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A disappointment... and a glimmer of hope

May 27, 2016 - Mary Milne, Traidcraft Campaigns Manager

Five months after it was promised, with as little fanfare as they could manage, the government finally published the updated National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights on 12 May.

If you have the time and inclination to read it, here it is. It pretty much reiterates the original Action Plan from 2013. To give credit where it is due, it’s good to read that the government believes that ‘respect for human rights should be at the heart of a company’s core operations’. But under the ‘third pillar’ of access to remedy for people who have been harmed by British businesses, there is very little that’s new. The best that we could find was a commitment to keep the UK provision of remedy under review.

Despite the hundreds of Traidcraft supporters who sent emails, wrote letters and even visited their MPs on this topic, there is no mention of strengthening the law to hold British businesses to account for their actions abroad. Perhaps the best way to describe the plan is ‘underwhelming’.

But although we are disappointed, at Traidcraft we are not losing heart and we would not want you to either.

One reason is that on the same day that the updated National Action Plan was released, another announcement was made, with potentially greater impact.

Linked with the high-profile Anti-Corruption Summit, David Cameron wrote in the Guardian newspaper:

‘In the UK, in addition to prosecuting companies that fail to prevent bribery and tax evasion, we will consult on extending the criminal offence of ‘failure to prevent’ to other economic crimes such as fraud and money laundering so that firms are properly held to account for criminal activity that takes place within them.’

Firms are properly held to account for criminal activity that takes place within them’ – now that’s much more what we want to hear. We’ve been pointing out for some time that the law needs to be updated so that companies can be prosecuted for failing to prevent abuse or exploitation abroad.

Economic crimes like fraud and money laundering might sound a long way from the kind of things we’ve been talking about – people turned out of their homes to make way for a plantation or a mine, or subjected to dangerous pollution. But in reality they are not so very different.

The things that drive companies to cut corners and prioritise the bottom line over the needs of local people and workers are exactly the same things which lead them to let staff get away with falsifying records, paying backhanders or siphoning profits through a tax haven. 

This consultation is a glimmer, just a glimmer, of hope. If we can use it to make the case that new legislation needs to cover direct personal harms to individuals and communities, then we will have taken a big step forward.

The fact that Cameron announced the consultation in a comment piece on the day of his Anti-Corruption Summit suggests that he has been looking to get some positive PR from this. But the risk is that once the media circus has moved on, ministers will then use this process as an excuse to quietly drop the issue.

So, this is our plan for the next few months.

Firstly, we’ll be working with others behind the scenes to gather evidence to submit to the consultation, showing how economic crimes (fraud and so on) are often part of a wider picture of corporate malpractice including exploitation and abuse of workers and local communities.

Secondly, we’ll be trying to make us much noise as we can about the consultation on the outside. We can’t let the government quietly drop or delay this one!

This summer the whole of Traidcraft is shouting loud and clear about why justice matters to us, and we’re collecting signatures on our Justice Matters petition. It’s a chance to get many more people involved in the campaign.

So please, if you haven’t already, sign the petition.

If you are able to collect signatures from other people in your church or local community, then check out our resources.

And if you’ve got any creative ideas to help us plan how to make a big noise around the consultation over the next few months, please let us know.