Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320
TUESDAY 7 JULY 2009
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
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
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed
for your time this afternoon.