DTI quizzes firms named by UN over Congo deals

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The Independent Online

The Government is looking into the cases of four British companies named in a critical United Nations report into the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

De Beers, Oryx Natural Resources, Avient Air and Das Air were last month named in the report, which said the companies' activities may wittingly or otherwise have helped to fund the war in the Republic that has claimed the lives of 2.5 million people. The companies deny the claims.

The four were put into "category III" in the UN Report for apparent breaches of business ethics guidelines set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

A Department of Trade and Industry spokeswoman confirmed the ministry "has been in contact with the companies concerned to discuss the panel report and the next steps". The DTI has also written to the UN panel "to request further information and evidence on the allegations".

The DTI said it was "pressing these cases vigorously". Its role was to mediate between the companies and the UN, and if further evidence was provided then it would perform this function. But the spokeswoman added: "If there is evidence of criminal activity [then the] DTI will pass on the details to the [National Criminal Intelligence Service] for further enquiries and possible prosecution."

This represents a significant shift in the DTI's response to the UN report. Earlier this month Stephen Timms, the minister whose remit includes corporate social responsibility, said in answer to a parliamentary question that the UN evidence was "general in content" and the DTI would "have difficulty progressing these cases". Mr Timms added that the Government's role was to "facilitate dialogue" between the UN and the companies. But he pointed out this was difficult because the UN panel disbanded on 31 October, eight days after the publication of its report.

Some MPs believe, following the minister's answer, that the Government is not doing enough to investigate the allegations in the UN report. The Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb said: "It is staggering that the DTI is saying there is little it can do. The UN panel came up with the evidence and the onus is now on the British Government to act." Mr Lamb said he would table questions in Parliament, seek an adjournment debate and write to the Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, about the matter.

Mr Lamb was especially critical of the UN panel for disbanding so soon after publishing its report, which he said was "staggeringly stupid".

The former chairman of the UN panel, the Egyptian ambassador Mahmoud Kassem, said: "I feel comfortable we have done a great job. Once we submitted our recommendations it is up to the [different governments] to decide whether to investigate or ignore them."

The Labour MP Ann Mc-Kechin, vice-chairman of the All Party Group on Great Lakes and Genocide Protection, said: "The Government should be having a more extensive dialogue with the companies to find out what practices are being put in place to tackle abuse."