Opinion: public contracts should not go to companies linked to human rights abuses

I recently spoke in Canterbury against the Conservative City Council’s decision to consider giving its waste handling contract to a company whose Israeli affiliate are alleged to be linked to human rights abuses in Palestine.

The Council is refusing to consider the ethical issues on the basis of an interpretation of European law that prohibits taking such matters into account. The correct interpretation of the law is disputed but members of the public formed the distinct impression that the Conservative Council would place no weight on the matters even if the law permitted them do.

The argument for not giving a public contract to a company that profits from abuse of human rights, even on the far side of the world, is that it strongly encourages them to behave better. Most people in Britain do not want services and goods that are tainted by the suffering of others.

Even if the correct interpretation of the law is that ethical matters cannot be considered, then that is the beginning rather than an end of political questions. The law should be changed to allow the abuse of human rights by a company (or its affiliates) to be considered before public contracts are given to them.

We should campaign, at local, Westminster and European levels, for the law to allow refusal on ethical grounds.

The full text of my brief speech at the Canterbury meeting is here.

* Antony Hook was a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England (2019) and has practised as a barrister since 2003. He is currently Leader of the Liberal Democrat Group on Kent County Council.

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13 Comments

  • Richard Dean 17th Oct '12 - 9:15am

    To do this ethically, there would need to be democratically agreed criteria in place to define what “linked to” means, and to determine what verification standards are needed to justify barring a company from contracts.

    For example, paragraph 1, says that a company is alleged to have an affiliate who does bad things.. Is “alleged” sufficient proof? Is “affiliated to” sufficient connection?

  • ‘alleged to be linked’ is enough to damn, is it?
    So, so, obviously wrong.

  • Richard Dean 17th Oct '12 - 10:31am

    Ok, so I’m a competitor in the bidding process, and I drop a friendly hint to a local newspaper that my rival is affiliated to a company in Taiwan that is affilliated to a company in Brazil that employs slave labour in Timbuktoo. Result, the council considers the newspaper report of allegations very seriously, doesn’t know where this story is going, definitely deoesn’t want to end up being pilloried, and so awards me the contract.

    Is that what LibDems think of as “fair”?

  • Richard Dean 17th Oct '12 - 10:46am

    Reasonable councils? Hmm. Never heard of any unreasonableones?

    If they don’t take my fabricated story seriously, I’ll fabricate some more stories and hound them out of office. If they do take it seriously, my rival will sue them for corruption.

    That is why the standards of evidence need to be defined in law, rather than made up on the spot by “reasonable” councillors.

  • Richard Dean 17th Oct '12 - 11:54am

    I am very glad that you are not proposing anything more drastic. I feel reassured that I can continue with my planned fraudulent activity without taking special extra precautions. Thanks!

  • Proof not allegation or it should not be considered.

  • Richard Dean 17th Oct '12 - 8:09pm

    A possible solution is provided in the first comment above!

  • Richard Dean 18th Oct '12 - 1:07am

    I wonder if that might actually be a rather bad principle? It seems to suggest that the council will have the right, if it so wishes, to ignore a bidder’s complicity in human rights abuses. Maybe the principle should have mandatory effect?

    But to establish such a principle will certainly require developing definitions of what “complicit” means, and what “human rights abuses” are. Some abuses are worse than others – ar minor abuses ok? Different people have different views on what human rights are – do they include employment rights? What about cultural or simply economic differences? Would you exclude a company whose foreign affiliate employs children who are younger than can be legally employed in the UK, but who are vital breadwinners in a 3rd world nation?

    What too of time limitations? Is the present company to be penalized by an affiliate whose behavuour of five years ago you disapprove of? ten years? How will a company that used to behave badly but now doesn’t get forgiven?

    I agree that the general idea is worthwhile – and the Bribery Act kind of gives the lead – but in implementation will require a whole host of issues need to be addressed. Doing it informally, as it were, may well lead to unwanted unintended consequences, IMHO.

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