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Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2024

Third Reading

King’s consent signified.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I am grateful for the opportunity to move the Third Reading of this Bill. As the House will know, this Bill was introduced before the King’s Speech, in the last parliamentary Session; it is a carry-over Bill. I begin by thanking all those who took part in the consideration of this Bill on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report.

Inevitably, following on from its introduction, debate around the Bill has occurred in the dark shadow of the events of 7 October and the continuing conflict in Israel and Gaza. That is why I want to stress, as I sought to do on Report, my gratitude for the thoughtful way in which every Member of this House has contributed to debate on this Bill. While there is, I know, a difference of opinion about the appropriateness of the measures we are bringing forward, everyone in this House is committed to ensuring that we act against antisemitism, everyone in this House is committed to ensuring that we can see a peaceful solution to the conflict in the middle east, and everyone in this House is committed to a two-state solution as the means by which we can bring peace to that troubled region.

The Bill upholds a principle that was originally outlined in our 2019 general election manifesto. During the course of consideration of the Bill we have heard from a number of organisations, both in Committee and in broader public debate about the Bill, all affirming its timeliness and importance in dealing with the continuing and growing threat of antisemitism, and upholding the importance of making sure that the UK Government speak with one voice, in a united way, on behalf of all of us, on foreign policy, as a reserved matter for the Government.

In that context, it is important to deal with one or two entirely understandable and legitimate concerns that have been raised about the interplay between the Bill itself and UK Government foreign policy. I know some particular concerns have been raised about clause 3(7). I assure colleagues that the clause does not contravene in any way our foreign policy or inhibit in any way the UK Government’s taking action if we believe there is activity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories that requires to be called out.

We continue to raise, as the Foreign Secretary has recently, issues of illegal settler activity, and Lord Cameron has been clear with the Israeli Government that the UK Government are in profound disagreement with some of those actions and some of that activity. I will come on to that in just a second. I should say that the clause does not prevent the Government establishing sanctions or using travel bans against those who have been linked to blatant human right abuses. It is simply the aim of this legislation to prevent public bodies from adopting their own foreign policy, as such decisions should ultimately be the remit of the Government and this House.

I know, given the nature of the debate on this Bill, that a number of colleagues would like to intervene; I will try to answer questions briefly, because I know a number of colleagues would like to take part in the debate.

Hypotheticals are not always helpful, but I beg my right hon. Friend’s indulgence in this hypothetical on that particular point about the interaction between clause 3(7) and UK foreign policy. UK foreign policy is clear that illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories are against international law. This Bill would provide that, if a pension fund were given an investment policy for expanding, say, an infrastructure fund proposal in the occupied territories, it would have no moral basis for refusing to invest, although that investment would be expanding Israeli policies contrary to UK foreign policy. Can the Secretary of State explain how to unpack that so that what he has just said is what I believe is true?

It is specifically the case that public bodies, including the local government pension scheme and local authorities, should not be taking decisions that conflict with UK Government foreign policy, and we are absolutely clear that it would conflict with UK Government foreign policy if they were to engage in freelance activity of that kind. However, it is perfectly open to any representative, including any elected representative, to express their personal disapproval of the activities of the Israeli Government or any organisation that operates within the settlements.

I have been listening carefully to what the Secretary of State is saying on that point, but last year, the Government stated:

“The UK has a clear position on Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: they are illegal under international law”.—[Official Report, 23 March 2023; Vol. 730, c. 412.]

To speak plainly, is not the Secretary of State ashamed that, through this clampdown on the democratic right to boycott, his Government are restricting the rights of those who want to take peaceful action against violations of international law, and are in effect siding with those breaking international law?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a close personal interest in the conflict—I appreciate the sincerity with which he raises that point—absolutely not. There is a clear intention in the Bill, which is to deal specifically with the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign and its attempts to use the legitimacy of local government and other intermediate institutions to undermine the UK Government’s foreign policy. The UK Government, of whichever colour, must speak with one voice on behalf of the whole United Kingdom when it comes to foreign policy matters. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), and the Foreign Secretary have, from this Dispatch Box and in the other place, been clear with the Israeli Government when they think that it is appropriate to criticise their actions and indeed those of individuals operating within the settlements, but there is an important distinction to be drawn between criticism of the Israeli Government, criticism of the acts of particular individuals and the nature of the BDS campaign itself.

I am grateful to Opposition Front Benchers—although we have our disagreements—and to Labour Friends of Israel for making it clear that the BDS movement itself is explicitly and regrettably antisemitic. It deliberately sets out to argue that the state of Israel as a home for the Jewish people should not exist.

I agree with the comments that the Secretary of State has just made. Israel is pretty much the only country that is targeted in this way despite the fact there are a number of appalling regimes around the world. On local authorities, does he agree that a lot of councillors should focus on their core job of running local services instead of virtue-signalling and clumsily weighing in on complex international issues?

Not for the first time, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He summed up in that intervention two of the critical points in the Bill. First, local government has many important functions. Intervening in foreign policy in a way that can exacerbate community tensions is emphatically not one of them. Secondly, there has been a unique focus on the state of Israel. Of course, there are criticisms that can and should be mounted against the state of Israel, its Government and their activities. However, the BDS campaign singles out Israel for special treatment. We have not seen attempts by local government to criticise, for example, the actions of Bashar al-Assad in Syria or a variety of other regimes that have been targeting innocent Muslim lives.

Again, one point that was made clearly by the now sadly departed former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, was that antisemitism is a virus that mutates over time. In the past, it was directed towards Judaism as a faith. Then it mutated to be directed towards the Jewish people through direct racism. Now antisemitism finds an expression through an attempt to deny the Jewish people the same right of self-determination and the same right to a homeland that we extend to all peoples.

Support for the Bill from Jewish organisations in this country—the Jewish Leadership Council, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and so on—has been clear, but perhaps the most telling are the words of the Community Security Trust, which is there to physically protect Jewish people and communities. The CST is scrupulous in not offering any commentary on matters in Israel and the middle east or on foreign policy—it eschews doing so because it recognises the diversity of views within the Jewish community on some of those questions—but it has said that BDS

“has a chilling impact on Jews, a modern reminder of anti-Jewish boycotts. It also serves to legitimise the shunning of Jews from ‘decent’ society. And having been shunned…that’s a half way house to all manner of more abusive and physical outcomes.”

When we have seen a 537% increase in antisemitic incidents, I think it important to bear those words in mind.

My right hon. Friend is making some extremely important points about the nature of the BDS movement. Is it not the case that, as he says, there have been very few examples of councils looking to use the levers available to them to protest against other international issues? Is that not because the whole BDS movement—in fact, the label “BDS”—has been entirely constructed as a weapon against the state of Israel? When we look at the origins of the movement, we see, unfortunately, that it is riddled from top to bottom with antisemitism.

I am afraid that my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Again, to be more than fair, many prominent Labour voices have made precisely that point: the BDS campaign, those who created it and those who run it are very clear that they are singling out Israel. They want to see an end to Israel as a Jewish state.

I am very conscious of the fact that a number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. I also want to emphasise again that a horror and revulsion of antisemitism and prejudice of all kinds is shared across this House, as is a determination to see peace in the middle east. We have rehearsed the arguments, with great contributions in Committee and on Report, and I believe that this Bill is a targeted and proportionate approach to dealing with a unique evil. I hope that we will be able to support the Bill, but as I say, dissenting voices in this House must always be heard with respect. With that, I commend the Bill to the House.

Order. As everybody knows, the debate will come to a conclusion at 6.45 pm. A number of people are trying to catch my eye, so I am thinking that speeches should last not much longer than three minutes, to be frank, depending on the contributions of the Front Benchers.

I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:

“this House, while opposing any discrimination or prejudice in the economic activities of public bodies, believing that all such bodies must act without bias or selectivity when making ethical decisions on procurement and investment and recognising the impact selective and biased campaigns have had on the Jewish community in particular, declines to give a Third Reading to the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill because it does not effectively address the problem it rightly seeks to solve, is incompatible with international law and UN Security Council Resolutions, risks undermining support for groups around the world facing persecution, includes needlessly broad and sweeping draconian powers while placing unprecedented restrictions on public bodies to express a view on current and proposed policy and represents a major departure from the UK Government’s long-established diplomatic position on the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Golan Heights, in a way that undermines the UK’s future credibility and capacity to support diplomatic negotiations towards a just and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine based on a two-state solution, at a time when consistent support for that objective is more important than ever.”

Let me start by making clear that the Labour party completely opposes a policy of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. It is in everyone’s interest that we find a way forward to address a genuine problem. Never has that been as important as it is now, at a time of heightened tensions, fear and distress both at home and abroad.

As such, throughout the passage of this Bill, we have always tried to seek consensus. We do not think it is wrong for public bodies to take ethical investment and procurement decisions. In fact, there is a long tradition of councils and other bodies taking stances on such questions. However, there is a difference between applying consistent ethical principles and legitimate criticism of foreign Governments, and what some have tried to do by targeting just one individual state—for example, the world’s only Jewish state—or, worse, using the cover of these issues to whip up prejudice or discrimination. That is completely wrong. For the Labour party, that will never change, and I thank the Secretary of State for acknowledging that we share common ground on those fundamental principles. On that basis, I had hoped that by now we would have a Bill that reflects that common ground.

However, unfortunately, our efforts for consensus have been met with blanket refusal. Four times we have come to this House with an alternative approach, and four times Ministers have led Government Members in voting down every single one of those proposals, seeking not to unite the House but to divide it in every sense. We did not want to be in this position, where the House is being told to approve such a deeply flawed piece of legislation, but regrettably that is where we have ended up, because the Bill before us is indeed deeply flawed.

The Bill contains sweeping new powers that create more uncertainty and run counter to our international obligations: provisions that would ban public bodies from making procurement decisions based on a country’s use of forced labour; a completely unprecedented clause that makes it illegal for public bodies, many of them directly elected, to express their view on policy; a new power for the Secretary of State himself to call in and interrogate those he suspects fall foul of the Bill; and, at its heart, a measure that is incompatible with both the Government’s own long-standing foreign policy and international law, flying in the face of the UK’s obligations. That is why I respectfully dispute what the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks. Explicitly equating Israel with the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights is an unprecedented step. To my knowledge, this wording has never appeared in British statute before, and it seriously undermines our country’s long-standing, consistent and cross-party support for a two-state solution, so I could not be more disappointed.

There are moments when all sides of this House come together to resolve the deep-seated issues facing our communities, and this could have been one of them. Instead, the Government have refused to listen, so as the Bill is read a Third time, we have had to put forward a reasoned amendment as a final plea to the Secretary of State to reconsider. We all know that this is a highly unusual procedure, so I want to make it clear why we have deemed it necessary. We recognise that there is a problem to solve and we want to solve it too, but if this Bill means a protracted legal battle in the courts, creates more uncertainty than it addresses or, worse, simply fuels yet more division, it will have achieved nothing. It could, in fact, make matters worse.

I have no doubt that this Bill will be scrutinised and challenged if sent to our colleagues in the other place. I can only hope that we find further opportunities to forge a consensus, but the Bill before the House is simply not fit to send to them. The greatest shame is that, in this challenging time, we had the chance to speak with one voice against discrimination and division, and for unity at home and lasting peace abroad, and it is in that spirit that I urge the whole House to support our amendment.

Again, as I said on Second Reading and on Report, I speak with a heavy heart and in some dismay, but I tell those on my Front Bench that I will be voting against the Bill this evening.

This Bill obviously comes at a dreadful time, as we mourn the deaths of so many Israelis in heinous circumstances on 7 October and the deaths of so many Palestinians subsequently, many of whom still lie under the rubble. The fact that we in this House would seek to legislate against non-violent protest in such an illiberal and draconian way seems to me tragic at this particular point in time.

As the Secretary of State knows, there are broadly three areas in which I and other colleagues attempted to amend the Bill and have concerns. The first area is, as the shadow Secretary of State pointed out, the separate identification in the Bill of Israel, and its conflation with the occupied territories and the Golan Heights. We believe that contravenes our undertakings at the United Nations and, indeed, in international law, which of course means that the Bill will spend a lot of time in the courts, if it eventually sees the light of day. At the same time, that is a cause of great dismay to our allies in the Arab world, who of course we need at the moment more than ever to join us in seeking peace in the dreadful conflict taking place in the middle east. That we should undermine our own status as fair dealers, as it were, in that part of the world seems to me an unforced error.

The second area of serious concern is obviously the impact on free speech. Again as the shadow Secretary of State pointed out, it seems to me incredible that we are putting elected officials and others in a position where if they just stand up in certain circumstances and say they disagree with the law, they will be committing a criminal act. It seems to me an incredibly illiberal and backward step that we would strike a blow against pluralism in that way. The Bill could stand without those restrictions on free speech, and as the Secretary of State will know, we attempted to amend it to remove them, but that attempt was rebuffed.

The third area is the sheer scale of the Bill’s impact and the number of organisations that will be drawn into it. It is not just the local government pension fund, of which I am a member, but also every university in the land and private sector companies that perform a public service of some kind and are contractors to the Government that will be drawn in. That is important because, as the Secretary of State will know, this subject is very litigious. There are lawyers sympathetic to Israel and those sympathetic to Palestine. From the Secretary of State’s speech, it seems that the Bill is aimed squarely at that particular conflict in this world. Lawyers on both sides will gear up, and an industry will arise to attack, defend, analyse and scrutinise every decision, and all these bodies will have to take significant internal legal advice to deal with it as well. Subjecting them all to this enormous burden seems to me disproportionate to the problem that the Government are trying to address.

Finally, my greatest concern is for the impact on British Jewry. As the Secretary of State has said, he is trying to bring this Bill in to deal with the growth in antisemitism in the United Kingdom, but my view is that the Bill will play entirely into the hands of the antisemites. I imagine that this Bill will be manna to those rotten social media groups and WhatsApp groups that espouse conspiracy theories about Israel and the Jewish community. They will see this, as Jonathan Freedland—

It is a real pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse). I hope that other Members listened to his contribution and what he had to say, because I share his concerns about using domestic legislation in this Bill to deviate from Foreign Office policy. That is the clear concern that many of us have.

In an exchange with the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) when we explored this matter in Committee, we talked about what the actual foreign policy is. The Bill, as it is currently constructed, clearly conflates Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights, yet the UK Government’s guidance on overseas business risk states:

“The UK has a clear position on Israeli settlements: The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights have been occupied by Israel since 1967. Settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The concern we have is that the Bill is less than subtle as a change, if not to direct policy then certainly in emphasis. Equating Israel and the occupied territories is unique in any legislation, let alone in a statement, and it questions the UK’s long-established, cross-party support for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders.

As a party, we believe that the Bill is also an assault on Westminster’s devolution settlements, not just for the Scottish Parliament but for the Welsh Senedd. The legislation undermines devolution and restricts the ability of public bodies to make their own moral judgment on matters of human rights and climate consciousness.

I heard the Secretary of State argue that public bodies should not deviate from foreign policy. As we have discovered in this debate and in all the debates we have had, in 1981, City of Glasgow District Council—a Labour-led local authority—gave Nelson Mandela the freedom of the city of Glasgow. It also encouraged the boycotting of South African goods and services, but Foreign Office policy at the time was not to support sanctions on the apartheid South African regime, so the question again is: could Glasgow District Council in 1981 have awarded Nelson Mandela the freedom of the city of Glasgow, and would it have been allowed to encourage the boycott of South African goods and services, under this Bill? If the Bill had been in place then, the answer to that question would be no.

My hon. Friend is doing a great job of putting on record the SNP’s opposition to this foul piece of legislation. Does he think it is particularly distasteful and grotesque that the Bill is coming at this time and that the UK Government’s only legislative response to what is happening in the middle east is to try to bring forward proposals to stifle criticism of Israel, when it is clear and there is so much evidence that Israel stands facing charges of breaching international law and breaching the Geneva convention? Surely most right-minded people in this country who believe in decency and fairness will think that this is the wrong thing at the wrong time.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I think many Members have a concern about whether it is appropriate to proceed with the Bill at this moment in time. Other Members may wish to state that when they get the opportunity to speak.

The Bill extends to devolved Governments and local authorities in the devolved nations; because procurement and investment by public bodies are not reserved matters, it would appear to breach the Sewel convention if the devolved legislatures do not agree. I note that the Scottish Parliament has not provided legislative consent to the Bill.

We are also concerned that public bodies will not be able to make decisions about environmental protections. For example, Friends of the Earth has said that the Bill will

“prevent public bodies from divesting from fossil fuel, as well as diverting their money away from inadvertently funding human rights abuses abroad, such as modern slavery in corporate supply chains.”

Labour rights would also not be allowed to be considered. Poor workers’ rights are not restricted to any one region of the world—we see them from China to Colombia, from Bangladesh to Angola, from Cambodia to Qatar and from Mexico to Romania—and, according to the World Economic Forum, the abuse of workers’ rights around the world reached a record high in 2022. I believe that when public bodies make funding arrangements for procurement or anything else, they should be allowed to consider labour rights. Our concern is that the Bill does not allow that to happen.

I want to make it clear—as I have at every stage of the Bill—that the Scottish National party is concerned that antisemitism is on the rise around the world. We must not look away, and we must call it out whenever we see it. Antisemitism is a truly global and iniquitous poison. The Bill does not address the very epidemic of rising antisemitism that the Government claim they want to tackle. We are also concerned that the Government have ignored the evidence and concerns that many organisations have put forward about the Bill. The Balfour Project, the trade union Unison—of which I am proud to be a member—the Union of Jewish Students and Jews for Justice for Palestinians have all provided good evidence on their concerns about the Bill, but I am afraid they have not been taken on board by the Government when we have considered these matters.

The Government have rejected sensible amendments. Some of us have real concerns about clause 3 and very real concerns about clause 4. I never thought I would ever say it, and I am having to say again that I seek the removal of clause 4. The Government rejected amendments to protect devolution and other public bodies, and amendments to ensure compatibility with human rights. The changing of foreign policy, the impinging on the rights of devolved institutions and other public bodies, the ignoring of the evidence and the rejecting of sensible amendments are the key reasons why the Bill does not deserve a Third Reading.

I support the Bill and urge others to do so as well. But I also want to emphasise that I very much respect the views of those who have concerns about how it will operate in practice, and I know that all Members of the House, whatever their views on the Bill, remain committed to a peaceful settlement and a negotiated two-state solution.

I have just returned from a visit to Israel, which will appear in the next publication of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I believe strongly that we should be backing Israel, not boycotting it. It has had to take military action to defend itself from a vile and repulsive terrorist attack in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives.

Last week I visited an exhibition in Tel Aviv about the Nova music festival, where hundreds of young people were gunned down. The displays of shoes, clothes and bags were chillingly reminiscent of Yad Vashem and the piles of belongings taken from Jewish people on arrival at the death camps. We can be in no doubt that the BDS movement is divisive and damaging: it rejects a two-state solution and consistently opposes efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. As the Government have stated again this evening, BDS activities drive antisemitism. I am especially concerned about the impact of Israel boycotts on campus, where anti-Israel hatred so often morphs into racist treatment of Jewish students. It is entirely unacceptable for Jewish students to feel unable to be open about their faith or identity for fear of reprisals and harassment.

Furthermore, foreign policy is the responsibility of Government. It is, and always has been, a reserved power. There is no need or justification for universities, local authorities or other public bodies to run their own foreign policy. If sanctions or boycotts need to be imposed, that is a decision to be made in this House at a national level.

In conclusion, this important Bill, at a very difficult time, tackles a very serious problem. I commend it to the House and I hope my colleagues will back it.

It is with a heavy heart, again, that I am participating in today’s debate. Throughout December, alongside the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, I sought to shed light on the suffering of Christians in Gaza city, who include my own family. Let me express sincere gratitude to Members across the House who have approached me in the last few days to ask how they are. Although the media attention mitigated the immediate dangers, the plight of Gaza’s residents persists—living hand to mouth, drinking unclean water and wondering how on earth the world is letting this happen. I am equally concerned about the impact on the streets in the UK. We are seeing a rise in antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate, which is unacceptable and must be called out.

I, too, extend my sympathies to the hon. Lady and her family. My own council Cyngor Gwynedd called for an immediate ceasefire last month. Echoing people’s concerns, it condemned both Hamas violence and Israel’s disproportionate attacks on civilians. The Senedd has also called for a ceasefire. The Bill will restrict members of Welsh democratic institutions from voicing their views, and I am sure the hon. Lady agrees that such restriction on free speech is a threat to our democracy across the nations of the United Kingdom.

I absolutely agree. The Bill does not respect directly elected bodies and those representatives. The issue is also about the timing. The death toll in Gaza now exceeds 22,000, and over 100 Israeli hostages remain. I do not put those numbers side by side to compare, because every single individual lost or missing is a tragedy. The humanitarian situation has reached new depths. A doctor constituent of mine who is working in Gaza said that he has seen preventable deaths due to staff shortages, and the medical system has totally collapsed. We now have injured with nowhere to go.

Tomorrow, the International Court of Justice will consider South Africa’s case on Israel’s alleged violations and obligations under the genocide convention. I am sure I need not remind this House that it was precisely local government-led interventions here in the UK—which would be outlawed under the Bill—that pressured the Thatcher Government to add their support to the people of South Africa. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said that he did not agree with the ICJ case and

“I do not think we should bandy around terms like genocide”.

South Africa is not bandying around terms. The ICJ is precisely the court in which those allegations should be looked at. The principle is simple: the UK should not pre-judge the outcome of the legal case. It should back the process and the court itself full-throatedly.

I end by simply saying that the Liberal Democrats will continue to advocate for an immediate bilateral ceasefire, securing hostage release, delivering aid and working towards that precious two-state solution. Our response to this war will be judged by history. In a fractured world where democracies need to be strengthened and the international rules-based order helped, the Bill undermines local government, damages our global standing and divides our streets. This place should be a place where we unite, not divide people. Frankly, the Liberal Democrats believe that this debate should not be happening. We stand with humanity and peace, and it is for that reason that we will be voting against the Bill today.

The Government’s introduction of the Bill is welcome and I support it. It was in a Conservative party manifesto years ago, and we have a mandate and an obligation to pass it. This legislation will finally stop public bodies from wrongfully pursuing their own independent foreign policy agenda, which have almost exclusively been the result of divisive, antisemitic partisan campaigns pursued by the antisemitic BDS movement. Of course, as has already been mentioned, that is a movement whose executive board, the BDS national committee, is a coalition of proscribed terrorist groups, including Hamas. So I support the Bill.

The boycott movement has undeniably succeeded, sadly, up to this point in its chilling and racist effects. Who can forget the loathsome policy—frankly, it was reminiscent of 20th century fascism—of West Dunbartonshire Council in 2011, when its libraries banned new book volumes printed or published in the Jewish state? Yes, it banned Jewish books. Allied Universal, the parent company of G4S, sold a business in Israel following pressure from the movement. In a series of councils across England, Scotland and Wales, including Leicester City Council, Swansea City Council and Gwynedd Council, motions were passed banning imports from Israel. They are inherently discriminatory and a breach of our World Trade Organisation obligations. Those councils are an embarrassment to this country and they should have been ashamed of their racism.

The supreme irony is that Palestinian and Israeli businesses in the region condemn the movement. If anyone takes the trouble to listen to the leaders of those businesses, they are instead seeking bilateralism. Nearly 100,000 Palestinians are employed by Israeli companies. Their workforces receive higher wages and enjoy greater protections than elsewhere in the Palestinian economy and its equivalents across the middle east. Regrettably, the BDS movement strengthens extremists and weakens moderates, which is why it has even opposed peaceful coexistence projects, such as Heartbeat and OneVoice, that bring Israelis and Palestinians together.

Speaking as a former Attorney General, I assure the House that the ban will not apply to individuals or private organisations where they are not carrying out public functions. That is testimony to the Government’s respect for freedom of speech.

My right hon. and learned Friend has confirmed that the Bill will not apply to individuals, which is absolutely right and reassuring. Does he agree that it is also vital that the Bill should not be seen to interfere in any way with British Government policy on the illegal activity by Israeli settlers in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or indeed the sanctions that the Government have already applied against some of them?

I am grateful for that question and I think the Secretary of State has answered it in the affirmative. The Bill will not change the UK’s approach to the middle east peace process or its position on settlements, and nor should it: whichever Government happen to be in power, it is only right that this House and the Executive of this country make those sorts of decisions. It will, however, strengthen the Government’s diplomatic hand by rightfully returning the powers that have gradually been siphoned away by local authorities, third-tier councils and the rest of it, encourage peaceful coexistence and fulfil our manifesto commitment.

The Bill will push back against the malevolent anti-western forces of Hamas. It is those that threaten our way of life and dissolve our security. It is that movement that has been abetting malicious international forces in Tehran and in the Kremlin. It is for those reasons that the House not only has a responsibility but a fundamental duty to vote for the Bill today.

Order. I shall be calling the Secretary of State to wind up the debate no later than 6.42 pm, and the Division will take place at 6.45 pm.

As we have already heard, the Bill is largely an explicit reaction to the success of Leicester City Council in defeating legal attempts in 2018 to force it to end its boycott of goods from illegal Israeli settlements until Israel complies with international law and ends its illegal occupation. Arguably, Leicester’s stance has been thoroughly vindicated by events over the last few months, during which Israel has launched what South Africa and many United Nations bodies have called “genocidal acts” on Gaza, which have also killed hundreds in the west bank and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, while protecting Israeli settlers as they beat and even kill Palestinians trying to go about their peaceful lives.

While Leicester and other councils have been shown to be doing the right thing, the Government have found themselves yet again on the wrong side of the issue, backing the oppressor against the oppressed and giving the Israeli regime licence to kill tens of thousands. Many of my constituents back the council’s actions and bitterly oppose Israel’s war crimes against Palestinians, and the illegal settlements whose proliferation has only accelerated. The Bill would prevent Leicester and councils like it from carrying out the will of the voters who elected them, tying the hands of the principled and enforcing the will of a Government who have shown that they prize geopolitical and economic ends above the lives of tens of thousands of innocent children, women, teachers, doctors, aid workers and journalists. It is a Bill designed to hobble democracy and decency. It subjugates local British democracy to the actions and wishes of a foreign occupying power. It is clearly also intended to circumvent the will of the court, given that Leicester comprehensively won its case against those trying to overturn its boycott.

The Conservatives appear to have little regard for South Africa’s forensically compiled case against Israel, which has invoked the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide at the International Court of Justice. Tomorrow that case will begin to be heard at The Hague. A boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign lasting almost three decades was a vital factor in the bringing down of South African apartheid. South Africa knows all about the power of such a peaceful but resolute campaign, and is uniquely well placed to bring a case to the International Court of Justice, invoking the genocide convention against Israel. However, despite having only six weeks ago appended their signature to Gambia’s genocide case at the International Court of Justice against Myanmar, specifically because of Myanmar’s treatment of children—

There is about £70 billion of local government spending in the UK, which is a very significant economic factor. It is entirely right that, in a context where local authorities have their remit within the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 and the most advantageous tender rules, introduced by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, they are able to ensure that that money is spent in a way that fully expresses their ambitions and the aspirations and views of their local communities. Clearly we need to ensure—and this is why I support the Bill so strongly—that we have appropriate limits when there are risks that that will stray into causing real, serious division and interfere with what is more appropriately national policy.

During my time at the Local Government Association, I engaged in a good deal of effort working with the local government friends of Israel group and observing the massive amount of BDS lobbying of local councillors. I must pay tribute to our local government counterparts. Overwhelmingly, despite that pressure, they took the view that this was not an appropriate course of action, and that in fact they should ensure that the concerns and aspirations of their residents were front and centre rather than engaging with international campaigns that were both beyond their remit and at risk of conflicting with the more broadly expressed objectives of the country.

We should not forget—this is why what the Secretary of State said about retaining the capacity for freedom of speech is so important—that we have counterparts in local government who are specifically elected on an international platform. For example, many will recall Justice for Kashmir, later the People’s Justice party, which became a significant force in the politics of Birmingham City Council. It was specifically elected on an international law issue. Later, its members joined the Liberal Democrats. Clearly, communities felt that the issue was so important that they were prepared to elect local councillors on that platform.

As a Member who represents a diverse constituency and who has heard a lot from people on both sides of this debate, I want to finish by saying that the incredibly bitter divisions that have arisen about the Bill and other issues are not seen and felt by my constituents in day-to-day life. When a local Muslim charity wanted a base, it found one in St John’s church. When it wanted to raise funds to purchase its own permanent base, the local synagogue spoke out in support of that. There is a real sense of solidarity among our communities, regardless of faith or any other element of diversity in their backgrounds. We need to ensure that BDS, which solely targets the state of Israel, is restricted from inflicting any further damage on our communities.

This is a bad Bill both in intent and in the methods that it adopts, which are harmful to Britain’s reputation around the world, to human rights, to the proper conduct of state actors and corporations, to citizens’ freedom of speech and to the actions of public and elected bodies. It has nothing to recommend it. It aims to prevent any boycott and to affect the right of public bodies, especially those that are elected, to consider factors beyond commercial procurement and investment decisions, such as ethical factors, which are often also commercially sensible factors. It neuters the exercise of choice by pension funds, employees and citizens. It constricts the freedom of expression of religious groups, trade unions and elected councillors. It proscribes freedom of speech in a draconian way, which sets an unfortunate precedent.

Does my hon. Friend share concerns that clause 4 may contradict the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 and go against the academic freedom that is enjoyed on university campuses?

I do not think it is lost on any hon. Member that the Bill flatly contradicts the Government’s rhetoric on freedom of speech in a most draconian way.

The so-called exceptions require actions to be unlawful before action can be taken, but we know how difficult it is for foreign states to have convictions against them in that way. The Government produced no evidence, only assertion, to support the provisions.

The Bill fails every test. It weakens human rights protections for persecuted groups around the world, from the Rohingya to the Uyghurs. It particularly fails Israel and Palestine. It singles out Israel for special treatment. In the words of Daniel Levy, the respected commentator and former Israeli negotiator when talking to MPs earlier today, the Bill demands a lower, not a higher standard of Israel. It does not distinguish between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Singling out Israel and conflating Israel and the OPT breaks the consensus that both main parties have maintained under successive Governments.

The subject of settlements often comes up. For example, the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) and I raised it in the urgent question earlier this week. Why, at a time when Foreign Office guidance advises against investment in settlements, when the Government have rightly spoken out about settlements being reintroduced in Gaza and rightly talked about sanctions against violent settlers, do the Government try to prevent, through the Bill, any action from being taken against settlements that are illegal under international law? A ban on settlement goods or investment in settlements is not the same in any respect as a boycott. The Government constantly dodge that issue, and they need to deal with it. The signals that they are sending out are entirely contradictory.

I hope that the Bill will be defeated. If it is not defeated and the reasoned amendment is not accepted tonight, I hope that we will return to the issue in the other place and that the Bill will not see the light of day before a general election. It certainly should not. It would be a shameful legacy, even for this Government.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for bringing forward this landmark Bill. The Government should be applauded for taking such strong action.

The Bill’s intention to promote community cohesion should be endorsed by all Members of this House, especially when antisemitism has sharply risen here in the UK since 7 October, the day that saw the most deaths of Jewish people since the holocaust, in a horrendous massacre committed by the Hamas terrorist group. Jews worldwide have suffered anti-Jewish hatred in response to that slaughter.

Before Israel had even responded, before Israel and its allies could even fathom the full extent of the utter horror sown by Hamas, demonstrators filled the streets of London to celebrate Hamas’s attack. Flags flown in solidarity with our ally Israel were vandalised. In the two months from 7 October to 13 December. the CST recorded 2,098 antisemitic incidents here in the UK, dwarfing the 800 incidents recorded in the first nine months of 2023.

Jewish businesses have been targeted, as well as businesses with any small connection to Jewish owners or the Jewish state. Social media is rife with long lists of companies to boycott, just because the BDS movement does not like the people who run them. Intimidating protests have taken place outside the likes of Zara and McDonald’s. Young children have been taunted after enjoying their Happy Meal at the fast food chain and, in one incident, rodents were released into a McDonald’s chain in Birmingham, in my neighbouring constituency.

Jewish students have been boycotted, with university societies and Sunday league football clubs refusing to play against Jewish players and societies. BDS targets not only businesses but people. It is appalling that publicly funded bodies would give succour to such division and extremism.

Yesterday, I held a Westminster Hall debate on the increase in antisemitic offences, and I was pleased to hear colleagues’ commitment to stamping out anti-Jewish hatred on the streets of the UK. That commitment to reducing antisemitism will be helped by voting in favour of this Bill today.

The BDS movement is antisemitic. The movement is against peace and normalisation. It calls for the eradication of Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. The Anti-Defamation League reports that BDS campaigns frequently include antisemitic tropes of Jewish power and dual loyalty, as well as accusing the Jewish people and Israel of being culpable for crises across the globe. BDS activity advanced by public bodies has legitimised and driven antisemitism in the UK. By exclusively targeting Israel and singling out Jewish people in the UK, it has created divisions that our society needs to be repaired.

This is our opportunity to reassure the Jewish community and show them our support. BDS unfairly targets Jewish businesses and people, as well as Palestinians who work for Israeli companies—I have spoken about that before. At a time when we strive for peace in the middle east, BDS inflames tensions and rejects co-existence. I stand in full support of this Bill and of the Jewish community here in the UK and abroad.

I oppose this anti-boycott Bill on several points. It is difficult to see its timing as anything other than a cynical move by the UK Government. The Secretary of State talks about support for community cohesion and a peaceful two-state solution, but this Bill does nothing to achieve either. Instead, it will seriously curtail our civil liberties and undermine devolution. If the volume of correspondence I have received on this Bill is any indication, the people of Glasgow, as ever, see right through the Tories.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) mentioned the granting of the freedom of the city of Glasgow to Nelson Mandela. In 1986, Glasgow District Council renamed St George’s Place as Nelson Mandela Place as a mark of the city’s solidarity with Nelson Mandela, who was still imprisoned at the time. The point was that the South African consulate was located on the street and was forced to use an address bearing the name of South Africa’s most high-profile political prisoner.

This act of international resistance would simply not have been possible if this legislation had been in place in 1986 as, at that time, the UK Government were still refusing to condemn apartheid. Who would want to speak with one voice when that was what the UK Government were saying on Scotland’s behalf? Indeed, even discussion of such an act would have been unlikely to take place under clause 4’s gagging effect. According to Liberty:

“In practice, a public body seeking to comply with the Bill is likely to take steps to distance itself from anything which suggests that it holds any political or moral views as to the conduct of foreign states, for fear that it could be found to be in breach of the ban or the related prohibition on statements.”

This legislation will undoubtedly alter the executive competence of Scottish Ministers and should be opposed by all of those who value devolution.

The provisions in this Bill are disproportionate and, frankly, unnecessary. The Bill hands sweeping powers to the Secretary of State and the Treasury to request information from the devolved Administrations to assess whether a breach of the boycott ban or gagging clause has occurred and to impose a compliance notice. This is a huge overstep. There are already significant protections in Scottish procurement legislation for bidders from countries where a relevant trade agreement exists. It is not clear what problem the UK Government are trying to fix with this Bill. Worse, the Bill makes it unlawful for Scottish Ministers even to publish a statement that they would have acted in a certain way if not curtailed by these measures. The legislative consent memorandum published by the Deputy First Minister describes this as an “assault on democratic expression”.

As we head into an election year, the Prime Minister is affirming that the legacy he and his predecessors will leave behind will be one of a democracy in tatters, faith in public institutions annihilated and our hard-won rights stripped bare. It is increasingly the case that the only hope left for people in Scotland to protect our democratic freedoms is the hope of an independent Scotland.

I support this legislation, but I find it very sad that we need it. When I first heard about the holocaust as a child at school, I was shocked. I was shocked at the scale of the evil, the horror of what happened to the Jews and the fact that it could have been allowed to happen. As an adult, I have visited Yad Vashem, Auschwitz and the forests in Poland where thousands upon thousands of Jews, including children, were murdered in cold blood by Nazi soldiers because they were Jews.

No one walks away from those sites in any doubt about the potential consequences of antisemitism, but one thing I was sure of before 7 October was that that would never happen again. Surely the world—this country, at least—is alive to the consequences of anti-Jewish attitudes, to the importance of not tolerating antisemitism and to the need for Israel, an Israel that has the same right to exist and to defend itself as any other sovereign nation. But now I am not so convinced that we have learned the lessons of antisemitism. Polling shows shocking levels of support for Hamas among young people here and in the United States. That is being driven by social media, but it is also being fostered—

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I would like to thank everyone who has spoken on Third Reading, including my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), who was articulating the vital importance of recognising where antisemitism begins and where it ends. I also wish to thank those who spoke powerfully from a personal point of view: my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), who has only recently returned from Israel, of which she has been such a strong friend and supporter, and the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). Our heart goes out to not only her family, but all those suffering in Gaza at the moment.

I wish briefly to address one misconception, which is that this Bill acts as an effective restraint—a gagging clause—on free speech. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) talked of faith groups being silenced and so on. As the explanatory notes make clear, individuals are in no way prohibited from expressing their view, however disagreeable we might find it, on the conflict in Israel and Gaza, or from expressing a view, which I would abhor, that the state of Israel should not exist. What is clear is that only public authorities, not individuals, are governed by this Bill. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) rightly drew attention to the importance of freedom of speech, not least on campus and with academic freedom at its heart. I can reassure him, and he can be reassured, that whatever other misgivings he has about this Bill, it is not a direct assault on the principle of free speech. It is simply, clearly and tightly drawn in order to ensure that public bodies, public authorities, cannot abuse the position that has been vested in them as corporate bodies to more broadly undermine the foreign policy of the UK or, particularly in this case, as has been pointed out by a number of hon. Members and indeed by the Opposition Front-Bench team, to give succour to an explicitly antisemitic campaign. Again, I stress there will be different opinions across the House about the best way of securing Israel and of securing freedom for the Palestinians. The fact that debates are so intense in this House reflects the care and passion that so many Members bring to that debate.

However, the Bill is explicitly about making sure that citizens in the United Kingdom, who have been targeted by explicitly antisemitic campaigns, get the protection for which the organisations that stand up for them have been asking. In the spirit of the Community Security Trust, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, I hope that as many Members as possible—

I will not as I have only seconds left. I hope that as many Members as possible will feel that they can support the legislation.

More than one hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the first motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Order, 25 October). Question put, That the amendment be made.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 62(2)), That the Bill be now read the

Third time.

Bill read the Third time and passed.