Human rights protections in UK post-Brexit trade and investment agreements

Yesterday, I spoke at a UK Parliamentary inquiry into how the UK could protect human rights in its post-Brexit treaties with other countries. Much of the focus was on international trade and investment agreements. Below you can see my opening thoughts on this issue. I argue that the rhetoric of human rights protections in such treaties globally is sadly not often matched by the reality of what they achieve in practice. The UK has the opportunity to set the bar much higher.

But there are grounds for concern that human rights issues are currently being mariginalised within trade and investment law-making processes. When Lord Ahmad, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office later addressed the Committee, he gave the impression that human rights were not an important part of the discussions when the UK was agreeing its first post-Brexit trade deal with Israel earlier the same day (see 1 hr 16 minutes onwards in the full video below).

You can view the full hearing here and my full written evidence to the Committee is available here.

The 2018 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights: Improved, but due diligence discussions still a cause for concern

The 2018 UN Forum on Business and Human Rights: Improved, but due diligence discussions still a cause for concern

Since I wrote a rather scathing article about the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in 2016, there has been a significant change in tone in the last two fora. And that is to be applauded.

This year, there were more panels where the problems and deficiencies of the UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights (UNGPs) were discussed. As highlighted in the final plenary by Dante Pesce, Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, governments need to do much, much more to support the UNGPs if they are going to have a significant impact on the human rights situation of workers and communities affected by business activity. 

Another improvement in this year’s forum was that there were more sessions where business representatives, trade unions and civil society activists discussed concrete human rights problems, and strategies for overcoming them. For instance, I learnt a great deal from a session on approaches to tackling the problems of vulnerable workers in supply chains (from campaigns on the exploitation of eastern European truck drivers to addressing the abuses of migrant labour in the Italian tomato industry).

There were also more sessions where the human rights performance of business was actively scrutinised. On several panels, business representatives sat alongside civil society representatives and academics and responded to criticism. 

But sadly, I still had a sense of widespread doubts about whether any of this will lead to real change in practice. Some of this reflects the difficult times we live in. Delegates who I encountered seemed downbeat about governments taking meaningful action in the face of so many other political crises. Others were skeptical that businesses would embrace the UN’s human rights agenda in a way that would lead to real change.

I share these concerns. At the same time, I think it is still important to look at where change could happen. Much of the focus of this year’s forum was on the commitment contained in the UNGPs for companies to carry out human rights due diligence. HRDD is central to business’ responsibility to respect human rights. It is therefore the cornerstone of the UNGPs. And I have written before in this blog about the fundamental problems with current practice.  

The UN Working Group have themselves identified the fact that there are many challenges in terms of getting companies to undertake meaningful HRDD. But I left the forum wondering whether proponents of HRDD are focusing on the right issues to make the situation better. There still seems to be an obsession with benchmarks (the problems of which i have discussed previously) and the importance of making the ‘business case’ for HRDD.

I stand by my previous argument that without transparent reporting on HRDD, there will be no progress. But at this year’s forum i was also stuck by another problem. It highlighted to me the increasing numbers of consultants who are employed by companies to undertake their HRDD, and the opaque and often difficult relationships they have with their paymasters.

At a session where i spoke, organised by Kendyl Salcito from Nomogaia, questions were raised about the relationships between consultants and businesses. When HRDD is undertaken by an outside consultancy this gives credibility and a perception of independence to the process. But can consultants perform robust and meaningful HRDD when companies hold most of the power in the relationship? How often are unreasonable demands made about the work that should be carried out and the resources required to do it? Can consultants demonstrate their own independence if they can’t publish their work? And when they come up with uncomfortable findings which the company isn’t expecting, what can they do to ensure those findings are acted upon?   

I wonder if it is time for more progressive consultants to come together and commit to a set of standards required for HRDD to be considered legitimate. This must include their right to publish the results of their work. Such standards would lend legitimacy to a group who are currently bearing much of the responsibility for ensuring the UNGPs are a worthwhile endeavour.              

The UK Trade Bill ‘Rollover’ Fallacy

I attended a really interesting Trade Bill Briefing Session in the House of Lords today – in the same room I sat in as a young researcher 20 years ago fearfully presenting my ideas for an independent police complaints system to the great and the good. I was a lot more relaxed today! But at the same time a lot more depressed by current parliamentary process than I was 20 years ago. Let me briefly explain why.

In today’s session, Amnesty International UK, Liberty, the TUC and Traidcraft presented their perspectives on the Trade Bill that is going through Parliament. I have posted before on my concerns about the Trade Bill. These were reinforced by the presentations I heard today. From the dangers of the Bill taking extensive law-making powers from Parliament and granting Ministers the ability to amend primary legislation for a range of broadly defined reasons, to the lack of any kind of scrutiny of the human rights and development impacts of future trade agreements, to the dangers of erosion of workers’ rights as a result of future trade deals, the discussants presented a compelling picture of critical potential problems with future UK trade policy that the Trade Bill fails to address.

As various House of Lords peers told us, one of the key problems with suggesting amendments to the Bill to include consideration of these issues, is that the trade Bill is presented in very narrow terms. All it does is ‘roll over’ existing EU trade agreements into UK law. There is, therefore, no need to create a comprehensive trade policy framework at this stage. That can all be done later when the UK government signs new trade deals.

Lots of reasons were given for why this is not a ‘rollover’. But it is difficult to convince MPs to take it seriously because it all gets very technical very quickly. One very clear example of the rollover fallacy that struck me as I was listening to the discussions is the fact that every trade agreement is a ‘living instrument’ with its own committees, groups and other bodies to implement it.

Take the Trade and Sustainable Development Chapters of all recent EU trade agreements. Each chapter has a set of institutions including a joint governmental committee and domestic advisory groups made up of civil society representatives which work on sustainable development issues in relation to the agreement. How do you simply ‘roll over’ these committee structures? Impossible. The EU won’t let the UK government borrow theirs.

The UK government will instead have to create them afresh for its ‘rollover’ trade deals. It will have to decide who will be selected to sit on these bodies, how they will function etc. And before you know it, you are creating a framework for how UK trade policy operates, which will then, surely, be carried over into new agreements that the UK signs. This should all be done within a pre-existing trade policy framework, which should be set out now in the Trade Bill now passing through Parliament.


The UK Trade Bill: More Scrutiny and Accountability Required

Next week the second reading of the UK Government’s Trade Bill will take place in the UK Parliament. This will be an opportunity for MPs to enter into serious debate about an issue that will be much discussed in 2018 – how should the UK formulate its post-Brexit trade policy?

The Trade Bill has been widely criticised for being published only a day after a consultation had ended. Its “disappointingly brief” contents include proposals for how the UK will implement 40 existing EU trade agreements once it leaves the EU and the establishment of a new independent UK body, the Trade Remedies Authority, to defend UK businesses against unfair trade practices.

But for a country that has not had a trade policy for 40 years, it is alarmingly silent on how government will negotiate new trade agreements. There is nothing in the Trade Bill which sets out a process of public or parliamentary scrutiny of future UK trade policy, nor individual trade agreements which the UK government seeks to sign. Nor is their any process identified for how the potential impacts of any future trade deals will be evaluated. Campaigning organisations have been demanding that proper accountability and scrutiny mechanisms are included within the Bill.

This is not just a technical dry piece of legislation. It seeks to take important steps towards a future UK trade policy, and frames the issues which the government sees as important priorities within that policy. MPs should be demanding in the debates next week that fundamental principles of accountability for, and scrutiny of trade policy are included within the Bill’s remit.


Taking Labour rights seriously in future UK Trade Policy: Protect,Promote, Empower

In June and July, everything became a little hectic for me and this blog became rather inactive. Just the odd bit of tumbleweed blowing through! One of the reasons for this was that I was busy on a project looking at how labour rights might be protected in future UK trade policy. There were lots of questions we were asking…

Could any UK’s future trade deal with the EU be used to ensure that the UK retains strong protection of labour rights once it leaves the EU?  Could future UK trade agreements with the EU and other countries seek to effectively tackle labour abuses in global supply chains? Do we need to worry that future UK trade agreements might themselves undermine labour rights, and if so, what should be done about that? And plenty of other questions besides.

Myself and my colleagues on the ‘Working Beyond the Border‘ project held a policy seminar in London on 4 July. And we presented a colourful policy brief (Front cover below) where we considered the above questions. And we produced a working paper where we analysed them in more detail (try the policy brief first, if you want more move on to the working paper!). We came up with a set of principles to help future about trade and labour linkage – Protect,Promote, Empower. I also produced blogs for the LSE and Touchstone. So if you are interested, you now have links to all of that in one place. Do get in touch if you’d like to talk more about anything you read…


Talking trade agreements and workers’ rights – A TJM Podcast


Recently the Trade Justice Movement recorded me in conversation with Paul Keenlyside from TJM talking about trade agreements and workers’ rights. Paul asked me:

  • What do we mean when we talk about workers’ rights?
  • What are the threats posed to those rights by trade agreements?
  • How do the EU and US seek to protect workers’ rights and are those protections adequate?
  • What could the UK do in future trade agreements to better protect workers’ rights?

You can hear my answers as part of the TJM podcast series. 

Beyond the Foodbank?

Last week saw the launch of part 2 of Lacuna’s ‘Beyond the Foodbank?’ edition about food poverty in Britain and responses to the problem. Lewis Smith and myself curated it. We were seeking to explore the increasingly complex web of initiatives and organisations that are trying to tackle the problem of hunger in the United Kingdom.

In Looking Beyond the Food Bank, Lewis interviewed Simon Shaw who works for Sustain, an “alliance for better food and farming”. Sustain campaigns to improve the fairness and sustainability of the food system for both producers and consumers. Simon leads Sustain’s work on food poverty. Here, he talks about Sustain’s wide-ranging work, including a recent project which encourages local authorities in London to step up and play a more active role in tackling food poverty. Simon argues that by supporting initiatives such as children’s centres, meals on wheels and Healthy Start (a voucher scheme supporting families on low incomes to access fresh fruit and veg), local authorities can offer a more effective response to food poverty than food banks.

Lewis and Simon also discuss some of the different community-led approaches to food poverty that have emerged recently, and talk more broadly about issues of choice, healthy eating, rights, and the need for a proper measure of food poverty to be introduced in the UK.

One of the initiatives that Simon talks about is Community Shop. And in Gin and Skinned Rabbits, Gary Stott and Clara Widdison from Community Shop tell us more about their organisation. They explain how it operates to “bring surplus food to families in deprived communities, selling it at deeply discounted rates and reinvesting the profit into individual and community development”.

Gary and Clara also look at how food culture in Britain has changed within living memory, and argue that these changes are also a part of the story of food poverty in Britain. They explain how, in response, Community Shop seeks to build communities around food, by growing, cooking and then eating food together. Their hope is for a world where food is no longer “a symbol of anxiety and financial hardship, but instead becomes representative of all that is good in life”.

In our final piece, Wendy Eades talks about an aspect of food poverty that perhaps causes more anxiety than any other; the holiday hunger that affects millions of children across the UK. She recounts her own local efforts to tackle the issue by setting up a MakeLunch kitchen in a school in Coventry. The scheme was a success. But it came to an end. Her own experiences led Wendy to think about the effects of holiday hunger for children up and down the country, and how we can respond better to tackle this issue in the future.

Wendy concludes by questioning whether this is a problem that can be left to voluntary initiatives alone. And this leads her to ask, just as Simon Shaw does, what the role of government should be in tackling the hunger issue. Should government be doing more to measure the extent of food poverty in the UK, to understand its root causes, and to support initiatives which provide solutions? And can invoking a “right to food” help us to hold our government and public authorities more accountable for the hunger affecting their citizens?

The first part of our Beyond the Food Bank edition led to a number of people getting in touch to say they would like to contribute to future discussions in Lacuna Magazine about food aid and food poverty. We will continue to explore these themes, by investigating the issues that are causing hunger and the range of organisations and campaigns that are trying to address these problems in different ways. And we will look beyond the UK to experience in other countries. So if you would like to join the conversation please do get in touch.