UK BIS Department review of corporate responsibility fizzles out in non-report

by 28th Oct 2014
UK BIS Department review of corporate responsibility fizzles out in non-report © Cyril le Tourneur d'Ison / CARE

Last year the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) announced that it was launching a consultation on corporate responsibility, with the promise that "We intend to publish a framework for action on corporate responsibility by the end of 2013." After a long period of silence, the Department finally published a report in April 2014. It seems to have slipped under most people's radar – perhaps because it's nothing to shout about...

If the report came out in April, why am I only commenting on it now? Well, frankly it seems to have come out so quietly that I knew nothing about it until I recently wondered what had happened to the consultation and went to have a look on the BIS Dept website. After some digging, I found the report.

A major disappointment

It is a major disappointment when set against the original promise: it contains no action plan, and instead only contains some of the comments the Department received as part of the consultation and a couple of examples of good practice.

The original Call for Views in June 2013 said: "We intend to publish a framework for action on corporate responsibility.... This will set out what the UK's vision, ambitions and priorities are in respect of corporate responsibility and the actions Government, business and wider society will need to take in order to get there."

Optimistic of good news

For those of us interested in Corporate Responsibility in areas such as global value chains, this looked like it might be good news. So CARE International UK and apparently 151 other groups or individuals submitted responses. (Ours is here.)

And my optimism was raised when, last December, I was invited to a meeting where (according to the trailer email) "Jo Swinson, the Minister for Employee Relations and Consumer Affairs, will be launching the Government's Framework for Action on Corporate Responsibility. This Framework aims to set out the Government's approach towards working with business and civil society on corporate responsibility and its intent to raise the bar on what can be achieved for the benefit of business and society."

However, while Jo Swinson was indeed at the meeting, there was no report, no Framework and no raising of the bar.

Published at last

In April, during Responsible Business Week, the Department finally published the consultation review. The Summary acknowledges that "Businesses increasingly see that responsible business is not only good for society but can deliver bottom-line business benefits in terms of: staff recruitment and retention; managing risk in supply chains; driving innovation and productivity; and opening up new markets." So it is a significant disappointment that the only commitment from the Department is that "The responses... will inform future Government action."

Missed opportunity

This is a serious missed opportunity. My impression from the meetings I attended, and from the general tone of debate with businesses interested in sustainability and corporate responsibility, is that a more joined-up stance across the myriad government departments to which corporate responsibility is relevant (BIS, DFID, DEFRA etc) would be valuable.

And as I pointed out in my previous blog, the UN Global Compact CEO Sustainability Survey report specifically highlighted CEOs' frustration at short termism. So for BIS even just to catch up with prevailing corporate sentiment, there is a need to revise the responsibilities of Directors within the Companies Acts to allow them to pay due regard to broad social and environmental requirements, and to pursue policies to promote a longer-term view on investments.

It appears, however, that we are all going to have to wait a bit longer for BIS to catch up.

Gerry Boyle

I lead CARE International UK’s policy analysis and advocacy around value chains and dignified work. I originally joined CARE as the Senior Policy Adviser on Private Sector Engagement. With the advent of our new Global Programme Strategy which put a particular emphasis on women’s economic empowerment, my focus changed a little, although I still work extensively with issues in the private sector and with CARE’s corporate partners.

Until recently I spent a lot of my time on financial inclusion, now looked after by my colleague Fiona Jarden. I also co-chair the Bond Private Sector Working Group.  Immediately before I joined CARE I worked for Oxfam as Head of Business Relations for about three years, but the vast majority of my career was spent as a management consultant including being a consulting Partner at Deloitte, where for a time I led Deloitte UK’s Consumer Business consulting practice, serving many major multinationals. My original degree was in Law from Oxford University, and in 2008 when I left Deloitte I did an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy at LSE.

One good thing I've read

Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom. It provides a framework for many people’s modern understanding of what is development, based on a profoundly human-centred approach rather than anything instrumental. And to check whether one personally is doing enough to fight poverty, I recommend Peter Singer’s The life you can save: Acting now to end world poverty – it’s very clear and easy to read but very challenging! Finally, Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: Rich nations, poor policies, and the threat to the developing world is a very readable guide to economic development which argues strongly against many of the prevailing orthodoxies.

Email: boyle@careinternational.org

Twitter: @gerryboyle10