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Volume 714: debated on Wednesday 11 November 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they will take to make the Trades Union Congress aware of their position on boycotts of Israel.

My Lords, we discuss policy frequently with a wide range of stakeholders, including the TUC. I chair a regular meeting with TUC leaders as part of this dialogue. We agree on a great many issues, especially the need to achieve a just, two-state solution. As part of this dialogue, we have made very clear the Government’s stance on boycotts.

I thank the Minister for her response and welcome her views. Does she agree that British unions display an unbalanced fixation in calling for boycotts of Israel in the light of extensive human rights violations and occupations, including security fences, in other countries, such as Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, Morocco in relation to Western Sahara, Iran and northern Cyprus, which do not elicit such calls?

I thank the noble Baroness. I reiterate that the United Kingdom believes that disinvestment, sanctions and boycotts directed at Israel would be counterproductive. Isolation of Israel would advance neither Britain’s influence nor, most important, the prospects of peace in the Middle East. We continue to focus on the wider perspective, which is to continue to strive towards a comprehensive peace process in the Middle East. That includes supporting the United States in its efforts now to launch that process.

Would my noble friend take note of the fact that the TUC, in pursuing the difficult issue of goods produced in what we all know to be—

It is not mandatory to give way to a privy counsellor. The TUC, in pursuing the difficult issue of goods produced in what we all know to be illegal settlements, which is what the boycott demand is all about, has begun holding informal talks—

I wish noble Lords opposite would be more civilised and listen for a minute. The boycott demand is all about goods produced in illegal settlements. The TUC has begun holding informal talks, both with Histadrut, the Israeli trade union centre, and with the PGFTU, which is its rough parallel in Palestine. These talks cover, inter alia, the interests of the Palestinian workers in the area of the illegal settlements.

As the noble Lord is aware, the Prime Minister and the British Government have been very clear at all times on the issue of illegal settlements, which we see as an obstacle to peace. The Government are exploring the possibility of improving the labelling of produce from the West Bank. We are also working with the European Union to ensure that goods from settlements do not benefit from the EU trading agreements with Israel. We believe that this is an issue of individual choice and that all retailers and consumers should have the information that they need to decide what produce they wish to buy. I say to my noble friend that we have worked very well with the TUC on this initiative in the past and hope to continue to do so in the future.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that many, if not all, calls for boycotts of Israel reflect genuine and justifiable concern about the constant erosion of Palestinian rights in the Occupied Territories, not least the continuing expansion of illegal settlements in both the West Bank and Jerusalem in spite of President Obama’s demands that there should be an immediate and total freezing of all settlement activity?

My Lords, settlement activity is illegal. It prejudges peace talks and must be halted immediately. This includes, of course, in east Jerusalem, to which the noble Lord alluded. Israel is committed through the road map and the Annapolis conference to freeze all settlement activity, as the noble Lord suggests, and immediately to dismantle settlement outposts erected since March 2001. We raise this issue consistently with the Israeli Government. The Prime Minister stressed it during his meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in August and several times in further conversations.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the sympathy and support that many of us have for the security of the state of Israel rest on our understanding that Israel is a democracy with a deep commitment to the rule of law? If we are asked, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, suggested, to judge Israel by the standard only of Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Morocco, Israel is in severe danger of losing that moral advantage.

I thank the noble Lord and, of course, accept that many standards will be mentioned and judgments made about Israel and other countries with which we deal in this House.

At a time when joint training between Israeli and Palestinian trade unions is being fostered, is it not damaging in the extreme to engage in diatribes about boycotts?

I thank the noble Lord. It is the view of the British Government that trade unions and others are free to talk about boycotts; they are very keen to engage with us on this issue. However, we still believe that we should not focus on sanctions and boycotts at this critical time. As noble Lords are well aware, President Obama has reconfirmed his commitment to the peace process. We have hoped for many years to have a US President prepared from day one to devote himself and his Administration to the creation of a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel.

My Lords, is it really the business of this House to inquire why the TUC should take account of the protests with regard to Israel or any other member state other than our own?

My Lords, I think that we should always be willing and anxious to listen and respond to issues raised by the TUC. These issues are raised by many trade union organisations across Europe and, indeed, in the UK—by the Scottish TUC, for example. That is why we think it important to make this response.