Amendment 30

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill - Committee (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 8:43 pm on 14 May 2024.

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Lord Hendy:

Moved by Lord Hendy

30: The Schedule, page 13, line 5, at end insert “and conventions, including the Genocide Convention, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights or any United Nations Security Council Resolution supported by the United Kingdom.”

Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour

My Lords, in the unavoidable absence of my noble friend Lady Blower, and at her request, I beg to move Amendment 30, which is intended to add to paragraph 6 of the schedule.

The paragraph, which we discussed in Committee last week, permits a decision-maker to take into account whether the decision might put the UK in breach of its obligations under international law. In the last debate, we discussed the nature of the international law obligations comprehended in this paragraph and the question of who determines whether there has been a breach of them. I do not seek to reopen that debate; this amendment is not dependent on the outcome of it.

The amendment would make it clear that the decision-maker will be permitted to take into consideration and reject a tender or an investment that the decision-maker reasonably considers might put the UK in breach of its obligations under the genocide convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or any UN Security Council resolutions supported by the United Kingdom. The amendment would still stand and have force, whether or not the Government accept amendments along the lines suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, identifying what entity appropriately determines what amounts to a UK breach of international law. Amendment 30 merely clarifies that the conventions and resolutions mentioned in it are to be regarded as UK obligations.

I find it impossible to see what conceivable objection there could be to identifying matters of such grave importance to a law-abiding nation. The rationale is so obvious that I cannot think of anything more to say in support of my noble friend Lady Blower’s amendment, and I look forward to hearing that the Minister will support it.

I will now speak to Amendment 32. Paragraph 8 of the Schedule permits the potential decision-maker on procurement to take into consideration certain forms of “labour-related misconduct”. The problem is that that is a very limited list. We touched on that in Committee last week. In the last debate, the Minister asked me to provide further details on whether the violations of core labour standards would be covered by the provisions of paragraph 8. I looked at that matter again and did not take up her kind invitation to write to her, because Amendment 32, which was not before us last week, makes clear the distinction between the core labour standards identified in the amendment and the standards set out in paragraph 8.

I will explain. Paragraph 8 is confined only to conduct that would amount to a criminal offence in relation to slavery or human trafficking orders, failure to pay the national minimum wage and labour market orders under the Immigration Act. That list does not currently permit those making procurement and investment decisions to have regard to the fundamental labour standards binding on all countries by virtue of their membership of the ILO. As a matter of convenience, we can take those standards from Articles 399(2) and 399(6) of the trade and co-operation agreement—the Brexit deal—signed by our then Prime Minister in 2020, where they are conveniently summarised.

The provisions commit the UK to respect, promote and effectively implement the ILO Constitution, which includes the Declaration of Philadelphia of 1944, the

“ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up, adopted at Geneva on 18 June 1998 … the ILO Decent Work Agenda as set out in the 2008 ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization”, and the fundamental ILO conventions. The fundamental ILO conventions are those identified in those provisions of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and in the amendment. They protect freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; the effective abolition of child labour; the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation; decent working conditions for all with regard to, inter alia, wages and earnings, working hours, maternity leave and other conditions of work; health and safety at work, including the prevention of occupational injury or illness and compensation in cases of such injury or illness; and, finally, non-discrimination in respect of working conditions, including for migrant workers.

The only point in that list which is included in paragraph 8 of the Schedule is the second point that I mentioned: the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour. That is the only point at which my amendment and paragraph 8 coincide, because paragraph 8 of the Schedule deals with slavery and trafficking. However, all the other elements of the fundamental labour standards are outside paragraph 8, even though they are binding on every country which is a member of the ILO by virtue of its membership and, regardless of whether they have ratified these conventions, they are matters of customary international law. These are vitally important standards, as the UK government representatives will doubtless reiterate at the International Labour Conference of the ILO, which takes place in June.

Plainly, paragraph 8 does not go far enough. International labour standards are important for ameliorating the conditions of workers in less developed and authoritarian regimes, and, from a more self-interested perspective, for diminishing the extent to which UK manufacturers and UK suppliers of services and works are undercut by competitors seeking to, as I put it on the last occasion,

“exploit cheap labour, poor conditions, inadequate standards, lack of enforcement, and powerless trade unions

I refer to the examples I gave on the last occasion, but I will not repeat them.

Reverting to the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton, and the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, on the last occasion, identification of whether there has been a breach of a fundamental ILO convention is not here left to the lay opinion of the decision-maker in the public entity. The ILO has extensive and long-established machinery for determining whether each state is in conformity with each of the fundamental conventions and each of the conventions that state has ratified. The UK fully participates in that machinery and those determinations. Why, then, I ask rhetorically, should the minimum standards of the fundamental international labour conventions, which are all ratified by the UK, not be included in the list of legitimate labour-related misconduct which procurement decision-makers can take into account under the Bill? I wait with anticipation to see whether the Minister will seek to justify their exclusion.

Photo of Baroness Noakes Baroness Noakes Conservative

My Lords, when we debated paragraph 6 of the Schedule in an earlier group, I argued that it was inappropriate to include an international law exception in the Bill. Therefore, it will not surprise the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, to find that I do not support the extension to paragraph 6 that his Amendment 30 seeks to achieve.

The briefing sent by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign asserted that without this amendment, the Bill could compel public bodies to contravene the genocide convention. This extraordinary statement was explained in the context of the much-publicised opinion of a number of UK lawyers, including the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, that the International Court of Justice had ruled that there was a plausible case that Israel has committed genocide. As the then President of the ICJ subsequently made clear, this is a complete misinterpretation of the ICJ’s judgment. Judge Joan Donoghue, the then President of the ICJ, has stated that the court decided that the Palestinians had a plausible right to be protected from genocide and that South Africa had the right to present that claim in court. However, to correct something that is often said in the media, the court did not decide that the claim of genocide was plausible. So the items of international law referred to in the amendment, including the genocide convention, basically have the name “Israel” etched on them. Whether by design or otherwise, this amendment would simply make it easier for public authorities to find excuses to boycott Israel and it would be very damaging if this amendment were accepted into this Bill.

Amendment 32, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, raises rather different issues. I am conscious that I am in dangerous territory because of the acknowledged expertise in labour law of the noble Lord compared with my ignorance of labour law. However, it is my understanding that the ILO conventions do not have direct effect in the UK. I thought that we achieved compliance through our domestic legislation. The noble Lord spoke about ILO matters on the last Committee day and, while he made the point that the UK is bound by the ILO conventions, I do not think that he claimed that they had any direct effect in UK law.

If I am correct, this amendment is a very unwelcome addition to the Bill because it seems to give full legal effect to the ILO conventions directly. These conventions are not drafted as stand-alone laws but in rather broad terms. They lack a lot of definitions and the language is often rather vague. That is why national Governments have to adopt them using their own legislation. I am not speaking against the ILO conventions; I have no views one way or the other on the conventions. My point is that we comply with these conventions through our national law and that law is the foundation of labour-related misconduct, which is covered in paragraph 8. It seems to me that paragraph 8 means that we can hold overseas suppliers to the same standards to which we hold UK suppliers. In particular, it aligns with the provisions of the Procurement Act which was passed last year. That is a wholly proper basis for this Act, rather than some broader concept of principles that cannot be read directly into our law.

Photo of Lord Verdirame Lord Verdirame Non-affiliated

My Lords, I rise to offer a few remarks on these two amendments.

Amendment 30 does not really extend what paragraph 6 already does, because the expression “international law” in paragraph 6 includes everything that Amendment 30 mentions. My criticism of it, aside from the points that were discussed on day 3, is that it is just redundant. “Convention” is just another term for “treaty” and “obligations under international law” will include obligations arising under treaties to which the United Kingdom is a party. They will obviously include the genocide convention. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a convention or a treaty but a resolution of the General Assembly, but it is widely believed to reflect customary international law and so is binding on the United Kingdom as customary international law.

The reference in the amendment to the Security Council resolutions is also unhelpful and confusing. Security Council resolutions will be binding on the United Kingdom provided that they contain decisions under Article 25 of the United Nations charter, because it is the decisions of the Security Council that are binding on member states. Those resolutions will be binding on the United Kingdom, whether we supported them or whether we abstained in those votes.

There are also resolutions that the United Kingdom would have supported on the basis that they were not binding. It would be rather odd if we had a domestic law provision that sought to extend the legal effects of resolutions that were supported by the United Kingdom, in the Security council, on the basis that they were not decisions under Article 25. So I do not think that Amendment 30 really works.

I am very sympathetic to what the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, is trying to do with Amendment 32 because, like him, I think that paragraph 8 is a little thin and needs to be beefed up. The difficulty with Amendment 32 is that it adds a different concept from what paragraph 8 deals with. As I believe the noble Lord pointed out, paragraph 8 deals with labour offences and labour-related misconduct. Its focus at the moment is on the conduct of the company in which a local authority is considering investing.

The focus of the obligations enumerated in Amendment 32, which are taken from Article 399 of the trade and co-operation agreement, is on the interstate level. They apply to the UK under ILO conventions and it is not clear how they would translate into relevant considerations as part of the scheme of paragraph 8. I will give an example. There may be a company that has very high labour standards and decides to invest in a country that has very poor labour legislation. As long as that company maintains its high labour standards, we would agree that it might be worth investing in, because it is setting a good example in a place where there are not many good examples. But that is quite a different set of considerations: the conduct of the company is a different consideration from the conduct of the country in which the company may be investing. At the moment, paragraph 8 focuses on the conduct of companies, whereas the new obligations in Amendment 32 would focus on the compliance with international law of the country where the investments are made. That is a different set of considerations.

I sympathise with what the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, is trying to do and I hope there may be other ways of achieving the objective of really beefing up the labour-related misconduct provision in the Bill, which I too think is inadequate—but I am not sure that Amendment 32, as it currently stands, would work.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 9:00, 14 May 2024

My Lords, there is no one on the Liberal Democrat Benches tonight who is sufficiently expert in international law to intervene at length in this debate, so I will be very brief.

I read the discussions from the last evening we met—I apologise that I was unavoidably away—and I note the argument made that international law is not simply the law but a broad network of treaties, conventions and agreements to which the UK has become a party. Much of it was drafted in the formative years after the Second World War by British lawyers—Conservative British lawyers, under Conservative Governments—in which we played, as Ministers still like to say, a leading role. Some of us are now quite nervous that there are some elements within the current Conservative Party, some of whom are in government, who are not particularly committed to maintaining our established reputation as a staunch upholder of international law.

We on these Benches would suggest that the Government take back paragraphs 6 and 8 of the Schedule, take into account the criticisms that the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, and others have made, and consider how we can ensure that these are strengthened and clearer, so that we can all agree that there is nothing in the Bill that encourages denigration of international law. All those involved in taking investment decisions should be quite clear that, in dealing with overseas investments, the framework of international law is one that should always be considered and accepted.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Crossbench

My Lords, I intervene briefly, not because I am an expert on international law but because I have a great sense of déjà vu about the way this debate is opening up by comparison with the previous debate. The issue seems to be the creation of uncertainty about what the law means. That was the issue dominating the previous debate: that the trustees of pension schemes would be left in a state of uncertainty if we did not put clearer language in the Bill. This debate is starting to go through the same process but in another area, where there could be uncertainty about what people do in interpreting this legislation before they make their decisions. We are opening up issues that the Government need to attend to, to make sure that the Bill is clear to the people who will be required to implement it.

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 put my name to Amendment 32 and I want to focus my main comments on it. The contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, is a helpful one because he is focusing on strengthening this.

One of the problems, when we look at paragraph 8 and the implications of international conventions and the ILO, is that it is sometimes difficult to put it into concrete examples. The problem I had—and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, touched on this before—is when something goes into a territorial policy. I think of the debate we had on construction in Qatar and the British companies that were operating in building those sites, where the Qatari authorities were forced to have inspections by the ILO and forced to respond to a report that said their legal standards were not adequate. It could be that, at that time, a lot of investors, and perhaps even public authorities, would say that they should not be investing in companies that are adopting those sorts of laws—namely, those applied by the Qataris. Many textiles supply chains go into, for example, Bangladesh. The biggest fashion industry manufacturer is in Vietnam. The example of the Rana Plaza disaster, which we mentioned the last time we debated the Bill in Committee, required ILO intervention and British companies to say, “We will not invest”. Some of the most popular high street companies used strong leverage to get a change of policy by the Bangladesh Government. These are all legitimate concerns.

The fear is that this legislation will stop people making those sorts of decisions, or even expressing those sorts of opinions. It is that chilling effect again. Whoever replies to this debate—I thought it might be the noble Lord—should focus on the kind of concrete examples I have given, and give us an assurance that paragraph 8 includes all the things that my noble friend mentioned and that we will not have a situation where we are limited to very strict criminal things, which everyone accepts, such as slave labour and forced labour. There are lots of other examples. In the Rana Plaza example, people were forced to work in such dangerous conditions that hundreds lost their lives. Many of them were widows, leaving children to cope on their own.

It is important that we bring this debate back to some sort of reality. What are we talking about? What are the impacts of these sorts of things? We start off with a manifesto commitment on BDS, and now we are into the territory of saying that there will be a limit on what public bodies can do to ensure compliance with proper labour standards—things that this Government have been strongly advocating for.

Photo of Lord Roborough Lord Roborough Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

My Lords, as I and my noble friend the Minister have set out in responses to previous groups in Committee, the Government take their obligations under international conventions and UN Security Council resolutions very seriously. This Bill is consistent with those obligations. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that this Government do not take these responsibilities under international law seriously.

Amendment 30, from the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, would exempt from the ban considerations relevant to whether the decision in question would place the UK in breach of its obligations under international conventions, including the genocide convention, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and any UN Security Council resolution.

As my noble friend the Minister explained in an earlier group, where a judgment has been made that a party has breached international law, it is for the Government, and not a public authority, to determine the appropriate response. It is right for this Bill not to give public authorities discretion to engage in BDS campaigns based on their own interpretations of international law. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, on this point.

I will touch on the genocide convention in particular; I am grateful for the intervention of my noble friend Lady Noakes. Genocide is a crime and, like other crimes, whether it has occurred should be decided by competent courts and judges, after consideration of all the evidence available, in the context of a credible judicial process. It is the long-standing policy of successive UK Governments that judgment as to whether genocide has occurred is for a competent national or international court to determine, not public authorities.

I reassure the Committee that nothing in the Bill will prevent public authorities complying with the UK’s obligations under international conventions. It is not necessary to broaden the international law exemption in this way, and so I respectfully request that the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, withdraw the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Blower.

Amendment 32, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, would broaden the existing exception for considerations that relate to labour-related misconduct. I assure noble Lords that the Government are of the view that employers who seriously violate the rights of their workforce are not fit to compete for public contracts. That is why the Bill already contains an exception to the ban for considerations made as part of an investment or procurement decision that relates to labour-related misconduct. This exception mirrors the approach taken in the Procurement Act 2023, which this House agreed in the previous Session. Public authorities can use the exception in the Bill when assessing whether a particular supplier has been complicit in modern slavery or a contract risks involving modern slavery. They must do so on a supplier-by-supplier basis, rather than by taking a blanket approach on the basis of a supplier’s country of origin. Public authorities will be able to do the same for investment decisions, assessing modern slavery risks for each investment target, rather than taking a blanket country-based approach.

Additionally, the Procurement Act 2023 provides a range of serious labour violations as grounds for exclusion. These must be considered for every supplier wishing to participate in each procurement within scope of the Act. The Act expanded the scope of the grounds on which suppliers must or may be excluded from procurements for labour violations, and added new grounds, including failure to pay the national minimum wage and offences relating to employment agencies. To reiterate, this is mirrored in this Bill. The exceptions to the Bill, just like the exclusion grounds in the Procurement Act, include considerations relating to various labour market, slavery and human trafficking offences. These are based on the serious labour offences within the purview of the director of labour market enforcement.

It would not make sense to expand the exception to the ban beyond what has already been recently agreed by the House in the Procurement Act. This would put the Bill out of step with that Act and create confusion for public authorities in scope of both this Bill and the Procurement Act.

The grounds for excluding suppliers in the Procurement Act are framed in terms of UK labour offences in our domestic legislation—and are, therefore, binding—rather than by reference to International Labour Organization conventions, to provide greater clarity to contracting authorities regarding when the grounds apply. I believe that this confirms the point from my noble friend Lady Noakes.

The ILO conventions are not related specifically to public procurement and do not impose express obligations with regard to public procurement, investment or public contracts. The Procurement Act provides for exclusion where there is a conviction for similar offences under the laws of another jurisdiction. The exclusion grounds do not refer to international standards because they are intended not as a means of enforcing labour rights but rather as a mechanism to ensure that contracting authorities do not award contracts to suppliers which pose such a serious risk to contracting authorities or the public as to make the supplier unfit to bid for public contracts.

The exception contains many other features which support and uphold our commitments to labour standards, some of which go above and beyond existing ILO conventions and standards, such as our approach to addressing modern slavery. I am satisfied that the exclusion grounds in the Bill cover the most serious breaches of workers’ rights and I am confident that the exception as currently drafted will enable public authorities effectively to protect the rights of workers delivering public contracts.

In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, it is important to note that the Bill does not apply to campaigns that are not country specific. Therefore, nothing in the Bill will prevent public authorities deciding not to do business with suppliers which have engaged in conduct which would constitute a violation of the International Labour Organization, as long as the policy was applied consistently and did not single out a specific country or territory.

I do not see any reason why this should provide a chilling effect since, as investors and customers, public authorities can exert influence on corporate behaviour which can transmit into change around the world. For these reasons, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour 9:15, 14 May 2024

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who contributed to the debate, and to the Minister for his reply. I shall be very brief.

In relation to Amendment 30, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, argued as to whether or not Israel is in breach of the genocide convention. That is really not the issue. What is proposed is that a decision-maker should take into account whether any country is in breach of the genocide convention. The question of the State of Israel is not raised here. Of course, this matter is before the ICJ and I for one would hesitate to say anything about that until the ICJ has reached a decision.

The noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, made the point that the various conventions and provisions in the amendment are already included in international law. I take that point. I accept that. However, I think the purpose of my noble friend’s amendment to make it clear that those elements were included in international law. If they do not add anything, they do not detract from the original proposition either.

Finally on Amendment 30, the Minister raised whether it is for the Government or a public authority to decide whether there is a breach. This amendment does not touch on that subject. Whoever makes the decision is permitted to take into account the various conventions listed in the amendment.

So far as Amendment 32 is concerned, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, made the point that the conventions of the ILO do not have direct effect. Of course, that is absolutely right, but she said that passing the amendment would in fact give direct effect to the ILO conventions. My response to that is: not at all. It does not implement the ILO conventions in UK law; it simply gives permission to decision-makers to take into account whether the proposed supplier or territory is in breach of ILO conventions. The problem is the narrow confines of paragraph 8, which the amendment is intended to expand.

The noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, said that the amendment is directed to countries—forgive me; I am not doing justice to the elegance of his language. He pointed out that the conventions are directed to countries whereas paragraph 8 is directed to companies, to particular suppliers. That is true, but paragraph 8 begins with a disapplication of Section 1, stating:

“Section 1 does not prevent regard to a consideration so far as it relates to labour-related misconduct”.

Section 1 is on the basis of territorial considerations, not company considerations. As I understand it, the Bill would not prevent a public entity discriminating against a particular company as long as it did not discriminate against a country. It is for that reason that it appears to be entirely logical and justifiable to extend paragraph 8 to territorial considerations, which are inherent in the ILO conventions. Nevertheless, if the noble Lord is able to offer me any help in clarifying my amendment, it would be gratefully received.

Finally, the Minister said that he is satisfied that the grounds of exclusion offer sufficient protection for labour rights. With the greatest respect, I disagree. I think these additional protections are necessary. He underestimates the fundamental nature of the ILO conventions that are called into account. Nevertheless, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Blower, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 30 withdrawn.

Amendments 31 to 32C not moved.

Schedule agreed.

Clause 4: Related prohibition on statements