Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Core is back in town – and ready for a new challenge

May 2009

The Corporate Responsibility Coalition has returned to focus on a new campaign for a UK government commission on business and human rights. EP talks to its coordinator

When the CSR world last caught sight of the Corporate Responsibility Coalition (Core), it was embroiled in the confusing late stages of the UK’s Company Law Bill, which had promised a new dawn for business responsibility in Britain but turned into a damp squib.

Core, an alliance of prominent NGOs founded in 2000, still claims the light-touch regulation on reporting that emerged from the Company Law Act was a triumph for its long campaigning in the field. But plenty of others viewed the result as something of a failure.

While the Act was at one time shaping up to make significant requirements on listed companies in terms of their reporting on CSR issues, in the end concessions wrung from the government by the Confederation of British Industry left businesses to report on such matters only briefly in their annual reviews and then, essentially, if they so wished.

Whether this was a failure or not on Core’s behalf, the body is now back, and sailing on a different tack. Its next campaign will focus instead on business and human rights, and specifically on the need for a UK-government commission that can monitor the behaviour of British companies abroad.

Although the campaign is still in the early stages of planning, and there is no launch date in mind, Core has begun to consult on just what the commission should do, how it should function, and importantly, how Core can gain the support of business for the concept.

Hannah Ellis, coordinator of Core, says this time round the organization wants to make sure it gets business leaders on board. ‘With the Company Law campaign we had quite a lot of silent business support, but none in public, and with the benefit of hindsight we approached business far too late,’ she tells EP. ‘What we’re hoping to do on this campaign is to work with business people from an earlier stage, to get them to tell us what they want, to help us make this a reality – and to be more publicly supportive.’

So far Core has been sounding out its heartland supporters in the NGO world about the idea of a commission, but it will be going out to CSR practitioners and business leaders too. That may not sit easily with some of the CSR-sceptic organizations on Core’s steering committee – such as War on Want and Christian Aid – but Ellis points out that other bodies that helped found Core  – such as WWF and Oxfam – ‘are known for their willingness to work directly with companies’.

While she concedes that the debate around the Company Law Act became polarized between supporters of the mandatory and voluntary approaches, Ellis believes attitudes have changed over the past few years – partly down to the long debate that has been raging about the idea of a set of UN norms on human rights.

‘The talk over the norms became polarised too, but it has shifted a lot since then, and people from all sides are aware that in many ways it’s a false debate – that of course there is a need for both approaches. John Ruggie [UN special representative on business and human rights] has managed to de-polarise that debate and I think we can take advantage of that.’

Ellis is hopeful that many businesses will support Core’s push for a government commission on business and human rights in the hope that it will level the playing field for all companies and punish errant firms that give their peers a bad name. ‘It would help leadership companies to ensure that the laggards don’t get away with it,’ she says.

Core’s idea is that the commission would be mandated to ensure that UK companies adhere to internationally agreed standards, and, where it finds UK companies in breach it could issue penalties to firms and potentially provide remediation and reparation for victims. ‘But it would also have a role in providing UK businesses with information and clarity in terms of what is expected of them in overseas operations,’ says Ellis.

Core feels the commission would not negate the option of legal action against UK companies that are misbehaving abroad, but would provide a more streamlined, less expensive way for victims of abuses to seek recompense and for businesses to defend their actions. And it expects to draw on Ruggie’s nascent work on redress for victims as it builds up its campaign.

‘All of this we need to develop over the next year, and we need to do our homework in terms of what the commission will look like and how it will function,’ says Ellis. ‘We want to reach out to CSR practitioners and business leaders, who we feel should be interested in getting behind us and helping us work out the next steps.’

While there are details to be decided, and a campaign then to be run, Core thinks it’s possible that a commission, if conceded by the government, could be up and running by 2013. If it manages to fulfil that aim, then it’s unlikely anyone will be accusing it of failure this time round.

Corporate Responsibility Coalition | UK & NI Ireland | Human rights

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