Hope for reform, and remedy? External reviewers visit the UK NCP

Louise Eldridge, CORE Policy and Communications Officer

Last week, CORE Coalition along with our partner organisations Amnesty International UK and RAID were interviewed as part of the peer review of the UK’s National Contact Point (NCP) 

What is the UK NCP and why does it matter?

You’d be forgiven for not having heard of the UK’s National Contact Point (NCP). Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) last year reported that the NCP as it currently functions is “largely invisible.” So what exactly is the NCP – and just how important is it? 

The NCP is the mechanism by which individual countries assess and enforce the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The Guidelines are a set of (non-binding) principles and standards for responsible business conduct, which 34 OECD countries (including the UK), along with 12 other countries, have committed to upholding. They include specific standards on human rights and the environment.  

The NCP’s crucial role is to raise awareness of the Guidelines and handle complaints against companies who breach them. 

What is the peer review process?

In June 2015, G7 leaders called for NCPs to be strengthened in order to improve access to remedy for people harmed by companies’ human rights violations. Following this, a process of voluntary reviews was instigated to assess how individual NCPs are working, with the aim of having them function in an accessible, transparent and accountable manner. 

The peer review of the UK NCP (based in the Department for International Trade) took place this week. The reviews are conducted by representatives of other NCPs who interview national stakeholders including NGOS, trade unions and business representatives. The report from the peer review will make recommendations to the UK NCP on how it can better fulfil its mandate.  

Flagship or failure?

The UK NCP was reformed in 2008 following criticism of its handling of allegations of misconduct by British companies operating in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Following these reforms, the UK enjoyed a reputation as being one of the best performing NCPs, but this began to change in 2012. A 2016 report by Amnesty International UK explored the NCP’s performance in the preceding four years, and found substantive failings in how the NCP deals with complaints against UK multinationals.  

The report found that out of 25 complaints related to serious human rights abuses including mass evictions, access to clean water and forced labour, 15 were rejected at the initial assessment stage, with almost all of the others only partially accepted. The main reason was that at the initial stage, complainants were required to prove every aspect of their complaint and to substantiate links between the company’s activities, its obligations under the Guidelines and the allegations.  

But while complainants were asked to provide very specific evidence, the NCP was content to accept general information from companies as evidence of responsible conduct. Amnesty found that the NCP took a “cautious” and “inconsistent” approach with companies. Part of the problem, Amnesty found, was that NCP staff did not have expertise in human rights.  

Some of Amnesty’s concerns were echoed in a 2017 report by the UK Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) which “urge(d) the Government to address concerns about the NCP as a matter of urgency.”  

Calls for change

The Amnesty report makes a series of detailed recommendations for reform of the NCP’s structure, including: incorporating a panel of independent experts on business, human rights and the environment to undertake initial assessments, investigations and determinations of complaints; reforming the steering board to ensure its independence from vested interests (this was echoed by the JCHR); and giving the steering board the task of handling complaints, rather than NCP staff. 

Both the JCHR and Amnesty noted that the UK NCP needs adequate staff resources to handle complaints and that NCP staff should have expertise in business and human rights. Increased resourcing and raising the NCP’s profile would help the NCP be seen “as a viable mechanism for victims to gain access justice in a non-legal forum,” according to the JCHR. 

Amnesty also set out proposals for reforming NCP procedures, including that the NCP should no longer ask complainants to provide detailed evidence at the initial assessment stage. Amnesty also recommended that the NCP should consider potential future impacts of companies’ activities when deciding whether the Guidelines have been breached. Most importantly of all, a company found to be in breach of the Guidelines should face consequences in keeping with the gravity of their abuses, such as removal of access to export credits and exclusion from bidding for public contracts.  

The steering board was reconstituted following an internal review in 2017, however, most of the  recommendations have, so far, not been actioned by the UK Government.  

What’s next?

The peer review was a useful opportunity for civil society to reiterate our concerns about how the NCP is working and to re-emphasise that change is necessary to ensure the NCP fulfils its role as a means for victims of corporate human rights abuse to access remedy. The reviewers’ report will be published in 2019.