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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 354 - 359)



  Q354  Chairman: Good afternoon everybody; this is the last of our evidence sessions in the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights inquiry into business and human rights. We are joined by an array of talent in front of us, comprising Michael Wills, Minister of State, Ministry of Justice and Minister for Human Rights; Ian Lucas, Minister for Business and Regulatory Reform from the Department for Business, Innovation and skills; Lord Malloch-Brown, Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN, of the FCO; and the Deputy Head of Human Rights, Democracy and Good Governance at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Carmel Power. Welcome to you all. Does anybody want to make any opening statements?

  Mr Wills: We were all planning to say just a few sentences, if we may, Chairman. Can I say first of all how pleased I am to be here and I am sure I speak for my colleagues in that.

  Q355  Chairman: I hope you feel the same way when we have finished!

  Mr Wills: We will still be pleased to be here. I just want to say that this is an important area of work; it is an area of work upon which the Ministry of Justice had already embarked. Clearly this is an important area for British businesses and it is also an important area for the promotion of the human rights culture. Strictly speaking, human rights are rights enjoyed by individuals against the state but, nevertheless, we think that there is an important role for businesses to play in promoting a human rights culture; and particularly if we look at concepts such as dignity and respect, which underpin all human rights instruments, we think that business has an important role to play. Our preliminary work in the exercise that we have embarked upon with the Department of Health suggests that businesses are already actively engaged in this process, although they do not always articulate it in human rights terms. Nevertheless, they are actively engaged with these issues. There are, of course, a lot of questions to be asked about the role of business. Some businesses are very much more conscious of these issues than others, particularly those that have global operations and deal with human rights issues overseas, about which I think both of my colleagues will be talking shortly. In short, we think this is an active area for investigation; we are glad you are doing it and we want to play our part in taking this forward.

  Ian Lucas: I just want to say that I am very pleased to be here for my first appearance. In the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills we believe very strongly in the positive effect that businesses can have on human rights across the globe and we want to be supporting businesses to improve the culture in business and the respect of human rights within those. We are very keen that all UK businesses take account of economic, social and environmental impacts in the way that they conduct business, and that is regardless of the complexities of globalisation and the complex supply chains nowadays. There is one particular example I want to mention from the Department, which is the Companies Act 2006, which will inprove the quality of company reporting by introducing an expanded business review to report on environmental/employee/social community issues as well as other appropriate measures. So that is an indication of the importance that the Department does give to business and human rights and I am very pleased to be here.

  Lord Malloch-Brown: If I may, to lay out right away—and thank you for allowing me to join you today—just one dividing line in terms of approach to these issues, which I suspect will run through all of our evidence today. That is who is responsible for enforcing human rights law. I just want to make the point that the FCO, which is engaged extensively internationally in terms of capacity building with states to make them implement human rights law better, is engaged with a whole range of actors on different corporate social responsibility issues. With the US we established the voluntary principles on security and human rights; with Professor Ruggie we have been doing a lot; we have the Kimberley Process on diamonds. But behind all of them lies the assumption that what you are trying to do is to strengthen a states-based system of human rights enforcement. Obviously there are those voices which would argue that with corporations operating now multinationally across borders that somehow, either through pressure on those corporates directly or through the evolution of law, the right way of addressing this is to hold corporations directly responsible to the international community for human rights enforcement. That has not been our approach and I just wanted to lay that out straightaway because it is, as I say, in a sense the conceptual dividing line with which the human rights community has to struggle in dealing with these issues.

  Q356  Chairman: We would like to start off with the work of the Special Representative and Professor Ruggie, which you have just introduced. Perhaps we can start with Michael on this one as the Human Rights Minister. Has the new Ruggie policy framework had any practical impact on UK Government policy so far?

  Mr Wills: On UK policy?

  Q357  Chairman: Yes.

  Mr Wills: Not so far. We are actively engaged with it and the FCO, as you know, are in the lead on this and I will let Lord Malloch-Brown say a few more words about it. Obviously we are aware of this; it is informing our thinking and we are taking forward, as you know, this joint project with the Department of Health, which is still continuing; and obviously his work, his thinking on this, will inform that process.

  Q358  Chairman: What practical steps are we taking to try and respond to what he is doing?

  Lord Malloch-Brown: We are supporting all three pillars of his work: the state duty to protect human rights; the corporate responsibility to be respectful and respect human rights; and the issue of access to effective remedies. He is midway in his work and we have seconded a Foreign Office official to his team to work with him and he is now involved in developing a set of guiding principles on the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in a corporation's activities. We are supporting him in developing that through the secondment of an individual, through engaging with him in various task force and seminar ways. As I say, I hope he would think that we were one of the principal supporting countries of his initiative but, as I say, he is halfway through and, as Michael said, it is too soon to start incorporating his work domestically in the UK.

  Ian Lucas: I am very supportive and the Department is very supportive of Professor Ruggie's approach and we want to see the development of guiding principles for business taken forward very strongly. We are very anxious and keen to support Professor Ruggie in any of the work that he carries out.

  Q359  Chairman: Lord Malloch-Brown, one of the issues that are arising in this debate is whether it is the international community that needs to take regulatory measures or whether individual states should be taking action. Is the work of Professor Ruggie obscuring this distinction and particularly to deal with businesses that are operating in countries with very weak governance arrangements?

  Lord Malloch-Brown: I do not think he is obscuring it; I think he is wrestling it. As I said in the opening, I think it is the central dilemma of his work. I do not want to predict or prejudge where he is going to come down, but so far all his work has indicated that he believes, like us, that it is strengthening state capacity rather than trying to introduce some international dimension to this, which is the best way of securing national level compliance by corporations.

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