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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 326)



  Q320  Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Can I stop you. I am sorry. If you have the power to give assistance in any human rights case against public or private bodies, apart from anything else you will be deluged with people coming to say, "Please give assistance." You will then have to have your staff looking at all those cases. You cannot do everything. It does seem to me to be a mistake, especially when the next government is going to review quangos, for you in any way to be accused of overreaching. That is why I urge you to reconsider.

  Mr Reading: I can understand your point, Lord Lester. I would just say that the number of cases that are going through the courts on human rights, from what we understand from recent surveys has not been increasing. We do think we would be able to act strategically in terms of how we use our resources. We certainly do not in relation to equality cases represent even a tenth of those that come to us. I take your point, though, and it is something we will consider.

  Q321  Earl of Onslow: I am, as yet, rather unconvinced of the scale of problem but I am totally convinced, listening to you, that you all have your imperial sola topees on and you want to advance the boundary of your empire to the far reaches of the Hindu Kush. I hear the sounds of empire building with a problem which does not seem to me as large as perhaps you are making it out to be. Am I being unfair?

  Mr Christie: Ever so slightly.

  Chairman: I think we will stop there.

  Q322  Mr Sharma: A question for the Scottish Human Rights Commission. You have recommended that we consider whether the barriers to our courts exercising extraterritorial jurisdiction over the activities of the UK companies and their subsidiaries overseas. Is a network of developed countries all exercising extraterritorial jurisdiction over allegations of human rights abuse in the developing world a realistic or attractive option?

  Ms Chetty: Extraterritorial application of human rights in this area is clearly an area of development at international level and it is undoubtedly an area that will be expanded and clarified in years to come and HRIs may play a role in doing that. We are not yet in a position as a Commission to comment on the feasibility of extraterritorial liability legislative provision, but we do recognise that the behaviour of and impacts of Scottish and UK companies acting abroad warrant scrutiny. We will, as I say, be looking to engage directly with the private sector on human rights issues that they face when operating overseas and also sharing our experiences in promoting a rights-based approach to business through the network of NHRIs globally.

  Q323  John Austin: A number of NGOs have given evidence to us, particularly on the issue of improving the performance of UK companies abroad, and have suggested the need for a UK commission for business, the environment and human rights. Do either of you have any views as to whether this is desirable? Or would it be just another commission and an example of too many cooks?

  Mr Reading: We are aware of that suggestion. Although in principle, in some ways, we can see why it would be important, particularly because there may be a gap in jurisdiction in terms of gaining access to justice for those UK companies operating overseas, that is on the one hand. On the other hand we do see some potential problems with that proposal. For example, if in principle the country in which the business is operated has jurisdiction, then how would the British body be able to take action in those circumstances, or should it be able to take such action? We see potential conflicts there. But I would also say that, given the fact that there is a concern with the creation of new organisations, particularly when our organisation and the Scottish Commission have just been created, it perhaps may be a little bit early to make such a suggestion.

  Ms Chetty: We do not have a definitive position on this. We recognise that non judicial grievance mechanisms can play an important role in increasing accountability where they are in accordance with rights-based principles and supported by a robust legal framework. We would welcome perhaps further discussion on any proposal for a UK Commission which on the one hand could be helpful in having a strength in the complaints handling process, but there may also be scope for an overlap with regard to any promotional or capacity-building work. Although the Scottish Commission does not have a complaint handling function, we believe that our mandate does allow us to explore other means of increasing non-judicial accountability. By that I mean that we intend to take an approach where we hold, as I have described earlier, what we call human rights interactions: essentially a multi-stakeholder dialogue with key actors to determine what rights are at stake and the responsibilities of individual actors. We believe that that approach will be helpful in allowing a common framework of understanding in what the business responsibility to respect rights looks like and what the state duty to protect looks like. As I have said before, we will be engaging directly with business, and further to that we believe that this proposal is looking at business human rights and the environment, and the Scottish Commission is looking at the interface between all three in its work with the ICC Working Groups.

  Q324  John Austin: Mr Reading, you talked about a conflict of jurisdiction but we were concerned about those areas where British companies may be operating in areas where there is scant regard for human rights and little protection or recourse in those countries. Both of your bodies have educational and awareness raising powers, but it is suggested that this Commission might have dispute resolution powers as well. I think that is something that Ms Chetty was alluding to. Since the EHRC at the moment does not have adjudicatory or dispute resolution powers, do you think it would be feasible for a human rights commission in the UK to be able to exercise those powers, as I think the Scottish representative has suggested, in respect of extraterritorial disputes involving allegations against UK and British companies?

  Mr Reading: Legally I do not think there would be any barrier to that if the claim was brought under the Human Rights Act. Obviously our jurisdiction extends to England, Wales and Scotland to the extent of reserved matters. I think that if we did have such mediation powers that could be a useful tool. We have been informed about the case that Leigh Day are involved with in relation to the activities of companies overseas. We could, for example, consider talking to them about those issues and how we may be able to resolve them.

  Mr Christie: Perhaps I could offer a non legal response to that. At the end of the day we are talking about how we can best influence the behaviours and policies of businesses and companies. To do that, we need first of all to demonstrate an understanding of their business, what it is they are trying to do and the challenges that they face in trying to do that, and, having demonstrated that understanding, to explain and demonstrate to them the best interests that they have in respecting human rights in pursuit of their business. If there is a belief that that can best be done by creating a new body with new powers, fine. I think we would take the view that given we are less than two years old and at the very least we have the ability, hopefully, to persuade, to engage, to advocate, give us the chance to try and do that. I do not think there would be a great demand from the business community certainly for a new Commission. We have to build our own credibility in order to be effective with them. That would be a challenge faced by any organisation, so I think we can play a part, we can play a role, but it would be for you.

  Q325  John Austin: I am sure you are right in saying that there would not be any great enthusiasm from the business community but in some senses you have been rather generous to the business community because the evidence that we have seen suggests that many companies behave quite differently in the UK to the way in which they behave in their overseas operations.

  Mr Christie: That is a long-established pattern of behaviour in not just UK companies but companies worldwide. In fairness, many companies quite voluntarily are trying to address that through their own policies and corporate responsibility stances, but there is clearly a role for the public sector to play in reinforcing and cajoling and regulating perhaps even in that area, but the question you are asking is how can that best be done. All I am suggesting to you is that there are organisations and institutions in place that could certainly make a significant contribution to improving or to bringing about the behavioural improvements that you are looking for.

  Q326  John Austin: Is not the CSR thing sometimes a little cosmetic? I can recall many years ago a certain British bank running very good training schemes to get young black people in this country into employment and training whilst being one of the major planks supporting the apartheid regime in South Africa.

  Mr Christie: I cannot imagine who you are referring to! This is slightly off our remit but it does seem to me that, particularly for big companies who adopt socially responsible business practices, even the cynics would say that at the very least they would do that as a risk management exercise in order to protect themselves and protect their reputation. The problem about claiming to do something and then not actually doing it is that you tend to get found out and the damage to their reputation would then be enhanced, so it is in the best interests of companies to say that they are behaving appropriately and to behave appropriately if they want to protect their reputation at home from consumers who, as we all know, are these days fairly interested in these matters and they can indeed have a commercial impact.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed for your time this afternoon.

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