New UK Environment Bill could lead to greater human rights due diligence

In a comment piece for Ethical Corporation Michael Pollitt argues that amendments to the UK Environment Bill could plug the current implementation gaps in the Modern Slavery Act.

A new clause tabled for addition to the Environment Bill would force the government to publish legislation within six months imposing a duty on corporations to identify and address all environmental and human rights risks associated with their operations.

The amendment, put forward by MPs Kerry McCarthy and Alex Sobel, would apply to specified entities in the commercial, financial and public sectors. Affected organisations would be required to prevent any adverse risks, or mitigate them where prevention is not possible, so that any environmental and human rights impacts become “negligible”.

The amendment’s ultimate aim is to ensure all goods on the UK market are sustainable, traceable and do not cause adverse environmental and human rights impacts.

Like previous efforts to force businesses into assessing their supply chains for human rights abuse, the new legislation would include a duty for companies to report publicly on their overall strategy and resulting actions taken.

However, the specification that the new law should include effective and deterrent sanctions for those businesses who fail to comply, suggests there is an intention to ensure this law succeeds where precursor human rights legislation has failed.

While the UK’s Modern Slavery Act was billed as something of a headliner, it has since played second fiddle to equivalent legislation introduced by other countries, including France, Germany and the Netherlands.

While the coronavirus is clearly placing enormous pressures on companies, protecting vulnerable groups from further damage will be a critical part of the solution. Many companies are already undertaking risk-mapping exercises, either part of their response to Covid-19 or as part of their ongoing work to identify their salient human rights and environmental risks.

This looks set to become a requirement of UK law, requiring a robust, systematic and in-depth approach. The benefits however, will be greater certainty that abuse and reputational risk are not around the corner.

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