Amendment 1

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:35 pm on 20 March 2024.

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Lord Wallace of Saltaire:

Moved by Lord Wallace of Saltaire

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out from “the” to the end of line 8 and insert “political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct was the primary or sole factor in the decision”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would clarify that political and moral disapproval must be seen to be a central factor and not a supplementary consideration in any relevant decision.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, as we are starting Committee, I will say a few things about how we should handle the Bill from now on. After Second Reading and the Commons stages, during which there were a large number of sharp criticisms from Conservatives, as well as others, about the quality of the drafting and the coverage of the Bill, I would have expected the Government, between Second Reading and Committee, to have produced a number of government amendments to clarify some of the many imprecisions in the Bill and perhaps to have arranged to meet some of us who had spoken at Second Reading. I am sorry that that has not happened, and I very much hope that, between Committee and Report, the Government will respond to some of the criticisms by bringing forward clarifying amendments, and that the Minister and the Bill team will be willing to meet with us to discuss some of the arrangements.

The lack of engagement is troubling, and the absence of government amendments at this stage is extremely worrying. I recognise that this is very much a Michael Gove Bill and that he, as Secretary of State, probably wishes to get it through, if possible, without amendment. But here we are in the amending House, and the Minister also has a duty, as a Lords Minister, to listen to and engage with the reasoned criticisms made of the many highly imprecise elements in this Bill, and to respond.

I have two amendments in this group. One raises the question of what is meant by “political or moral disapproval”, and whether the word “influenced” in the phrase

“influenced by political and moral disapproval” is sufficient. The second, Amendment 6, refers to

“any person seeking to persuade the decision-maker”, as well as the decision-maker.

As the Minister will know, environmental, social and corporate governance has a long history. It goes back to the Sullivan principles from the United States, which I am sure she will remember. They were formulated by Mr Sullivan, a director of General Motors, in the context of apartheid South Africa and set out a number of principles that companies and others should follow when dealing with investments and procurement. Those principles have since expanded into the whole ESG dimension, which we see actively discussed in Britain, the United States and a number of other market economy countries. The right wing in the United States is busily attacking them in favour of what one has to describe as an amoral capitalism, in which profit is the only thing you are ever allowed to think about. I recall that the first person who started attacking the Sullivan principles was Professor Milton Friedman, who strongly believed that companies have no other duties than to pursue the greatest profit possible for their shareholders.

We need to know what is meant by

“influenced by moral or political disapproval”.

My Amendment 1 suggests that it has to be very considerable in order to be a primary cause of the decision, not simply something that comes in as, or can be argued under Clause 5 to have been—we will get to that later in terms of judicial review—part of the reasons why the decision was taken.

One of our many worries about the Bill is the extent to which it opens the door to litigation through a great many of its imprecise terms. The question, therefore, is whether or not any indication of political or moral disapproval begins to get captured under the Bill, or whether this has to be the major reason why such a decision is taken.

I was very struck as I went through the impact assessment and the Explanatory Memorandum by the sheer lack of evidence that much of this has happened. We find a reference to a council that in 2014 discussed whether or not to, and that another council in 2016 discussed whether or not to. Neither of them actually did it, but they discussed it. “That is wrong and we should stop them doing things like that” seems to be a pretty thin basis on which to mount a Bill that has the sorts of penalties which this Bill begins to set out. That is very much part of our concerns.

Amendment 6 raises the question of whether it is not only the decision-maker who is going to be liable but

“any person seeking to persuade the decision-maker”.

Does that mean that the Guardian journalist who writes an editorial suggesting that this should be done is going to be caught by it? Does it mean that the lobby group that sends things to the decision-maker is going to be caught by it? Does it have to be a more direct approach? How do we identify that “any person”? This is the sort of drafting that should not appear in a Bill before this House. It has to be clarified or we shall do our utmost to remove it. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Lord Palmer of Childs Hill Deputy Speaker (Lords), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

I speak to exactly the same issue as did my noble friend. Mine is a simpler amendment. I work on the basis that the Bill will pass in some form or another and if one does a modest, sensible tweak to a Bill, it has a chance of being incorporated into the final version. My Amendment 2 —purely adds one word: “materially”. This would raise the threshold that needs to be met before a decision is deemed to be in breach of this prohibition. If it is not “materially”, things could be prohibited for something very minor. Having “materially” improves the Bill and makes it more logical—we are looking at things of substance, not things that are minor.

Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative

My Lords, I rise merely to ask my noble friend the Minister to be very careful about her responses to this. I have a huge problem in that I cannot think of a speech that I have made in this House in which there has not been some moral content, because that is the way I think. I cannot help that. I am very concerned about the clarity with which the Bill is written. My noble friend and I go back a very long way. I have to say to her that when she was a civil servant working with me, she would not have produced a Bill like this. She would have been very angry if I had suggested that it should be as loose as all this. I am sorry to remind her of that fact. All I am interested in is that we do not unhappily and by accident cause a whole lot of legal cases that are unnecessary and which we never meant to.

I have some fundamental problems, not least with the specifics of this. I may wish at some later point to discuss the speech that was made at Second Reading by my noble friend Lord Wolfson, but the first point I want to make has nothing to do with the nature of the Bill itself or what it seeks to do. It is about precision. This is an imprecise Bill and it needs to be precise if it is not to be extremely malignant. All I ask is for my noble friend to try to understand that we need precision here, even those of us who in general do not come here with an antagonistic view. We just want to know what it is about, and you do not understand that if you merely read the Bill. I do not want this constantly to be in the courts. It would be much better to get it right now.

Photo of Lord Verdirame Lord Verdirame Non-affiliated

My Lords, Amendments 3 to 5 are in my name. All the amendments in this group have the same objective, which is to find some ways of mitigating the rather unusual and perhaps slightly sinister language of

“political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”— the language that gives the provision its title. Amendments 1 and 2 seek to achieve that objective by retaining that concept but raising the bar for its application. I agree that this approach may be sensible, and it is one that I encourage the Government to consider very seriously.

My amendments go a little further. I tried to think of ways in which the main provision of the Bill—Clause 1 —could operate without the novel concept of a prohibition on

“being influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.

I note that this is not an attempt to frustrate the Bill. As the Minister will recall, I spoke in support of the Bill at Second Reading and I support the Government’s intentions. I am suggesting this different way forward because I am not really persuaded that the policy objectives require us to introduce this concept in our legislation. I urge the Government to test more proportionate and more focused ways to achieve those objectives.

As I understand those objectives, the core purpose is to ensure that public bodies, when taking procurement or investment decisions, do not impose a de facto sanctions regime or a de facto ban or boycott on a foreign state on the basis of their own judgments about a territorial dispute, the status of a foreign territory or the presence of a foreign Government in a particular territory. It seems to me that that objective can be achieved equally effectively by focusing the duty in Clause 1 on not having regard to territorial considerations, rather than in the current formulation of a duty not to be influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct. Subject to the exceptions, it would still be the case that if a public authority were to have regard to a territorial consideration, it would probably do so because of disapproval of a moral or political kind of the foreign state’s conduct in the territory. But it would be better if we can get to the result that the Government are pursuing without that language of political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct.

I accept that a criticism of the proposals may be that if we remove that expression “moral or political disapproval” from Clause 1, as my amendments would do, and focus instead on territorial considerations, the main provision of the Bill would not substantially improve on Section 17 of the Local Government Act 1988.

The Bill would supersede the Local Government Act in the part where it prohibits local authorities from considering non-commercial matters in relation to decisions about public supply or works contracts, including

“the country or territory of origin of supplies to, or the location in any country or territory of the business activities or interests of, contractors”.

This part of Section 17 of the Local Government Act would be omitted by the effect of a separate clause in the Bill. But Clause 1, even with the amendment I propose, would still go further than Section 17. In particular, the duty not to have regard to foreign state conduct in relation to territorial considerations, such as the existence of a territorial dispute, would still be able to capture indirect bans or boycotts, which I understand is the Government’s main concern.

I look forward to what the Government have to say. Again, I stress that my main concern is to encourage them to think of ways of tightening the language in Clause 1, and mitigating or perhaps altogether removing this notion of

“political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.

Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

My Lords, I apologise for my not being able to speak at Second Reading, although if I had, I would have agreed with my noble friend Lord Wolfson on much of what he had to say. I also apologise for slightly jumping the gun on the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, particularly as what he said was so interesting and informative.

I just wanted to question Amendment 1. If one is seeking clarity and certainty, introducing the idea of having a

“primary or sole factor in the decision” seems extremely difficult to prove, whereas showing that the decision was “influenced” is much easier and, as I understand it, a recognised legal term.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

My Lords, I have problems with all the amendments in this group. Amendment 1 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, would elevate “political or moral disapproval” to be the sole or main factor, and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, wants to introduce the concept of materiality into influence. Both these would just create huge loopholes, which would allow public bodies to conceal their boycott activities within other factors. Clever lawyers would find ways of writing papers which support decision-making in, say, local authorities or other bodies affected by the Bill, by reference to a whole load of other factors, to support the claim that they were not “materially” influenced by their disapproval of a foreign state, or that it was not the sole or main factor. I genuinely have a problem with the watering-down implied by Amendments 1 and 2.

I listened very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, said about his amendments. I understand that he is trying to find a way through by removing the reference to “political or moral disapproval”, but I am not convinced that his amendments work either. In particular, I am not sure what the restriction to “that territory” in his Amendment 4 will do. Let us suppose that the territorial consideration is Ukraine, because it has to relate to a particular foreign territory by virtue of subsection (3). Does that mean that the decision-maker must have no regard to what is happening in Ukraine itself? It seems to me that “that territory” can be related only to the territorial consideration referenced in subsection (2). In that case, it would be Ukraine. If, say, Russia is the foreign state you have a problem with, it seems that you can take account of its activities only in Ukraine. You could not take account of activities that were not in Ukraine—for example, attacks from other places, such as the Black Sea, or whether it takes children from Ukraine back to Russia. If you thought that Russia was the territory—still restricting it to one territory—you have the problem the other way around; you could take activities only in Russia, but not in Ukraine, which is the fundamental problem. That creates an interpretive problem.

While these distinctions might not matter if we are talking about Russia and Ukraine, if you try and then relate it to a council or other public body trying to boycott Israel, and relate that to the complexities of the different parts of the territory around the State of Israel, you may end up finding some odd conclusions on how the reformulation might work in practice. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, is a very clever lawyer and I am not, and I may well have completely misunderstood how his amendment is intended to work.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, because this is the first group, I again state that I think that a lot of these amendments are trying to establish what is intended by the Bill, in a probing way. In that sense, they are very helpful for clarification on the language used. It was clear from Second Reading that most of the people who have since tabled these amendments and are speaking now are not in any way defending BDS; it was clear to me anyway. These boycott schemes are censorious and illiberal, and very often, as was stated at the time, the seeding ground for anti-Semitism in public life. In that sense, I oppose them; I am just not clear how the Bill will actually tackle them.

As we speak, just to use an example, the Rio Cinema in London has just cancelled its Eurovision party on the basis that it will not hold it while Israel still has somebody in the Eurovision Song Contest. I do not know whether this is self-declared BDS; it is a charity, and I am not quite sure how the Bill would apply. The point I kept trying to make at Second Reading was that, so often, I feel that the Bill will miss where a lot of the anti-Semitic censorship is occurring, around the periphery, rather than just in terms of divestment and investment, and so on.

I say that because those of us who are interested in tackling those issues need to have as much free speech as possible. I particularly support Amendment 6 from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire—although both his amendments are interesting—which makes the point about

“any person seeking to persuade the decision-maker”.

That is what politics is, is it not? Trying to persuade a decision-maker—lobbying and trying to have an influence on politics—is surely the job we are all in, even if we disapprove of, in this instance, what someone is trying to persuade about. I just get anxious about this being in a Bill; it sets a dangerous precedent.

Points have been made well by other noble Lords about the use of the language of political and moral disapproval; I want there to be far more political and moral disapproval in politics today than there is. It is an entirely good thing to make that clear. I wish there was a bit more “political and moral disapproval” leadership in general, even though many of us arguing that would disagree over what it should be. That is fair, but it is far better than a kind of technocratic approach. Also, if we are to win the hearts and minds of many of the young people who go along with BDS campaigns, we will have to show our political and moral disapproval, and win them over and seek to persuade them. Noble Lords get the point, but it is not clear how the language in the section to which these amendments refer will help us to tackle the problem that the Bill seeks to address.

Photo of Baroness Janke Baroness Janke Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions)

My Lords, I also wish to speak in support of Amendments 1 and 6 in the name of my noble friend Lord Wallace. As a former councillor, I can imagine that former colleagues will be absolutely horrified at the scope of the Bill. We are talking about how moral and political disapproval cannot be used as the basis of a decision. Many councillors get into politics because they have moral and political views—they want to change the world and do something about things in their own area. I would welcome clarity, as others have asked for, on how it is to be established whether a decision-maker has been

“influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.

What means might be used to actually determine this, in the event of needing to enforce action against it?

Councillors on a committee such as a pension committee receive expert professional advice from council officers and external advisers. Would these people be seen as people

“seeking to persuade the decision-maker”?

Surely it is entirely desirable that such advice be given. What is the position under the Bill of

“any person seeking to persuade the decision-maker”?

Is the adviser prevented from discussing risks of investment or procurement? It is not at all clear what the position of the person seeking to persuade is.

How will the possibility of liability for enforcement action and a potential monetary penalty affect the need for open and frank discussion, as the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, asked, particularly with regard to relevant information and advice to people taking decisions in pension committees? Is there a risk that advisers will be unwilling to risk liability and councillors will be unwilling to serve on such a body if they risk their reputation, and penalties, including monetary penalties?

I would also welcome clarity from the Minister on the concept of “a reasonable observer”. Decisions on finance and investment are complex and may raise a range of issues and factors influencing a decision. Will the reasonable observer be someone with a certain level of financial expertise? If so, how will this be defined and determined? We need much more clarity, particularly for elected members in local government, as to how the Bill will directly affect them.

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated 8:00, 20 March 2024

My Lords, I have an entry in the register of interests. I seek clarity from the Minister. I may not need it, but I would like to tease it out, to see whether my interpretation of these clauses is correct. My question is about the word “decision”, and what the statutory understanding of that word is. My understanding is clarified by Clause 2(2), which says:

“A ‘procurement decision’ is a decision about a contract for the supply of goods, services or works to the decision-maker.”

That seems to me absolutely clear. I want to clarify if that is also the Minister’s understanding of what a decision in this context is.

I ask that because of an example from the University of Essex student union, which has a policy passed 15 or 16 years ago, described as a BDS policy, which is specifically targeted against the state of Israel. On the student union website that policy is deemed to be an educational policy to stimulate discussion and debate. But the student union, in applying the policy, has chosen specifically to address the purchasing of kosher food products, including those from Israel, in the student union shop.

In the context of the amendments, and in terms of how the general public might understand this, as well as those more directly impacted in the public sector and elsewhere, it would be helpful to know whether I am right in my understanding that the University of Essex student union policy, which has not been turned into a procurement decision, as defined in Clause 2(2), would not be covered by the Bill, because it is merely an educational policy, as opposed to a procurement and economic activity decision. To know that would be helpful in understanding what the scope of the Bill is and is not, and what the legal situation will be when it is enacted, as I presume it will be.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Conservative

My Lords, I spoke on Second Reading, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Deben for taking the trouble to read my speech. I wait with anticipation to find out the, no doubt very few, points on which we disagree. That will perhaps be for another day, but I look forward to it.

On these amendments I can be brief, because the central point has already been made: that the proposed amendments, especially those in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, would add complexity and increase the likelihood of litigation; I declare the obvious interest in that respect. The amendments would therefore make the Bill not more precise but less.

I say that for three reasons. First, introducing words such as “primary or sole” is an invitation to litigation. My second short point—forgive the legal geekiness, but we are in Committee—is that a quick search of legislation.gov.uk indicates that that phrase does not appear anywhere else in legislation. “Sole or primary” does, so in case we go forward with this, I would invite the noble Lord to flip it round, so that we put the more general word “sole” first, followed by the word “primary”. That is not my main point, but as we are in Committee, which is the place for geeky legal points, I may have just made one.

Another amendment introduces the word “material”. That is a really problematic word in law, as are words such as “significant”, because we always have the debate about what the opposite of “material” is. Is it immaterial—that is, de minimis? In that case, that is not really, as I understand it, the force of the amendment. “Material” here really means “of substance”, and it is, I suggest, not a good word to use if one is seeking to get that point across.

However, my main point is that this part of the Bill is drafted clearly and that whether we add “primary or sole” or “material”, that would add complexity and invite more litigation.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I was going to intervene on the noble Lord, but he finished his speech before I could. Maybe we will have an opportunity when the Minister responds to the debate, because the idea that the words “moral” and “political” are not vague stuns me. Who is to define “moral”? That is very difficult.

This is one of the rare occasions in the House when I can honestly agree with practically all the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. I also agree with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Deben. I want to stress that with the amendments, especially those to Clause 1, it is necessary to probe what the words mean, and get a better understanding of them. Even if I do not personally feel committed to the amendments, it is important to use this stage to elicit from the Minister a better understanding of the intent of Clause 1.

I do not want to repeat what the noble Baroness said, but this is not about how we address BDS strategies. The impact of the clause is far wider and encompasses a whole host of things that the Government may not have really intended. Who knows? Clause 1 does not define “political” or “moral”. It is extremely wide-ranging and could cover any decision or consideration that suggests a negative view of an existing, previous or potential policy action or inaction, or other behaviour associated with a Government or any public authority in another country.

As the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, said, the reasonable observer of the decision-making process test sets an extremely low bar for considering whether a decision was influenced by political or moral disapproval. It does not distinguish between minor or significant influence, and it does not clearly define a reasonable observer. I hope we can use the amendments in this group to probe substantially on these issues.

I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that the consideration of financial, reputational, legal, environmental, social, governance and other risks in procurement and investment decisions are often complex and overlapping, and some considerations may be confidential. How are we going to sort all those things out if the Bill becomes law?

The legislation does not require the reasonable person to be someone who is familiar with the subject matter and decision-making processes. Clause 1(4) and 1(6) do not define a public authority in a foreign territory, so it could include state-run companies in some countries. This could result in additional uncertainty where the conduct of a public authority differs from the official policy of a foreign state, and that is a threat to actions in support of persecuted people across the world.

The sweeping approach to Clause 1 will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on public bodies being able to make ethical procurement and investment decisions and take actions that support upholding international law, democracy and human rights. I know I have an amendment later on, so I will not go into too much detail now.

As I mentioned at Second Reading, the Bill is incoherent and it waters down the Procurement Act 2023. That Act sets key objectives covered by procurement, including supporting public benefit, in Clause 12(1)(b), and acting and being seen to act with integrity, in Clause 12(1)(d). The Act also gave a mandate to commissioning authorities to award contracts based on the “most advantageous tender” submitted. That change of words moves away from the previous priority of the “most economically advantageous tender” under which the previous procurement regime existed. What was the intent of that change in language? The intent was to enable contracting authorities to give more weight to award criteria such as decent work and wider social values. Again, we are coming to other amendments, particularly about the environment.

This wide definition, which is covered in Clause 1, is the fundamental problem with the Bill. The Explanatory Notes state:

“Clause 1 prohibits relevant public authorities from having regard to a territorial consideration in a way that indicates moral or political disapproval of a country or territory’s foreign state conduct, when making decisions … This clause is designed to catch both open participation in boycotts”, which the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, talked about,

“or divestment campaigns, and more subtle ways of singling out countries or territories that could produce similar results”.

As I say, this sweeping approach will have a chilling effect and will impact on public authorities in upholding international law.

A point I want to focus on is that the UK Government have committed to implementing international standards, including the UN guiding principles on business and human rights—the UNGPs—as well as the commitment made in terms of the environment in the Paris agreement. Carrying out effective due diligence is central to public bodies, as state institutions, being able to fulfil their human rights obligations, implement UNGPs and make ethical procurement and investment decisions. However, because the terminology, such as “political and moral disapproval”, is undefined, this will create problems for public authorities when carrying out their due diligence. That is what will be needed in the due diligence process to avoid falling foul of this legislation, when clarity is so lacking.

Let us remind ourselves what the UNGPs say about corporate responsibility:

“The responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights refers to internationally recognized human rights—understood, at a minimum, as those expressed in the International Bill of Human Rights and the principles concerning fundamental rights set out in the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work”.

I am very familiar with the ILO and its conventions— I have spent a lifetime quoting them—and they are very important in terms of establishing minimum standards. I am not talking about workers’ rights—Rolls-Royce—but about very minimum standards. All public bodies have an obligation to think about those issues and decide what influence they will have on their final procurement decisions.

To come back to the clause, I am extremely worried that it will suddenly stop people thinking openly and having a dialogue or a debate. I worry that it will stop people thinking about what the right thing to do is and stop them making any decision or taking any of those things into account. The whole of Clause 1 would benefit from amendments so that we can ensure that they continue to carry out their duties in accordance with the sort of international law and conventions that this country upholds and values so much.

I give fair warning: we are in Committee and I am sure the Minister will be attempting to give us clarity, but I hope we can intervene to ensure that, when something is said, we can better understand the impact and intent of this clause.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 8:15, 20 March 2024

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their amendments and for their contributions to the debate. I look forward to scrutinising the Bill and these proposed changes in detail during the four Committee days that we have set aside—although this one has been a little truncated. I remain open to listening to noble Lords’ views from all sides, and I hope we can use these sessions to put forward the best possible version of this legislation.

Clarity on all sides is important, and I look forward to further meetings with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, as the Bill progresses. He knows I enjoy meetings with him on the Bills that we have done together. Probing amendments are also important, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, has just said. We were of course both involved with the Procurement Act and I look forward to discussing how the two pieces of legislation interact and how human rights considerations are respected—as they are.

I hope that, in responding to these six amendments, I can assure the House that Clause 1 as currently drafted is the most proportionate and clear way of fulfilling the manifesto commitment of banning public bodies from imposing their own boycott and divestment campaigns.

Clause 1 sets out three tests that must be met to trigger the ban. First, the ban is narrow. It applies only to procurement or investment decisions. Secondly, the public body must have considered a specific territory or country as part of making its decision. Thirdly, that consideration must reflect political or moral disapproval of the conduct of a foreign state.

I turn first, if I may, to Amendments 3, 4 and 5, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame. I am grateful for his general support. However, together, his amendments would alter the scope of the clause. Amendments 3 and 5 would prohibit public authorities from being influenced in any way by foreign state conduct. This would widen the prohibition in Clause 1 to include considerations that relate specifically or mainly to a country or territory in a way that is influenced by approval of foreign state conduct. The current drafting prohibits only disapproval of foreign state conduct, and the inclusion of moral and political disapproval is necessary to ensure that the Bill does not capture legitimate territorial considerations that are not about boycotts and divestment campaigns and would take the Bill beyond the manifesto commitment. An example of this would include encouraging trade with important trading partners. These amendments would therefore prohibit a public authority from favouring goods or services from a particular country or territory, based on approval of that country’s conduct. It therefore captures a broader range of decisions that are not relevant to boycotts and divestment campaigns.

Amendment 4, on the other hand, would narrow the prohibition so that it applied only in the case of disapproval of a foreign state’s conduct within its own territory. It would not apply in the case of disapproval of a foreign state’s conduct outside its territory. I agree with the comments made by my noble friend Lady Noakes: this would effectively allow public authorities to boycott countries whose foreign policy they disapproved of. This could leave a significant loophole—a word I think she used—in the ban and undermine the manifesto commitment.

I will now address Clause 1(7) in response to Amendment 6 by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and the concerns raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Janke. This amendment would permit public authorities to engage in boycotts and divestment campaigns as long as they were only a result of pressure from a third party, such as a student union, rather than a result of the public authority’s own moral or political disapproval. Subsection (7) is a necessary element of the Bill, as public authorities such as universities and local authorities are frequently pressured to engage in boycotts or divestment campaigns. For example, student unions at Warwick University and Sussex University have passed motions calling for their universities to divest from Israeli companies. If a university conducted a boycott or divestment campaign because of such pressure, rather than because of its own view of a foreign state, we would want that campaign to be caught. Subsection (7) extends to any person seeking to persuade the public authority. However, for there to be a breach of the ban, an enforcement authority must be satisfied that there is enough evidence that a third party influenced the public authority.

I will address the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Janke, on decision-making, if she would agree, on group 2 because we are going to be discussing the meaning of a decision-maker for the purposes of the Bill.

Finally, and most importantly, I turn to Amendments 1 and 2, tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Wallace of Saltaire and Lord Palmer of Childs Hill. Amendment 1 would narrow the scope of the prohibition in Clause 1 so that it prohibited public authorities from taking account of territorial considerations only where moral or political disapproval of foreign state conduct is the “primary or sole” factor in the decision. My noble friend Lord Leigh of Hurley asked a question which made this point, while my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar was concerned that it would increase uncertainty and lead to legal disputes.

Similarly, Amendment 2, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, would narrow the prohibition to decisions “materially” influenced by moral or political disapproval of foreign state conduct. Like my noble friend Lord Wolfson, I do not agree with weakening the effect of the Bill in this way. Public authorities buying goods or services, or making investments, should not be influenced by moral or political disapproval of foreign state conduct to any degree, unless—and this is important—one of the exemptions, such as environmental or labour misconduct, applies.

I reassure the Committee that Clause 1 will not capture fleeting and inconsequential remarks made during the procurement or investment decision-making process. The Bill prohibits only considerations that a reasonable observer of the decision-making process would consider a contributing factor to a decision.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

It is precisely that point I want to better understand, because many decisions are going to be complex. While the Minister mentioned the exclusion of things, there could be a combination of issues which would influence the final decision. Somebody might be able to say, “Actually, that combination has become a moral and political thing”. That is what really concerns me. The Minister is very confident that certain things will not be captured, but I do not see that. I would like her to explain in a little more detail that final point she made.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

We will try to do that. I am also happy to discuss this further, because it is obviously an important point in relation to the Bill and, as we agreed at the beginning, we need to try to find a way that does not create a lot of uncertainty.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, commented on the perceived lack of evidence for the Bill, but boycotts have been attempted by several public authorities in recent years. In 2014, Leicester City Council passed a motion boycotting goods from Israeli settlements, as far as the law allows. Several other local authorities have passed boycotting or condemnatory motions, including Swansea Council, Gwynedd Council—

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am certainly very happy to come back to that on a later group of amendments.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I will see if I can come back to it before we finish. I was trying to give the examples that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, had asked for. There was West Dunbartonshire Council and Stirling Council, and in 2021 Lancaster City Council passed a motion in support of the wider BDS movement.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

I come back to the first point that the Minister made. It is really important that we are clear about this, because one concern we have mentioned—I am not going to make a Second Reading speech—is the impact that this Bill has on the United Kingdom’s foreign policy. If there is a discussion about goods from and investments in the Occupied Territories, she needs to explain why she has evidenced that and how it is supported by the FCDO’s own advice and the Government’s support for United Nations resolutions on that subject.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I can certainly provide more detail of the boycotts, if that is helpful.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I was giving a list and I will certainly come back on that question. We have a group relating to the Occupied Territories later on, when we can go into this in more detail. If the noble Lord can give me a bit of slack, I will see if I can get fuller information and come back to that at the end.

I was trying to answer the question on evidence. If I may, I should also like to cite, from September 2023, Islington Council passing a motion in opposition to this Bill, expressing its support for BDS campaigns—which everybody has said that they are very unhappy about—and resolving to:

“Continue to ensure that our own ethical procurement strategy doesn’t include procuring goods and services produced by oppressive regimes”.

I have not covered all the BDS activity in public bodies, but I hope that this demonstrates to the noble Lord that there is a considerable evidence base.

Separately, I note the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, about student unions and the provision of kosher foods in universities. We are going to discuss that point. The noble Lord has tabled some interesting amendments on it in group 3.

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated 8:30, 20 March 2024

My point was not in relation to the amendment; it was in relation to the fact that a significant number of people in the Jewish community have said to me that they anticipate one of the key benefits of this Bill being that student unions will not be able to debate and pass BDS resolutions. My understanding of how the Bill is written and how it has been framed is that what the University of Essex student union has done, whereby it deemed its policy to be an educational tool rather than a procurement decision, explicitly would not be covered by the Bill. That is important, because the expectation is coming from multiple sources within the Jewish community that that is what would happen. Can the Minister clarify whether I am wrong on this, because my reading of the Bill suggests that I am right that—whether one calls it a good thing or a loophole—it would not be covered by the Bill?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

The noble Lord is right—student unions are not covered, and I think that I made that clear at Second Reading. It is private activity. Clearly, what matters is the influence on public bodies, which is what we are discussing today.

To come back on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, obviously the Government recognise the risks associated with economic and financial activities in those settlements. We do not support boycotts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Such boycotts are inherently divisive and could lead inadvertently to negative effects on Palestinians as well as undermining the aim of this Bill, which is to ensure that the UK speaks with one voice internationally. That does not change existing government guidance on doing business in those territories. The Government do not recognise the settlements as part of Israel, as the noble Lord knows, and we have already moved to ban those responsible for violence in the West Bank from the UK—there have been some recent sanctions.

I have tried to answer the probing amendments. I hope that this provides noble Lords with clarification and a rationale for the scope of Clause 1, and I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I am slightly better informed. We have many difficulties with this Bill. I must say that it would be much easier if it were simply a Bill about boycott of Israel and mainly about sanctions. It would be narrower, and we would know what we were talking about. But it is a Bill that is supposed to apply to every single foreign state in the world except for Ireland, which raises very large questions.

I disapprove strongly of the Rwandan Government’s support for M23 in the Congo civil war, and I disapprove very strongly of Myanmar’s behaviour towards the Rohingya, et cetera. Clause 1 is entitled “Disapproval of foreign state conduct prohibited”, which is itself a very uneasy label and not the sort of thing that ought to appear in legislation. I believed that I lived in a liberal democracy in which government’s reach was limited and free speech, as Conservative Peers are always telling us, is entrenched, and one is allowed to dissent. This appears to be extending the reach of government.

I appreciate that this is a DLUHC Bill that is aimed primarily at local authorities, although it is extended to include universities—and whether it includes student unions we will investigate further. As it happens, I had the current president of the Cambridge Students’ Union here last Wednesday, and I showed him a copy of the Bill—and he was convinced that it would apply to student unions; it is quite clear that some people would like it to do so.

There is a great deal more that we need to find out about all this. The closing down of public debate that the Bill implies is something that worries all of us a great deal. I am happy to withdraw my amendment for a moment, but we shall return to all these questions extensively as we move from one imprecise clause to another.

Amendment 1 withdrawn.