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Responding department: Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Also available: Response to the UN Working Group survey on implementation of the Guiding Principles.

Has your government taken any initiatives to reduce companies’ negative impacts on human rights that you consider particularly successful?

Yes. The UK Companies Act 2006 sets out the requirement for quoted companies to report on human rights as part of their duty to provide a strategic (non-financial) report on an annual basis where it is necessary for an understanding of the business (section 414C (7)(iii) refers – [link]

This requirement will shortly be strengthened further. The UK has played a leading role in negotiating tough, but practical, EU-wide human rights disclosure requirements which will take effect from 2016 across all EU Member States.  For large listed companies, we will have some of the strongest human rights disclosure requirements in the world.  These requirements are aligned to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

The UK has been a leader in the development of soft law mechanisms to support corporate respect for human rights.  These include the development of professional standards against which Private Security Companies can be certified as they implement the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers (ICoC) and associated oversight by the ICoC Association, and on effective National Contact Points (NCPs) where we have provided international training sessions on promoting guidelines to other NCPs.

In accordance with our Action Plan we continue to work with partners in the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights to strengthen the implementation, effectiveness and membership of the voluntary Principles, including through the UK’s Chairmanship since March.

Guidance to companies on managing human rights risk such as provided by Overseas Business Risk Service.  We have developed guidance for the ICT sector on human rights risks relating to cyber exports. We have worked with the financial sector to support a focus on human rights reporting and transparency for investors, which acts as a multiplier through the economy.  We have supported specific Business and Human Rights projects globally with a focus on implementation of the UN Guiding Principles.

The UK has provided vital support and supported an extensive programme – improving building safety and working conditions, empowering workers and urging buyers to take responsibility for their supply chain.   There has been largely a positive reaction from business and civil society to learn lessons and put in place better systems to protect workers and improve safety.

The Government, led by the Home Office, is working on a draft Action Plan to tackle human trafficking in line with the draft Bill on Anti-Slavery which includes actions to help business ensure slavery is not present in their supply chains.

What department or departments have significant responsibility for business and human rights within your government?

Human Rights & Democracy Department, Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), but the UK Action Plan  on business and human rights  is being implemented across Government  activities with oversight  by a Government Steering Group of approx 10 departments and a smaller Core working Group consisting of FCO, Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), UK Trade and  Industry (UKTI) and  the Department for International Development  (DFID)

Has your government undertaken new business & human rights initiatives or strengthened existing ones since the endorsement of the UN Guiding Principles in June 2011?

Yes

What are the top 5 priority issues that your government has taken steps to address since June 2011?

Types of company impacts prioritised:

  • Health (including environmental health, workplace health & safety)
  • Forced labour & trafficking
  • Discrimination
  • Other core labour rights (including freedom of association & trade union rights)
  • Freedom of expression
  • Operations in conflict zones
  • Women’s rights
  • Migrant workers
  • Other: UK National Contact Point on OECD Guidelines, UK Anti Bribery Act), Signing Extractive Industries Initiative

The UK Action  Plan of 2013 has been our key initiative since 2011 and  is the overarching framework for all our work on business and human rights issues both in the UK and overseas which covers all the listed areas above.  But a key area of focus has been introducing human rights reporting requirements with an amendment to the Company Act and addressing issues relating to forced labour and trafficking and exploitation of vulnerable groups such as migrant workers and has culminated in the Modern Slavery Bill currently being debated in Parliament which includes measures to ensure modern slavery is not present in supply chains. UK priority policies have also include Women’s rights (DFID work, Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative), Safety (eg Fire Accord in Bangladesh), Freedom of Expression, Business in conflict zones eg Voluntary Principles, ICoCA for  PSCs etc.

Actions on health

Health & safety; worker’s rights throughout supply chain: The UK has provided vital support and supported an extensive programme – improving building safety and working conditions, empowering workers and urging buyers to take responsibility for their supply chain. There has been largely a positive reaction from business and civil society to learn lessons and put in place better systems to protect workers and improve safety.

Actions on forced labour & trafficking

Forced labour: The Government, led by the Home Office, is working on a draft Action Plan to tackle human trafficking in line with the draft Bill on Anti-Slavery which includes actions to help business ensure slavery is not present in their supply chains.

For your priority issue of 'Operations in conflict zones' please give examples of steps your government has taken.

Abuses linked to security for company operations; Operations in conflict zones: The UK has been a leader in the development of soft law mechanisms to support corporate respect for human rights.  These include the development of professional standards against which Private Security Companies can be certified as they implement the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers (ICoC) and associated oversight by the ICoC Association, and on effective National Contact Points (NCPs) where we have provided international training sessions on promoting guidelines to other NCPs.

In accordance with our Action Plan we continue to work with partners in the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights to strengthen the implementation, effectiveness and membership of the voluntary Principles, including through the UK’s Chairmanship since March.

Other actions

Reporting: The UK Companies Act 2006 sets out the requirement for quoted companies to report on human rights as part of their duty to provide a strategic (non-financial) report on an annual basis where it is necessary for an understanding of the business (section 414C (7)(iii) refers – [link]

This requirement will shortly be strengthened further. The UK has played a leading role in negotiating tough, but practical, EU-wide human rights disclosure requirements which will take effect from 2016 across all EU Member States.  For large listed companies, we will have some of the strongest human rights disclosure requirements in the world.  These requirements are aligned to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

Guidance to companies: Guidance to companies on managing human rights risk such as provided by Overseas Business Risk Service. We have developed guidance for the ICT sector on human rights risks relating to cyber exports. We have worked with the financial sector to support a focus on human rights reporting and transparency for investors, which acts as a multiplier through the economy. We have supported specific Business and Human Rights projects globally with a focus on implementation of the UN Guiding Principles.

Has your government adopted a National Action Plan on business and human rights as encouraged by the UN Human Rights Council and UN Working Group on business & human rights, or will it do so in the future?

Yes.  The UK Action Plan ‘Good Business - implementing the UN Guiding Principles” was launched in September 2013 by the Foreign Secretary and Business Minister.  We are committed to review it in 2015 and report on progress in the Annual FCO Human Rights Report.

If your government has adopted a National Action Plan or is planning on adopting one, please highlight whether it makes reference to international human rights standards and whether it was developed in consultation with affected stakeholders.

The UK Action Plan was developed with affected stakeholders and across government. This also  includes the negotiation and agreement of the OECD 2012 Common Approaches, including a requirement for Export Credit Agencies (ECAs) to take into account not only potential environmental impacts but also social impacts, which is defined to include “relevant adverse project-related human rights impacts.  “The OECD 2012 Common Approaches” also require ECAs to “consider any statements or reports made publicly available by their National Contact Points (NCPs) at the conclusion of a specific instance procedure under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.”  UKEF, which is the UK’s Export Credit Agency applies the OECD 2012 Common Approaches

Access to remedy: What steps have been taken to develop new judicial or administrative remedies or to reduce barriers to existing remedies for victims?

The UK is subject to international human rights obligations under customary international law and as a result of the international legal instruments we have signed and ratified.  

The UK has specific laws protecting human rights and governing business activities.  As with all UK law, these are set out in legislation or sometimes protected by common law rules which, taken together, ensure certain rights and liberties. Like all States we need to continually re-assess whether the current mix is right, what gaps there might be and what improvements we can make.  The UK has ratified a series of international treaties and agreements.  It has also created or endorsed a number of instruments that motivate different aspects of good corporate behaviour and respect for human rights, including: the UK Bribery Act, the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, Revision of Section 172 of the Company Act 2006. The Government also exercises controls on the export of ‘strategic’ goods and technology through the export licensing system.

There are mechanisms for the provision of legal aid, facilitating access to the court system in England and Wales through the Legal Aid Agency; Scotland, through the Scottish Legal Aid board; and Northern Ireland, through the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

In order to access legal aid for civil matters, including alleged business-related human rights abuses, a person’s income and capital must be within specified limits (means test) and their case needs to have a reasonable chance of winning (merits test).  

In England and Wales, the matter must also be within the scope of the legal aid scheme, as set out in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO).  Legal aid can be granted in some circumstances where a case is excluded from the scope of the civil legal aid scheme, but where failure to provide legal aid would breach the applicant’s rights under the European Convention on Human Rights or EU law (or in the light of the risk of a breach, it is appropriate to provide legal aid).

Access to remedy: What steps have been taken to develop new non-judicial remedies, improve existing mechanisms, and reduce barriers for victims?

The UK’s framework of legislation and range of remedy mechanisms are diverse, including apologies, restitution, rehabilitation, financial and non-financial compensation and punitive sanctions, as well as prevention of harm through injunctions or guarantees of non-repetition.   The UK’s own provision of judicial remedy options are an important element in the remedy mix.  Non-judicial grievance mechanisms based on engagement between the parties involved are also an important option.  

The UK provides support for non-judicial grievance mechanisms.  It maintains a National Contact Point (NCP) for the OECD Guidelines.  The UK NCP publishes and circulates to Parliament and other stakeholders (eg UK Export Finance) its Final Statements on complaint, and so there is a reputational incentive for enterprises to participate, as well as the potential to resolve issues through mediation supported by the NCP.  

The Government encourages companies to review their existing grievance procedures to ensure they are fair, transparent, understandable, well-publicised and accessible by all, and provide for grievances to be resolved effectively without fear of victimization.  It is also important for businesses to require similar good practice of their supply chains, especially in areas where abuses of rights have been identified.

Access to remedy: For companies headquartered in your country or their subsidiaries, has your government taken steps to enhance accountability for human rights impacts abroad?

Many criminal offences in UK law are capable of being committed by companies.  These criminal offences cover conduct which could amount to a ‘human rights abuse’ depending on how that term is defined.  For example, we have a statutory corporate manslaughter offence and there have certainly been successful prosecutions of companies for a range of offences which might be seen as amounting to human rights abuses.

Which factors impede your government’s ability to take action on business and human rights?

Significant factor:

  • Lack of understanding or awareness of business & human rights in government

Minor factor:

  • Coordination across government departments
  • Lack of resources for enforcement, monitoring and prosecution
  • Opposition or lack of consensus within government
  • Political limitations imposed by foreign governments or multilateral institutions
  • Concern about deterring foreign investment

Not a factor:

  • Opposition by economic interest groups or business associations
  • Other opposition by influential people or groups outside government

What, if any, form of support would your government welcome the most to help advance its actions to improve companies’ impacts on human rights?

Sharing knowledge and collaborative learning, from other countries.  More case studies of what  has worked from Governments and Businesses, particularly on access to remedy.

Please share with us any further comments, including ideas for future collaboration and shared learning to advance business & human rights.

More shared information on Business and Human Rights to inform future priorities for  future activity, more opportunies to engage at events, meetings, conferences  etc. (including webinairs etc.) with practical follow up action and outcomes. Evidence based research about key issues and challenges in different country contexts consulting all key stakeholders, training opportunities,  sharing information of lessons learned and case studies. Looking at non-judicial  provision of access to remedy.