In 2013, the UK Government was one of the first globally to commit to a national action plan regarding implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs).
The UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has recently published the results of its inquiry into business and human rights and the progress made by the UK Government in implementing the UNGPs.
The Report, titled Human Rights and Business 2017: Promoting responsibility and ensuring accountability, is based on oral and written evidence gathered from individuals, organisations and businesses across various industries. It highlights a number of weaknesses in the Government’s progress to date and calls for more action to be taken.
The Committee’s recommendations to the Government on topics such as further business and human rights legislation and improving access to justice provide an interesting insight into possible future developments in this field. We will have to wait and see if or how the findings in the Report prompt the Government to take action. For now, a summary of some of the Committee’s key findings are set out below.
The UK Government’s approach to human rights and business: Whilst the Government’s leadership in implementing a National Action Plan (NAP) is acknowledged, the UK NAP’s “modest scope and lack of new commitments” is criticised and the Committee calls for wider consultation on updates to the NAP, more specific and ambitious targets and measures to evaluate those targets.
Public sector procurement: The Report notes the Government must lead by example in ensuring commitment to human rights in its own procurement supply chains. It suggests that the Government should exclude from all public sector contracts “companies that have not undertaken appropriate and effective human rights due diligence” and “companies that have been found to have been responsible for abuses” whether by a court, a NCP or where a settlement indicates there have been human rights abuses.
Greater transparency on businesses’ efforts to prevent human rights abuses: The Committee notes there are shortcomings in the Modern Slavery Act and it urges the Government to facilitate the passage of Baroness Young of Hornsey’s Modern Slavery (Transparency in Supply Chains) Bill. Recommendations are also made to the Government to bring forward legislative proposals to make reporting on due diligence for all other relevant human rights (i.e. beyond modern slavery) compulsory for large businesses. The report refers to various corporate disclosure regimes worldwide, including the new French duty of vigilance law (see our post on the new French law here).
Access to justice: The Report notes the Government’s approach to human rights is weakest in this area. In particular, the UK National Contact Point is “largely invisible” and the Committee asks the Government to address its concerns, including a lack of resources, “as a matter of urgency”. The Report refers to evidence heard on obstacles to the access of remedies for victims of human rights abuses by companies, especially where an abuse is alleged to have occurred overseas, including challenges in accessing legal aid and the high cost of litigation. .
A duty to prevent: The Committee recommends the Government introduces a corporate offence of failure to prevent human rights abuses for all companies, including parent companies, along the lines of the relevant provisions of the Bribery Act 2010. The use of the failure to prevent model of corporate liability is currently a hot topic. The Ministry of Justice has recently conducted a call for evidence as part of a consultation on corporate criminal liability for economic crimes, which includes proposals to use the ‘failure to prevent’ model to hold companies liable for offences such as fraud and money laundering. The Committee urges the Ministry of Justice to extend the scope of that consultation to other offences, for example the use of child labour.
We will continue to monitor any developments in light of the Committee’s inquiry and will report on further developments on the Freshfields Global Business and Human Rights Blog.