Commercial Organisations and Public Authorities Duty (Human Rights and Environment) Bill [HL] Debate

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Department: Department for Business and Trade
Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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My Lords, I refer to my declaration of interests, not least that I spend much of my life working with firms to help them deliver the kinds of things that are in this Bill. I must underline the fact that very large numbers of great companies want legislation of this kind, because otherwise they are undermined by people who do not take these things seriously.

However, I would not fail to support the Bill even if they did not want it, because it seems to me that there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong. This is right. It is not proper for rich people to live off poor people, or to use exploitation as a means of improving their own lives. Therefore, for me, this is the kind of Bill we in this House ought to be supporting and pressing.

Secondly, I say to the Minister that I hope he realises we will want an answer on whether the legislation now going through Parliament—which restricts the ability of public authorities to invest and procure, with these matters in mind—is going to have an exception to make sure that at least we do not make the situation worse. I am seriously concerned about that. I think it is likely that the present legislation will make the whole system much worse. That is why I feel very strongly we should support the Bill. The situation in Britain is not getting better. At this moment, we are actually legislating to restrict the proper decisions of public bodies in the way they procure and invest. So I hope my noble friend the Minister will confirm that the Bill will exclude matters of human rights so that we do not find ourselves worsening the situation.

Thirdly, I rise to point out that we are now in a community of nations which is beginning to understand the responsibility of the rich to the poor and it would be very peculiar if Britain were behind the others. We did not “take back control” in order to get worse. We would have been better had we not “taken back control”, because it turns out that that is the opposite of what has happened. But, having done so, to then make our standards worse than those of our fellows in the European Union would surely be a terrible denial of our duties.

Fourthly, I believe that this is the moment to say to the world that we are no longer going to live off others. We are going to live with others and help them to solve the global problems that are now our common problems. I refer particularly to climate change, which the noble Baroness mentioned. Things are going to get worse because of climate change; we need the legislation now, because of climate change.

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Lord Offord of Garvel Portrait Lord Offord of Garvel (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for that point. I think that proves the point that there is complexity here. We have a very wide matrix of businesses in this country, which need to be legislated on quite separately. That is not what is currently in the Bill.

As I was saying, there is also the issue of suppliers in the developing nations having to provide data to developed nations. I saw that myself in Colombia and Bolivia recently, in the context of discussions on climate change and sustainable development.

The Bill would also impose an obligation to conduct reasonable due diligence, with Clause 3(3) listing a series of contextual factors that are relevant when determining what can be considered “reasonable”. As drafted, this list means that companies would find it incredibly difficult to know whether they have complied with the Bill. In practice, the application of the term “reasonable” could be debated in the courts for years, leading to an unsatisfactory situation in which companies within the Bill’s scope face significant legal uncertainty. When combined with the fact that criminal offences and substantial fines rest on this term, this undermines the goals the noble Baroness seeks to achieve, as it may incentivise well-run but risk-averse companies to terminate commercial relationships entirely rather than seek to remediate issues when they find them.

Clause 8(1) would introduce civil liability for businesses that fail to prevent human rights abuses or environmental harms in their operations, subsidiaries or value chains. The Bill attempts to give businesses grounds for defence where they have conducted due diligence, but I am concerned that this provision, when applied in practice, would shift legal responsibility to UK companies, with cases being introduced against UK companies in UK courts in the first instance. It would be preferable for claims against individuals and companies that are directly responsible for harms to be brought in the jurisdiction in which they occur.

Lord Deben Portrait Lord Deben (Con)
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The reason for that, of course, is that the jurisdictions we are talking about are very often complicit in what happens. Therefore, if cases cannot be brought here, they will not be brought at all. Surely, Britain ought to be the place where you can stand up for what is right.