“(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office must conduct an impact assessment of this Act's impact on the United Kingdom's trade and diplomatic relations with the following countries—
(d) Central African Republic;
(g) Democratic People's Republic of Korea;
(h) Democratic Republic of the Congo;
(q) Myanmar (Burma);
(s) Occupied Palestinian Territories;
(v) Saudi Arabia;
(x) South Sudan;
(y) Sri Lanka;
(2) The Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office must produce a report on the outcome of the impact assessment.
(3) The report mentioned in subsection (2) must be laid before Parliament as soon as reasonably practicable after the impact assessment has been conducted.”—(Chris Stephens.)
This new clause would require the Government to undertake an assessment of the impact of the Act on the UK's trade and diplomatic relations with the countries identified by the FCDO as human rights priority countries.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Economic impact assessment for Wales—
New clause 3—Assessment of the impact of the Act on the provision of food compliant with religious dietary beliefs and on the prevention of discrimination—
“Within six months of the passage of this Act, a Minister of the Crown must lay before Parliament a statement on their assessment of the impact of the Act on—
(a) the procurement of food meeting religious dietary beliefs, and
(b) the prevention of discrimination on grounds of religion or belief.”
Amendment 12, in clause 1, page 1, line 4, at end insert—
“(1A) But subsection (2) does not have effect in relation to a decision which falls within the competency of Senedd Cymru unless Senedd Cymru has passed a resolution granting its consent to the application of that subsection to such decisions.”
This amendment would require the consent of Senedd Cymru for the Bill to apply to decisions within the sphere of Welsh devolved legislative competence.
Amendment 26, page 1, line 5, leave out
“must not have regard to a territorial consideration” and insert “must not act”.
This amendment, and Amendment 27, would remove the reference to a “territorial consideration” in the legislation.
Amendment 36, page 1, line 6, leave out from “would” to “was” in line 7, and insert “is”.
This amendment is to probe the use of a subjective, rather than an objective, test to establish whether a decision-maker has contravened clause 1.
Amendment 35, page 1, line 6, leave out from “that” to “influenced” in line 7 and insert “is”.
This amendment is to probe the use of a subjective, rather than an objective, test to establish whether a decision-maker has contravened clause 1.
Amendment 27, page 1, line 9, leave out subsection (3).
This amendment, and Amendment 26, would remove the reference to a “territorial consideration” in the legislation.
Amendment 37, page 1, leave out lines 20 to 22.
This amendment is to probe the impact of the legislation on individuals, such as those working within public authorities.
Amendment 34, in clause 2, page 2, line 4, at end insert—
“(1A) But section 1 does not apply to decisions of Scottish Ministers.”
This amendment would remove decisions of Scottish Ministers from the scope of the Bill.
Amendment 14, in clause 3, page 2, line 17, leave out subsections (2) and (3).
This amendment would remove provisions allowing Ministers to amend the Schedule, via regulations, to add a description of decision or consideration, or amend or remove considerations added under previous regulations.
Amendment 18, page 2, line 28, leave out paragraph (b).
This amendment, and Amendments 19 and 20, seek to remove Scotland from the extent of this Bill.
Amendment 13, page 2, line 40, at end insert—
“(4A) Section 1 does not apply to a decision which has been made in accordance with a Statement of Policy Relating to Human Rights.
(4B) A Statement of Policy Relating to Human Rights—
(a) is a public authority’s policy criteria relating to disinvestment in cases concerning contravention of human rights; and
(b) must be applied consistently by the public authority to all foreign countries.
(4C) Within 60 days of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish, and lay before Parliament, guidance on the form, content and application of Statements for the purposes of this section
(4D) Public authorities must have regard to the guidance referenced in subsection (4C) when devising a Statement.”
This amendment would exempt public bodies from the prohibition in section 1, where the decision has been made in accordance with a Statement of Policy Relating to Human Rights. A Statement may not single out individual nations, but would have to be applied consistently, and in accordance with guidance published by the Secretary of State.
Amendment 7, page 3, line 7, leave out subsection (7).
This amendment would remove the prohibition on the Government specifying Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories or the Occupied Golan Heights as a country or territory to which the prohibition on boycotts does not apply, meaning they are treated just as all other countries and territories.
Amendment 21, page 3, line 11, leave out paragraphs (b) and (c).
This amendment would remove the existing stipulation that the power to exempt a country or territory from section 1 may not be used in respect of the Occupied Palestinian Territories or the Occupied Golan Heights.
Amendment 2, page 3, line 13, leave out clause 4.
Amendment 3, in clause 4, page 3, line 18, leave out paragraph (b).
This amendment would remove the prohibition on a person publishing a statement indicating that they would have acted in a way prohibited by clause 1 if it were legal to do so.
Amendment 16, page 3, line 24, at end insert—
“(4) This section does not apply to—
(a) a local authority,
(b) an elected mayor of a local authority
(c) a mayor for the area of a combined authority,
(d) the Mayor of London,
(e) the London Assembly
(f) the Scottish Parliament, or
(g) Senedd Cymru.”
This amendment would exempt elected bodies from the prohibition on making public statements indicating that they intend to, or would intend to if it were lawful, act in a way that would contravene section 1.
Amendment 28, page 3, line 24, at end insert—
“(4) Nothing in this section requires any act or omission that conflicts with the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Human Rights Act 1998.”
This amendment would ensure that any act or omission under the “gagging clause” in clause 4 would not conflict with the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), in particular, Article 10 (right to freedom of expression) and Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) of the ECHR as incorporated by the HRA.
Amendment 29, in clause 7, page 5, line 8, leave out “, or is about to make”.
This amendment, together with Amendments 30 to 33, would remove the ability of information notices and compliance notices to be given to public bodies prior to an actual contravention of the ban.
Amendment 30, page 5, line 12, leave out “, or is likely to contravene”.
See explanatory statement to Amendment 29.
Amendment 31, page 5, line 15, leave out “, or is about to publish,”.
See explanatory statement to Amendment 29.
Amendment 32, page 5, line 18, leave out “, or is likely to contravene,”.
See explanatory statement to Amendment 29.
Amendment 38, page 5, line 39, leave out from “legislation” to the end of line 41.
This amendment is to probe the way the legislation appears to “qualify” the data protection legislation.
Amendment 33, in clause 8, page 6, line 6, leave out “, or is likely to contravene”.
See explanatory statement to Amendment 29.
Amendment 4, in clause 12, page 8, line 4, at end insert—
“(1A) But section 1 does not apply in relation to a fund investment decision made by such a manager if the decision has been approved by a majority of those voting in a ballot of the members of the fund; and section 4 does not apply to any statement—
(a) made for the purpose of preparing for or explaining the purpose of such a ballot;
(b) concerning a decision which has been approved by such a ballot.”
This amendment would allow a local government pension fund to act in a way prohibited by clause 1 if the decision to do so is approved by a majority of scheme members, and would prevent statements about or following such a ballot being prohibited by clause 4.
Amendment 19, in clause 17, page 10, line 38, leave out “Scotland”.
See explanatory statement for Amendment 18.
Amendment 20, page 11, line 19, leave out “Scotland”.
See explanatory statement for Amendment 18.
Amendment 5, in the schedule, page 12, line 21, at end insert—
“3A Section 1 does not apply to—
(a) a registered higher education provider in England, as defined by section 3(10) of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017;
(b) an institution within the higher education sector in Wales, as defined by section 91 of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992;
(c) an institution within the higher education sector in Scotland, as defined by section 56 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 1992;
(d) a higher education institution in Northern Ireland, as defined by article 30 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1993.”
This amendment would remove universities and other higher education providers from the requirement to act in accordance with clause 1.
Amendment 6, page 13, line 5, at end insert—
“6A Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as it relates to conduct which it is the position of His Majesty’s Government represents a breach of international law.”
This amendment would permit decisions which would otherwise be in breach of clause 1 if they are taken in response to conduct which the Government considers to be a breach of international law.
Amendment 17, page 13, line 5, at end insert—
“6A Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as the purpose of the decision is to prevent violations of international law including the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, the imposition of collective punishment on civilian populations, forced transfer of civilians, and other acts which may constitute war crimes.”
Amendment 22, page 13, line 5, at end insert—
“(2) Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as the decision-maker reasonably considers it relevant to whether the decision (or anything done further to it) would give financial, economic, or other reward to a party that has engaged in breaching international law, where that breach of international law is directly related to the decision.”
This amendment would expand the environmental grounds on which a public body is allowed to make certain economic decisions.
Amendment 9, page 15, line 26, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert—
“(a) reduces the level of environmental protection, including in a country or territory other than the United Kingdom, or
(b) caused, or had the potential to cause, harm to the natural environment, including the life and health of—
(i) plants, wild animals and other living organisms,
(ii) their habitats, or
(iii) land (except buildings or other structures), air and water, and the natural systems, cycles and processes through which they interact.”
This amendment extends the definition of environment misconduct to include damage regardless of whether it is legal or illegal, and to include species, habitats and the natural world.
Amendment 10, page 15, line 29, at end insert “and the welfare of animals”
This amendment would add conduct causing, or having the potential to cause, significant harm to the welfare of animals to the types of conduct which constitute environmental misconduct and to which regard may therefore be had without contravening section 1.
Amendment 11, page 15, line 29, at end insert—
“(4) The conduct referenced in sub-paragraph (3) includes conduct which amounts to—
(a) an offence under section 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 or 13 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and
(b) an infringement or contravention of any of the requirements or prohibitions in Schedule 1 of the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing Regulations 2015.”
This amendment would clarify the meaning of “welfare of animals” for the purpose of Amendment 10.
Amendment 15, page 15, line 29, at end insert—
“11 Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as it relates to the use of fossil fuels.”
This amendment would allow for a public body to consider the use of fossil fuels when taking certain economic decisions.
Amendment 23, page 15, line 29, at end insert—
“11 Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as the decision-maker reasonably considers it relevant to whether the decision (or anything done further to it) would give financial, economic, or other reward to a party that has engaged in the crime of genocide as determined under international law, where that crime of genocide is directly related to the decision.”
Amendment 24, page 15, line 29, at end insert—
“11 Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as the decision-maker reasonably considers it relevant to whether the decision (or anything done further to it) would give financial, economic, or other reward to a party that has engaged in the crime of ethnic cleansing as determined under international law, where that ethnic cleansing is directly related to the decision.”
Amendment 25, page 15, line 29, at end insert—
“11 Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as the decision-maker reasonably considers it relevant to whether the decision (or anything done further to it) would give financial, economic, or other reward to a party that has engaged in the crime of apartheid as determined under international law, where that crime of apartheid is directly related to the decision.”
I call Anum Qaisar.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I forgive you for that after your excellent address to the all-party parliamentary group on Cyprus last night; it was an excellent event.
I rise to speak to the amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend Ms Qaisar. I indicate now that I will be looking to divide the House on amendment 28, to which I will confine most of my remarks. However, many in this House are deeply disappointed at what the Government are doing in proceeding with this Bill. As Layla Moran said on Monday,
“now is not the time.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 738, c. 611.]
Let me say at the outset that we all condemn the killing of innocent civilians. We do condemn Hamas and their acts of terror on
There are vastly more people around these islands who are perplexed by the Government’s playing party political games when the middle east is in crisis and the rest of the world fears the start of an even broader conflict. This is not the time to seek electoral advantage through tripping up political opponents during semantic exchanges, exploiting small differences in language to pretend there is a vast gulf between positions, or selling that to the electorate as “one party good, all other parties bad.”
I commend the hon. Gentleman on the way he is making his comments. Does he agree that it is positively dangerous to do what this Government are doing when we see the huge rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia? Just now, our communities need us in Parliament to be showing a lead and to be united on this, and not to do something that is so divisive and so deliberately provocative and deeply damaging to the unity of our communities.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention, and I hope that those on the Government Benches listened to her. Many of us have that real fear. This is not the occasion to push forward this legislation. Polarisation is a game that has long been played by the Government, but this is not a game; this is real life, or the loss of it, and such cynicism has no place here. In Israel and Palestine, we have two peoples who feel that they are under existential threat from the other. Almost everyone understands that, and we have all been trying to find solutions that will bring peace to that region. Ringfencing the interests of one group by diminishing the rights of the other can never yield a long-term solution to the entrenched problems in the middle east; it simply exacerbates the tension between the two. The very real fear, which the hon. Member has just expressed, is that it forces people into one camp or the other, it feeds hatred and it fuels the evil that is antisemitism.
It is not too late to withdraw the Bill. If the Government are determined to proceed with it, I hope they listen to the advice from both sides of the House, in particular from Government Back Benchers, and amend the clauses that will otherwise further inflame the divisions that the Government claim they are trying to heal. As with most conflicts, verbal and military, there tends to be collateral damage that has either not been fully anticipated or where the perpetrator simply does not care about the consequences. In their assumed aim of defending the rights of Israel, the Government are attacking the rights of many sectors of our own society, ranging from the legislative and judicial rights of the devolved Parliaments to the democratic rights of elected local authorities, and cutting a swathe through the individual human rights of all people across these islands.
In its long title, the Bill is described as:
“A Bill to make provision to prevent public bodies from being influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign states when taking certain economic decisions”.
It would appear that public bodies are not fit to make political or moral judgments and, as we will see later, individuals are not fit to make such judgments either. As I said in an earlier debate, the electorate will not miss the irony of a Tory Government presenting themselves as the sole moral arbiter for the whole of these islands.
The pretext for introducing this legislation was an assumed need to respond robustly to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement—or BDS—which advocates a complete boycott of Israel and Israeli people and which suggests that the state of Israel does not even have the right to exist. The Government ignore the fact that, in line with other Governments in Europe and the EU itself, the Scottish Government and the SNP unequivocally condemn and distance themselves from members or affiliates within the BDS movement. Rather than wish the state of Israel to cease to exist, most democratic countries are strong supporters of a two-state solution, with the Government reasserting that position to the House earlier this year, and President Biden reaffirming support only last week. We as a House are generally united in supporting a two-state solution, and to imply otherwise is a red herring and a dangerous distraction to mature debate.
More than 40 Israeli non-governmental organisations have called for this Bill to be rejected, as has the Union of Jewish Students and Yachad, with the latter saying that
“we are unequivocal about the need to protect the right to express differences of opinions, even if they are opinions that we fiercely disagree with”.
Let us listen to them. On the broader issue of human rights at home, let us listen to some other organisations. Amnesty International asserts that the Bill
“would make it almost impossible for public bodies to use their procurement and investment policies to incentivise ethical business conduct that is human rights compliant.”
But we knew that already. Amnesty goes on to say:
“Companies depending on public contracts will feel more confident that their global impacts on human rights and the environment will be irrelevant to their success in tendering processes.”
I see this Bill as a clear incitement to such companies to lessen their commitments to human rights and the environment, as they will no longer need them to gain public contracts. Companies that respect human rights face being undercut by those that knowingly breach international standards with little fear of consequences. What a horrible race to the bottom.
There is a niggling problem here for the Government regarding human rights. There is a global consensus on the human rights standards applicable to companies. The United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council, the European Union, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Standards Organisation. The UK was the first country to develop a national action plan to implement those guiding principles, and now we appear to be the first country to renege on those commitments.
The UK is in danger of being a rogue state in this field, going against the tide of international opinion, which considers that public bodies should use procurement and investment policies to incentivise business to be ethical and human rights compliant. I would argue that is in the public interest. Let us consider an example from Amnesty, whereby an NHS body might choose to avoid sourcing medical equipment from certain suppliers, such as Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan or Mexico, saying that they had been implicated in modern slavery. Those overseas supply companies could take legal action under this legislation on the grounds that the decision makers were influenced by
“political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”,
and the courts would then have to determine whether the exemption in the Bill for labour-related misconduct applied in that particular case.
Let us imagine that a public body in Scotland decided to stop sourcing beef from a Brazilian meat distribution company whose products had been linked to deforestation of the Amazon. If the proposed law had been in place during the previous Brazil presidency, when exploitation of the Amazon was being actively encouraged, the Brazilian Government or the company whose products were being excluded could have challenged the decision in the High Court on the grounds that it was influenced by
“political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.
Since it is unclear whether the environmental misconduct exemption referred to in part 2 of the schedule to the Bill would prevail, the risk attached would have been likely to deter any public body from taking such a decision on environmental grounds. They would have been compelled to be complicit in deforestation.
Liberty and other groups have pointed out that the Bill gives the enforcement authority the power to issue a notice to a public authority requesting an assessment of whether there has, or may be, a breach of the ban or the prohibition on making statements. The Bill gives the enforcement authority the power to impose a compliance notice where they consider a person is likely to contravene the ban—not “has contravened”, but “is likely to contravene”. We are in the realms of Orwell’s thought police or Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report”, with precogs catching criminals before they have even committed the crime. The normal police come for someone if they commit a criminal act, but the thought police are different; they act if someone intends to act in some particular way.
Under the Bill, the authorities do not need to demonstrate any proof of intent to publish a particular kind of statement. That is impossible to do in the normal world, so let us just rely on telepathy for finding out someone’s intent. Clause 4 of the Bill would prohibit public bodies and their leaders—such as university vice-chancellors, local council leaders, or even the chief executive of a private company delivering public services—from publishing public statements indicating that they intend to act in a way that would contravene the ban, or that they would, in theory, intend to act that way if not for the ban. A local council could no longer publish statements such as, “Our local council would have boycotted these goods from this state-owned enterprise due to the state’s conduct in relation to this territory, but the law does not permit this, and we intend to comply with the law.” I never expected to say these words, as someone who subscribes to socialist theory, but: we must remove clause 4. I say that just on this occasion. I notice that an amendment to that effect has been tabled.
Liberty has also pointed out that in other jurisdictions, anti-boycott laws have had a severe impact on freedom of expression. In one case in the US, a speech pathologist in Texas lost her school contract because she declined to sign an agreement promising not to boycott Israel on the basis of a similar anti-boycott law. In another, a dermatologist was withheld payment for a lecture for failing to agree not to boycott Israel. US campaigners have further warned that anti-boycott legislation, once enacted, is liable to be extended to a plethora of issues—from fossil fuels to gun control. I fear we are looking at another damaging cultural import from the United States of America.
Following the earlier Scottish example, let us look more broadly at the consequences of the Bill for Scotland and the UK’s other devolved Governments. COP26 was held in Glasgow, and there has now been a watering down of the Government’s climate commitments, but Scotland remains committed to combatting climate change. In fact, the Governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are all attempting to use the leverage of public procurement to incentivise companies to behave sustainably with regard to human rights, fairness, labour rights and the environment. Those policies will clearly be undermined by the Bill, despite investment and procurement being devolved to all three Parliaments.
My hon. Friend is correct that they should. I suspect they will not receive it from either the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Senedd, for many reasons. As he says, there is clearly an impact on devolution.
Devolution was approved overwhelmingly by the people of Scotland, and any erosion of it is strongly opposed by most, but not all, parties in that Parliament. I will let Members guess which party is least protective of Scotland’s interests. Scotland’s current legislative powers are guarded jealously, and there is strong demand for many—possibly all—reserved powers to be transferred to Scottish control. That is not surprising.
I and others will continue to explore the Bill’s deficiencies again today, pointing out its many contradictions.
I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his excellent speech. He has given very good democratic, social and moral reasons for why the Bill is in deep defect. Does he not think a better process would be for the Secretary of State now to withdraw the Bill altogether?
That would be very helpful indeed. The right hon. Gentleman is right. Those of us who have tabled amendments are trying to clean up a dog’s breakfast, which is very difficult. We are all trying to make the Bill a little better but, as my good friend says, the ultimate solution would be to withdraw it entirely.
I have highlighted the Bill’s contradictions, counter-productiveness and profound consequences, and I will be seeking to divide the House on amendment 28. I look forward to hearing other Members pursue their amendments.
I would like to speak against all the amendments and new clauses before us today and in support of the Bill as currently drafted.
We need this Bill. I thank the Government for including it in the Conservative manifesto and taking it forward, and I urge the whole House to back the Bill and reject the amendments. This, of all times, is a time to stand with the Jewish community, following the worst attack on Jewish people since the holocaust.
BDS has been identified in a succession of studies as driving a rise in antisemitism. By singling out the world’s only Jewish state for criticism, above and beyond that directed at any other country in similar circumstances, I believe BDS campaigns fall within the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. The French supreme court has ruled that BDS is discriminatory, and the German Parliament views the movement as antisemitic.
Since the shocking Hamas terror attacks, we have witnessed deeply disturbing scenes on our TV screens and in our streets. These include sickening so-called celebrations of the horrific murders in southern Israel, and the anti-Jewish racism and hatred visible at successive protests on the streets of our capital city. At a time like this, when Jewish people are in fear for their friends and relatives in Israel, it is appalling to compound their anxiety and distress with hate-filled banners and chants at such protests. I find it deeply depressing that “Jihad! Jihad!” has been shouted with impunity on the streets of our city, and that ISIS flags have been on blatant display.
The dramatic rise in antisemitic incidents is wholly unacceptable, and it shows us that we need campaigns to bring communities together, not drive them apart. There can be no doubt that BDS is absolutely focused on division, not unity. The BDS movement deplores co-existence and peacebuilding initiatives. For example, it has condemned co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian universities. The movement’s founder, Omar Barghouti, has repeatedly expressed his opposition to Israel’s right to exist.
As we go into the voting Lobbies this evening, we are in a situation where the question to be asked of all of us is: “Which side are you on?”. I make it clear that I strongly support the right of Israel to defend its land and its citizens from terrorist attack.
Of course, we all worry about the plight of innocent Gazans put in harm’s way by Hamas, who brutalise them and deliberately use them as human shields. Of course, we need to get supplies to civilians, so long as there is confidence that they cannot be diverted or misused by terrorists. We must always remember that it is Hamas who have endangered the people of Gaza. Hamas are the people who have caused the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
I am in no doubt that the Israeli Defence Forces are making, and will continue to make, the greatest efforts possible to prevent civilian loss of life. Israel is one of the most democratic countries in the world, and it respects the rule of law. I am certain that its democratic and legal institutions will hold its armed forces rigorously to account. Those on the Labour Benches who line up to casually, and wrongly, accuse Israel of war crimes should check their facts, not rush to judgment.
We need our local authorities to concentrate on delivering services, not on conducting their own trade and foreign policy. We need campaigns that promote peaceful progress towards a two-state solution, not bitterness and exclusion. We need to take all possible action against the antisemitism that we have seen increase so shockingly in recent days. We need this Bill.
Following Theresa Villiers, let me say this:
“When things are so delicate, we all have a responsibility to take additional care in the language we use, and to operate on the basis of facts alone.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 738, c. 592.]
Those are the words of the Prime Minister in his statement to the House on Monday. He also said that
“this is not a time for hyperbole and simplistic solutions.”
He was absolutely right about the importance of tone in today’s debate, as we discuss the
I fear that the Prime Minister’s powerful statement at the Dispatch Box earlier this week has been undermined by how he and his Ministers have brought this Bill before us today, at the last minute and with the least possible notice. The tension and disagreement surrounding the issues are well known to the Secretary of State yet, in the middle of a humanitarian emergency in the middle east, he has chosen this week of all weeks to force this legislation on to the parliamentary timetable—a Bill that fails the Prime Minister’s own test of avoiding simplistic solutions.
There can be no doubt that Labour is opposed to a policy of adopting boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, as it wrongly singles out one individual nation and is counterproductive to the prospect of peace. We know this is a serious issue.
The right hon. Lady says with some force at the Dispatch Box that Labour is clearly opposed to singling out Israel through BDS measures, yet where Labour is in government in the UK—Wales—the Welsh Labour Government sought to bring forward a procurement note that singled out Israel and the Palestinian territories. Can she explain what her position was when her colleagues in Wales sought to do that?
I thank the right hon. Member for his intervention. We are hoping to get consensus around what we are trying to do. I stand by my statement, but we do not want one nation to be singled out in this boycott. We do not agree with boycott tactics, which is why we were concerned enough to table our amendment to the Procurement Bill back in February, when I shadowed the Cabinet Office, which would have prevented councils from singling out Israel or any other country. The Government have consistently opposed that amendment.
Today, we are presented with a Bill that will not address the problem it rightly seeks to solve. As it stands, the Bill has needlessly broad and sweeping draconian powers and far-reaching effects. It is poorly drafted legislation that risks creating fresh legal disputes, and will only serve as new flashpoints for community tension. We remain far from convinced that protracted legal battles over the BDS would serve or protect Jewish communities in the UK. My hon. Friend Lisa Nandy clearly spelled out those issues on Second Reading, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) and for Caerphilly (Wayne David) in Committee. Today is the fourth time that we have presented the Government with a chance to change course and choose a more constructive way forward, yet the Bill has been brought back nearly totally unamended—the only change is to the explanatory notes. It is all too clear that the Secretary of State has not listened.
However, there is a way forward. In our view, it is not wrong for public bodies to take ethical investment and procurement decisions. There is a difference between applying consistent ethical principles in legitimate criticism of foreign Governments and what, in recent years, some individuals and organisations have tried to do: seek to target Israel alone; hold it to different standards from other countries; question its right to exist; and equate the actions of the Israeli Government to Jewish people and in doing so, create hate and hostility against Jewish people here in the UK. That is completely wrong.
Amendment 13, on which we will seek a vote today, addresses that problem. It would allow public bodies to produce a document setting out their policy on procurement and human rights. The policy would be cemented in a framework, based on principles that apply equally to all countries, rather than singling out individual nations. Such a statement of ethical policy would ensure consistency in how public bodies decide on these matters, and would be subject to guidance issued by elected Ministers and laid before this House. Any inconsistent application would be prohibited. Under Labour’s proposals, if a public body were to act only against a particular state—for instance, the world’s only Jewish state—and failed to comply a consistent approach to human rights everywhere, such actions would be unlawful. We were disappointed that the Government chose not to support our amendment at previous stages, but I repeat today our offer to the Government—indeed, the whole House—to work together and speak with one voice on this most serious of issues, by accepting the amendment.
Moving on, there are four more concerning areas in the Bill that I wish to raise briefly with the Secretary of State. First, we have serious reservations about how the Bill effectively rewrites UK foreign policy by explicitly equating Israel with the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights. That is an unprecedented step that, to my knowledge, has never been taken in British statute and is unique in British legislation.
An essential cornerstone of British policy, supported across this House—and at the UN—is support for a two-state solution as a viable long-term solution to give Israelis and Palestinians the recognition and security that they deserve. The wording of the Bill not only calls into question the UK’s long-standing position in supporting a two-state solution but runs counter to the UN resolutions. Such a move would also go against the very aim of the Bill by singling out Israel in such an exceptional manner, failing to treat it like any other country or nation.
Secondly, and related, the Secretary of State claims that the Bill is non-country-specific and of general application, but the only states and territories named in the Bill are Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights. Quite apart from singling out Israel, the Bill applies as much to China, Myanmar and North Korea as it does to Israel. For example, it could have significant effects on the ability of communities to support the Uyghur minorities in China, who are victims of grave human rights abuses.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I am a former local authority leader in Trafford. I am incredibly proud that, when I was the leader of Trafford Council, my Labour administration took steps to cease procurement linked to the Xinjiang region because of the oppression and suppression of Uyghur Muslims. Am I correct to interpret the Bill as seeming to suggest that my Labour administration and I were incorrect to do that, and that others up and down the country who speak up for human rights and against that sort behaviour are in the wrong?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which is why we are trying to gain consensus across the House through our amendments. It is important that people should be able to raise concerns appropriately and in the best way. The Bill does not allow that. Even the Foreign Secretary’s office warned No. 10 about the impact of the Bill on our foreign commitments. For that reason, we welcome amendment 7 in the name of Kit Malthouse, which has support across the House—including from Members from the Liberal Democrat and SNP Benches. We think it will go some way to addressing the problem.
Thirdly, I want to re-emphasise the concerns raised by Members from all major parties about clause 4—the so-called gagging clause. I acknowledge the changes made to the explanatory notes in this area, but this unprecedented restriction could have far-reaching consequences for our democracy, and I urge the Secretary of State to think again. I have tabled amendment 16, which would address the issue of elected bodies. It is a mark of the concern across the House that there are so many amendments to the clause, including from Members from the Government and the SNP Benches. The seriousness of the clause must not be underestimated. It is an unprecedented restriction on the ability of the public bodies—many of them directly elected—to express a view on policy, effectively gagging them from even talking about it.
We are concerned that clause 4 would be incompatible with article 10 of the European convention on human rights, which protects freedom of expression. Labour’s amendment 14 seeks to remove the most sweeping provisions in the Bill through which the Secretary of State intends to hand himself unprecedented power to change the scope and application of the Bill through regulations.
Lastly, it is important to note that the Bill in its current form will not set out what it seeks to achieve. There are loopholes that will allow discriminatory acts to continue unchallenged. Our new clause 3 presents just one example, and I am sure that there are many more. The new clause requires the Government to review the impact of the Bill on discrimination, and addresses one form of it that has been raised with me—refusal to provide kosher food. We on the Labour Benches know that that impacts on many British Jews across this country, causing much distress and suffering. That is the type of concerning practice that should be tackled, but the Bill in its current form will not address it. I urge the Secretary of State to take a pause, take a step back, and consider that there might be another way through.
I assure the Secretary of State that Labour feels strongly that BDS practices against Israel offer no meaningful route to peace for the people of either Palestine or of Israel. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan said on Second Reading,
“We on the Labour Benches do not claim that all those who support BDS, despite our profound disagreement with them on that issue, are antisemitic.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 735, c. 527.]
But let us be clear: the effect of BDS would be the total economic, social and cultural isolation of the world’s only Jewish state, and there are those who use the campaign to whip up hostility towards Jewish people, providing no route to peace and a two-state solution. I can assure the Secretary of State that Labour will continue to condemn and oppose that in the strongest terms. I do not believe there is genuine disagreement between us on that point.
But let me be totally clear, too, both as a shadow Minister and as deputy leader of the Labour party: now more than ever we expect councils to bring all their communities together and represent all their citizens. It would be utterly wrong to choose one community over another—or worse, pit one against another.
I agree 100% with the right hon. Lady that we must be moderate in our tone and the language we use. Does she agree it was therefore very unhelpful for the Scottish Labour leader to use terms accusing Israel of breaching international law when we are discussing such a sensitive subject?
As I said at the start of the debate, people have to be responsible—and, in fairness, I acknowledged that the Prime Minister at the start of this week also outlined that people have to be responsible. I say that across the whole House and genuinely mean it: we all have to be responsible. I know people feel very strongly at the moment about these issues, and rightly so, and I hope the hon. Gentleman sees from my contribution to this debate that I am taking that very seriously as well.
We rightly expect that our local government must surely stay by the principles I mentioned, but we must also make sure that our national Government do too. That is real leadership—of our communities, and of our whole country. Instead, I fear we have a Government unwilling to recognise what is needed from them at this moment on this Bill: careful, precise deliberation and to bring communities and the country with us.
I am disappointed that the Secretary of State has taken the reckless path of forcing the Bill back to Parliament today—a Bill that fails on its own terms. His approach risks dividing our country, our communities and even his party. I urge him now not to divide the House and to accept the amendments proposed by Members on the Opposition side and his own.
For our part, Labour stands ready—as we have at every single stage of the Bill—to work constructively with the Government and other parties to build consensus behind a workable, sensible solution. There is no doubt that the people of our country want us to speak with one voice. Labour stands ready and willing to work in good faith to achieve that goal. The question is, are the Government?
The Prime Minister was absolutely right earlier this week to say that the tone we adopt is incredibly important given the gravity of the events we are seeing in the middle east at the moment. Every single Member of this House is obviously absolutely horrified by the tragedy that is unfolding and the barbaric atrocities committed by Hamas. In my case, I absolutely support the right of Israel to self-defence, but it is possible to believe all these things—to be a friend of Israel, too—but nevertheless to be reluctant to pass bad legislation through this House unamended when we have the opportunity to make amendments on Report. It is possible, too, to believe strongly that freedom of contract and freedom of speech are important pillars in our liberal democracy, and that although we might sometimes fetter those key pillars of freedom and our liberal democracy, we should not do so lightly.
For that reason, I would support amendments 7 and 3 in the name of my right hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, because putting the occupied territories and Israel into the Bill is unusual for a Bill of this sort. We must ask this question: if the purpose is to make it difficult for a future Government to take a position that would change the approach to our close allies, why is the United States not also listed? Many of the groups that people object to, such as BDS, are often quite anti-American as well, so why do we not have a fuller list of countries to make it difficult for them to add?
More importantly, this sends an unfortunate signal around British foreign policy. It has been the long-standing position of all British Governments that we support a two-state solution and that the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are illegal. That is a consistent British Government position over a long period of time, and we must be careful not to send signals that that has changed.
More importantly, I would also support amendment 3, because clause 4 is a strong violation of freedom of speech. It has come to something when we are saying that not only would people not be free to follow the procurement policy they want, but they would not even be allowed to say that the reason why they were not free to do so was this Bill. I will support amendments 7 or 3 if either go to a vote this evening.
However, I want to focus principally on the two amendments in my name—amendments 10 and 11. Although much of the debate around the Bill is understandably conducted through the context of BDS and of Israel and the Palestinian situation, the scope of clause 1 is very broad. What is before us this evening is a broad procurement Bill that places quite broad restrictions on procurements and applies to every country in the world. I presume the reason is that the Government’s legal advice was that to have something that focused just on one country, Israel, or on just one campaign group, BDS, would create some legal issues. So they then had to construct a Bill that affects every organisation, every issue and every country, and then through the schedule try to piece back some of the liberties affected by the imposition of clause 1.
I want to focus on that schedule, because it lists lots of different issues that are outside the scope of clause 1, and rightly so, including “environmental misconduct”, but there is no mention of animal welfare. There will be times when public bodies will take a procurement decision based on animal welfare. They need to be free to do that, and it is not at all clear from the schedule that that could be done. Paragraph 10 mentions “environmental misconduct” and at the end talks about
“the life and health of plants and animals”,
but it does so very much in the context of the environment and the wild environment rather than through the context of kept animals.
The Government buying standards were recently revised to encourage all public bodies and all Government Departments to take account of animal welfare in their procurement policies, but the Bill would appear to curtail the right of local authorities to do just that. Legitimate issues will come into play here. These are probing amendments on which I am looking for reassurance from the Minister and an undertaking to consider these matters further in the other place. For instance, were a local authority to judge that it would prefer to procure lamb from New Zealand over, say, Australia, because New Zealand has high animal welfare standards while the Australian sheep industry has poor levels of animal welfare and does not have in place the right regulatory powers to deal with certain practices, that would be a legitimate consideration. Indeed, it is not only legitimate but a consideration that the Government’s own buying standards and the Crown Commercial Service encourage all public bodies to pursue.
In closing, my question, which is very much linked to my two amendments, is this: is the Minister’s understanding that it would be entirely in order under the Bill for any local authority or public body to make decisions based on animal welfare, and that any such decision related to animal welfare would be totally outside the scope of clause 1?
This was a dreadful piece of legislation when we debated it on Second Reading, and it returns to us on Report in an equally dreadful state. In July, on Second Reading, I said that the Bill was being introduced at the wrong time, given the violence and unrest taking place in the region. Never in my worst nightmares did I think that we would experience the brutal, inhumane and indiscriminate massacre that was unleashed on innocent Israeli civilians on
I speak as a proud Jew; I speak as a strong supporter of Israel, a committed Zionist; and I speak as someone who opposes the BDS movement and believes that its intent is to try to destroy the state of Israel. But I do not speak on my own; I know that I speak in the name of thousands of Jews in Britain, who are not always represented in this House—particularly by some Jewish Members in the House—and for millions of Jews in Israel. I simply ask the Minister—and the Secretary of State, who is now in his place—to please withdraw this nasty Bill and come back in the autumn with a properly considered proposal that can be accepted by us all.
This is an emotional time to us all—it is for me—but I urge Ministers: we should all be working together at this time. Every MP in this House should be working to calm things down in the middle east, to contain conflict, to secure the release of hostages and to stop the humanitarian catastrophe we are seeing in Gaza. We should not be seeking to divide Members now.
I put it to Ministers that the Bill contains proposals that will only heighten tensions between communities. Work by the Community Security Trust shows us that there has been a 651% increase in antisemitic attacks from 7 to
The Bill will not help Israel as it seeks to defend itself against an existential threat. It will simply become just one more thing to enrage those people who oppose the state of Israel. It will not help Jews at all as we struggle to come to terms with the pogrom that took place in the kibbutzim and the music festival some two weeks ago. It will not help us as we all struggle to find a route to peace that allows Israel to defend itself without inflicting intolerable hardship on Palestinians, who have also become the victims of Hamas’s terrorist activity. I plead with the Government to withdraw this legislation and to help us to work together.
I appreciate the remarks that the right hon. Lady is making—she speaks with some authority because of her background—but I fail to see the logic of her point that a Bill that prevents local authorities deliberately highlighting their opposition to the existence of the state of Israel, and boycotting goods from it, is likely to lead to bad community relations. Surely stopping local authorities acting in such a partisan way will help to establish better community relations.
I beg to differ with what the right hon. Gentleman says, because the Bill in itself is so contentious that it will not actually stop activity, but encourage those who want to argue against the state of Israel and want to argue against what is currently happening in the Israeli-Palestinian war. It will give them added strength, so I simply disagree with him. At a time like this, the worst thing we can do is introduce contentious legislation.
I respect the right hon. Lady for her views, but just on that last point, the idea that we should not do something because the people who hate Israel will be even angrier about it does not seem to me to be a very credible argument. These people were out in front of the embassy in the immediate aftermath of the attacks demanding boycotts of Israel, before Israel even had time to respond. Is it really a credible argument that we should not do this because it might make the people who hate Israel even angrier?
I hope that as I develop my argument the hon. Member will listen, because it is the flaws in the Bill that I think actually damage its intention, which is to limit and deal with the evils of the BDS movement. I said a little earlier that I oppose the BDS movement. I recognise that the BDS movement probably has the intention of trying to destroy the state of Israel. I want to tackle that, but I think that doing so in the way that is proposed in this legislation will simply damage that intent, not meet it. I think maybe that is where he and I differ.
The Bill is flawed in so many ways. The main reason is that it is not designed to tackle a problem; it is designed to score a crude party political point, as I said on Second Reading. I am afraid that the Secretary of State himself gave the game away on that occasion, when he said:
“The question for every Member of this House is whether they stand with us against antisemitism or not.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 735, c. 591.]
I respectfully say to him that that is not the question, but it does lay bare the truth about the Bill. The Government believe that they have set a trap for the Opposition: if we speak against the Bill, they will try to paint us as antisemites. But I say to the Government that if they pass the Bill in its current form, it is they who will be encouraging antisemitism by fuelling hatred. They will be encouraging antisemitism by specifying on the face of the Bill only one country where the boycott of goods would be illegal, simply confirming in people’s minds that Israel and the Israel-Palestine conflict is a special case, different from all the other cases around. That is a constant problem, a constant issue that is raised with me by people who are worried and concerned—over time, not particularly in relation to the war as it stands—about attitudes in the UK to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Everybody says, “Why pick on Israel?”
So why do the Government now select Israel? It is they who are encouraging antisemitism by gagging free speech in our universities and council chambers. It is they who are encouraging antisemitism by trampling on the democratic rights of local politicians. It is an incredible arrogance for us as MPs to sit here and think that somehow we are better than, or different from, locally elected councillors who also have political views and who also carry out important democratic jobs in their councils.
It is the Government who are encouraging antisemitism by ignoring our obligations under the UN Security Council. It is they who are encouraging antisemitism—and I say this on the basis of my experience of fighting the British National party in Barking from 2006 until the general election in 2010—by refusing to engage in an open debate. By closing the debate, they give added credibility to the idea that those who seek to destroy the state of Israel are somehow wronged.
As the right hon. Lady knows, I have a huge amount of respect for her, and she speaks on these issues with an authority with which many of us cannot speak about them. She knows better than anyone that a tide of vile antisemitism has been unleashed in the country. Last week, some of us heard from Jewish students who were afraid to give their surnames because they were afraid of giving away their Jewish identity—afraid to admit that they were Jewish. One said that they felt as if Jews were being pushed out of British universities. If July was not a good time to introduce legislation to draw a line in the sand, and if now is an even worse time, when is a good time to make a stand on behalf of Jewish people who are at risk at this time?
Let me start by saying that the growth of antisemitism on the streets and in our communities is absolutely terrible. It is affecting some of the youngest people in my own family, and it is dreadful to observe the impact that it has on young children. So I am completely with the right hon. Gentleman on that. My point is that the legislation is so flawed that it does not meet its intent. I would love to work with Ministers, and with Members across the House, to produce a piece of legislation that would tackle the issue that we know exists in relation to BDS, but would do so in a way that was not contentious. It does not have to be like this; we could do it in another way, and doing that as soon possible would be a really good thing to do.
Surely this is the point that my right hon. Friend is making. Surely the answer to the question asked by Stephen Crabb is that a good time would be a time when those of good will had had a sufficient opportunity to engage in the necessary discussions to find a consensus that would lead to an acceptable and sensible piece of legislation.
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point, and I am grateful to him for his intervention.
I do feel really emotional about today. It is, I think, an emotional day for many of us in the Chamber. Let me just say this to the Secretary of State. He is trying to put forward legislation in the name of the Jewish community, but he is not doing so in my name, or in the name of literally thousands of people I talk to here in the UK who are all good Jews, proud of their Jewish identity. I also know from my conversations with family, friends and colleagues in Israel that there are many there who also think that this is a poor piece of legislation. I plead with the Secretary of State please, please to withdraw the Bill, which I think would be more damaging than helpful, and to engage in the sort of debate that has been suggested by my hon. Friend Steve McCabe, which could bring us to a mutually agreed conclusion, reaching the objective that we all want.
Order. May I provide a little guidance? If Members speak for a maximum of about eight minutes, we will be able to get everyone in.
I support this excellent Bill and wish to speak against all the amendments. I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for taking the Bill through the House. I support it for three principal reasons: first, it is genuinely needed; secondly, boycotts are inherently discriminatory and contrary to public policy, especially when engaged in by third-tier local authorities; and thirdly, the BDS movement internationally is inextricably linked to antisemitism. I will explore those three points briefly.
Perhaps I can give the House just two examples of why the Bill is needed. The first is the example of the now bankrupt Birmingham City Council, which threatened in 2014 not to renew a contract with the French multinational company Veolia due to its operations in the west bank. In 2015, Veolia withdrew from the Israeli market as a consequence and the BDS movement claimed that decision as a victory. Of course, that hurt Palestinians as well as everyone else. Another example, shamefully, is that of the supermarket Sainsbury’s. In at least one of its branches, it was put under so much pressure that it removed kosher food products from its shelves following virulent anti-Israel protests. So this is about protecting communities and avoiding antisemitism succeeding. The Bill will prevent divisive behaviour that undermines community cohesion across the country. I am afraid to say that BDS activity has legitimised and driven antisemitism in the United Kingdom, as it exclusively targets Israel.
My second point is that it is inherently discriminatory to engage in boycotts of this type. I am not alone in saying that. I pray in aid on this point none other than the Supreme Court of France, which ruled as long ago as 2009 that calls for a boycott of Israeli products in France constituted discrimination and were, as such, illegal under French law. I also refer Members to the German Parliament, which designated the BDS movement as antisemitic in May 2019. And again I cite the harm to Palestinians, with the infamous example of the soft drinks company Sodastream, which, under intense pressure, had to shut down its operations causing the loss of 500 Palestinian jobs. The company simply moved a few miles into Israel and other people got those jobs. This is harmful to all sides of the community.
It is worth rehearsing that it was stated in evidence to one of the Bill Committees of this House some time ago that the BDS national committee, an international centre point for the movement, includes members of the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, which is a coalition of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Those are all terrorist organisations that are proscribed by His Majesty’s Government. The general co-ordinator of the BDS national committee is Mahmoud Nawajaa, who has publicly supported Hamas’s armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, and the leader of the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, Khaled al-Batsh, is a senior official of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a proscribed terrorist organisation funded and co-ordinated by Iran.
So it is for those reasons—BDS’s international links to antisemitism and its discriminatory province, and how obviously the Bill is needed in this country, as well as its principle—that it must be for central Government to make decisions on foreign policy, and not for borough and city councils that, with the greatest possible respect, cannot possibly appreciate all the nuances involved in these international decisions.
I 100% endorse and agree with everything that my right hon. and learned Friend has been outlining, and the argument he is making is very powerful. Does he agree that, right now, there is obviously a hugely important moral and ethical purpose to being clear about our opposition to antisemitism in any form, at any time and from any organisation, let alone the abhorrence of what BDS stands for, in the light of the terrorist atrocity that we have seen? This Bill predates the atrocity that we saw earlier this month and, returning to his core point, its original purpose is the correct one, which is to remind us that central Government’s role is to deal with foreign policy and to ensure that local councils are making decisions that are based not on their foreign policy or any other ideological pressure or views but on the best value for local residents.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, who makes his point eloquently.
Israel clearly has a vibrant economy and welcomes everyone. I challenge those both outside this House and in other countries who support the BDS movement to bear in mind that I suspect that they would not be able to function in today’s modern society if they were to personally boycott companies that are already deeply engaged in Israel and do business there. I will give some examples: Apple, Google, Intel, Microsoft, 3M, Alibaba, Amazon, Fujitsu, AOL, Siemens, Bosch, Sony, Texas Instruments, Samsung, Nestlé, Coca-Cola, Western Digital, Xerox, Mitsubishi, Pfizer, Salesforce, Visa, Mastercard, Honda, Ford. I have lists of dozens of companies that do business in the state of Israel. Let us bear in mind that those persons who seek to boycott Israel do so with an air of double standards. That is the very least that can be said about it. I support this Bill and reject all of the proposed amendments.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge? If we descend into accusations that those who do not support the Bill are antisemites, or that those who support it are Islamophobic, I think we are lost, to be honest. It is important that we are careful about our language.
There is a profound misunderstanding about what we are debating. If this is about the BDS movement itself, there are mechanisms that the Government can use to proscribe an organisation. But the debate on this Bill should be about BDS as a method, a tactic. I have supported boycotting, disinvesting and sanctioning a whole range of regimes. I campaigned with and supported the anti-apartheid movement of BDS with regard to South Africa. Actually, a large number of Members on both sides of the House supported that. I also did so with regard to Saudi Arabia and its execution—tragically, it is still doing this—of members of the gay community. I have campaigned with others across the House with regard to Sri Lanka and the persecution of the Tamils, including the murder of a number of my constituents when they visited their families. I am doing the same at the moment with regard to Bahrain because of its imprisonment of the political opposition. It is the same with Russia. I was a founder member 10 years ago of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign and we have been calling for sanctions against Russia for years—in advance of even the Government, to be honest. It is the same with Iran. I chair the Iranian workers’ movement committee, which supports trade unionists campaigning in Iran, many of whom are unfortunately in prison. There is also the Uyghurs.
On all of those, I have urged the use of BDS because when other representations and diplomacy fail, there are not many options left. One of the options, unfortunately, is the use of arms. In not promoting that, we have tried to find a middle lane, and that is economic isolation to try to influence. To be frank, it did work in South Africa. That is why we have tried to ensure that it is a mechanism that can be drawn upon. I agree, however, with my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner on the Front Bench. The important thing is to ensure that if we use this mechanism, it is used properly and fairly and that we do not discriminate against one particular country. That is what I have not done. I have called for BDS with regard to goods coming from the occupied territories and Iran because they are against the international order.
Having sat in this House for 25 years and listened to speeches from Conservative representatives, I have learned a bit about conservatism, so what I find extraordinary is that this Bill is profoundly unconservative. Those on the Government Front Bench seem to be rejecting many of the individual amendments in front of us. I have listened to Government Members arguing that the Conservative party stands for freedom of speech, support for the law, the rights of property, the democratic rights of this Parliament, local government and other agencies, devolution of decision-making, and support for the action on the environment and human rights.
Let me turn to the amendments on freedom of speech. Amendments 28 and 3 prevent the Government introducing a gagging order on even just talking about this—having a debate about it. That is profoundly unconservative. I cannot believe that Government Members are not supporting those amendments. On the issue of rights of property, I say to the Conservative Member whose constituency I cannot remember that we are both members of the local government pension fund. The Government are overriding the rights to my property, which is my pension fund. I cannot believe that the Conservatives are doing that. That is my stored wages for over 20 years of service in local government over which I now lose control, and the amendment simply says that the members of that pension fund will be allowed to decide.
My right hon. Friend will recall the days when we managed to persuade the GLC pension fund not to invest in apartheid South Africa, but, as I am sure he will agree, the fundamentals of the Bill are that it actually reduces a very large area of freedom of speech for elected local councillors. That, to me, undermines the whole principle of representative democracy within our society.
I agree. I was chair of finance at that time. It was interesting because there was an awful lot of cross-party support on that, as we were then at the stage of the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, and the worst oppressions that were going on, including what happened in Soweto.
Let me go through the amendments themselves. On devolution and local decision-making, all that amendments 5, 16, 34 and new clause 2 do is ensure that local democracy takes place. The arguments that I have heard from those on the Conservative Benches on several occasions is that local councillors should have the right to represent their local communities and, above all else, they should listen to their local communities. When there have been rows on the Government Benches, it is often as a result of councils not having listened to their local communities, and sometimes I have agreed. These amendments simply enable the local community to express their views and for that to be taken into account.
On environmental concerns, amendments 8, 10, 15 and 11 are simply reinforcing many of the policies that the Conservative party has been advocating in our attempts to get to net zero and protect animals at the same time. I have often heard Government Members saying that upholding the law is an essential part of conservatism. Well, that is what amendments 6 and 17 do. They are simply saying that the use of this mechanism can be helpful in upholding international law.
This Bill is a bad Bill. I agree that there might be the potential to gain consensus on it. One way forward is through the amendment that the Labour Front Bench has tabled to try to look at human rights in general to see how statements defining human rights can be made by Government, and that then influencing what happens in other decision-making areas, such as in local government, pension funds and so on. I believe that there is an opportunity for that, but what I come back to is that this is not the time to do something that in any way divides our communities. If the Bill is in any way amendable, let us just pull it. The Government have done that before. There has been a pause on legislation, allowing wiser heads to come together and to come back with something that actually might work.
If there are arguments about the BDS movement, and I totally condemn some of the statements that I have heard from some of the leaders associated with it, that is a separate issue. This is about a method of trying to influence individual countries to behave in line with international law, protect the environment, and so on. It is about trying to set standards in other countries that we want to promote globally anyway.
This legislation is not something that I would expect from a Conservative party at any stage in its life, and certainly not now. If the Government pursue it, it leads us to the conclusion that my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking reached: that it is being done for grubby political purposes. If that is the case, we are in the gutter of politics rather than at the high level of politics that we should be debating in this country.
John McDonnell put forward a clever argument, but many of us see through it to the real motivation. He himself said that he supports part of the BDS campaign.
The issue of timing is interesting. I am not sure whether we are being asked to wait until Hamas give us permission to bring the Bill back. Should we wait for their decision to end the violence, so that we are then able to bring this forward? People advanced the same arguments that they are advancing today before the massacre, so there will never be a good time to bring the legislation forward if we follow that line.
Dame Margaret Hodge and I have disagreed on some things, but I respect her very much. She has been very brave in lots of the things that she has done in recent years, but I think that it was beneath her to accuse people who support the legislation of driving antisemitism. That was an unfortunate slip, because it is a fact that the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies support the legislation. She may be right that others in the Jewish community do not, but it is a fact that leadership groups within the community support the legislation.
Why now? For me, it was going down to see one of the marches two weeks ago. I do not want to call them marches for peace, because they were not; they were marches filled with hate. There were people there enjoying what happened in Israel. I saw many of them holding deeply antisemitic signs, many of which called for a boycott of the Israeli state. That said to me that this is a moment when we have to grasp this issue, which has been a poisonous part of political discourse on the middle east for so long. If not now, then when? There will never be a perfect time.
As I said in my intervention, even before the Israeli Government had acted in any way in Gaza in self-defence, BDS campaigners were outside the Israeli embassy, after 1,400 Israelis had been murdered—the worst murder of Jews since the holocaust. What were those campaigners doing? They were not there expressing sympathy for what had just happened; they were demanding that people boycott the state of Israel. This is a pernicious, nasty, antisemitic campaign, and there is no pretending otherwise, as indeed some people who oppose the Bill will agree.
The metrics are clear: BDS activities drive antisemitism. That is a fact, and we are all in agreement on that. On the pretence that there are lots of other countries at which this is aimed, let us be honest: only Israel is the focus of BDS activities. That is where the action in local government and the Welsh Government has been. It has all been about Israel. Let us be honest: for some of the people arguing against the legislation, it will always be about Israel. Whatever has happened, they are always here with words against Israel, holding Israel to different standards. It is the same people; they just find a different argument. It is the same on every issue related to the middle east. They are always here, some of them in this House, and it is always about the behaviour of the state of Israel.
I find it a really bizarre claim that because some people might react unpleasantly, or potentially violently, to us banning a campaign that all of us who have spoken so far—well, maybe not all of us—agree is antisemitic, that might inflame community tensions. What we are saying there, in effect, is that the elected House of Commons of the United Kingdom should not act because some people might not like it and might get violent. A country that follows that line of argument is a country that is lost. We agree that this is antisemitic and it should not matter, therefore, whether some people who might not like our approach might react. They have been reacting fairly unpleasantly already—we have all seen the marches—so I just do not buy that argument.
I have a huge amount of affection for my hon. Friend and understanding of what he is saying. I ask him to give me his view on the following, which relates to my concern. I take everything that he is saying, but at a time when our country can play a pivotal role in trying to de-escalate and find a peaceful solution to the horror unravelling in the middle east, what assessment has he made of the damage that could arise from a claim of partiality being levelled against the Government for bringing this Bill forward at this time?
My hon. Friend said he had affection for me. Not many people say that, so I welcome it and I will be framing that part of Hansard. However, I will just push back on the point he makes. How is impartiality impacted by outlawing something that all of us agree is antisemitic? Who sits on the Palestinian BDS National Committee? It is Hamas and Islamic Jihad. So are we saying that we should not ban this antisemitic campaign because some people might not like that. We can push that argument quickly back in the other direction.
I went over my time on the last occasion, so I am going to stay absolutely within my time now, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will end with a powerful quote in The Jewish Chronicle today from its former editor Stephen Pollard. He said:
“You might think that now of all times, when the world has witnessed the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, there would be a clamour, a rush, even a demand for the BDS Bill to be passed. Now of all times, surely, is the time to stand up and say we see where Jew hate leads.”
That is the best argument for this legislation and for why now.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for keeping within time, but I am now going to impose a time limit of eight minutes, just to ensure that everybody gets the chance to speak.
The speech we have just listened to from Andrew Percy shows exactly why this is not the right time for this Bill and this debate. The speech from John McDonnell that he criticised was a perfectly reasonable one making the case for the tools of boycott, sanctions and divestment. To suggest that those tools are intrinsically antisemitic is clearly and evidentially wrong. The vast generalisations that the hon. Gentleman has deployed again show why this Bill is deeply unhelpful and the timing downright dangerous.
The brutal attacks on Israeli civilians by Hamas on
I am struggling to understand why, as one of the leading global champions of human rights, the UK would want to send a signal that it thinks that human rights matter only selectively—that would be the impact of the current wording if the Bill passes. It would say to the world that some people’s rights matter less than other people’s. Frankly, the timing seems designed to make political capital from a horrendous situation, and the Government should be ashamed. This is a new low, and it is reckless, provocative and deeply damaging. The Government risk igniting the situation further by bringing back this Bill with the clause singling out Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This legislation, in effect, applies restrictions on the right to freedom of expression and debate, in a way that risks polarising views even further. At any time, let alone in this most sensitive of contexts, enshrining in law such partiality towards the conflict is beyond irresponsible.
I have tabled three amendments to the Bill: two on the ability of public bodies to make decisions about their activities on environmental grounds and one to exclude fossil fuels from the Bill’s provisions. First, on fossil fuels, there is a worrying lack of clarity from the Government about what it may or may not be permissible for public bodies to do should the Bill be enacted. My amendment 15 is intended to clear that up and protect the right of public authorities to divest from fossil fuels.
Earlier this week, Friends of the Earth published evidence that at least £12.2 billion of local government pension funds is invested in fossil fuels. The clarity that I seek to provide with my amendment is needed because fossil fuels are obviously not covered by the environmental misconduct exemption in respect of illegal activities, because obviously extraction currently happens legally. It is needed because decisions to divest could easily be brought into the scope of clause 1 because a fossil fuel company, especially in the case of state oil and gas firms, could easily meet the threshold for association with a foreign Government. Majority state-owned or controlled oil or gas firms such as Saudi Aramco, Equinor, Petrobras and Gazprom, or other companies that are highly associated with a foreign Government, would obviously be considered to be affiliated with certain countries, which would affect decisions about things like pension funds.
The ability of pension schemes in particular to divest from fossil fuels under current legislation and guidance is well established and compatible with fiduciary duty. The consideration of whether to divest often includes the discussion or consideration of individual states as examples of why divestment is desirable. Campaigners will often publicly cite examples of states where fossil fuel extraction is taking place as a reason to divest from fossil fuel assets, even if the divestment sought is much broader. This is reasonable and entirely responsible given the financial risks associated with things such as carbon bubbles and stranded assets, let alone the climate crisis more broadly, and it is currently lawful. But if the legislation is passed, such consideration runs the risk of being judged to have been influenced by the political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct and thus bring divestment decisions within the Bill’s scope. If the Minister does not intend fossil fuel divestment to be covered by the Bill, it must be explicitly excluded, not left to run the kind of risks that I have outlined.
On environmental misconduct, some sorely lacking clarity needs to be injected into the Bill, hence my two amendments. The Bill has an exemption that is limited to environmentally harmful behaviour that
“amounts to an offence, whether under the law of a part of the United Kingdom or any other country or territory”.
Much environmentally destructive activity takes place entirely legally; indeed, that could even be the rationale for a boycott or a divestment campaign. During the passage of the Environment Act 2021, the limitations of due diligence measures that targeted only illegal deforestation were made clear—for example, because a significant proportion of deforestation due to soy or palm oil in Brazil or Indonesia respectively could take place legally, or because it would be incredibly difficult to distinguish between legal and illegal deforestation.
My amendment 8 would expand the environmental grounds on which a public body is allowed to make certain economic decisions beyond activities that are currently simply an offence. Without it, the exemption is unworkable at worst and will undermine good practice at best. Let me explain. Several pension experts who gave evidence in Committee warned that the Bill will impact on environmental, social and governance investment decisions and cut across pension schemes’ fiduciary duty. Those experts included the Northern Ireland Local Government Officers’ Superannuation Committee and the Local Government Association. It is now standard practice to consider ESG factors when looking at investments, and there is widespread concern that the environmental misconduct exemption is so weak that it does not provide the exemptions that Ministers claim it provides. In turn, this is a threat to adherence with things such as the United Nations principles for responsible investment or, indeed, the sustainable development goals. It fails to recognise that investors often consider divergence from best practice, and not simply breaches of law, and it fails to reflect the fact that in countries with, for example, opaque legal systems, the establishment of whether an offence has occurred may not be straightforward.
There is also a risk that a campaign directed at persuading public bodies to boycott or divest on environmental grounds could end up coming within the scope of the legislation. That could happen if, for example, case studies are judged to constitute the criticism or disproval of a foreign state, or if they identify where an environmentally harmful activity such as logging in the Amazon is taking place. The Government are fond of claiming that they have the very best environmental credentials, so why would they want to scupper the potential for public bodies to demand higher environmental standards—for example, in their supply chains or from their pension fund managers—with a poorly worded reference to “environmental misconduct”?
My amendment 8 would tackle that and provide for a proper exemption. My amendment 9 would extend the definition of “environmental misconduct” to include damage, regardless of whether it was legal or illegal, as well as species, habitats and the natural world. It replicates word for word the definition of “natural environment” in the Government’s own Environment Act 2021; as such, I hope that it provides the consistency and clarity that are not currently afforded by the current wording. I would be especially interested to know why Ministers did not use that wording in the first place, given that it is already in the 2021 Act, and why they are not aiming for a consistent definition of “natural environment” across different legislation.
To conclude, my amendments are designed to properly protect the exemptions that Ministers claim are in the Bill, in line with definitions in other legislation.
I rise to speak in favour of the motion and to support the Bill.
The events on
I am not Jewish. I grew up in Dudley, where we do not have a Jewish community—I grew up hungry to know more about history and politics—but I when I was young my father worked for an Israeli company, ISCAR. He moved around jobs as a salesman, so I remembered his work by which country the company originated from. For me, Israel was just another one of those places where he had travelled for work. ISCAR was set up by Stef Wertheimer, a German-born Jew who fled the Nazis in 1937. He started a small metal shop and tool-making company called ISCAR in 1952.
Stef believes that capitalism is better equipped than politics to solve the conflict. He believes that, if economic disparity is at the core of the tension between Arabs and Jews, he might have a solution. In 2019, it was reported that of ISCAR’s 3,500 employees, more than 1,000 are of Druze or Arab origin. In the eyes of the BDS movement, that normalisation is problematic and should be boycotted.
My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis has already mentioned SodaStream, a successful Israeli company that exports its products across the world. It had been providing jobs to countless Israelis, as well as once employing about 900 Palestinians who relied on the company for their livelihoods. But in 2015, it was forced out of the west bank because of the BDS movement, leading to those Palestinians losing their jobs. That harms the very people the BDS movement claims to support. Ali Jafar, a shift manager from a west bank village, who worked for SodaStream for two years, summed it up when he said:
“All the people who wanted to close” the factory
“are mistaken…They didn’t take into consideration the families.”
It is those families we should think about when voting on the Bill.
When SodaStream closed its factory in the west bank, it moved to Rahat in the Negev desert. On the final day of Ramadan, it organised the largest Iftar celebration in Israel: almost 3,000 Israelis and Palestinians came together to break bread at the factory. The BDS movement remains against SodaStream’s factory in the Negev desert because it has found new reasons for doing so. It said:
“SodaStream is still subject to boycott by the global, Palestinian-led BDS movement for Palestinian rights. Its new factory is actively complicit in Israel’s policy of displacing the indigenous Bedouin- Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Naqab (Negev). SodaStream’s mistreatment of and discrimination against Palestinian workers is not forgotten either.”
Why are the integration successes of companies such as SodaStream and ISCAR not told? Because they show normalisation; they show neighbourly relationships and peace between peoples. I have been struck by the stories of the Hamas hostages and their families. Some of them had lived in Gaza and moved when the occupation ended in 2005, but still have Palestinian friends there. We do not hear about those kinds of relationships. Extremists do not want to portray any kind of normal life, success or quality of existence, whether they are from Hamas or the BDS movement—neither promotes peaceful coexistence.
The BDS movement boasts that, in 18 years, it has done 18 years’ worth of “turning darkness into light”—that is quite some sugar-coating if you ask me, Madam Deputy Speaker. The BDS movement has an anti-normalisation charter that forbids
“the participation in any project, initiative or activity, local or international, that brings together (on the same ‘platform’) Palestinians…and Israelis…and does not meet the following two conditions: (1) The Israeli side publicly recognizes the UN-affirmed inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, which are set out in the 2005 BDS Call, and”— this is the most important part—
“(2) the joint activity constitutes a form of co-resistance against the Israeli regime of occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid.”
That is evidence, if it were ever needed, that the BDS movement does not want peace. BDS ignores or rejects the Jewish people’s right to self-determination and occasionally calls for the eradication of Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, so if BDS’s objective is not peace, what is it? At its core, it is antisemitic. The Anti-Defamation League has assessed that BDS’s campaigns often include allegations of Jewish power, dual loyalty, and Jewish/Israeli culpability for unrelated issues and crises.
I will now explain why this has such a negative impact on the Jewish community here in the UK. The Jewish Leadership Council has made the case that public bodies in the UK are more likely to interact with people than the Government are, and that it is therefore important they are trusted by all communities. The JLC believes that most relationships between Jewish communities and public bodies are usually positive, but that this is undermined when those bodies seek to involve themselves in international matters and support BDS movements.
The events of the past few weeks will, I hope, give many people a better understanding of why Israel is so important to the Jewish community. Having worked in the community, visited Israel a number of times and worked with holocaust survivors, I thought I understood, but for many in the Jewish community around the world, repeating that
Israel’s very existence was borne of the need for a safe haven for Jews. The events of
If they were to have their way, supporters of BDS might claim victory; however, they cannot claim with any credibility to be supporters of a two-state solution. Boycotts harm Israel, they harm Palestinians, and they harm any prospect of peace. The Bill is not a barrier to peace: the BDS movement, and opposing the Bill, are barriers to peace. I applaud the Government for their strong stance in taking action against BDS and for bringing this Bill before the House, and I will be wholeheartedly supporting it.
Order. I will now announce the results of the ballot held today for the election of the Defence Committee Chair. Four hundred and thirty-three votes were cast, three of which were invalid. There was a single round of voting with 430 valid votes. The quota to be reached was therefore 216 votes. Robert Courts was elected Chair with 249 votes. He will take up his post immediately, and I congratulate him on his election. The results of the counts under the alternative vote system will be made available as soon as possible in the Vote Office and published on the internet.
I rise to speak to the amendment in my name, as well as amendment 13, tabled by my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner. Both relate to how the Bill will impact public bodies’ rights to make ethical decisions on matters relating to international law and human rights, so that is the subject I will begin with.
Gaza, the United Nations has said, has become a “hellhole”. Israeli bombs have decimated whole neighbourhoods. In six days alone, 6,000 bombs were dropped on the besieged enclave—more bombs than NATO forces dropped in an entire year of intense fighting in Afghanistan. An Israeli military spokesperson was frank about the purpose of the bombing:
“the emphasis is on damage and not on accuracy”.
Nearly 6,000 Palestinians have been killed, including nearly 2,500 children. Last night was the deadliest so far, with 700 people dead. This is happening to one of the most densely populated areas on earth, where 2.3 million people, half of whom are children, are trapped in an area no bigger than the Isle of Wight.
Even before the recent violence, Gaza had been besieged for more than a decade and a half, with access by land, air and water blockaded. Back in 2010, even Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron called it a “prison camp”, but now Israel has imposed a total siege, cutting off water, fuel, electricity and food. The UN says hospitals will run out of fuel today, and incubators with premature babies will stop working. Israel’s evacuation order demanding that 1.1 million people flee their homes was described as
“impossible…without devastating human consequences” by the United Nations, and the World Health Organisation has called it a
“death sentence for the sick and injured”.
Indiscriminate bombing, collective punishment and forcibly displacing people are “clear violations” of international law—not according to me, but according to the United Nations Secretary-General. This is in no way downplaying or denying Hamas’s appalling attacks on Israeli citizens, which I absolutely condemn, and I again echo the call for the release of hostages. Just as I and no Member here can imagine the fear and anguish of families who have seen loved ones taken hostage, I cannot imagine the terror of Palestinian families facing constant Israeli bombardment. On this question, the United Nations Secretary-General said yesterday: “International law is clear”. Yet in this House, people do not want to accept that. Hamas’s crimes in no way excuse what we have seen since.
That is relevant to this debate because these clear violations of international law have been given the green light by political leaders here in the UK and beyond, even with an Israeli defence official promising to turn Gaza into a “city of tents”. The Prime Minister has still refused to acknowledge these clear violations of international law and, unlike a growing number of his counterparts across the world, he is still refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire. That is utterly shameful, and it goes to the heart of the problem with this Bill and the need for these amendments.
Israel’s brutal war on Gaza is not an isolated example. For example, the Saudi-led war on Yemen, which I have spoken about repeatedly in this House, has claimed the lives of more than 150,000 people. It has included war crimes such as the Saudi bombing of a school bus, which killed more than 40 children and a dozen adults. That war has also been waged with the British Government’s support, including considerable military equipment and assistance.
Let us find some historical examples. Perhaps the most notable is the Government’s support for the apartheid South African regime, which people should be absolutely ashamed of and embarrassed about. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, called the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela “terrorists”, and Young Conservatives proudly wore badges calling for him to be hanged. In each of these cases—whether it is Israel’s war on Gaza, the Saudi war on Yemen or apartheid South Africa—violations of international law and gross injustices have been committed with the support and complicity of the British Government.
If the Bill is passed unamended, on these matters and more, public bodies such as local councils and universities will not be able to make ethical procurement or investment decisions. Local democracy will be sidelined, and they will be forced to ignore questions of human rights and international law. The case of South Africa shows most clearly why that would be such a mistake.
I am going to continue.
While the Government supported the apartheid regime, local councils across the country rallied around the anti-apartheid movement, with 39 councils across the country having divested from companies operating in South Africa by 1985. If this Bill had been put in place then, that action would have been illegal. That is why a huge coalition of more than 70 organisations have come together to oppose it. Those organisations include trade unions such as ASLEF, the Fire Brigades Union, Unison and Unite, and campaign groups such as Greenpeace and Liberty.
Amendment 17, in my name, and amendment 13 seek to address this grave mistake by protecting the right of public bodies to make ethical decisions, not leaving them at the whim of the deeply unethical decisions of national Governments such as ours. I urge Members from across the House to support the amendments.
Some years ago, an elderly Jewish constituent came to see me in my surgery concerned about her own safety following a rise in violence in Israel and Palestine, and the resulting antisemitism here in the UK. I said to her then that, if the mob ever came for her, before they got to her they would find me standing in her driveway with my baseball bat in hand. I have stood with the Jewish community across the UK, particularly in London, over the last nearly 25 years of my political career.
When I am told that in seeking to improve this legislation, or in expressing doubts about its impact, I am somehow picking a side, with the implication that I am not standing with that community, I find it both insulting and offensive, particularly coming from Members of this House who, while accepting unquestioningly this legislation, have not done so with other legislation coming from the Government. We all have a duty at this point in time, as the Prime Minister and others have said, to choose our words carefully. On Monday, he said it was a time for “care and caution”, and he was exactly right.
For those who say that there is never a good time, there is certainly a better time. As Israel reels from the profoundly evil crime that was committed against it, at the same time as Palestinian parents search in the rubble for the bodies of their children, for us to bring forward legislation that Members on the Government Benches have said in terms is picking a side seems remarkably insensitive, not least because our Prime Minister is frantically touring the world, trying his best to work with the Qataris and others to release those hostages. They must be released as soon as possible. I cannot see how choosing even to amend the programme motion to get this thing under the wire at this time is anything other than creating difficulties in that regard.
I have tabled five amendments to this legislation, and I seek to improve it. I understand that the Government are trying to pursue a manifesto commitment—a manifesto on which I stood—and while I might have doubts about the impact of this legislation on civic society generally, I recognise that there is some legitimacy to it. However, the form of the legislation matters. I will take my amendments in turn as they appear on the amendment paper.
First, amendment 7 goes to the heart of much of the objection that people have to this legislation. By carving out Israel, the west bank and the occupied Golan Heights in the legislation, I am afraid the Secretary of State is playing into the antisemitism we have seen rise in this country over the past few weeks. I quoted Jonathan Freedland on Second Reading, and it is worth quoting him again. He wrote in the Jewish Chronicle:
“What is the favourite refrain of the antisemites? That Israel is the one country you’re not ‘allowed’ to criticise. This bill takes a canard and, in the case of boycotts, turns it into the law of the land.”
There is no requirement in law for this carve-out to exist. If we agreed to amendment 7, the impact of the Bill would be precisely the same on a daily basis. Israel would merely be treated as all other countries in the world would be treated for the purposes of our legislation. The dreadful thing about this carve-out is that prior to this awful crime being committed, Israel was trying to achieve normalisation with its neighbours. With American sponsorship, it was in fruitful talks with countries that had been at loggerheads with it for years, yet here we are exceptionalising Israel again.
Amendment 7 also speaks to some significant legal concerns that have been expressed about the impact of this legislation under international law and on our undertakings at the United Nations, and about the conflation of the three territories and the signal it sends not only to Palestinians living in the west bank, but to those who occupy the Golan Heights. I would be interested to hear what the Secretary of State has to say about that issue. If clause 3(7) remains, I guarantee that this legislation will end up in the courts, and there will be wrangling for years before it is given any kind of effect.
Amendment 3 would amend clause 4 to lift the effective ban on criticism of this legislation by other elected individuals. Again, the proposals in the Bill strike at the very heart of what we try to achieve at every level of our democracy in this country, which is a sense of ethical and moral conduct, and that people should be able to express their views.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Like me, he has spent a lot of time in local government. Does he agree with the point I raised on Second Reading that a key issue is that our local elected brethren—for example, those specifically elected on a foreign policy platform, such as the 17 councillors who served at one stage on Birmingham City Council on behalf of the “Justice for Kashmir” party—may have a specific democratic reason for being there to express that foreign policy view? There will be circumstances in which councillors, including those who sit in the House of Lords and who sit as part of international bodies, such as the congress of the Council of Europe, benefit from parliamentary privilege in expressing their views. There is therefore a risk that this gagging order is not simply gagging what people should expect as freedom of speech, but is also ineffective in the objective it sets out to achieve.
My hon. Friend speaks with experience, and he puts it extremely well. To assume that councillors are merely elected on the basis of their attitude towards potholes and refuse collection is completely erroneous; they are elected for all sorts of reasons. Many councillors and Members of the devolved Administrations who campaign on social, moral, ethical and, indeed, foreign policy issues would say that they have a mandate, and not even to be able to express opposition to the law while still complying with it seems very un-British, extremely illiberal and unnecessarily draconian. We have lots of laws in this country to which councillors and, indeed, other elected officials of opposing political persuasions can express opposition. To have an exception on this basis seems faintly ridiculous.
On amendment 4, I declare my interest as a member of the local government pension fund, which I understand is the only pension fund affected by the Bill. As I said on Second Reading, it is unfortunate that, as John McDonnell said, my accumulated savings are being put under the control of the Secretary of State. If, in pursuit of this control, my pension diminishes in value because I am forced to follow the decisions made by the Secretary of State, what will be my compensation in retirement?
Amendment 5 is about exempting universities as public bodies. There is a technical reason, as well as a principled reason, for this amendment. I outlined my objection on Second Reading, not least because we had just appointed a free speech tsar and legislated for free speech on university campuses, but here we are busily curtailing free speech through this Bill.
The technical issue is about universities being classified as public bodies. As the Secretary of State will know, there has been a flurry of activity in the Treasury because further education colleges have been classified as public bodies, which means all their debt comes on to the public balance sheet. This is another step towards universities, with their even greater levels of debt, coming on to the balance sheet, about which the Treasury ought to have a say. I hope and believe that, when the Bill goes to the House of Lords, the Treasury will want to have a look.
Finally, amendment 6 is about international law. I know that the Secretary of State, like every member of the Government, is extremely keen on international law and wants to ensure it is followed in all circumstances, and particularly in this current horrific conflict in Israel and Gaza. One of the great benefits of our more flexible system is that, as the Government called for boycotts of Russian businesses and Russian individuals following the invasion of Ukraine, other parts of civic society were able to move extremely quickly to comply, whereas under this legislation they would have to wait for the Government to issue some kind of regulation, which would have to go through this House and be debated. That could possibly take weeks, if not longer, particularly if the House is in recess. Amendment 6 proposes that if the Government declare that a country or situation is in breach of international law, other organisations can immediately respond by issuing their own sanctions or disinvestments.
I honestly believe that the amendments I have tabled—I understand that only amendment 7, which is probably the most important, will go to a Division this evening—represent an attempt to improve the legislation, rather than necessarily picking a side. Although this debate has, I am afraid, been positioned as a pro-Israel or pro-Palestine debate, I am primarily pro-Britain. I want to get the legislation right for this country, for the Jewish community and for every community in this country so that we can live with the consequences for years to come.
Human rights groups have rightly condemned the Bill as an outrageous and unwarranted interference in the ability of councils, universities and other public bodies to use their purchasing power to pursue ethical procurement and investment policies in order to help defend human rights and tackle issues such as climate change. Everyone who cares about issues such as the illegal arms trade, activities of arms manufacturers and traders whose weapons fuel conflicts around the globe, or climate justice, correctly will be horrified by this blatant attack on the basic democratic rights of elected public bodies to act on behalf of the residents who elected them.
The Bill specifically protects the state of Israel, Israeli companies and their human rights abuses from local authority sanctions, no matter what human rights abuses they might commit or are committing now. It is self-evident that councils and other public bodies must be free—and, indeed, have a duty—to act to prevent or discourage breaches of international humanitarian law. It is clear that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, and no local authority or Government should offer support to such activity. The Government’s anti-BDS Bill contradicts the guiding principles on business and human rights published by the United Nations. It penalises public bodies that comply with the UK’s responsibilities as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It takes away the democratic right of public bodies to make ethical financial decisions.
The Bill uniquely shields human rights abuses by Israel, allowing it to act with impunity. Indeed, the Bill exempts specific countries—namely Israel, despite its human rights abuses and war crimes—even though we do not know what future actions such countries may take. That is a show of complete contempt for the people of Palestine and the daily inhumanity, abuse and discrimination they face. The Bill is a textbook case of divide and rule politics.
It is profoundly disappointing that the Government are pursuing the anti-boycott Bill at this moment, when tensions are extremely high in our communities. In the past few weeks, almost 7,000 Palestinians have been killed—almost half of them children—and 1,400 Israelis have been killed, and the civilians of Gaza have been massacred by Israeli airstrikes. War crimes are happening in real time. An immediate ceasefire is required, and the Prime Minister, the Government, the Leader of the Opposition and all political leaders in this House should be calling for it.
Boycott, divestment and sanctions are an effective means of peaceful resistance. The Bill is no less toxic than at its previous stage. If it passes, it will close off a vital democratic avenue for the closest representatives of ordinary people at local level to demand accountability and change. It will show how little this Government care about the lives of civilians and the plight of persecuted and exploited communities around the world.
I welcome this Bill, which fulfils a manifesto commitment and restates and protects the Government’s foreign and trade policy prerogatives by preventing local authorities and other public bodies from pursuing politically motivated foreign policy objectives of their own. Some have said that the Bill would limit free speech, but that is not correct because individual councillors and public bodies can still say whatever they like as private citizens, as long as that speech is lawful. But local councils have no democratic mandate to use their control of taxpayers’ funds and assets to create their own foreign policy or to express divisive opinions that undermine social cohesion in the communities for which they are responsible.
We have heard devolution spoken about in the Chamber. I am a supporter of devolution, but the whole point is that certain powers are devolved and certain powers are not. When my constituents go to the ballot box at local elections, they vote for the candidate who they think is the best person to ensure regular bin collections, well-maintained roads or social care; they are not voting on foreign policy, defence policy or income tax rates, because these are nationally reserved issues for the Westminster Government. It is therefore unjustifiable for local authorities to pretend they have a democratic mandate to use ratepayers’ money to signal their own foreign policy positions. This Bill does not restrict free speech; rather, it restricts public bodies from undermining policies decided nationally by a national Government elected in national ballots.
None of the amendments we are debating today would enhance the Bill, and in fact some are intended to make it unworkable. Amendment 4, for example, would make the pension scheme divestment provisions unworkable, and amendments 7 and 21 seek to remove an important clause relating to Israel. These amendments miss the crucial point of the Bill and the reason why it is being brought forward: all recorded recent examples of public bodies pursuing boycotts against foreign states or territories have been against Israel.
BDS, which we have heard about extensively in today’s debate, is unique in its targeting of the world’s only Jewish state. The BDS movement is not a harmless, peaceful movement; it has alarming links to extremists, including the Hamas terrorist group, which have just committed probably the worst crimes in my lifetime—the worst mass killing of Jews since the holocaust. Public bodies funded by UK taxpayers should not be expressing public support for the divisive ideology advanced by the BDS movement. Its founder has, indeed, repeatedly expressed his opposition to Israel’s right to exist as a state of the Jewish people and has endorsed Palestinian armed resistance. When public bodies seek to undermine British foreign and trade policy and choose to do that only for matters relating to Israel, it gives legitimacy to and encourages the sort of appalling antisemitic protests and attacks we have seen over the past few weeks.
Let me take my home city of Sheffield as an example. In 2019 the council passed a motion regarding its position on Palestine; it had nothing to do with the council’s responsibilities as a local authority, but everything to do with its attempt to signal its anti-Israel political views. And in under a week’s time, on
Since the horrific terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas, we have seen some shocking scenes on the streets of Sheffield: the Israeli flag torn down from the town hall; antisemitic chants on our streets; even a roadblock set up by supporters of Hamas, intimidating drivers and asking for money. I find it unbelievable and shameful that, after witnessing the despicable attacks, torture and rapes of Jewish civilians, such actions can take place in Sheffield, supposedly a “city of sanctuary”. It is very difficult for the Jewish community in Sheffield to feel safe when the local authority—the official elected body—appears to align itself with hard-line anti-Israel movements.
That is why we need this Bill: because yet again Israel and the Jewish people are being singled out and subjected to discrimination across this country and across the world. This singling out of Israel, the only democracy in the middle east, is just another form of the world’s oldest prejudice. Of course the Government of Israel can be criticised by British citizens, as can any Government in the world, but it is unacceptable for local authorities and public bodies to abuse their position to make divisive political interventions for which they have no democratic mandate. That is why I support this Bill going forward unamended.
I want to begin by saying that I am not sure it is helpful to link these proceedings with the current crisis in Israel and Gaza, which is what some have sought to do in this debate. I think we should be careful about that and I want to thank my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner for the tone she adopted in her opening remarks and for her call for sensitivity and moderation in our approach to this issue.
The nature of the BDS campaign is to promote anti-normalisation: it encourages the notion that there should not be contact, trade, exchange, negotiation, or even dialogue with Israel. The founder of the BDS movement has repeatedly expressed his view that the Israeli state should not exist. For me, the aims of the movement are clear. Consequently, I am utterly opposed to the aims of BDS, and I believe that they are as detrimental to the interests of the people of this country as they are to the people of Israel and the Palestinians.
When I hear people talking about the BDS movement, I often think they completely misunderstand the exact nature of our relationships with Israel in trade, medicines, security and technological exchange, and how people in this country are kept healthier and safer as a result. I am therefore utterly opposed to BDS. Not only does it target Israel and hurt the Palestinians, it is also completely detrimental to the interests of the people of this country.
Just in passing, as a Birmingham MP, I want to refer to the point made by Sir Michael Ellis, who is unfortunately no longer in his place. I want him to know that Veolia still has a contract with Birmingham City Council despite his great efforts to suggest that Birmingham was responsible for Veolia pulling out of Israel. I think he rather overstated the case.
I say to the Secretary of State and to the Minister, who was extremely courteous and reasonable throughout Committee, that after so many hours in Committee and such a period for reflection I am really disappointed that we have had so little movement from the Government on Report. I hate to say this, but I find it hard not to conclude that the aims and arguments of BDS may not be the total priority. I hope that I am wrong, and I hope that people can demonstrate that to me.
I remain strongly of the view that the Government would be well advised to drop clause 3(7) altogether, as I think it will probably make things worse. I find myself in total agreement with Kit Malthouse on that. I also remain unconvinced by clause 4(1)(b).
I support amendments 16 and 13. I also support new clause 3, which seeks to provide protection for religious dietary requirements. I think it was mentioned that one of the BDS movement’s proposals was to remove kosher food from supermarket shelves. I cannot believe that anyone in their right mind would think that a reasonable way to proceed, so I welcome the new clause.
We need a Bill to address the iniquities of the BDS movement. We need a Bill to unite people on both sides of the House who genuinely want consensus and broadly share the same aims. I regret that the Bill in its present form is not a piece of legislation that will achieve that outcome, and I urge Ministers to seek a consensus. There is still time to reconsider the approach.
It seems to fall to me to speak last in the debate from the Back Benches—[Interruption.] Ah, excellent. My right hon. Friend Mr Jones and I may be on a similar theme. It is a pleasure to follow Steve McCabe; if I am not mistaken, we visited Gaza together some 11 years ago. I think one colleague mentioned that the question tonight is, “Which side are you on?” I do not think that is the question at all. If I am asked that question, my answer is always the same: I am on the side of the United Kingdom. That, I believe, is where everyone in this House should be —with the possible exception of those who seek not to be in the United Kingdom. That requires me and all of us to define the national interest in the context of that and any proposed legislation.
We can define national interest in different ways: deep family ties with Commonwealth members; our close cultural and economic ties with our neighbours in Europe; our shared values with fellow democracies; and our historical links with nations around the world. But we would place first, surely, our security and the potential vulnerability of this nation to terrorists and nations abroad who would damage us. It is therefore strongly in our interests to bring forward legislation that builds bridges for communities both here and abroad as part of our role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, committed to the rule of law and promoting the values of free speech and transparency, strong in the belief, for example, of democracies sticking to international rules of engagement because to do otherwise risks us descending to the level of the thugocracies that exist elsewhere.
Where does that leave me and us in today’s debate? It means that we, without reservation, condemn the appalling acts of Hamas in their invasion of several villages and kibbutzes in southern Israel close to the border, their murder of civilians and their taking of hostages from, I believe, 41 countries. It means that we strongly support Israel’s right of defence. But it also means that we believe that the invasion of Gaza by air, let alone by ground, has inevitably already caused as many, if not more, civilian casualties in ways that have already almost certainly broken the rules of international engagement, including in terms of access to water, electricity, fuel, medicines and so on.
I understand and accept that all infrastructure in Gaza is compromised by Hamas. There will be buildings and basements of schools and hospitals and so on that Hamas are using, but that does not justify, for example, bombing buildings of refuge in the compound of St Porphyrius. Our position in this nation is for a genuine two-state solution that allows for both the state of Israel, a remarkable state with so much to admire, and a state of Palestine, with people have suffered since the Nakba of 1948 over access to lands sometimes seized illegally in the occupied territories, as United Nations law makes clear. That is the right position, however difficult to achieve and however abused by this Israeli Government’s continued deliberate building of illegal settlements in the occupied territories and by Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran’s refusal to allow Israel to exist at all.
This, then, is the relevance of a pro-UK policy to this particular Bill. Into this delicate landscape of increasing polarisation throughout the middle east strides the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. I agree with the principle of reducing local government posturing on foreign policy—some of us are old enough to remember the Labour Lambeth Borough Council’s nuclear free zone—and the principle of the Bill can be reasonably in the national interest. I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak and many others on both sides of the House that the BDS movement is clearly antisemitic. It is clearly aimed at Israel. There is no question about that. But at the same time, when my hon. Friend Andrew Percy advised that we should therefore stop everything regardless and support Israel and its Government’s statements on any issue regardless, I do not think that that is the case. Our support should not be at the price of explicitly giving the Israeli Government a completely free hand in their policy towards the west bank and the occupied territories, riding roughshod through UN Security Council motions drafted by the United Kingdom. Without them, the facts on the ground, as the Government like to call them, make a two-state solution harder and harder. Therefore, the motivation behind the drafting of amendment 7, which I am supporting so strongly, is not to bow down before threats by Hamas and those who wish for no state of Israel at all. It is not to support the constituent of mine who said to me, during a peace march—note the irony of those words—that Hitler had a point. No, I am not backing amendment 7 to support anything like that. I am doing so because there are many others among my constituents and other Muslims in this country who do believe in a two-state solution and who do want to see peace.
I believe that the representatives of those Arab Governments who have reached agreement with Israel and signed the Abraham accords have done so because they do not want to see Israel destroyed and they do want to see peace in the middle east, and I do not believe that any of them would support the clauses in this Bill that prevent us from holding the occupation—the illegal occupation—by Israeli settlers to account. Although I also support other amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend Kit Malthouse, who spoke so well this evening, it is principally amendment 7 that gives us a chance to put the Bill back on the right track by removing an aspect of it that prevents or, at the very least, inhibits us from holding the Israeli Government to account in the way in which so many people in this country and abroad would like.
This is not about being naive; it is about recognising that the BDS movement is deeply unpleasant, and is targeting Israel. Yes, we must be vigilant against both antisemitism and Islamophobia, but we should not exclude holding Israel to account. That is why I am supporting amendment 7 this evening.
It is with a heavy heart that I am taking part in this debate. I was half minded not to do so, because now is not the time. The impact of the awful violence in Israel and Palestine on communities across the world cannot be underestimated, but the answer is not to debate the Bill right now. By all means let us have some space, some time: there have only been statements, and we have not had a chance to talk about it. By all means let us do that, but not this. It was unwise even to table the debate for this week, and on Monday I urged the Prime Minister to change his mind. In his response, he spoke about the importance of not undermining “community cohesion”. I politely suggest that if a Government do not want to undermine community cohesion, the last thing they should do is introduce a Bill such as this.
May I associate myself with the arguments advanced by Dame Margaret Hodge? What she said was exactly what members of my Jewish community have said to me. They are appalled that the Government are choosing to play politics at this time. The Bill was divisive at the best of times, and the fact is that this is the worst of times. That holds true regardless of what we may think of the Bill’s contents. The Liberal Democrats are on the record as registering our opposition to specific clauses on Second Reading, but I am here primarily to talk about the timing.
Amendment 7 cuts to the chase. It addresses the fact that on the face of the Bill, in clause 3, is a reference to the conflict in Israel and Palestine—a conflict that has cost thousands of innocent lives over the past three weeks, and a conflict in respect of which intense diplomacy is required. I am shocked that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, having toured the middle east and having understood the strength of feeling but also the sensitivities, have decided that this in any way helps them to do their very important jobs. Make no mistake: those leaders in the Arab world are watching what is happening here today, and I do not think that it shows us in the best light. If the Prime Minister backs two states and wants to take any sort of lead, he needs to mean it.
I am sorry to say that arranging for this Bill to be debated this week is not the mark of a statesman. It is a disgrace. It is a disgrace because this conflict is affecting families across the UK as well as those abroad. Maybe they are fearful of becoming the victims of hate crime. We have seen a dreadful rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia over the last three weeks. The Community Security Trust has recorded the highest ever number of antisemitic incidents across this 17-day period. Or maybe they are fearful for their family in the region. I have spoken many times already about my fears for my extended family in Gaza. Or maybe they are fearful for their loved ones who are being held hostage by Hamas. If we are going to engage in this conflict, we should speak about how to get those hostages freed.
Earlier this week, I and my party leader met some of those families, including the aunt of Ariel and Kfir, who are four years old and nine months old. I was disgusted to see a picture of four-year-old Ariel defaced with horns and Hitler imagery at a bus stop in Finchley this morning—an utterly grotesque act. I hope the perpetrators are caught and the full force of the law is applied. This hateful antisemitism has no place in our society, and that is not up for debate.
On Palestinians, we should be speaking about the situation on the ground in Gaza and how we can get aid in. Children in Gaza are writing their names on their hands so that if they are killed, they can be buried with their families. I attended a vigil yesterday where we mourned those innocent children whose lives have been needlessly lost. It is not right that innocent Palestinians are being held accountable for Hamas’s atrocities.
I have heard arguments, primarily from the Government Benches, that Hamas are purportedly telling people not to move and find safety, but that is not what I am hearing—certainly not from my own family. I find it deeply offensive for people to suggest that Hamas are giving my family orders. The reason people are not moving is that they are frail and cannot move, but even if they do, the south is being bombed too. The conversation has changed in Gaza. No longer do they ask, “Where do I go to be safe?”. The question now is, “Where do I go to die?”. So how are we to facilitate releasing those hostages? How are we to safeguard innocent civilian lives? It is through a humanitarian ceasefire. That is a position backed by the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, United States Secretary of State Blinken and—finally, it seems—the Government this morning.
What the House should be doing at this time is digging deep into our humanity and our compassion. It is a time for leadership, for soothing words and for calm to bring people together—all people, directly affected or not—and to demonstrate, by what we do here, how to let the light pierce into the darkness and despair. So I support amendment 7 wholeheartedly and I believe that this place can and should offer more than division.
Let me make my final point very clearly. I do not want something like this to drive a wedge between any Members in this House and our Jewish community. I stood with members of my Jewish community in Oxford in the first week of the attack and I grieved with them. We shed tears together. I stand shoulder to shoulder with them now. We all stand shoulder to shoulder with them now. I say to those Members who suggest that I should pick a side or, even worse, that by not voting with the Government today I am against peace: how dare they? I will tell them what I am on the side of. I am on the side of basic humanity. I am on the side of those who want to bring consensus. I am on the side of the Israeli community, the Palestinian community and the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities. This is a tragedy that affects the whole world, and I say to this Government: do better.
I support the amendments in the name of my right hon. Friend Kit Malthouse and wish to speak specifically to amendments 7 and 3.
This Bill was introduced pursuant to a Conservative manifesto commitment at the last general election,
“to ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries.”
It is important to note that the wording of that commitment is not country-specific. It is agnostic. But it is very clear from the debate thus far, most particularly on Second Reading but also today, that the measures contained in the Bill are aimed primarily at the BDS campaign that has for some two decades targeted the state of Israel. This is quite proper. Foreign policy in this country, as other hon. Members have said, should be determined by the Government of this country, not by local authorities or other public bodies.
The Bill is broadly drawn, except in one respect, which paradoxically robs it of its breadth. It contains a specific measure to prevent any attempt at a later date to modify its provisions in respect of the conduct of the Government of Israel in relation to the territory of Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the occupied Golan Heights. It is clear from the Secretary of State’s remarks on Second Reading that the principal mischief that the Government intend to target is the undoubted evil of antisemitism and antisemitic behaviour, which have been among the most regrettable—in fact, deplorable—consequences of the BDS campaign. Clamping down on antisemitism is obviously important. Indeed, it is essential. No one would dispute that it is a good thing. In fact, given current events in and close to Gaza—and, indeed, on the streets of London—doing everything possible to prevent it is very much a priority.
It is more than arguable that in the case of public bodies, there is a legislative vehicle for doing that already, in the shape of the Equality Act 2010, most particularly section 149, which imposes a “public sector equality duty” on such bodies, requiring them to pay
“due regard to the need to foster good relations between persons” of different religions, ethnicities and nationalities. However, the Government have decided that the Equality Act is insufficient and have decided to go further by effectively outlawing the activities of the BDS movement in relation to Israel only, using this Bill as the vehicle. That is not a country-agnostic ambition of the sort envisaged in the manifesto commitment.
This is a broad Bill with one particularly anomalous element. As such, it throws up problems, which the amendments seek to rectify. Amendment 7 addresses the problem that arises under clause 3(5), which provides that
“The Secretary of State or the Minister for the Cabinet Office may, by regulations, specify a country or territory as one in relation to which section 1 does not apply.”— in other words, permitting a public body to make a procurement or investment decision in such a way as to express political or moral disapproval of the conduct of a foreign state. Clause 3(7), however, goes on to provide that such regulations may not specify Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories or the occupied Golan Heights. The effect of clause 3(7), therefore, is to make it absolutely clear that the sole purpose of this Bill is to give total and unique protection to Israel from BDS activity.
I do not believe that it should be necessary to state that in the Bill. There may well be future circumstances in which it would be appropriate and desirable for public bodies to seek to express disapproval of the conduct of a foreign state. If any regulations were made permitting such conduct, they would self-evidently be done in circumstances in which they were approved of by the Government. However, excepting Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the occupied Golan Heights from the ministerial power to make such regulations is a very strange approach. In the first place, it is not, as I have said, country neutral, which it should be. The absence of neutrality may indeed cause offence to people from other countries around the world, not least those moderate Islamic states that are doing their very best at the moment to try to defuse the tension that has arisen in the middle east. Moreover, it creates an unacceptable equivalence between the status of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights, both of which are arguably illegally occupied and are certainly in the view of the Government in the case of the OPTs illegally settled, and that of the sovereign territory of Israel itself. That is a matter, I am afraid, that is likely to attract significant international criticism as it may well put the United Kingdom in breach of its obligations under UN Security Council resolution 2334. Being found to be in breach of that resolution is not something that the Government should be happy to risk.
Secondly, that exception is frankly perplexing. It means that if at some future time the Government were to decide to show disapproval of the actions of the state of Israel, a Cabinet Minister would not be able to do so without launching stand-alone primary legislation. How can that possibly be a sensible approach? And why is it necessary? Are Secretaries of State and Cabinet Office Ministers so capricious, so inclined to engage in frolics of their own, that they will pursue measures that are not approved of by the Government? Are they not trusted by the Government to behave responsibly, and, if not, why are they members of the Government at all? The provision is illogical, unnecessary and potentially damaging to the interests of the United Kingdom and its reputation and I believe that the amendment is therefore entirely right.
Amendment 3 seeks to remove clause 4(1)(b), which constitutes a perplexing and unacceptable constraint on free speech. If decision makers are prevented from making a particular investment or procurement decision because of the provisions of the Bill, if indeed it is enacted, that should be the end of the matter. There is no good reason in a free country why they should be precluded from saying what they would have done were it not against the law to do so.
This is a Conservative Government. Conservatives believe in and value free speech. Indeed, the Government have recently legislated to protect freedom of speech under the law in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, which makes this provision all the more anomalous. I find myself in the extraordinary position of agreeing entirely with the remarks of John McDonnell in this regard. This is a deeply un-Conservative measure and I believe that the amendment is right and that the provision should go.
I thank all Members who have contributed to this debate for the thought and care that they have given to the legislation before us. I appreciate that we are debating these measures at a sensitive time and that, across the House, people will place different emphases on aspects of the legislation and the broader issues with which it deals.
Let me be clear: I have respect for everyone who has spoken and the arguments that they have made. Where there is disagreement, it is in the context of everyone in this House being united in their horror of terrorism, their desire for peace and their belief in a two-state solution.
We are seeking in the Bill to give effect to a manifesto commitment, as my right hon. Friend Mr Jones has just pointed out. The Bill was introduced earlier this year. Indeed, it completed its Committee stage under the careful and thoughtful stewardship of the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my hon. Friend Felicity Buchan, with contributions from all sides of merit, thought and care.
Of course, those debates took place before the horrific events of
More than 200 hostages are still being held by Hamas in Gaza. Across the House, we grieve for them and their families. I thank in particular the hon. Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), with whom I have been in touch, who have been working very hard to ensure that their constituents are released and brought home. I also thank the shadow Business Secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, who joined me and many Members from all parties at a vigil in Trafalgar Square on Sunday to call for the return of those hostages.
We also sympathise across the House with the innocent people of Gaza, and with all those Palestinian people who have suffered. We recognise that many of the innocent people in Gaza are hostages too. They are hostages of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the other terrorist organisations that operate within that territory. It is vital at all times that we draw a distinction between those who suffer in Gaza and those who are perpetrating suffering in the name of terrorism.
I am very conscious that we are debating these issues against that backdrop, but it is important that we look at the principles behind the Bill. I also thank our friend, the ambassador of the state of Israel, who is here in the Gallery to listen to our considerations. She and other ambassadors have been working with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to ensure that every hostage is released back to their Jewish home with their family.
It is important to recognise what the Bill does not do. A number of legitimate concerns were expressed that actually do not reflect what is in the Bill and what the Bill is intended to achieve. The Bill does not prevent any individual from articulating their support for the BDS campaign, or indeed any particular policy that the BDS campaign puts forward. It simply prevents public bodies and public money being used to advance that case. Any of us as individuals has a total right to freedom of speech. However offensive or difficult some of the words that some utter might be, free speech is not affected by the Bill.
The Bill also does not prevent human rights considerations from being taken into account by local authorities. The Bill makes it clear that legitimate human rights considerations, provided that they are non-country-specific, should be taken into account. I note the point made by my right hon. Friend George Eustice about animal welfare. If specific human rights considerations need to be added to the Bill, we will consider that in the Lords. I also note the comments made by Caroline Lucas. We want to ensure that there is a robust way of ensuring that local authorities can uphold human rights on a non-country-specific basis.
I noted some of the concerns expressed about the impact on the local government pension scheme. Let me stress again that there is no damage to the fiduciary duty that trustees of the scheme will have to uphold in ensuring that they secure the best value on their investments for their members. What the Bill does do is deal with the broad principle that foreign policy should be reserved to this House. It is important to stress that when other public bodies take a stand on foreign policy, they risk vitiating the power of both the Government and the House to achieve goals for the benefit of the United Kingdom and risk creating specific community tensions.
Talking of specific community tensions takes us, of course, to the specific menace that is the BDS movement. It is of course possible for local government to consider adopting boycotts in a variety of ways, but the truth is that if we look at local government and, as my right hon. Friend Stephen Crabb pointed out, at the devolved Administrations, the only country that has been singled out so far for boycott, divestment and sanctions campaigns has been Israel. Let us not hide from that fact.
The reason for that is that the BDS campaign is in itself antisemitic. It is not exercising disapproval of some particular foreign policy or domestic policy decision of the state of Israel; it is saying that Israel should not exist. It is instructive, though not easy, to look at the communications that the BDS movement has issued on social media since
“is on the hands of the Israeli government.”
The BDS campaign has said that the “root cause” of this violence—the deaths on
“must be acknowledged…Israel as the occupier.”
The BDS movement has cited a variety of politicians as what they call “partners in genocide”: Rishi Sunak, Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz and Ursula von der Leyen. Of course, the BDS campaign also continues to repeat the lie—the blood libel—that it was the Israeli Defence Forces who were responsible for the tragic loss of life at the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. That is what we are dealing with, and I am very grateful to Steve McCabe for making clear the horror that he and so many of us hold for the BDS movement.
There is an argument that perhaps this Bill is divisive and it is not wanted, particularly by many voices in the Jewish community. There are some voices in the Jewish community who have concerns, and we have listened to them, but the representative bodies that speak for Britain’s Jewish community are united in supporting this Bill. They include the Board of Deputies, which contains representatives of every Jewish constituency, Jewish organisation and every Jewish community, be it secular or religious, and the Jewish Leadership Council, which contains representatives of every political and faith tradition within the Jewish community. We have heard reference made to the increase we have seen—it is horrific to think about it—in antisemitic incidents in recent weeks. Indeed, Dame Margaret Hodge made reference to the Community Security Trust. I have been in contact with it this afternoon and it sent me this message:
“BDS has a chilling impact on Jews, a modern reminder of anti-Jewish boycotts. It also serves to legitimise the shunning of Jews from ‘decent’ society. And having been shunned…that’s a half way house to all manner of more abusive and physical outcomes.”
So we respect the diversity of voices, but when we have such unity from those who speak for the Jewish community—indeed, the Jewish communities—of the UK, when they are so clear that this legislation is in the interests of community cohesion, fighting antisemitism and making the UK a safe house for everyone, we should treat their words with respect.
The point has been made that the specific mention in the Bill of Israel could perhaps, in some cases, engender a greater degree of polarisation and antisemitism. I know that the people who make that argument make it sincerely, but, as my hon. Friend Andrew Percy pointed out, sometimes we just have to stand up for what is right. If there are people who are provoked as a result of that, it is regrettable but we should not shy away from telling the truth. We should not shy away from saying that what has been going on with Gaza’s genocidal campaign against the Jewish people is something that we as a country need to stand against. When the BDS campaign has in its leadership the leaders of Hamas, we need to be clear about this evil and this menace. That is not just my argument; it is also the argument of the Jewish community organisations that I cited earlier, including the Jewish Leadership Council. In its submission to the Committee considering this Bill, it said:
“The inclusion of clause 3(7) recognises this unique nature of the BDS campaign against Israel”.
It stated its belief that if that provision were excised, as one amendment seeks to achieve,
“the very purpose of the bill would be undermined. Such a change would…convert a bill aiming to prevent anti-Israel BDS campaigns from abusing our public bodies into a tool to facilitate it.”
It is debatable, of course, whether this is the right way forward—the Jewish Leadership Council is very clear that it is—but I simply ask: after everything we have seen in the past three weeks, if this House were now to remove a specific protection for the state of Israel at this time, what message would it send? I submit to every Member of this House that we should listen to the Jewish community and the clarity with which they speak.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the tone he has adopted so far, as it is important that we adopt the correct tone in this debate. Does he recognise the concerns that not just Israel is mentioned in the clause? This is also about why the Government have included the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights. That has also aroused some comment, debate and criticism.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point and appreciate the concerns that he articulates, which are shared by a number of people, but the way in which the Bill is designed makes it clear that there is a separation between Israel, the OPTs and the Golan Heights. As the Jewish Leadership Council pointed out in its evidence to the Committee on which the hon. Gentleman served with distinction:
“This clause recognises this distinction”— it absolutely does—
“and closes a loophole to ensure public bodies cannot remain tools of the BDS movement against Israel.”
It is also the case that, by making that distinction, the clause—and the Bill overall—reserves to the UK Government the role of maintaining, as we do, our absolute commitment to a two-state solution. As framed, then, the Bill is absolutely not in breach of international law. It enables the UK Government to speak with one voice on behalf of the entire United Kingdom in our determination to secure a two-state solution, however distant that prospect may be at the moment.
I am interested in clause 3, which specifically states that the exceptions to any prohibition are:
What is the distinction between Israel and those two that means that we can still hold the Government of the day accountable for illegal settler occupations in those two occupied areas?
The fact that they are listed separately and individually affirms the absolutely principal purpose of treating them individually and separately. Were—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but if Opposition Front Benchers think it is appropriate to smile, laugh and joke about this issue, I regret that. If people disagree in a principled fashion, I respect that. But the key thing is that we know there are people who have attempted to use language relating to what happens in the occupied territories—indeed, the former Attorney General, my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis, cited a number of examples of this—specifically to seek to target people on the basis of their Jewish identity, and that is wrong.
There is another point. If we accept, as everybody who has spoken today has apparently accepted, that the BDS campaign is a pernicious, antisemitic campaign, we should know that it is pernicious and antisemitic whether it is against the state of Israel or against products that come from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The BDS campaign should be outlawed wherever it takes place. It is very simple.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and, indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton North again made it clear that in France and Germany the BDS campaign is outlawed in the way that we seek to do here. No one denies for a moment that France and Germany, under Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, are valued partners for peace and upholders of international law.
On international agreements, does my right hon. Friend agree that, given that the United Kingdom is party to a series of World Trade Organisation framework agreements, such as the general procurement agreement, the UK has a duty not to discriminate in its trade practices, and that to permit public bodies to engage in antisemitic BDS activities would undermine our international agreements?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I thank him for his thoughtful contribution.
I recognise the sincerity and commitment of my opposite number, Angela Rayner. Both she and her predecessor, Lisa Nandy, have been brave and forthright in calling out antisemitism wherever it occurs. I thank her for her work and the conversations we have had formally and informally on this issue. It is for that reason that I say, with respect, that I disagree. I understand the intent of the proposal from Labour’s Front-Bench team, but I disagree, because—as they acknowledge in their own amendment for ensuring that people cannot adopt, through an ambiguous form of words, a means of preventing people from accessing kosher or halal food—there is the potential, as lawyers have been clear, for an ambiguous form of words to be used in order, without mentioning Israel by name, to make it clear that a boycott campaign is directed against Israel. I think we all have a duty to be clear about that.
The BDS movement is clear in what it upholds: an evil campaign not just to eliminate the state of Israel but to target Palestinians who work with Israeli institutions. It has been crystal clear in recent weeks in its total failure—not just a failure, but a conscious desire not to express a shred of sympathy or regret for the loss of innocent lives. It is clear about what it wants to do to sow division. It is clear that its actions lead to, and have always led to, an increase in antisemitic attacks.
Those who speak for the Jewish community in this country have been clear as well. They respect the diversity and plurality of opinions in this House. They respect the motives, they respect the feelings, they respect the strong emotions that these issues engage. But they have also been clear that they wish this legislation to pass, they wish it to pass unamended, and they wish it to pass now. I honour them in their suffering, and it is for that reason that I urge the House to reject the amendments and to pass the Bill.