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Public Bodies: Israel Boycotts

Volume 769: debated on Thursday 25 February 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what advice they have given to local authorities and other public bodies concerning boycotts of goods and services from the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

My Lords, on 17 February, the Government published procurement guidance for public authorities on existing policy that has been in place for many years under successive Governments. The guidance makes it clear that boycotts in public procurement are inappropriate, outside where formal legal sanctions, embargos and restrictions have been put in place by the UK Government. It is not an Israel-specific policy.

Knock me down with a feather, my Lords, if I was not expecting that reply. Is the Minister aware that the Foreign Office advice of July 2015 on overseas business risks in the Occupied Palestinian Territories said:

“EU citizens and businesses should … be aware of the potential reputational implications of getting involved in economic and financial activities in … settlements”—

in the Occupied Territories, and—

“should seek … legal advice before proceeding”?

How does that equate with the advice that we received last week?

I can easily tell the noble Baroness. Paragraph 2.4 of the advice says:

“The UK Government is deeply committed to promoting our trade and business ties with Israel and strongly opposes boycotts.”

This is the Foreign Office advice, and the Cabinet Office advice sits alongside that.

Has the Minister had a chance to check what the Prime Minister said yesterday in answer to a Question about settlements? He said that,

“the first time I visited Jerusalem … and saw what has happened with the effective encirclement of East Jerusalem—occupied East Jerusalem—I found it genuinely shocking”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/2/16; col. 297.]

Did the Prime Minister not speak for many Members of both Houses and indeed of all parties when he said this? Is it not time that we move beyond general expressions of dissatisfaction with Israeli settlement activity and took more concerted international action?

The noble Lord makes a perfectly valid point, but this is about the role of local authorities. I would gently say to him, with due respect, that local authorities should not pursue their own municipal foreign policy which contravenes international trade agreements. They should instead focus on local issues. The clue is in the name as regards local authorities.

In the light of local government guidance, could the Minister say what action the boycott movement has taken with regard to the Russian invasion of Crimea—I apologise for asking this of a Cabinet Office Minister—the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Turkey’s occupation of Northern Cyprus and the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara?

The noble Lord raises lots of issues, but this is about boycotts being conducted by local authorities, which I would argue are counterproductive. They widen gaps in understanding, poison and polarise debate, and block opportunities for co-operation and collaboration.

My Lords, I was in Israel last week as a guest of the Israeli Government when my right honourable friend Matt Hancock announced this guidance that he was giving to local authorities. As both Israel and the United Kingdom are members of the WTO, surely it is illegal to impose these boycotts. They would actually be against the law.

Hearing what the Minister has said about boycotts, can he reassure the House on behalf of his Foreign and Commonwealth Office colleagues that we and our European partners lose no opportunity to draw the attention of the Israeli Government to the illegality of their settlement policy and the damage which it is doing to the prospect of a two-state solution, which is surely in the interests of both Israel and Palestine?

Yes, my Lords, and let me reassure the noble Lord that the Government remain completely committed to a two-state resolution to secure lasting peace in the Middle East. The best way to achieve that is by diplomacy and negotiation.

My Lords, given that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St John’s, has repeatedly said at that Dispatch Box that the settlements are a contravention of international law, that we deplore them and that they should not be there, how does it follow that it is illegal or impossible for a local authority to take action in response to those repeated statements by refusing to trade with those very settlements?

My Lords, to repeat what I said at the start, the guidance merely clarifies and reminds contracting authorities of their obligations under the WTO government procurement agreement, to which the EU is a signatory, which has been in place since 1996 and which the Labour Government and the coalition Government both upheld.

Thank you. Three-quarters of Palestinian exports are destined for Israel and Israeli goods account for two-thirds of the West Bank’s imports. Does the Minister agree that a boycott of West Bank goods would be detrimental to the Palestinian economy?

My Lords, I just wish to repeat what I am saying all along: this guidance is not about Israel per se. While what my noble friend says may have validity, I would say that boycotts are counter-productive and should not be taken by local authorities unless there is already a government action in place.