Virtue signalling at one’s own expense is tiresome but harmless. Virtue signalling at someone else’s expense is less benign. Virtue signalling by smug politicians seeking a warm glow at someone else’s cost by compelling private businesses to act as enforcers of human rights not only here but throughout the globe is positively noxious. A report last week from Parliament’s Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, headed “Human Rights and Business 2017: Promoting responsibility and ensuring accountability” falls firmly in the last category.
Under the heading “Preventing human rights abuses by businesses”, it proposes – surprise, surprise – more bureaucracy, more licensing and more diversion of management time and resources. Any large company wanting to deal with any public body would have by law to make detailed enquiries into its entire supply chain, to sniff out not only modern slavery, but sins like discrimination and failure to recognise trade unions.
Anyone providing labour to the construction or garment industries would have to be a licensed gangmaster. Local authorities should be given power to close down any premises where employers might be guilty of breaches of employment legislation: in other words, instead of simply remedying the breaches, there should be a policy of forcing employers to be unproductive and to pay their workers to do nothing.
Something even more alarming appears under the anodyne rubric “Access to Justice”. The suggestion here is – wait for it – that every UK company should be guilty of a crime if it fails to take positive steps to ensure the observance of human rights not only by it, but by its overseas subsidiaries, and every organisation in its supply chain; that if it does not anyone affected anywhere should have the right to sue it here; and (apparently, though the wording is unclear) that the UK taxpayer should provide such people with legal aid to enable them to do all this at the public charge.
Of course, this was reported as perfectly logical by papers such as the Independent, not to mention receiving the support of left-wing lawyers specialising in claims of that sort and bien pensant professional bodies like the BMA (who seem to have an obsession with the sourcing of their surgical gloves).
Why it is a crass idea is not difficult to see. It is bad enough to make UK companies liable to criminal prosecution for the acts of third parties. To encourage everyone in the world with a complaint against any subsidiary of, or even a supplier to, a UK company to come here and give them public money to sue with is plain dotty. And can’t you see the smiles on the faces of our competitors? While they get on with running their operations and getting the business, UK companies, in order to satisfy the egos of its over-inflated politicians, are saddled with acting as nanny to the complainants of the world. No wonder we are abandoning traditional exports and turning instead to human rights hot air as our best-known product.
It’s not even that there aren’t other ways of doing this. If those concerned that companies might misbehave, mistreat global workforces, deal with dodgy suppliers, or whatever want to tell us about it, all they have to do is contact the company. Reputable companies will come clean: disreputable ones will say “no comment”. Publish this information and we can make up our own mind what to do with what we see, without an army of bureaucrats breathing down productive businesses’ necks.
How have we got here? Partly it’s personalities. This report bears all the hallmarks of the Committee chairperson, leftist-corporatist warhorse Harriet Harman (though other members of it ought to have known better than to go along with her).
But there is another point: namely, the witnesses who appear before committees of this kind. If you are simply trying to run a business you have something better to do than point out the obvious to the great and the good such as Ms Harman: getting sales matters more than asking how someone three stages down your supply chain in Indonesia treats his trade unions. The list of witnesses before this Committee is telling; cue (among others) one left-wing academic, one Director of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights, another TUC man, and four solicitors specialising in just the sorts of claims that the Committee now wants to encourage.
It would have been nice to have at least one person come along to tell Harriet Harman that, even if she lives in a welfare state which will continue to pay her even when businesses are crashing all about her, the UK doesn’t live in a welfare world. But that, one suspects, is too much to ask.