Amendment 8

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 20 March 2024.

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Lord Mann:

Moved by Lord Mann

8: Clause 1, page 1, line 23, at end insert—“(9) A decision under subsection (2) may include a decision by a university or research institution based in the United Kingdom to enter into a commercial partnership with another university or research institution in a foreign state.”

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated

I again reference my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests. I should specify, as others have, that I am an unpaid adviser to His Majesty’s Government on anti-Semitism, and that previously in the other House I was, for 14 years, the chair of the all-party group on combating anti-Semitism.

In that time and over recent years, I visited virtually every university in the country, looking at and discussing anti-Semitism. I have a very detailed report that was published last year with a lot of recommendations on what should be done in higher education in this country on this issue. In introducing my amendment, I can let the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, and others know that there were no examples from that time of when a student union was capable of influencing a university in terms of BDS campaigns. I think I described it at Second Reading as the most unsuccessful political campaign in my lifetime, and that was partly why I used that language.

My amendment gets to the nub of the issue—what the problem that led to the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment at the last election for a BDS Bill is actually about. The fundamental issue and problem that has been raised consistently is attempts at academic boycotts. In the last six months, there has without question been a growth in the pressure in universities and on academics not to carry out co-operation or research work that links directly into Israeli universities. That is a fact. How it manifests is not so much complex as complex to legislate on, because the most common way is peer group pressure. How does a university department determine what its research priorities should be? How does it determine which of the myriad universities around the world it should co-operate with?

Sometimes it is explicit; the arguments and the language are explicit. It seems to me that here there is potential scope for legislation, hence this amendment. Sometimes it is not. It is unspoken; it simply happened. Clearly, for us as legislators, that is very intangible. However, the purpose of this amendment would be to give not just a message but a specific legislative tool that would prohibit the explicit refusal to an individual academic of any status, including postgraduates, for example, specifically to work with a university that somebody did not like for political or whatever reasons.

These cases are about Israeli universities. It is widespread across Israeli universities in terms of people saying, “That should not happen”, “We don’t do that here” or “You should not do that. Your research should not include that”. That puts immense pressure on individuals. Imagine that you are a postgraduate student and you are told by your supervisor, “No, I don’t think you should be researching into what is happening in Israel in relation to the specific subject of your postgraduate studies”. That is exactly the pressure that has happened. Or, “We as a university are not going to have a relationship”. The excuse given might be, “We don’t have the budget for this particular university” —Haifa university, let us say—“but we do have a budget for another university somewhere else in the world”. That is precisely how it manifests.

Where it could be demonstrated that that is done for racist reasons, when the academic has a specific interest, a particular desire, a particular motivation to work with an Israeli university or with an Israeli academic, that becomes the problem that we should be dealing with. That is the real problem of anti-Semitism having a pernicious impact in our universities and in our university life. Thankfully, it is not widespread in terms of how it happens, but it is there, it is more common, there are many examples of it over the years and there are increasing examples now.

So having something in the Bill that addresses that specific problem is far more relevant than the theoretics of investment decisions elsewhere, where the evidence base does not say that is the nub of the problem. If the Government wish to manage expectations in the Jewish community, that is rather fundamental. The people who have said, “Yes, we welcome this Bill”, expect it to be about student unions and student union debates. There is no ambiguity in what people have said and what they have called for. It does not serve the interests of Government or Parliament to build up a false expectation of what a piece of legislation would do— indeed, it is dangerous to do so, in my view. So I put it to the Government and the Committee that this amendment would be helpful in putting some meat into the issue for this Bill to progress.

My second amendment, Amendment 9, is equally important but for a different reason. My stance on BDS protests and campaigns is that, frankly, if anyone here chooses to buy this or that product, it is perfectly valid. If one decides not to buy Jaffa oranges because one does not like Israel or the Israeli Government, that is a choice one is free to make and should be free to make. If someone chooses particularly to buy Jaffa oranges, that is a perfectly valid case. If, like me, one is partial to both Palestinian dates and Jaffa oranges, one can say that that is a healthy choice to make on both counts, and perhaps even a little bit politically balanced—I am doing so because the food is rather good. If one chooses, as I do, not to buy Ben & Jerry’s, perhaps one might observe that that is doing me some good. Whether one calls that a political or moral decision, or an absurd decision, it does not matter; that is my free choice.

However, if one then stops a shop—let us say, in a student union or university, or in a local authority—stocking Jaffa oranges, that means that people who wish to buy them cannot do so. It is particularly invidious, when a religion, and there are several, has specific dietary rules and laws—in the case of Judaism, it is kosher food—specifically to isolate the ability of individuals to choose to follow religious norms and rules on diet and ban their right to do so. That is much more invidious, because it is impacting one’s way of life. Therefore, the principle is far greater. Having additional legislation that specifically makes that illegal has a much more powerful impact, because it is affecting a way of life. With the so-called BDS campaign, we are seeing increasingly Jewish kosher foods, which may be Israeli or not, being specifically targeted by racists, whether in supermarkets or Jewish-owned stores, inhibiting the rights of those who choose to be kosher-adherent to be so. That fundamental freedom is being restricted. That is why Amendment 9 has a validity to it.

There are great legal brains here who will work through whether the amendments I am proposing would work; they appear to me to do so. Certainly, in terms of the expectation out there of what this Bill is about, people are interested in precisely this kind of thing, because these are the big issues impacting on how people live their lives and on their freedoms; that is, their academic freedoms to do what they wish as academics—which, I put it to the Committee, is fundamental to what we are as a country—and their freedoms to be themselves in what they choose to eat, which is fundamental to the concept of individual and collective rights, and what we are in this country. I recommend these two amendments to the Government and the Committee. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Pickles Lord Pickles Conservative

My Lords, I apologise for not speaking at Second Reading, and I draw attention to my entry in the register. I am not entirely sure that what the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said is entirely within the scope of the Bill, but it should be, because it raises a very important point. Before I go on, I crave your Lordships’ indulgence for 30 seconds, because I want to say how indebted this country is to the noble Lord for his work in universities and higher education, and also in sport. He has made a considerable difference, and this House should be grateful to him,

What the noble Lord said illustrates that this is not just about who is in charge, or about the comfort of people attending universities and speaking in student union debates; it is about who is welcome and who is not. It is about how comfortable people feel when politics from another country spills over and affects the domestic life of this country. It is about how we underpin, and celebrate, a multicultural society, while ensuring that we can also celebrate our common Britishness.

The noble Lord, Lord Mann, has done a lot of work on getting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism adopted in universities. It is a non-legally binding definition, and is there as a marker for discussions. As with all such things, there is a bit of a fashion, and people go around and adopt things. The question that the noble Lord asked, and that I ask, is: “Congratulations on adopting it, but what have you done with it?”

The very minimum we would expect, in a university, say, is the creation of a safe space for Jewish students to be able to study. But this also means creating a safe space to do the sorts of things that would keep their parents up at night worrying about them—to be able to enjoy being at university, to enjoy life and to be able to go around the campus with signs of their Jewishness, without fear that they will be picked on. The point that the noble Lord, Lord Mann, is making is that we should not seek to do things that exclude people. If people have a particular view of the kind of food they can eat, that should be available. Student shops on campuses should not remove kosher food, because that excludes people.

I speak from practical experience of this. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I was the leader of Bradford Council, and, with the co-operation of the Labour Party, we introduced halal meat into school meals. That does not sound all that exciting—we see it all the time—but we were the first council in the country to do it. There was an enormous backlash from the population, and from the animal rights people, because of the nature of religious-compliant slaughter.

Why was that important? We had a large number of Muslims in Bradford, many of them on very low incomes, and it was one guaranteed way of ensuring that once a day, the children got a hot, nutritious meal that met their needs. We were also saying something really important to the population of Bradford, which was, as we say in Bradford, “You’re ratepayers—so you’re entitled to get back what you’re putting in. You’re entitled to receive respect”. When we try to get people to work together as a wider community, we should not seek to exclude them because they cannot come to receptions or parties or other social events because we do not provide things that they can enjoy. We should also ensure that if people want to pray, that should be available, because this is about bringing people together.

I am not sure whether the Bill covers that, but there is a debate coming in this country that may be the flip side of the definition of extremism, which is about how we bind people together—how we work together and make people feel British without them losing their identity. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, has given considerable service to this House by raising this because it is an issue that over the coming years and decades we have to get right.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 9:45, 20 March 2024

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 8. I declare an interest: I have two children, both scientists, working in universities. My son runs a microbiology laboratory at Edinburgh University that has a number of international research partnerships, including with Israeli academics. I am unaware, from everything my children have told me, that anyone is boycotting contact with Israel in microbiology. There are some highly regarded Israeli scholars who take part in a whole range of things.

There are course problems in some research partnerships with Chinese academics, sometimes now with Russian academics and sometimes with academics from particular Middle Eastern countries. One has to leave it to those who are running laboratories, which are highly international—I think my son currently has people from four different countries in his—because these matters require delicate arrangements. When it comes to the social sciences, particularly if you are teaching international relations and have a lot of research students, as I used to, and you are sending them out to study Saudi, Egyptian or above all Chinese issues, you are in really delicate areas.

I emphasise that any of those are private acts of a university—commercial partnerships most of all. When that gets into the question of how far we want the Government to interfere in the autonomy of universities, we do not always get it right. There have been research students and young scholars who have been imprisoned in the Emirates or imprisoned and killed in prison, as in Egypt. On one occasion I had to approach one of the intelligence agencies about some of our students at the LSE, immediately after 9/11, because some people had lost confidence in the people with whom they were dealing. That has to be left to the judgment of universities. I do not think there is a problem there, and I am therefore unhappy about the idea that Amendment 8 should be included within the scope of this Bill.

Photo of Lord Johnson of Marylebone Lord Johnson of Marylebone Minister of State (Department for Education) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

My Lords, while I am sympathetic to the intentions of Amendment 8, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, I wonder if it is ultimately going to be necessary, given that the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 gives the Office for Students powers to take action whenever an institution is in breach of the public interest principles it is required to uphold.

One of those principles relates specifically to academic freedom and the issues to which the noble Lord was referring with respect to Israel. All academic staff at an English higher education provider have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing the jobs or privileges they may have at that provider. I think that essentially covers the points he was making in respect of academics being prevented from pursuing partnerships or research with universities in Israel or with Israeli academics. We have these provisions in law and the Office for Students has all the powers at its disposal to enforce them. So I am not sure that Amendment 8 is entirely necessary, although I understand why he tabled it.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Conservative

My Lords, I associate myself with the words of my noble friend Lord Pickles about the work done over many years by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, for the Government in an unpaid capacity. That work is well regarded and very much appreciated in the Jewish community and, I am sure, well beyond it too.

Turning to Amendment 9, while I understand its focus and purpose, I am not sure that it is necessary in the Bill. In particular, although this is not my area of law, I wonder whether the thrust of the amendment would not actually be covered by existing provisions under the Equality Act. I do not know whether the Minister or her department has thought of that, but, if this were to go forward, that might be another way of dealing with this issue.

On a narrower point, the amendment is also widely drawn. It would seem to cover, for example, a decision to use one halal supplier or one kosher supplier rather than a different halal or kosher supplier. I think that cannot be within the intention of the amendment, although I think it would be caught by it.

I am conscious of the time, but I will end on a slightly different point. The focus of this amendment is that food is sometimes used to drive a wedge between communities. This might be a strange thing for me to say, but I want to pay tribute to Zarah Sultana MP, with whom I probably agree on absolutely nothing but who, with Charlotte Nichols MP, ran a long-standing campaign in Parliament to have kosher and halal food available here. They found a supplier called 1070, which has both kosher and halal certification to provide that food. As a result, I have had conversations over food with people who I might not otherwise have had those conversations with and I found those discussions extremely helpful. I use this, probably very wrongly, to suggest to the authorities that this kosher and halal food be continued, so that we can not only eat together but discuss and speak together as well.

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

My Lords, I too associate myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, because the noble Lord, Lord Mann, has done incredibly important work in tackling anti-Semitism and ensuring that we remove it from all of our civil life. I pay tribute to him.

I will not delay the House too long, but the important thing with these two amendments is expectations. This is the problem with the Bill. While I want to avoid going back, we have made a plea—my noble friend Lady Chapman made it at Second Reading—that we want to co-operate with the Government to implement their manifesto commitment. I am afraid that this Bill goes well beyond that and brings into question other issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Mann, is absolutely right to put these sorts of amendments down, because they address the concerns of the community. People often think when we are talking about this Bill that we are talking about consumer boycotts and consumer choice. No, we are not. It is about decisions over investment and procurement, but those decisions can involve the sorts of things that the noble Lord, Lord Mann, is talking about—and we heard an example from the noble Lord just now.

How we manage expectations is really important. I suspect that, when we go into other groups, we will hear lots of concerns about issues that go well beyond the scope of the Bill. So I hope the Minister understands why the noble Lord, Lord Mann, has put these amendments in. They are to probe, but also to say that there is a problem, there is an issue and the Bill does not solve it.

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

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mann, for drawing the House’s attention to two important issues with his Amendments 8 and 9. Like my noble friend Lord Pickles, who it is a real pleasure to welcome to our debate, my noble friend Lord Wolfson of Tredegar and the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, I am really grateful for all the work that the noble Lord, Lord Mann, has done.

My noble friend Lord Pickles and I worked together in my retail days, when he was a leading influence in local government and I worked to have kosher and halal food in many of the Tescos that were spreading across the country. So there were lots of conversations over food. A focus on community concerns is what much of the probing has been about this evening—but that is for another group.

I remain of the view that we need to apply this Bill to universities as we are doing, and I am committed to having a comprehensive debate and discussion on the impact of the Bill on universities at the appropriate moment later in Committee.

As we have heard, the two amendments in this group would add two stipulations to Clause 1. Amendment 8 intends to ensure that the prohibition applies to a decision made by a university to enter into a commercial partnership with another university or research university in a foreign state. The prohibition in the Bill already covers higher education providers in their public functions, including when their procurement and investment decisions form part of a research collaboration. Decisions relating to a commercial partnership are, however, likely to constitute a private function—for example, a decision relating to a research partnership to develop a new product funded by a pharmaceutical company. The ban applies only to public authorities’ public functions, as we have heard, and private decisions are rightly out of scope of the Bill. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Mann, says, but it would be inappropriate to apply the ban to private functions, and it would take the Bill beyond the manifesto commitment.

We have been clear in the Explanatory Notes that Clause 1 is not intended to prevent a higher education provider deciding to terminate a collaboration with a foreign university on the grounds of academic freedom, if they deem it necessary in line with their statutory duties in Part A1 of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 or other legislation. The Bill is about ensuring that universities and higher education institutions do not have a corporate view on a particular matter of foreign policy when making their investment and procurement decisions. It is right that the Bill does not stray into decisions that could threaten academic freedom, as helpfully highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Birmingham, who spoke at Second Reading. I am sympathetic to the points that the noble Lord, Lord Mann, is making, and the Government do not support academic boycotts, but this Bill rightly does not interfere with academic freedom or private activity.

I turn to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, about the Jewish community’s support for this Bill. The Jewish community in the UK is widely supportive of the Bill as drafted. Russell Langer, head of policy at the Jewish Leadership Council, provided the following statement in support of the Bill’s restriction on universities’ economic activities:

“Higher education institutions continue to come under pressure to adopt BDS policies ... This legislation will be a valuable tool in assisting our higher education in rejecting this effort”.

The Bill will sit alongside other measures that the Government are taking to protect academic freedom. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 will ensure that freedom of speech is protected and promoted within higher education in England, and it will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties and directly address gaps in the existing law. Without action to counter attempts to discourage or even silence unpopular views, intellectual life on campus for staff and students may be unfairly narrowed or diminished, which is why there was a commitment in the 2019 manifesto to strengthen this.

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

The Minister has just said that we need legislation to silence unpopular views. I have to say that, as a liberal, I find that one of the most illiberal things that we could consider doing. Did she mis-speak?

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

I am not sure that I said exactly that. However, there obviously is a problem in campuses and elsewhere with BDS, and that is what this Bill is about. I shall move on to Amendment 9.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

If I can help the Minister, what we need to silence is hate speech. The law is reasonably clear. It is not wholly clear—there is a blur between unpopular views and hate speech—but it has been settled for a long time that hate speech is not allowed. My test for this is when you hear something and it uses the word “Zionist” or “Jew”, if you remove that word and replace it with, let us say, “black” or “Asian”, it is then usually pretty clear that what you are dealing with is hate speech or racist speech.

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

I thank the noble Baroness for her intervention. These are difficult issues.

I turn briefly to Amendment 9, which would ensure that the prohibition in Clause 1 applied to decisions relating to the procurement of food prepared in line with religious practices, such as kosher and halal foods. The ban established by the Bill applies to all procurement decisions, including the procurement of food where this is part of a public function. Therefore, if a public authority made a decision not to procure kosher food and that decision was influenced by moral or political disapproval of the conduct of the State of Israel, the Bill would already prohibit this. However, I reassure noble Lords that nothing in the Bill would stop a public authority providing food that accommodated the religious beliefs of its employees or its service users. For example, it would not stop a public authority specifying in a tender that it was procuring halal products. For these reasons, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Mann Lord Mann Non-affiliated

I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment 8 withdrawn.

Amendment 9 not moved.

Clause 1 agreed.

House resumed.

House adjourned at 10.01 pm.