2017 Partners’ Meeting: Brexit & Corporate Accountability

More than 40 NGO representatives from our partner organisations joined CORE board members and staff at the beginning of the year for our Annual Partners’ Meeting.

This blog summarises Deborah Doane’s and Dr. Jennifer Zerk’s presentation of the findings from their short study into the implications of Brexit for corporate accountability, commissioned by CORE.

The first phase of the project had summarised the potential impacts on a range of areas, with the following five identified as priorities for CORE.

Trade and Investment

The need to recalibrate trade arrangements will have knock-on effects on other areas, such as  environmental protection and workers’ rights. As well as defending existing standards, civil society campaign could focus on new opportunities to bring about trade justice and improved corporate accountability, for example by calling for trade deals to properly embed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Environment

Since the 1970s, there have been more 400 pieces of EU environmental legislation covering pollution, air quality, water quality, use of toxic chemicals, preservation of habitats, waste management, noise, environmental assessment and renewables.  Many of these seek to regulate corporate standards and practices. 

Future participation of UK companies in EU wide CO2 emissions trading schemes is now uncertain.  Regimes requiring companies to monitor and report on environmental risks may also be at risk, although in the field of corporate transparency it is worth noting that the UK government has to date been a leader within the EU rather than a follower.

Workers’ Rights

Responsibility for workers’ rights rests with national governments, however the EU seeks to set minimum standards. The EU is considered to have strengthened worker protection through instruments such as the agency workers’ directive and the working time directive.  In some areas, the UK has been a positive force for workers’ rights, for example by introducing modern slavery legislation and controls on gangmasters. It has also been a leader within the EU with respect to equality legislation.

There are risks that as the UK aims to expand its trading relationships outside the EU, it could seek to water down standards both at home, while failing to uphold them abroad. Brexit’s impact on the value of the pound also poses a threat to workers overseas, as costs and jobs are cut.

Access to Remedy

People who have suffered harm as a result of business activities need to be able to seek legal remedies through the courts. All States have a legal duty to ensure access to remedy as part of their duties to protect human rights. Following Brexit, there is a risk that access to justice by claimants in cross-border cases could become even more complex and expensive than it is currently. 

Lawyers and legislators have expressed serious concerns about the post-Brexit legal environment for various issues, including business-related human rights claims, arguing that the government has thus far failed to consider these issues in any great depth. The Great Repeal Bill will be the first opportunity to scrutinise some of these issues, including the status of ECJ decisions on UK legal jurisprudence.

The Great Repeal Bill

The Great Repeal Bill , due to be included in the next Queen’s Speech is expected to roll over EU legislation into UK law.

The government has indicated that it intends to confer powers onto Ministers to make further adjustments to legal regimes over time. These “Henry VIII” powers would allow Ministers to repeal Acts of Parliament by executive order.

Depending on how the bill is drafted it could have significant impact on corporate accountability, with  Ministers vulnerable to  pressure from corporate lobbyists seeking to water down social and environmental protections.     

While these risks have been identified by CORE and discussed with our coalition members, there is also an opening to use this upcoming period of change and transition to engage government and parliamentarians on these topics. More on this project to come – the complete report will be available on CORE’s website.