into existing policies and practices are codes of conduct and reactive grievance and discipline processes. A significant proportion of respondents also use employee training, a dedicated corporate responsibility or ethics committee, and procurement policies and practices. Some companies also use an ombudsman, customers evaluation, a public performance report, individual performance incentives, business unit performance reviews, and third party assessment.

  Some examples of good practice emerged from the scoping research. Some participants mentioned taking human rights issues into account as a matter of due diligence in the development of new services and the bidding process, which in one case revealed an untapped market opportunity. One respondent also included human rights as part of an ongoing risk training exercise.

  A number of interview participants emphasised the importance of working with supply chain partners who shared their human rights values, with one reporting that they had severed relations with a UK supplier who would not allow them to visit their factory in China. Other participants explained that they would turn away business or terminate a tender process if it became clear that their values and standards might be compromised. Approximately half of the survey respondents require their suppliers and contractors to have a human rights policy.

  The scoping research has revealed that the UK private sector does display a strong alignment with human rights values. When asked how influential human rights principles are in guiding the conduct of companies, questionnaire respondents stated that common human rights principles or values such as fairness, respect, equality and accountability were important, with integrity and trustworthiness rated most highly. While allowing for social bias in these responses (it is to be expected that respondents would naturally select the more positive outcomes) this nonetheless indicates a strong alignment between the desired values or culture of the business responding and principles underlying human rights.

  Furthermore, the interviews found numerous companies where there is strong integration of ethics into business governance and decision making. This included, in some cases, being prepared to stand up to their clients on questions of ethics for example around how staff restructuring and lay-offs were to be achieved. Then questioned it was hard to discern a clear business case for such commitment to ethics. It was often described as simply "the way we do business"'. It was seen as a differentiator in the market, but not having a clearly established financial business case. The ethical culture was usually attributed to one or more key leaders in the business.

30 June 2009

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