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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 379)



  Q360  Chairman: There is also the suggestion let your thousand flowers bloom, which is also talked about. Bearing in mind that he is not going to finish his final recommendations until 2011—another two years yet, and no doubt there will be lots of arguments afterwards—is there not a case for saying that the UK should take earlier action, if only in those areas where state action has been pretty weak so far?

  Lord Malloch-Brown: Across a lot of areas of activity, which are essentially touched on this, the Kimberley Process on Diamonds, the different Transparency Initiatives and security in human rights in conflict areas, the UK is already a real leader and I think what Ruggie is trying to do is to find a conceptual framework which ties all of this together. But it is not as though we are standing still and waiting; we are doing a lot in these different areas.

  Q361  Chairman: The next question is for Ian. Supposing Professor Ruggie comes up with ideas, suggestions, proposals, recommendations that British businesses do not like, are you going to fight for Ruggie or are you going to fight for British business if they resist what he comes up with?

  Ian Lucas: We have strong principles in this area as a country, as a government and as a Department in terms of the commitment to human rights, which we are trying to take forward with business already through improving corporate responsibility and improved work with business, and we certainly see the benefits as an individual government working with UK businesses to improve their practices generally right across the globe. It seems to me that Professor Ruggie's course at the moment appears to be sitting squarely in accordance with UK Government policy. So I think the work that we are doing as an individual country will help the Ruggie process and take it forward. I cannot predict what he is going to say at the end of the conclusions, but I would be surprised if it is at complete variance with the way that we are approaching matters.

  Mr Wills: I would not necessarily agree with your verb, Chairman. Fight is not necessarily what is going to happen here. We believe that it is very strongly in business interests to engage with this agenda. The evidence is that many of the companies that we are looking at in the Private Sector and Human Rights Project are actively engaged already, as Ian said. They may call it other things like corporate social responsibility and so on, but we would hope and to a large degree expect this to be a cooperative venture where we can work together in promoting this agenda.

  Q362  Chairman: Can I come back to you, Michael, because a lot of Ruggie's work has been viewed in a national context. Do you think what is coming out of this new policy framework has relevance to businesses working within the country?

  Mr Wills: I think there will be almost certainly implications for what we do domestically and we would want to look at that, and that is why we have set up the Private Sector and Human Rights Project in the first place. It is an across departmental initiative and a very wide range of departments are already involved in it, and I am sure it will feed into this.

  Q363  Earl of Onslow: Mr Lucas, you may find this a slightly odd question coming from a Conservative hereditary peer who is in the process of about to defend American trade unions but we have had evidence, certainly from Tesco—they were all fine words and buttering parsnips to start with—that they were really being anti-human rights in resisting the unionisation of their shops in the United States, and the same I was told outside—not on the floor of the House but other people have written about it—resisting unions in South Korea. I slightly got the impression that they were making all the nice noises to us, but when it was convenient actually not to be quite as good as they were pretending to be they did not come up to scratch the whole time. Am I being unfair from your experience and if I am I am quite happy, but if I am not what will you do about it?

  Ian Lucas: I do not know the detail of the particular circumstances of each individual case that you are talking about, but I would say that with a company like Tesco's, which has a reputation to maintain, that a Committee of this nature raising an issue of the type that you have just described is a very serious matter indeed, and a very compelling actor upon its behaviour in the future will be the fact that you have raised it in Committee on the basis of what you have said, that they did not raise satisfactory explanations and their approach to the issues has not satisfied the Committee. I think that will be something that would and should be of concern to companies generally when that conclusion is reached and I think we should not underestimate the impact that can have upon the behaviour of a multinational company like Tesco.

  Chairman: They promised us a supplementary memorandum to deal with the points that were raised.

  Q364  Lord Dubs: This is for Michael, please, if I may. Some time ago, Michael, you agreed with us that the meaning of a public function in the Human Rights Act 1998 needed to be clarified—and I am sure you expected this question to come sooner or later and it is coming sooner—to reinstate the intention of Parliament that private providers providing public services would be covered by the Act. This was so important, you argued, that it must be included in the wider constitutional debate about a Bill of Rights for the UK. That consultation has been and gone and your submission to this inquiry treat the issue as one creating only "marginal uncertainty", which is a bit at variance with what you were saying to us earlier. The question is, is the Government backtracking on the scope of the Human Rights Act now that the voter-friendly issue of care homes has been dealt with?

  Mr Wills: No, no we are not. Just as a point of fact, the consultation on the Green Paper on rights and responsibilities has not come and gone, it is about to begin in earnest. However, having said that—I do not want to create more uncertainty—we have decided that because of the way in the end the Green Paper turned out, and I think I have already said this to your Committee in closed session, it was not appropriate to bring the two things together; that because we did not want the Green Paper really to be a discussion about the Human Rights Act—we are proud of the Human Rights Act, we do not resile from it but we do not think it should be an issue for debate any more, we think it has proved its worth—therefore bringing a question about the scope of the Human Rights Act into the context of the Green Paper we thought was to mix chalk and cheese. So we have committed to launching a separate consultation. The immediate mischief from YL we dealt with, as you have alluded to. It does not mean that we think that there is not a strong case, because we think there is a strong case for dealing with the wider question about scope. It is obviously very important. We are ready to launch a consultation. However, as the Committee will be aware, the case of Weaver is going through the courts at the moment and until we see that is definitely concluded and we do not know—we are digesting the most recent court judgment of Weaver—how this is finally going to conclude and until then I am afraid we just have to hold fire. I am sorry that this creates even marginal uncertainty but it is an important issue which is not going to go away and we are committed to exploring it and I think that any government is going to have no choice but to engage with it.

  Q365  Lord Dubs: That is very helpful, thank you. In the meantime, are you aware how many government departments have had similar issues come before them, possibly leading to litigation, about the scope of Section 6(3)(b) since the YL case was decided?

  Mr Wills: I cannot answer that off the top of my head but let me try and find out for you and I will write to you.

  Q366  Chairman: I think also the number of times they have faced amendments from the floor of either House to try and clarify it as well would be helpful.

  Mr Wills: I am sure that someone somewhere is making a very careful note of these requests.

  Q367  Chairman: When I raised this in the Westminster Hall debate the answer was "soon" and when I raised it on my Bill last Friday or whenever it was—the Friday before—the answer was "soon". Nobody is being very clear about "soon". If you are saying you are waiting for the outcome of Weaver, which looks almost certain to go to the House of Lords, that means another year.

  Mr Wills: It may well mean that, we do not know.

  Q368  Chairman: A year is not "soon", is it?

  Mr Wills: I think it depends on your timescale, with respect. When you look at how long these great constitutional matters can take and how long it took to pass the Human Rights Act, I think we are moving with proper dispatch. It is completely open to us to say that we do not think there is an issue here, but we have not said that. We are not opening ourselves up heedlessly to this debate. I could have come to you right from the beginning and said, "Look, we will deal with this in this way and actually we do not think it is an issue; we accept the House of Lords' judgment in YL and that is an end to it." But we have not said that. All the way through, when I said in evidence to your Committee—again I think it was in closed session—you will recall that I said if we could find a way of dealing rapidly with the mischief caused by YL we would do so, and we did so. And in exactly the same way we will embark on an investigation, a proper consultation on the scope because we do recognise that these are important issues, but we will do it as soon as we properly can do so, and while Weaver is still not concluded we have no idea of what the courts are going to decide on Weaver. This could have been concluded by now in which case "soon" would have fallen more within your definition rather than a geological definition.

  Q369  Chairman: Is it intended to intervene in the Weaver case? If it goes to the Lords will you intervene in the Weaver case?

  Mr Wills: I think we have to digest the judgment. It is very recent and we are still looking at it; and it is not a matter for this Department, as you will understand.

  Q370  Chairman: The overall point about it is this: the initial response to this inquiry was that the law is very clear and it is all very peripheral, but I think we have demonstrated that is not the case. The Weaver case goes to the heart of public housing in the sense that housing associations are becoming increasingly the main providers of social housing now and that is a very fundamental issue that affects the lives of millions of people potentially, so it is an important issue. The point about the G4S case, the transport of immigration detainees, very fundamental human rights issues there. So they are very, very profound issues and whilst we agree with you with the approach of sorting out the YL case straight away, that was on the understanding, which I think we all had at the time that the rest would be looked at relatively quickly, and now we are a year on and not much progress.

  Mr Wills: Of course we want to do this as quickly as we possibly can but there are all these issues—and integrally tied up with the Green Paper—that bring into play every single Whitehall department, for the reason you say, that they are fundamentally important and affect the way that every department does business—all these issues do. Sadly, Whitehall does not make these decisions in three weeks. You may wish that they did so and others may wish they did so but they do not and often there are very good reasons for taking time and having a proper cross-government deliberation—not just discussion but deliberation—on these profoundly important issues. We need to get it right and there are different views on this issue about what getting it right actually means. There are valid differences of opinion on these matters and they need to be serviced, discussed, deliberated upon and agreed upon within government. All governments operate like this and generally it is prudent for them to do so.

  Q371  Chairman: But three years to make your mind up is an awful long time.

  Mr Wills: With great respect, it is not three years to make our mind up.

  Q372  Chairman: It is since YL.

  Mr Wills: It is since YL, but we have dealt very swiftly with the immediate issues raised by YL. The wider issues, which we have always accepted needed to be dealt with, are complicated. I have just explained in answer to Lord Dubs that originally our plan was that we should incorporate the investigation into the scope of the Human Rights Act into the Green Paper, which is now published; however, in discussions on that we made a judgment that we did not want to put the Human Rights Act into play because we thought that would be destructive to the Human Rights culture in this country and we thought that it would raise unnecessary and unwelcome question marks about the future of the Human Rights Act, which is something we are proud of and we think should be a fixed part of our constitutional arrangements. We do not want that brought into question; that was a judgment we made. When we made that judgment then of course we had to look again at the question of how we best consult on the scope and we have to take into account the interaction with Weaver. The world is not a tidy place, I am afraid, and we have to take account of it and it would be a mistake to get this wrong.

  Q373  Earl of Onslow: Just arising out of that question, Mr Wills, I thought that when the Human Rights Act was passed it was assumed that YL meant not what the courts found it to be, so why do you have to go discuss, discuss, discuss, discuss on something which I thought had been agreed and you thought had been agreed in 1999 when the Human Rights Act was passed?

  Mr Wills: When you go back ten years and ask people what they thought they had agreed sometimes you get different answers. I am certainly quite clear about what I thought I was agreeing to when I voted.

  Q374  Earl of Onslow: So 1999 you did not think—

  Mr Wills: Sorry. People have different views about this and, as I say, there are different views about what the scope of the Human Rights should be—valid views but they just happen to be different. That is the world and we have to try to bring people to common understanding and we need to know exactly the terms on which we are consulting and then we need to consult. But at the moment, as I have explained to you, there have been these two issues that we have had to deal with: one was the scope of the Green Paper, and I have just explained why that was an issue. You may say that we should have drafted the Green Paper more appropriately right from the beginning and that all my colleagues should have agreed with that initial draft. I hold my hand up; I am sorry that we did not, but there it was. Once we had that we then had Weaver and we have to see what the courts say about this. We have to digest the judgment and I think probably you would expect us to reflect on the judgment and then make a decision rather than making a decision without reflection. I hope you would think that.

  Q375  Earl of Onslow: Let us move on. In your submission to this inquiry you say, "Where necessary government departments, after consultation with small businesses and their representatives, should also provide information and guidance on best practice." What guidance and support are departments currently providing and can you give us some examples?

  Ian Lucas: We have a broad policy of supporting small businesses, indeed all businesses, through the corporate responsibility agenda that we have. We want businesses to adhere to the wide guidelines that we see applying not just in the UK but beyond that. So we have, for example, adherence to the OECD guidelines for multinational enterprises and voluntary principles on human rights and security. We have support mechanisms within government to assist business in developing their human rights consciousness, if I can put it that way, so that they perhaps take into consideration matters of dignity, respect and human rights that they might not previously had considered as being within their remit, and we think that that is an important part of their role.

  Q376  Earl of Onslow: How much uptake by small businesses is there of this advice and how actively is it promoted?

  Ian Lucas: I mentioned the 2006 Companies Act earlier on, which is a statutory mechanism for making companies address these issues within the approaches that they have. I think that increasingly businesses are aware that they have corporate responsibilities. Even in the short time that I have been in post I have become aware of the commitment of businesses in discussions with me to their corporate role, and also the perception of their corporate role and responsibilities. It is important that they are seen to do the right thing. As someone who ran a small business myself, I think that one of the most important aspects of any business is reputation within the community in which you operate, and that is true whether it is a town or whether it is a country or whether it is a global reputation. One of the best ways that you can improve your reputation is to show yourself as a company that has consciousness of the environment in which you operate; that does things beyond its normal commercial remit to assist the local community and to be seen to be behaving in that way. I think that brings a commercial benefit as well as doing the right thing, and that is a perfect solution as far as I am concerned.

  Mr Wills: Can I just add a couple of points to that? I think that the CBI also provide guidance in various forms, but part of the scoping research that we are doing as part of the Private Sector and Human Rights Project will actually investigate whether there is a need for further guidance to businesses to better integrate human rights into their businesses. So we are actively looking at this as part of this project.

  Q377  Earl of Onslow: You say, "The government believes that it is good practice for companies to use the Human Rights Act as a framework in their business policies and practices". Could you explain how and any examples of good practice that you might want to give us?

  Ian Lucas: The Human Rights Act sets out fundamental principles that within the UK we would have hoped for a number of years to have been adopted by business. I think it is a useful reference document in terms of identifying the rights that are central to our democratic culture within the UK. It is a useful benchmark, if you like, from which to move forward. We also need to look at ensuring that business takes those rights much further forward and commits to the local area in which they operate. I have very often encountered good practice by business in their local communities working local communities and taking forward individual projects for which they secure great benefit.

  Earl of Onslow: Do you intend to publish the responses to your survey in full in order to allow for more effective scrutiny of its results?

  Q378  Chairman: This is the Ministry of Justice survey.

  Mr Wills: We are still not halfway through this project and I am sure we will publish, but I cannot tell you now until we have finished the project. We will certainly be publishing something and will want it to be as open and as transparent as possible.

  Q379  Earl of Onslow: Has your scoping exercise told you anything new on this so far?

  Mr Wills: Yes. As I say, the conclusions are still emerging but what is clear is that there is the desire and ready engagement with the businesses taking part in this to participate within human rights and, as I said earlier, they do not always articulate it in human rights terms. But what is becoming clear is that this is potentially fertile ground.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 16 December 2009