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UK Foreign Office stakes claim to CSR territory

May 2007

The British government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has produced a CSR strategy that commits it to a greater say on corporate responsibility in the UK and around the world.

The ministry plans to encourage responsible business practice by helping to advance international social and environmental codes of conduct and the implementation of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, with a particular emphasis on British companies operating overseas in the ‘high-impact’ sectors of mining, defence, pharmaceuticals and construction and engineering.

In a speech last month, foreign secretary Margaret Beckett promised that her department, whose role in looking after the UK’s overseas interests includes oversight of trade and investment, would promote CSR abroad.

Although the Foreign Ministry’s work on corporate responsibility will be restricted to overseas markets, the publication of the strategy suggests that the ministry may soon become more influential in the field than the Department of Trade and Industry, where the CSR minister sits. The trade ministry has been virtually silent on corporate responsibility for a year, and lost credibility in the eyes of many in 2006 when the operating and financial reviews regime was dropped from the Companies Act.

A senior CSR practitioner who has worked closely with the Foreign Ministry told EP: ‘While the trade department has become disengaged, the Foreign Office is pushing forward. Frankly, I think they’re now more of a player than the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). This is partly because the DTI tied its mast quite firmly to the European Commission’s efforts, so when the Commission dropped CSR it found itself with nowhere to go. By contrast, the Foreign Office has been engaged with the UN Global Compact, and as that has taken off, so has its engagement with CSR.’

Specifically, ministers are to highlight responsible business issues in speeches and in bilateral dialogues with the G8, and to explore co-operation with the International Business Leaders Forum and other bodies.

At present the ministry’s Sustainable Development and Business Group, which produced the strategy, has one full-time desk officer for policy, but it estimates that the equivalent of a further two full-time staff are working on issues such as sustainable tourism and blood diamonds. By contrast, the DTI has one part-time civil servant working on responsible business issues.

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