A matter of respect

Simon Haskel on the best approach for the UK to ‘build back better’

“The UK must be the leading force for good in the world”, said the Prime Minister. Where better to demonstrate this than in the trade agreements we are negotiating with other countries. No part of the world is going to escape climate change and so it makes sense to reflect this in our deals. 120 nations countries are committed to zero carbon by 2050 – and it is the law in the UK. Green policies are seen to be the largest area of growth for employment and investment showing good returns. The time to demonstrate our commitment is now before we host next year’s Climate Summit.

An essential part of being a force for good in the world is maintaining human rights. This particularly applies to trade deals where it is easy to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of workers. The ‘Fair Trade’ scheme is a long-standing effort to preserve human rights in the supply chain and international business. The Covid-19 pandemic is a sharp reminder of how such exploitation can become a health hazard for us all, with a home-grown example in Leicester. Sanctions against individuals on a case by case basis is welcome but it is no substitute for national agreements.

In many places around the world, employees are challenging the social purpose of the companies for whom they work. Three hundred major US corporations acknowledged this in 2019, as did a thousand European companies earlier this year. Moreover, many of our well-established finance sector businesses have recognised the improvements in productivity and profitability emanating from environmental and social governance. 

Over the long run, the profitable thing and the right thing are usually the same. As a result, many firms and organisations now publish their External Rate of Return. This explains in some detail the social impact of their business on the local economy, their supply chain, the environment, and their customers. The UK’s own development bank is ending its support for polluting fossil fuel projects. 

By declaring that human rights and environmental standards will be protected in post-Brexit trade agreements, the government would be in step with growing public opinion. But it would also head off concerns about the Trade Bill – currently stuck at Commons Report stage. Many MPs and Peers, along with human rights and environmental NGOs, are worried that Parliament will not have the opportunity to debate and vote on these deals, with decisions taken in secrecy.

We are told that this is because of the ongoing negotiations with the EU. But a simple ‘yes’ from the Minister in answer to my question in the House of Lords on Tuesday would help reassure people that our values will not be sacrificed as part of the deal. Especially now that the deadline for extending the Brexit transition period has passed.

Last week, Boris Johnson promised that we would “build back better”. Here is another slogan to do that: Respect Nature. Respect People. We will only build back better if we respect what nature is telling us about the environment and then act accordingly. And we will only build back better if we listen to what people are telling us about the polarization of our society and economy then act to put that right. We should be doing both in our trade negotiations.

Lord Simon Haskel is a Labour Peer. He tweets @Simon_Haskel

Published 13th July 2020

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