Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


The head gardener may have gone, but the CSR plot still needs tending

June 2010

Now that the UK’s CSR minister post has been swept away by the new coalition government (see page one), it’s time to admit that the job was on its last legs anyway. It suited the corporate responsibility profession – as well as the departed Labour administration – to pretend there was still life in the role. But in reality it had been withering on the vine for years.

Given this state of affairs, abolition of the post is arguably not a meaningful move. Even at its height, the role of CSR minister was neither major nor well defined, and those who held the position had other briefs that took their attention. Some of the later incumbents barely gave it the time of day – and by the end, most people found it hard even to recall who was in possession.

Yet in the hands of the first three holders, Kim Howells, Douglas Alexander and Stephen Timms, the office did amount to something. Created by Tony Blair on the recommendation of a Treasury policy report, it sent a clear message to the business world that government felt CSR was important, and that it might be prepared to back up its words with actions. Howells, Alexander and Timms regularly spoke at business meetings, praising leaders in the field and scolding the laggards in roughly equal measure. Timms even established the CSR Academy in an effort to provide a training and education framework for the emerging profession.

While all of this represented very light-touch government, free of regulation, the presence of a CSR minister did push business to move down the route of more responsible behaviour. It made a difference, and was one reason the UK came to be viewed as a world leader in corporate responsibility.

The new government may say that just as CSR should be integrated throughout companies, so it should be integrated across government departments. There is merit in this argument, but even companies where corporate responsibility is thus embedded have a unit overseeing things from the core. The risk is that CSR will get lost without a minister in situ.

The need for someone to be in charge looks even greater in view of the explicit commitment in the coalition’s programme for government to ‘investigate further ways of improving corporate accountability and transparency’ and to ‘reinstate an Operating and Financial Review to ensure that directors’ social and environmental duties have to be covered in company reporting’. That requirement was dumped by Labour at the last hour in 2005. Who is going to organize its revival now?

The government needs time to settle in, but we will soon want to see evidence that it will fulfil its pledge. Labour had already left the CSR plot virtually untended; it would be a shame if the coalition allows weeds to flourish.

Peter Mason | UK & NI Ireland | Government role


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