I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I hope the House will allow me first to pay tribute to Lord Kerslake, who, as the House will know, died over the weekend after a short illness. Bob Kerslake was a true public servant, steeped throughout his professional life in local and central Government, and wholly dedicated throughout his career to improving the lives of citizens. He began his career with Greater London Council and went on to run, with distinction, Sheffield City Council—the fourth largest in England—before making the switch to the corridors of Whitehall. He was the first chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, the forerunner to Homes England, a vital arm of Government in making sure that affordable housing is available to all. He was deservedly promoted to become permanent secretary to the Department for Communities and Local Government and, later, head of the home civil service, where he served with great distinction and kindness. Speaking personally as a Minister in the Governments where he served, I was deeply grateful to Bob for his dedication, his generosity of spirit and his wise advice.
After leaving Government, Bob led the inquiry into the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing. More recently, he chaired the UK2070 Commission on regional inequalities. My colleagues and I greatly valued his work on homelessness with the Kerslake commission, and I think we all agree that his energy, knowledge and wisdom will be greatly missed. I know that right hon. and hon. Members across the House will wish to join me in sending our deepest condolences to his family in their grief. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I thank you, Mr Speaker, and colleagues across the House.
The Bill does four things: it honours a manifesto promise to which this Government recommitted in the last Queen’s Speech; it affirms the important principle that UK foreign policy is a matter for the UK Government; it ensures that local authorities concentrate on serving their residents, not directing resources inefficiently; and, critically, it provides protection for minority communities, especially the Jewish community, against campaigns that harm community cohesion and fuel antisemitism.
In our 2019 manifesto, this Government committed to
“ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries.”
The Bill does just that—no more and no less.
I think it does a fifth thing, which is to introduce a thought crime. Were I to be a leader of a local authority opposed to the provisions of this Bill, once it became an Act, if I continued to say that I disagreed with its provisions and what I might wish to have done with the powers I retained were those provisions not to have been made law, I would be breaking the law. That cannot be right in a free society, can it?
It would not be right if the Bill restricted local authorities from adopting policies that they considered to be in line with Government policy. It is also the case that it would be problematic if we were to restrict freedom of speech in any way, but the Bill does not do that.
Not at this point—I will in a second.
It is important to stress what the Bill does not do. It does not restrict local authorities adopting policies in line with formal, agreed Government sanctions, embargoes and restrictions. It does not impede local authorities considering legitimate commercial factors related to business with a foreign state, and exercising due diligence in the award of contracts. And it does not prevent a local authority from exercising due diligence when considering whether a supplier or investment target might be involved in environmental misconduct, bribery, competition law infringements or labour misconduct, including human trafficking and modern slavery. In no way does the Bill circumscribe anyone’s right to freedom of speech or conscience.
What the Bill does do is prevent local authorities from singling out individual nations for discriminatory treatment on the basis of an ideological opposition to that nation and its fundamental basis. Action is required here because there is an existing, organised and malign campaign that aims to target and delegitimise the world’s only Jewish state. That campaign seeks to persuade public bodies to make commercial decisions solely on the basis of harming that state and its people.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way so soon in this debate.
Is not the reason every single Conservative Member stood on a manifesto commitment to bring forward such legislation that we understand that there is something fundamentally illiberal, leftist and with deep, ugly connections to antisemitism at the heart of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement? That is what we are trying to tackle today.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I shall go on to say more about the nature of the BDS campaign because we are not talking in the abstract; we are talking in concrete terms about a campaign that exists, and has been in operation now for nearly 20 years, based on a premise that seeks to delegitimise the state of Israel. The campaign also leads directly, as I shall point out, to antisemitic incidents and a loss of community cohesion.
I just remind the Secretary of State that the Bill goes way beyond the activities of the state of Israel and will apply potentially to other areas of foreign policy, too. Has he considered whether the interaction of clause 1(7) and clause 4 will disproportionately interfere with the freedom of expression, and of conscience and belief, of individuals who are making, or have a stake in, the procurement and investment decisions of public bodies? My view and that of many other lawyers who have looked at the Bill is that it will. Why has he not produced a human rights memorandum analysing the extent to which the Bill interferes with rights under article 10 and article 9, on freedom of belief, of the European convention on human rights, and article 19 of the international covenant on civil and political rights? Will he do so?
I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend is bringing this legislation to the House today. He rightly mentioned the unsavoury connotations of much of the criticism that the Bill is facing, particularly in connection with the BDS movement. On that point, could he clarify his thoughts on Richard Hermer KC, who has provided advice to the shadow Front-Bench team on this legislation? Mr Hermer has previously authored a chapter in a book called “Corporate complicity in Israel’s occupation: evidence from the London session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine”, which is edited by some extremely interesting people—I fear that they are interesting in the most negative sense. Is this really the calibre of individual who should be advising the official Opposition?
My right hon. Friend raises an important question because the Opposition have tabled a reasoned amendment. I believe they have done so in good faith. As the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) pointed out, some lawyers take a different view from the Government. One of those lawyers was commissioned by the Labour party to produce a legal opinion, but the gentleman concerned, a distinguished KC, has a record in this area—a record of political commitments that everyone can see clearly predispose him towards a political and particular view on this question.
Not at this point. The BDS movement deliberately asks public bodies to treat Israel differently from any other nation on the globe. It asks them to treat the middle east’s only democracy as a pariah state and to end links with those who have a commercial presence there. Let me be clear: there are legitimate reasons to criticise the Israeli Government, to question their policy and, if individuals so wish, to repudiate their leadership, as there are with many other countries.
No. The founder of the BDS movement, Omar Barghouti, has been clear in his opposition to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. He has attacked what he calls the “racist principles of Zionism”—that is, the fundamental right of the Jewish people to self-determination. The man who founded and is in charge of the BDS movement has argued that Zionist principles
“maintain Israel’s character as a colonial, ethnocentric, apartheid state.”
On that basis, he opposes any idea of a two-state solution—a secure Israel alongside a viable and democratic Palestine. Instead, the BDS movement’s leader wants a
“one-state solution…where, by definition, Jews will be a minority.”
It is entirely open to any individual to agree with that proposition, but it is no part of this Government’s determination or intent to give any heart or succour to a movement that argues that the two-state solution is wrong and that Jews should be a minority in one state.
Can my right hon. Friend help us here? As the effect of Israeli policy since 1967 has been to build out of existence the possibility of a two-state solution by settling 700,000 Jews who have arrived in the state of Israel, with their right to go there under Israeli law, it is now no longer possible for there to be a two-state solution, so what is British policy to be?
British policy is, as my hon. Friend knows, to promote a two-state solution. I know that he has a long, passionate and committed interest in this subject and I respect the compassion and knowledge that he brings to the debate but, respectfully, I disagree with him. I believe that a two-state solution is the right approach, which the BDS movement does not believe.
I very much welcome the legislation that the Secretary of State is introducing, and we as a party will support it when the time comes tonight. There are many examples in Northern Ireland of councils having overstepped the mark by boycotting goods from Israel and penalising and focusing attention on the small Jewish community. Local authorities should be working hard to support diversity and good relations, not ridiculing and condemning our small and minority communities. It is clear to me that the point of the legislation is to make sure that that does not happen, so let us make sure that it goes through tonight.
I will take interventions in due course, but I want to make a little progress first.
I want to be clear about what the BDS movement is and what it does. The BDS movement is not, in its origins or operation, a campaign that is designed to change Israel’s Government or shift Israel’s policy. It is designed to erase Israel’s identity as a home for the Jewish people. Again, the founders of the BDS campaign have been clear, saying:
“A Jewish state in Palestine in any shape or form cannot but contravene the basic rights of the…Palestinian population and…ought to be opposed categorically”.
Alongside those who lead the BDS movement on the BDS national committee sit members of the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, a coalition of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—all militant organisations that are proscribed by this Government.
I will give way in due course, but not at this point.
The effects of the campaign are sadly manifold. The BDS campaign opposes efforts to bring Israelis and Palestinians together to broker peace through a two-state solution, opposes cultural exchanges between Israelis and Palestinians, and fights against co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian universities. BDS has specifically denounced an organisation called OneVoice, which is a joint Palestinian-Israeli youth organisation that campaigns to end the occupation, campaigns against settlements and campaigns for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Because OneVoice does not use the rhetoric of apartheid that BDS deploys, and because it does believe that there should be a Jewish state, it is denounced by the BDS movement.
I will make more progress and then give way.
Where the BDS campaign has been adopted and endorsed there have, unfortunately, been real community-cohesion problems. We have seen an increase in antisemitic events following on from the activities of the BDS movement, including supermarkets removing kosher products from their shelves following specific protests. The Community Security Trust has recently recorded the highest ever number of antisemitic incidents.
In evidence adduced before the Supreme Court in 2020, the following point was made. The evidence said that
“although anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian campaigning in itself is”,
“not anti-Semitic, there is a pattern of anti-Semitic behaviour in connection with campaigns promoting a boycott of Israel. For example, protests outside an Israeli-owned shop in central Manchester in summer 2014 led to some Jewish people using the shop being racially abused by protestors, including shoppers”—
I hope the House will forgive me—
“being called ‘Child killer’, comments such as ‘You Jews are scum and the whole world hates you’, and Nazi salutes being made at Jewish shoppers using the Israeli-owned store. On social media, hashtags such as #BDS, #BoycottIsrael and #FreePalestine are regularly used by people posting anti-Semitic tweets and comments.”
That is why Labour Friends of Israel has rightly stated:
“BDS damages communal relations and fosters antisemitism at home, while doing nothing to further the cause of peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Public bodies should not be singling out the world’s only Jewish state for boycotts.”
Luke Akehurst, a Labour NEC member speaking in a personal capacity, has also argued that we should
“welcome the Government’s proposed bill to end the ability of public sector bodies to carry out boycotts and divestment.”
Mr Akehurst added that he was against BDS more widely
“because it deepens the divisions in the Middle East conflict rather than encouraging dialogue and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. BDS demonises and delegitimises Israel”.
I agree with Labour Friends of Israel, I agree with Luke Akehurst, I agree with the Board of Deputies, and I agree with the Jewish Leadership Council, all of whom back this Bill. I agree with the French and German Governments who have taken action against the BDS movement, and I agree with all 50 Governors of US states—Democrat and Republican—who have denounced the BDS movement. The question for every Member of this House is whether they stand with us against antisemitism or not.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Although I disagree fundamentally with the point that he has just tried to make, my question to him is this: has a single diplomatic post specifically advised that the Bill contravenes our UN Security Council requirements and resolutions?
This ill-drafted Bill has multiple contradictions, as excellent legal advice has highlighted, and it may actually contravene international law. Although the Secretary of State may be happy that he will have these additional powers, the Bill will no doubt be subject to multiple legal challenges, and therefore a lot of taxpayers’ money will once again be wasted by the Government. Does he concede that well beyond BDS and the middle east, the Bill may hamper the UK’s ability to protect and preserve human rights across the world?
No, I absolutely do not. The Bill enhances the UK Government’s ability to protect human rights across the globe. On the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about legal challenge, it is the case that organisations such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and others have challenged the Government in this area in the past. They may do so again, but I am confident that the Bill is legally watertight. On the point—
No, I am answering the hon. Gentleman’s question first.
On the point about the legal advice from Mr Hermer KC, as I have said, we believe that that legal advice is flawed and it comes from someone who has a clear political record of partiality on this question.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. I hope he will recognise that many of us in this House have stood up to the BDS movement. Therefore, his rather intemperate suggestion that only if we support this legislation are we against antisemitism does not pass muster. Does he recognise that those of us who would like to see local authorities challenged—perhaps through the Equality Act 2010—can find troublesome elements in this Bill? It is almost as if his myopia about the BDS movement has blinded him to the consequences of this and what it could do.
The Secretary of State boasted earlier that there were exemptions around labour rights and environmental laws, but is it not ironic that the Bill does not include an exemption around genocide? Those of us who have communities that are desperately concerned about the Uyghurs, the Rohingyas or what happened in Sri Lanka recognise that this legislation could stop our speaking out for them. Will he work with us—those of us who want to tackle antisemitism and to stand up for human rights—and rethink his proposals?
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Lady and I acknowledge her work to fight antisemitism and stand against the BDS movement—more than acknowledge it, I applaud her for it. I would say three things. First, there is absolutely nothing in the Bill that prevents the UK Government or other public bodies from taking appropriate action against Myanmar, against China over the treatment of the Uyghurs or against Russia and Belarus over their aggression towards Ukraine. I have seen no solid legal advice to suggest that is the case at all.
Secondly, if the hon. Lady or anybody else wants to table amendments in Committee that can improve the Bill, I am completely open to them. I have not yet seen any such amendments, but I know she and others in this House are skilled in drafting legislation, and I look forward to seeing the appropriate amendments. However, as we have seen in the past, attempts to deal with the specific menace that the BDS campaign creates through guidance have not been sufficient. Primary legislation is required. The shape of that legislation I hope we can decide together across the House.
The Secretary of State mentioned that it is the UK’s long-standing policy to support a two-state solution. It is also the UK’s long-standing policy to differentiate between Israel and the occupied territories. The UK endorsed United Nations resolution 2334. Why is there no differentiation in the Bill between Israel and the occupied territories? Does that not increase the risk of antisemitism?
My right hon. Friend is being very generous in listening to the rather strong opinions on the Bill, but can I press him again to consider alternative ways to deal with the threat of BDS without offering the glass jaw that I see clause 3(7) as presenting to parliamentarians, and to work with me and others to find a better way to do this? I will also say that ad hominem attacks on independent counsel, whoever they are, are not advisable and not wise.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. Of course we are completely open to the consideration of any amendments that can give better effect to the shared intentions that we have across the House to deal with this movement. However, Israel is there in the Bill because of the clear nature and the clear and present activities of the BDS campaign. Were there to be an alternative, one would have to make sure that it dealt effectively with that area.
Like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the generosity he is showing in giving way. I support what he says about the importance of setting a clear marker on the menace of the BDS movement and its impact across communities. Does he agree that the Bill potentially goes further, in a positive way, by making the point that it is for local government to spend taxpayers’ money on services and other issues for their constituents in the best available way, not using it—or abusing it—on ideological issues, and that, whether in expenditure for the local community or through local government pension scheme investments, it should be aimed at getting the best return for constituents and beneficiaries, not at driving ideological wedges between communities?
I think my right hon. Friend is completely right. Local government has a critical role in delivering public services, including support for the most vulnerable in our communities. It is vital that central Government support it in that endeavour and that local government should not be diverted from its core purpose by other temptations.
The Secretary of State said earlier that the Bill fulfils a manifesto commitment, but the manifesto commitment was not country-specific; it was country-agnostic. There was no mention of Israel or BDS in it. Indeed, another manifesto commitment was that we would champion freedom of expression and tolerance. He will recall that a former Secretary of State for Education wrote to all our universities to ensure that they allowed freedom of expression. How is that compatible with clause 4(1)(b), which states that any person who
“would intend to act in such a way”—
of having a boycott on any part of a foreign country—
“were it lawful to do so”,
would be prohibited from doing so and would be penalised by the courts for doing so? How does that represent championing freedom of expression and tolerance?
I should say to my hon. Friend, whose commitment to advancing peace and to freedom of speech I respect, that all the Bill seeks to do is to ensure that boycotts and boycotts in name only cannot be brought forward. It has absolutely no effect—chilling or otherwise—on the exercise of freedom of speech.
I agree with the Secretary of State that there is a particular problem to do with Israel and BDS, but the Bill is not country-specific. Nor is it specific on whether it applies to investment or disinvestment. Of all the Bills I have ever read, it is particularly woolly in its drafting. Will the Secretary of State respond to a few scenarios? We found out that a number of local authorities in this country are twinned with Chinese towns. If they choose to un-twin with those Chinese towns, will they fall foul of the Bill? They are investing in twinning offices and travel expenses. If they were instead to set up a twinning agreement with a Taiwanese town, for example, or to set up a Hong Kong freedom centre, would they fall foul of the legislation? Indeed, under clause 1(2), on decisions
“influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”,
would flying a Ukrainian flag over a town hall fall foul of the Bill as well?
I cannot see that any of those actions would fall foul of the legislation in any way. It is clearly the case that, in each of the areas that my hon. Friend mentions, particularly with respect to China, the Government are taking appropriate action to demonstrate our consistent disapproval of China’s behaviour, not just in Xinjiang but specifically, as he rightly mentions, in Hong Kong.
Not at the moment.
It is important, following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), to make clear that there is no evidence that anything in the Bill will impede our ability or that of local government to act against modern slavery in Xinjiang or environmental misconduct in Myanmar, or to maintain a united front against Russian aggression. Nor is there anything in the Bill to prevent any individual, including councillors, from articulating in their own right any opinion that they personally hold. It is also important to make clear that nothing in the Bill changes in any way UK Government foreign policy or our position on the middle east peace process. Nothing in it alters our support for an adherence to UN resolutions, and nothing in it explicitly or implicitly supports current Israeli Government policy towards settlements in the west bank.
By virtue of my right hon. Friend’s capacious mind, he has had the UK’s foreign policy delegated to his Department as well. He said in answer to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns)—indeed, he just reiterated the point—that nothing in the Bill will endanger our international obligations. Presumably, with that capacious mind, he has read the write-round from the Foreign Office, which says directly that FCDO lawyers advise that the clause on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories would significantly increase the risk of the UK being in breach of our commitments under UN Security Council resolution 2334. Has he had a word with our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary about that?
Yes. Across Government, every Minister supports the Bill, and quite rightly, because it gives effect to our manifesto commitment and ensures that we live up to the responsibilities that we have to deal with divisive campaigns that operate on the ground in a way that adversely affects minority communities and, most especially, the Jewish community.
I am coming to the end of my remarks.
I recognise that many people have, in good faith, expressed concerns about aspects of the Bill, but I point out that the provisions are specifically designed to provide a high bar to ensure that local government acts as it should in accordance with the interest of its citizens, to ensure that UK foreign policy is articulated with one voice, and to ensure in particular that a campaign that those on both Front Benches are clear has been responsible for the demonisation of the state of Israel, for the delegitimsation of its right to exist and for discrimination against Jewish people in this country, is, at last, dealt with. For those reasons, I commend the Bill to the House.
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 Second Reading to the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, because the Bill risks significantly undermining support for groups around the world facing persecution, for example the Uyghur, who are currently victims of grave and systemic human rights abuses, is incompatible with international law and the due diligence of public bodies, undermines the UK’s long-standing cross-party position in respect of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Golan Heights by conflating these with the State of Israel and running counter to UN Security Council Resolutions, singles out the State of Israel in effect creating the issue it intends to solve, seeks to enforce its provisions by giving unprecedented powers to the Secretary of State beyond those enjoyed by the police and the security services, places unprecedented restrictions on the ability of public bodies, many of them directly elected, to express a view on policy, current, proposed and desired, has potential widespread and negative impacts on local government pension funds, limits freedom of speech and is likely to be subject to repeated and extended legal challenge by reason of its conflict with established legal principles; and therefore urges the Government to bring forward alternative proposals.”
I recognise the Secretary of State’s very touching words on Lord Kerslake. He was Lord Kerslake to some, but Bob to those of us who have benefited over many years from his ceaseless encouragement and advice. His knowledge of central Government and local government was unparalleled. His commitment as a genuine public servant who cared deeply about people will be badly missed. He was taken from us too soon, and I would like to add our voice to the very touching tribute from the Secretary of State.
It is perhaps in the spirit that Bob would have wanted that I approach the Bill—on a note of consensus, on something that ought to be a matter of consensus for Labour Members. I recognise that there are deeply held feelings about these issues, and I want to acknowledge that Members in this debate must be heard. I shall, of course, welcome interventions, but I will seek to balance that with the need of Members on both sides of the House, whether I disagree with them or not, to make their views known.
I want to begin by saying to the Secretary of State that we recognise the problem which he says the Bill is designed to tackle. It is therefore deeply frustrating that the Government have introduced a Bill that is needlessly broad, with sweeping, draconian powers and far-reaching effects. Instead of Members on both sides of the House having the opportunity to come together and welcome long-overdue action, he faces genuine, legitimate, heartfelt opposition from Conservative Members; from groups who face persecution, such as the Uyghur, who thought that we stood with them; from human rights groups; and from local government. I have watched the Secretary of State lose Government Members because of the tone that he has struck in the debate. I hope that as the debate progresses he will listen to some of those concerns.
I say to the House that it does not have to be this way. It is not, in our view, wrong for public bodies to take ethical investment and procurement decisions. In fact, there is a long history of councils, universities and others taking a stance in defence of freedom and human rights. In the case of elected councils, their electors often expect them to do just that. There is a difference between legitimate criticism of a foreign state’s Government and what some individuals and organisations have tried to do in recent years, which the Secretary of State outlined well. To seek to target Israel alone, to hold it to different standards from other countries, to question its right to exist, to equate the actions of the Israeli Government with Jewish people, and in doing so create hate and hostility against Jewish people here in the UK is completely wrong.
There is at least one example of a publicly funded body that has taken a stance against the state of Israel that has effectively cancelled Jewish culture here in the UK. We will always stand against that. Most public bodies would not dream of behaving like that, but even one incident has unacceptable and far-reaching consequences for the Jewish community, increasing hate and hostility at a time when antisemitic attacks have reached a peak, children learn behind gates, and security guards stand outside synagogues.
The hon. Lady is speaking really well, and she gave a remarkable Second Reading speech on the Holocaust Memorial Bill.
The hon. Lady is trying to suggest that examples of BDS are few and far between, and that it is a legitimate field of activity for public bodies to comment on foreign policy and express ethical concerns. The trouble is, time and time again, it is about BDS and it is about targeting Israel. When the Welsh Government issued a procurement advice note two years ago, they were trying to single out Israel yet again, and no Labour MP said a thing about it. Is that not the problem?
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that I feel strongly that BDS offers no meaningful route to peace either for the Palestinians or for the Israelis. I can assure him that when BDS is used as an argument for the total economic, social and cultural isolation of the world’s only Jewish state, not only will I speak out but I have spoken out time and time again. As far as I know, I am the only Member in the House—there may be others, and I apologise in advance if I have missed anyone—who has gone directly to take on those who argue for a boycott, divestment and sanctions against the state of Israel and for a one-state solution. I have taken on that argument, because I firmly believe that it is wrong and unhelpful. As I have just made clear to the House, this might not be every public body—I do not believe for a moment that it is—but one incident is too many. It has profound effects on the Jewish community.
That is why so many people in the Jewish community have fought long and hard for action to tackle this problem, and it is why we support them. In fact, we were sufficiently concerned about it that earlier this year we tried to amend the Procurement Bill to ensure that when councils take ethical decisions, they do so in line with an ethical framework and Government guidance and apply those decisions across the board, not seeking to single out any one country for differential treatment. We believe that that amendment offered clarity and certainty to our elected officials and councils, and security for the Jewish community, and we were disappointed that the Government voted it down. However, we continue to believe that there is not—and never should be— disagreement between us on that principle.
I also do not believe there is disagreement between us on whether we oppose the policy of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Opposing that policy is a long-standing Labour position, and it will not change. As I said to the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) a moment ago, it is something I feel so strongly about that I have taken the opportunity to debate with those who expound that policy and who believe in a one-state solution, which we thoroughly oppose. I have made the case that talk of a one-state solution and boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel offers no meaningful route to peace for Palestinians or Israelis. Over the past decade, the one bright spot on a very difficult horizon that I have seen on my trips to the middle east has been the co-existence and joint venture projects that have flourished, through which BDS drives a coach and horses.
We on the Labour Benches do not claim that all those who support BDS, despite our profound disagreement with them on that issue, are antisemitic. Our concern is with those who have tried to whip up hostility towards Jewish people under the cover of either BDS or the targeting of Israel, particularly those who seek the total economic, social and cultural isolation of the world’s only Jewish state. That is what we must deal with, in a way that is enforceable—that has real impact and real teeth—and that tackles the problem it is designed to solve.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we have worked hard to ensure that we are not antisemitic, and that for the Minister to display what he has done in the Chamber does no good to our democracy? This is a very badly written Bill—it is not a good Bill—and the Minister’s suggestion that anyone who votes against it is antisemitic is just a disgrace and something he should withdraw.
This is a debate that needs far less heat and far more light, because we are talking about real people—about communities in the UK who are among the most marginalised and discriminated against in our country. I thank the Secretary of State for acknowledging in his opening remarks that Labour Front Benchers are acting in good faith in the approach we have taken, but I would echo a note of caution: we should not in any sense suggest that Members, of all parties in this House, who have expressed profound reservations about the Bill in front of us can be deemed to be antisemitic. They are not. They are participating in democracy and giving voice to real concerns. They are doing what we were sent to this House to do: scrutinise legislation and ensure that it has the intended impact. I encourage Members to continue to do so, because a Bill that is designed to promote and protect community cohesion can proceed only with the broadest possible consent.
I thank the hon. Lady for what she has just said, because I also found the Secretary of State’s suggestion that those of us who oppose the Bill are condoning antisemitism, or are in fact antisemitic, to be disgraceful. Has she, like me, seen a public letter to the Secretary of State from a number of British-based Jewish academic experts in the fields of Jewish studies, the study of antisemitism and Israel studies, including my dear friend Professor Francesca Klug OBE, visiting professor of human rights at the London School of Economics? They have expressed the view that this legislation is damaging and wrong-headed and should be withdrawn. Will the hon. Lady confirm that that is a letter from leading British Jewish academics?
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for raising those concerns. We are keen that all the voices in this debate ought to be heard; I have heard different views from across the Jewish community, but I have to say to her that the overwhelming view I have heard is that there is a desperate need to tackle this very real problem. The strength of feeling in the Jewish community that we must legislate to tackle this problem is overwhelming. I do not want for one moment to deny that that is what I have heard in my frequent conversations with the Jewish community, but as I will outline, there are serious problems with the Bill that need to be addressed.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady for giving way, and for the tone she has struck. As someone who has a significant proportion of Jewish constituents, I speak in defence of them. The BDS movement and its increased presence on university campuses has seen the Community Security Trust state that there has been a 22% increase in campus antisemitism. We are now in a situation where many of my constituents will not go to university because they face such hostility, so the enthusiasm for the Bill may not be about its drafting, but about the aims that it seeks to achieve.
That is absolutely right. In fact, the Union of Jewish Students, which has expressed real concerns about the Bill—the very students who have often been the targets of the appalling abuse and attacks that the hon. Gentleman has outlined—is clear that it wants to see this problem tackled. I hope that is a basis on which we can proceed across the House in a debate that, as I have said, needs far more light and far less heat. I remain confident that, with good faith and good will on everyone’s part, we can find a way to tackle what is a very real problem for the Jewish community in this country.
I will take a moment to explain why the Bill does not do what the Government intend it to do. Clause 1 attempts to ban public bodies from taking decisions influenced by
“political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct.”
We have commissioned legal advice that suggests there are two readings of the clause. I would just say to some Conservative Members that a King’s counsel—a distinguished King’s counsel who happens to disagree about the legal impact of this legislation—deserves a hearing and deserves respect. If in a democracy those who disagree with us are accused of acting dishonestly or in bad faith, we are in a very dark place indeed. That legal advice suggests that on first reading the clause applies only when it relates to specific territories. That would create the absurd situation where public bodies could refuse goods from China because of general disregard for human rights, but could not refuse cotton goods from Xinjiang because of concerns about genocide against the Uyghur population.
The second reading of the clause, which I imagine is what the Government intend, is that public bodies are banned from having any regard at all to human rights violations of foreign Governments unless they are expressly permitted by this Government. There are a few exceptions in the schedule referred to in clause 3—labour rights, bribery and the environment—but not genocide, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) has said, or systematic torture or grave breaches of the Geneva convention. After the horrors of the second world war, it was British diplomats who held the pen, crafting the international legal system that recognised that some crimes are so grave that they should never be acceptable. What has changed that gives the Government grounds to create two tiers through this Bill—to deem slavery unacceptable, but remain silent on the issue of genocide? Have we given up believing that these things matter?
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does she share my concerns that the Bill will weaken our voice on the international stage in tackling human rights abuses? It will enable many regimes with appalling human rights records, or companies that have track records of labour law violations or environmental recklessness, to continue without consequence, including where those abuses are incompatible with international law.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that concern, which has also been raised with me. I defer to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), who I know will make a contribution in due course.
What is not clear to me and other Labour Members is why the Government have sought to draw this Bill’s powers so broadly. It is not just breathtaking in its reach; it is deeply contradictory, because the Bill itself accepts that there will be times when public bodies will take a view about the conduct of foreign Governments on specific grounds, such as modern slavery. In fact, the Secretary of State wrote to councils last year urging them to do so in the case of Russia, and has since signalled his intent to add Russia and Belarus to the list of exceptions allowed by clause 3. Only two years ago in this House, I sat on these Benches as we proudly and rightly passed the Magnitsky regulations, which recognised the power of economic sanctions to direct state conduct and raise global standards. However, the Secretary of State is now proposing a Bill that will prevent—for example—the Department for Business and Trade from taking human rights violations into account when deciding whether to grant export credit guarantees. Surely he can see the problem. The Cameron Government became a signatory to the UN guiding principles on business and human rights a decade ago. The Government’s own action plan makes it clear that businesses have a corporate responsibility to uphold human rights and to monitor those they deal with commercially. After years of promising to hand over powers and spending decisions to Mayors, combined authorities and councils, is the Secretary of State seriously saying that they are not capable of exercising the same duty?
There are other areas of deep confusion in this Bill that we believe will open up the prospect of ongoing legal challenge, and I know that has been raised by Conservative Members. Clause 1 bans action that a reasonable observer would conclude is motivated by moral or political disapproval of a foreign Government, but on these deeply contested notions what constitutes a “reasonable observer”?
Clause 4 is even more problematic. It prohibits public bodies from expressing a view not just about how they intend to act, but how they would have done so had the law not been in force. It is difficult to know how public bodies, particularly those that are elected, should respond to this. In recent years, many councils have, for example, been asked by their own residents not to use Chinese companies with links to Xinjiang. My own council is one of them. Under this Bill, faced with thousands of people signing a public petition, a council would not even be able to give any indication of whether or not it agreed with its own residents. Our legal advice suggests that this extraordinary situation is likely to be incompatible with article 10 of the European convention on human rights.
Clause 3(7) creates even more confusion. It singles out Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan heights as places for which no exemption can ever be made. The long-standing position of the UK Government is to support a two-state solution along pre-1967 lines that protects and respects the security and right to self-determination of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. This clause drives a coach and horses through that, according the occupied territories the same protected status as Israel and in effect conflating the two. It contradicts established Government policy, and I find it hard to believe that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has agreed to this. I note the questions from two Conservative Members, and I am deeply concerned that it appears that the Government and the Secretary of State have not even asked that question. It appears that Conservative Members have seen a circular from Foreign Office officials raising objections to this Bill, yet the Secretary of State has not. I urge him to look closely at that matter before the Bill proceeds.
The hon. Lady talks about when she has visited Israel or Palestine, as I have done regularly with the breast cancer projects I am involved with in Gaza and the west bank. The thing is that the settlements are illegal under international law, and they have been condemned by the Government in the past. Obviously, companies, pension funds, councils and devolved Governments who try to act ethically and do not wish to purchase settlement goods, which are illegal, would be floored by that clause. How does that match with current UK policy?
I hope, as the debate goes on, that there may be an answer to this, but I have to confess that so far I am at a loss as to what it might be. Where does this leave our commitment to international law, given that it cuts across UN resolutions, as Conservative Members have highlighted, and weakens Britain’s stated support for a two-state solution, as the hon. Member has said?
The legal advice we have received strongly suggests that this is likely to be in breach of our international law obligations. Furthermore, it will force the UK courts, which have traditionally been reluctant to adjudicate on issues relating to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, to take a view. All of these confusing and contradictory measures raise the very real prospect of protracted legal challenge. One of the Conservative Members recently called this woolly. Surely the Secretary of State can see that protracted legal challenge over the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the practice of boycott, divestment and sanctions would not be in the interests of community cohesion, which is the very thing this Bill is designed to protect.
I will not give way, if my hon. Friend will forgive me. A lot of people are wishing to speak, and given that she has made one intervention, I will make a bit of progress.
As if that were not bad enough, it seems that nobody in Government has thought of the consequences for local government pension funds, which is arguably the one area where councils have to have a global outlook. Let me give the Secretary of State a practical example. In recent months, as he will know, three Israeli companies have moved their money outside Israel due to concerns about the financial risks created by the contentious reforms to the judiciary. If a local government pension fund were to do the same, this Bill would open it up to legal challenge, forcing it to prove to a reasonable observer, whatever that is, that its decision was on financial, not moral grounds.
Writing in the Local Government Chronicle, the director of pensions at Westminster Council asks what happens
“where an analyst has anticipated that a company’s value will decrease because of ESG decisions it has made… if that strategy falls within the new law’s definition of not being in line with UK foreign defence policy, and the law therefore states that the fund must remain invested, and the fund therefore loses value, who will pay for that?... The government’s current message is that ‘this is not designed to get in the way of ESG factors, excepting the very narrow area of UK foreign or defence policy’. But this is absolutely not a very narrow area.”
“We could end up in a scenario with never ending arguments involving ESG factors versus foreign and defence policy.”
Surely that cannot be the intention of this Government.
I think I agree with everything my hon. Friend has said this afternoon. She will remember, as I do, how many of us on the Opposition Benches, and indeed in all of the House, spent years of our lives campaigning against the apartheid regime. That was a very strong policy within local authorities and it had real impact at the time, so much so that when Nelson Mandela came to this country to thank people, he included them in those thanks. Does she believe that, had this legislation been enacted at the time, it would have prevented those authorities from taking the action they did to oppose apartheid?
The hon. Lady talked about pensions, and there is an additional point. Whatever people may think of BDS or of an investment strategy that is ethical or otherwise, the money that sits in the local government pension scheme—and I am a member of the local government pension scheme—is the members’ money, my money. It is not the Government’s money to direct in one way or another; it belongs to the pension holders, and it is surely for them and those to whom they delegate its management to decide how it should be deployed. As she rightly says, if the Government are getting into the business of managing my pension money and I lose money because of decisions made by the Government, presumably I should be compensated.
This is precisely the question that the Government have yet to answer, but we hope that will be forthcoming during this debate. I would add to what the right hon. Gentleman said that the local government pension service is already under a fiduciary duty to take prudent investment decisions based on an assessment of the financial consequence of a number of matters, including environmental and social governance, and when it divests on the basis of non-financial factors, it should follow the Law Commission direction that any financial impact should not be significant and that the decision would likely be supported by scheme members. I am not sure what happens when a local government pension fund is taking decisions that would not be supported by scheme members. We are talking about the pensions of 6 million people in this country, and I think these are important questions that the Government must answer.
I want to turn to one of our chief concerns about this Bill, which is the concentration of the decision making and judgment of hundreds of public bodies in the hands of just one person and the implications of that for some of the most persecuted people in the world. There will be significant effects on the Uyghur in Xinjiang, who are suffering such serious crimes against humanity that the Biden Administration have recognised it as genocide. The Secretary of State will have read the impassioned letter from those groups in The Times about the effects of this Bill. Surely we cannot abandon them to their fate. For the Rohingya in Myanmar, for the Tamils in Sri Lanka and for countless others, the concern is that this bad law prevents not just economic action to uphold human rights everywhere, but solidarity with some of the most persecuted people in the world.
As was said earlier, the Bill goes further and clause 7 grants to the Secretary of State or other relevant body the power to issue notices requiring all information to be handed over, if they suspect that a prohibited statement expressing a moral or political view about foreign conduct is in the process of or about to be made, including information in subsection (8) that would normally be protected by legal privilege. Let me clear about the effect of that: this hands over to the Office for Students, the Secretary of State, and the Treasury, greater powers than those available to the security services. I know there are Members on both sides of the House who are deeply troubled by that, and those who are not should consider for a moment how they might feel about this Bill if their party was not in power.
We should not be here. We have long fought for legislation to tackle what is a real problem, and we are determined to give the Government the opportunity to do the right thing. That is why today we are proposing an alternative that allows the Government and this House to keep our promise to tackle a long-standing issue of deep concern to the Jewish community, but avoids tearing up our commitment to human rights, local democracy and free speech, in a Bill that does not even appear to tackle the very problem it seeks to solve.
The hon. Lady has made a number of powerful points. She will have heard me question the Secretary of State about the fact that the Bill is not country agnostic; it is directed primarily at one country and one issue, which is BDS. The question for her is, in a way, the opposite of that, which is that this problem has come to be because of decisions made by Leicester City Council and Lancaster City Council, which are Labour-run councils acting arguably in cahoots with BDS. What does she think the Labour party can do to take away the perceived requirement to have a Bill that seems, at the moment, largely to argue against BDS’s actions against Israel?
I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman had to say and I support it, but he should please not try to tarnish Labour Members with a record on antisemitism. There are those of us who stood up not just to those who are supposed to be our opponents, but to those who are supposed to be our friends as well. And we will always do that. I give my word, and I give our word on behalf of the Labour party.
As I am about to outline, we have provided the Government with an alternative. Earlier this year we sought to amend the Procurement Bill to ensure that no single country, especially in the cases that we have been describing and the world’s only Jewish state, can be singled out for different standards from others, and in doing so whip up hate and hostility against the Jewish community. It is a real problem. We provided the Government with a solution. They refused it, but we remain convinced that co-operation and consensus is the right approach to tackle what we accept is a very real problem.
Today, the Secretary of State will hear this refrain again and again from Members on his own Back Benches, and across the House: two important principles—the need to tackle racism and antisemitism, which are a scourge on our society, and the need to stand up for human rights, freedom of expression, democracy and our long-standing position on Israel and Palestine, and act in accordance with international law—and those things should never be seen as mutually exclusive or allowed to be pitted against one another.
We have a number of serious suggestions about the way that this problem can be tackled. We have outlined an alternative approach. We have provided the Secretary of State with a solution, and we urge him to take it. Otherwise, he should know that Labour Members will be compelled to vote against the Bill on Third Reading, as I suspect will significant numbers of his own colleagues. It is an outcome we should all strive to avoid. If a pledge to tackle division, around which there is broad consensus, was derailed by a combative approach and a Government who refuse to listen to the wide range of voices that have expressed their concerns, that would be a crying shame. With good will and good faith on the part of the Government, we can proceed together. We have proposed how. The ball is now in the court of the right hon. Gentleman.
This evening’s debate should focus on the specifics of the Bill in front of us. The right of Israel to exist and defend itself is not up for debate. The right of Palestine to exist and defend itself is also not up for debate. The UK supports a two-state solution, and I believe that everyone in the Chamber would also be of that mind. I wish to draw the attention of hon. Members to the implications of the current drafting of the Bill. It has implications on our historic commitments and responsibilities and ability to play the role of honest arbiter within the region, and risks undermining our commitments as a United Nations Security Council member.
My concerns about the Bill fall within four areas: first, foreign policy implications; secondly, exceptionalism in legislation; thirdly, protection of freedom of speech; and finally, the legality of what we are being asked to support. Let me begin with the implications of the Bill on foreign policy and international obligations. My first concern, as was raised in earlier interventions, is the conflation of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Conflating East Jerusalem, the west bank and the Golan Heights breaks with our position, because the UK recognises the Golan Heights as annexed and the west bank and East Jerusalem as Occupied Palestinian Territories. That is a departure from our foreign policy.
Not only does the Bill break with our foreign policy, but clause 3(7) puts the UK in breach of our commitments under UN Security Council resolution 2334 (2016). That is not just an international commitment; it is one that we drafted back in 2016. It states that in their “relevant dealings”, states must distinguish
“between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.”
The Bill does not distinguish between our treatment of Israel and the OPTs.
Why does breaching UNSCR 2334 matter? Because we rely on the rules based system to protect ourselves and to protect our allies. How many of us have talked about the rule of law in this Chamber, when it comes to Ukraine and Russia, Serbia, the Balkans, and so many other parts of this world? The impact of the Bill would be significant. It will undermine our position as a respectable and reliable multilateral partner, committed to upholding UN Security Council resolutions as we should as a permanent member. It risks our losing the support of Arab states on shared issues, and their vote at the UN. We all know that western states are spending a significant amount of time trying to shore up the support of so-called non-aligned countries. I have spent most of the last few days on the phone to Arab ambassadors—the same Arab ambassadors who recognise Israel and want to normalise relations with Israel. Finally, we risk giving China, Iran, Russia, Serbia and others an easy propaganda win, because they will use this against us when we talk about the annexation of territories around the world.
I am concerned that the UN Special Coordinator would have no choice but to explicitly name the UK in their next report on how member states are adhering to compliance with UNSCR 2334. I also worry that it sends the wrong message about the achievement of sovereignty through violence. It means that if Israel breaches international law in the occupied territories, public bodies cannot express their ethical objection to those crimes. I worry that the Bill will leave the international community questioning whether Israeli settlements in the OPTs and the Golan Heights are still regarded as illegal by the UK Government.
The hon. Lady has given a very good list of people that the Bill could undermine. Does she also recognise that it undermines many people in Israel who oppose the occupation in the occupied territories, and it would make their life harder when making the case in Israel in a democratic sense?
I have received significant representations from human rights organisations within Israel, and also from within our Jewish communities in the UK, who feel that this is not only the worst possible timing for the Bill, but that they themselves do not support it.
If we are now to have questioned our position on the OPTs legally, how is the Bill compatible with that, and with the fact that the Conservative Government recognise that settlements built on occupied Palestinian land since 1967 are illegal? We must ensure that all legislation makes a clear distinction between Israel where we support no boycott, and the illegal settlements on occupied land where a boycott would be consistent with our position on UNSCR 2334. Why are we undermining our international position by breaching our position on a two-state solution, and changing the UK’s recognition of certain territories as occupied, when the Bill can achieve the same end simply by removing clause 3(7)? The House will hear that point reiterated throughout the evening by many of my colleagues.
I was also concerned that the Secretary of State appeared not to be aware of the concerns emanating from the Foreign Office and from diplomatic posts. I ask him to clarify that when winding up this evening. I think the wording was that “no such advice had been received”. Has the Foreign Office truly not given any advice that it had concerns that the Bill breached our UN Security Council resolutions?
I am not aware whether we do, but that would be legitimate within the current UN Security Council restrictions so I would not necessarily oppose it. What I am saying is that we would not necessarily support Israel being boycotted, but we would support a boycott of products from the occupied territories, because we consider them to be illegal or annexed.
Inherently, the hon. Lady makes a valid point, although it is potentially a different discussion. There is a fundamental question around whether we should be boycotting or bringing in goods. As the House knows, I have been vocal in ensuring that goods coming from genocide are not imported from across China. We must have a standard response across all countries.
To sum up, my concern is that legislation by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities must not depart from our foreign policy, let alone undermine it or leave us ostracised internationally. My second concern is the legislative implications from the exceptionalism proposed in the Bill. Since my election, the Government have been at great pains to make the point to me that all legislation should be agnostic. I must admit that I railed against that when first elected, and the House may have seen me table amendments with the words “China” and “Xinjiang” on repeat—ad nauseam, some might say. However, the Government are correct, and I have come to appreciate and recognise that position.
To demonstrate that point, let me draw on the Procurement Bill, which this Bill interacts with on exceptions, pension schemes and the UK security services. All the amendments that I tabled to the Procurement Bill—I am grateful to the Government for having accepted them—were country-agnostic, because the Government made the point that that is how we legislate, except for such things as trade Bills. We should be agnostic in all we do, but worse than being non-agnostic, the Bill gives exceptional impunity to Israel. We should not give that to any country, and I would be standing here making the same request were any country named.
To act in this way now sends a clear message to all Members of Parliament: “From now on, it is game on. If you want to put China, Xinjiang or any other country into primary legislation, crack on.” The Chief Whip will not be able to tell Members they cannot do it anymore, and Government Ministers will not be able to argue against it any more, because we have done it and broken that practice in this Bill. The Government will regret making this precedent. The reality is that we can achieve the same outcome without putting geographic references into primary legislation.
On the implications for freedom of speech—I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) for having made me aware of how acute these are—the Bill has unjustifiable clauses. Clause 4(1) states that if a local council leader, university vice-chancellor or even the chief executive of a private company delivering public services speaks in a way that contravenes clause 1, they have broken the law. To make the implications clear, the Bill states that just someone expressing in print that they would like, as an elected official, to boycott products from Xinjiang, China or any illegal settlement but cannot, because the law does not allow them to do so, constitutes an offence punishable by an as yet unlimited fine from the Secretary of State. That is completely inappropriate.
The hon. Lady is making a wonderful speech and I agree with everything she has said. On that last point, does she agree that the Bill is likely to disproportionately interfere with freedom of expression and the conscience of individuals, in such a way that does not sit with our obligations under articles 9 and 10 of the ECHR?
I entirely agree with the hon. and learned Lady, because this legislation does breach article 10 rights to freedom of speech, as it fails to distinguish between a person and an authority, so individuals risk being liable. If the legislation made clear that it is about public authorities, we would not have those concerns, but the lack of that clarity makes individuals liable to being fined, and therefore it breaches article 10 of the ECHR. Given that the Government have just rightly passed the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, which I fundamentally and entirely support, to now stop elected individuals from expressing moral disapproval or even to consider or vocalise ethical investment decisions is wrong.
My final concern is the legality of what we are being asked to support. I question whether this Bill will be legally sound once tested, and I have every reason to think it will not be, because it has previously failed in the High Court. When the measure fails again in the High Court, we will then see a judgment on the UK’s treatment of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which I fear I would not be proud to stand behind. Similar legislation has failed, and legal concerns rest around, for example, the terms “political or moral disapproval”, which are not defined in the Bill and breach our commitment to making human rights fundamental in our decision making. Our obligations under the UN guiding principles on business and human rights essentially mean that this legislation would see the private sector having greater adherence to our human rights than the public sector. I encourage the Secretary of State to consider potential conflict between the UK Government and the UN stating that settlements are illegal while then penalising local councils in the UK for taking ethical procurement decisions to address that illegality.
There is significant unhappiness among colleagues in the House and in our party. To enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to still deliver on our manifesto commitment, I urge him to please remove clause 3(7), which is unnecessary to delivering on our commitment. We can still do this, with just a small compromise from those on the Front Bench. The Government can still introduce Israel’s exception through secondary legislation, which would mean that we would treat Israel as equal to every other state. It would prevent us from breaching our UN Security Council resolutions and from being dragged through the courts. It would maintain our country-agnostic legislative approach, and it would prevent us from undermining our standing internationally.
While we are on the subject, I have never felt that we are so close to conflict, particularly following this morning’s news. There is the chance that we might be seeing a third intifada and the Gaza crisis of 2023, and we need to demonstrate meaningful resolve from King Charles Street in ending the conflict and de-escalating. I therefore urge the Prime Minister to appoint a middle east peace envoy, because we do not have any envoy for the middle east, let alone one focused exclusively on the middle east peace process. We should be worried, because what happens in Palestine and Israel impacts around the world. I stress that this low-commitment ask would allow us to live up to our responsibilities and demonstrate meaningful resolve. With that, I join with other respected friends of Israel in urging the Government to think again.
It is a pleasure to follow the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns). I also thank the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for suggesting that tone in this debate is important. I see that the Secretary of State is leaving at this moment in time, but I do not think anybody will miss the irony of his projecting himself as the sole moral arbiter for the whole United Kingdom. Even worse, he seeks to quell the just protests of honourable organisations and individuals who are trying to bring about decent change internationally.
In Scotland, we have a proud history of promoting social justice, human rights and respect for international law on the world stage. As the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) alluded to in his intervention, Scotland can provide a very good example. In 1981, the then Glasgow District Council decided to award Nelson Mandela the freedom of the city—the first city in the world to do so. Five years later, St George’s Place in Glasgow city centre was renamed Nelson Mandela Place. Why was that? It was because the South African consulate was in St George’s Place, and the council wanted to make sure that everybody knew who Nelson Mandela was by making sure his name was on the address of the South African consulate. When Nelson Mandela addressed Glasgow City Chambers in 1993, he said:
“While we were physically denied our freedom in the country of our birth, a city, 6,000 miles away, and as renowned as Glasgow, refused to accept the legitimacy of the apartheid system, and declared us to be free.”
Had this proposed legislation been in place during the 1980s, Glasgow would have likely been legally debarred from taking the actions that it did, or even from suggesting that it might take those actions, because the then Conservative Government did not support sanctions for South Africa. I remember as a young lad seeing country after country boycotting the Commonwealth games in Edinburgh in 1986 as a result of the then UK Government’s actions.
SNP Members will be supporting Labour’s reasoned amendment. However, it is missing one key part: the attacks on the devolved Administrations. Perversely, the democratically elected Parliament and Government of Scotland will be required under the Bill to give legislative assent to its enactment. We will be asked to provide the gag that silences our freedom of expression and that of the people we represent.
As a good global citizen, Scotland is committed to the highest ethical and moral standards in human rights, climate justice, workers’ rights and economic development. The Scottish Government will always fulfil their obligations under international law and agreements. The people of Scotland rightly expect that actions in Scotland should be taken with full consideration of moral and ethical duties to communities around the world, and we will not idly watch that good work being constrained.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s points. The Welsh Labour Government have policies on such matters as modern slavery and human rights. Public sector investment and procurement are devolved, yet the Bill’s impact assessment does not consider any specific Welch approaches. Does he agree that the Government should do that before taking any further steps?
Indeed. There was probably no discussion with the devolved Administrations on the Bill and the impact that it will have on the devolved institutions, so I agree with my hon. Friend. The UK Government claim that the Scottish Government pursue actions that undermine UK foreign policy, but that is simply not the case—it is not true. For many years, the Scottish Government have conducted international engagement which benefits the people of Scotland and aligns with present constitutional arrangements. Scottish Government Ministers are simply embodying the values-based principles of the Scottish electorate, as the Welsh would do with the Welsh electorate.
I listened to the Secretary of State arguing for the Bill, which gave an impression of what the death rattle of a dying Government sounds like. The Bill represents a desperate attempt by the UK Government to salvage something from the wreckage they have created across the fields of international trade, diplomatic relations and human rights. Let us look at those fields in turn.
Does not the gagging clause in the Bill, which will stifle debate and discussion about policy, fit with what we have seen in the last year or so with the Public Order Act 2023: the seizing by the Executive of almost every power to hold the Government to account, whether from the judiciary, voters, protesters or even MPs, through post-Brexit legislation?
In Nottingham, we have significant numbers of people, including Hongkongers and those from other parts of the world, who have fled from many countries perpetrating human rights abuses. They rightly do not want their councils or universities to be complicit in human rights abuses that their family and friends continue to experience. Does the hon. Member agree that public bodies must have the right to take a principled stance against, for example, the persecution of the people of Hong Kong, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang or political dissidents across China?
I do agree. I am going to quote an exchange between the hon. Lady and a Minister later in my remarks, so she may want to intervene again. I have Uyghur Muslims as constituents. I know how serious the issues are. I have Kurdish constituents who are very concerned about the oppression of Kurdish people in Turkey and Syria, for example. I will always stand beside those people, but the Bill will prevent public bodies and institutions from taking such steps. That is a real concern.
The Government are leaving themselves open to a new slogan: never mind the probity, feel the width. Their ability to grow trade is now severely constrained, so they seem to be selling off their own principles to the highest bidder. Previous attempts to work with others in making the world a decent place are now to be put aside. Rogue nations are to be tolerated for the sake of business and their transgressions ignored. The Bill—the dog’s breakfast that it is—leaves them open to that charge.
Amnesty International UK is right to say that the Bill will
“make it almost impossible for public bodies to use their procurement and investment policies to incentivise ethical business conduct that is human rights compliant.”
However, perhaps the objective is not surprising. From the UK being an original drafter of the European convention on human rights, I note that some on the Government Benches now wish the UK to leave that. We would have hoped that the Conservative Government might have learned from their disastrous policy of giving succour to the apartheid regime in South Africa. When the world railed against that regime, the then Conservative Government turned a blind eye, even though we already knew the consequences of appeasement from earlier experiences.
We have learned in the last century what happens when Governments do not have a conscience and turn a blind eye to wrongdoing. We have learned that responsibility lies not just at a national level but at a local level—and, yes, even at the level of the individual. Now we are informed that giving expression to that conscience locally will be penalised under the law. It would appear that the only good conscience is a Tory conscience as expressed by a Government Minister at Westminster.
I ask myself: why are the Government pursuing this policy? Does every Government Member want to stifle local democracy? Every society has its share of people who are mainly self-interested, with little concern for those outside their own circle. It would be good to think that that proportion of society has shrunk as we have become more aware of world affairs. But it still seems to be far too substantial, suggesting to niche voters that principles are costly to us and we cannot now afford them. That is a dangerous game. It is much easier to break down society than to build it up; to make people isolationist rather than internationalist. Patching that fragmented society together again would be a monumental task. But there is good news: there are some parts of the United Kingdom where that dystopian dream is not being pursued—quite the opposite, in fact.
We have had helpful support in our position regarding Israel, for example. On Thursday, at that very Dispatch Box, the International Trade Minister told the House that the UK has a clear position on Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories:
“they are illegal under international law, present an obstacle to peace and…a two-state solution.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2023; Vol. 735, c. 408.]
As set out in Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office guidance on overseas business risks, there are clear risks to UK businesses related to economic and financial activities in the settlements and we do not encourage or offer support to such activity. So the Government’s position seems to be, “Don’t do it. We don’t support it, but we’re not going to allow people to boycott it.” That is a very confusing position for the Government to find themselves in. The Secretary of State suggested that the Bill does not stop boycotts of occupied territories, but actually we need just to read the Bill to see that that is exactly what it proposes.
I will in a second.
I want to make it clear that the Scottish Government and the SNP unequivocally condemn and distance themselves from members or affiliates in the BDS movement who advocate a complete boycott of Israel and Israeli people and who suggest that the state of Israel does not even have the right to exist. The Scottish Government are also committed to tackling all incidents of hate crime, working in partnership with a range of organisations, including Police Scotland. It would be a cruel distraction for the Government to equate sympathy and support for oppressed people with antisemitism. The Bill leads to the accusation that the Government think there are good and bad occupations. As others have said, when I have Uyghur Muslim constituents with children in camps, I cannot support and vote for a Bill that would stop organisations from campaigning against or boycotting Chinese goods on the basis of the treatment of Uyghur Muslims. With Kurdish constituents, I cannot support a Bill that would stop me, or organisations or public bodies, from boycotting goods from Turkey or Syria on the basis of the oppression of Kurdish people. I cannot support a Bill that ignores environmental concerns. Friends of the Earth 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”.
That is what the Bill does. It will make it illegal for public bodies and local authorities to divest from or boycott fossil fuel companies and those with poor track records on protecting environmental standards.
The Scottish National party—and I believe, the Scottish people—will not participate in this diminution of freedom of speech and disregard for the wellbeing of our friends throughout the world. Earlier, I referred to the Bill as the death rattle of a dying Government. Ministers really should withdraw the Bill; it is a complete and utter dog’s breakfast. If they do not, I support the Opposition’s reasoned amendment and the Bill does not deserve to pass Second Reading.
I agree with much of the sentiment of the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), for whom I have a great deal of regard, as she knows. However, fine words butter no parsnips. It is easy to identify the source of the problem, but it is a little more difficult to legislate in such a complex area.
I would respond to some of the things that the hon. Lady said on two fronts. First, it is okay for people to make reference to the political views and other writings of a KC who is advising her and her right hon. and hon. Friends. That is a perfectly legitimate thing to bring to the House’s attention. King’s counsels are not Gods and they are not beyond any criticism. Secondly, she made the point, in many ways, for why we require the Bill—specifically, clause 3(7). She highlighted her own work—for which I applaud her—during a very difficult time in her party’s history. She stood up and received all sorts of appalling abuse because of the position she was prepared to take on what was going on in her party. I am grateful for and impressed by her bravery in doing that. It was an incredible thing for Opposition Members to do at that time. Precisely because we ended up in the position we did, where people with sympathies for the BDS campaign came very close to power in this country, we require clause 3(7) and the specification of Israel.
BDS is an antisemitic, racist campaign—there is no doubt about that. It singles out the state of Israel for special treatment. There is something peculiarly sinister about those who obsess about Israel while being blind to the behaviour of despots and dictators across the world. I hope that is not the case for most Members in the House, but it is for some who oppose this view. That is not my view, but that of the German Parliament, the Bundestag, which passed a motion a few years ago that stated that the actions of the BDS were reminiscent of the terrifying Nazi campaign against Jewish people under Adolf Hitler. It went on to say:
“The ‘don’t buy’ stickers of the BDS movement on Israeli products”
could be associated with
“the Nazi call ‘don’t buy from Jews’ and other corresponding graffiti…on shop windows”.
I would hope that none in the Chamber would support those sorts of actions or behaviours. It is a little off subject, but today we learned that the last French D-day fighter of Nazism Léon Gautier has passed away. It would be nice for us to remember his name today.
Sadly, that behaviour rooted in the Nazi period has not passed. We have seen so many examples of it, as Members have reminded us this afternoon. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) for reminding me of some experiences of his constituents in recent years. I will not repeat them due to time constraints, but they include the removal of kosher products because of the pernicious, racist BDS movement and the fact that film festivals in this country have been cancelled because they dared to take a small amount of sponsorship from the Israeli embassy.
The BDS campaign has consequences. It is no wonder a Jewish driver was attacked in Golders Green outside Kosher Kingdom for daring to have an Israeli flag on his vehicle. It is no wonder we end up with the appalling antisemitic incidents and attacks on British campuses. British Jews become the targets and victims of the campaign—none of us should forget that. We cannot divorce BDS from its impacts on the Jewish citizens of our country.
We have seen record numbers of antisemitic incidents in recent years—it is important to remind the House of those. Last year, 1,652 antisemitic incidents were recorded by the Community Security Trust. Worryingly, the proportion of victims who were minors has increased. Perhaps even worse, the proportion of minors perpetrating those attacks has also increased; in 2022, 20% were recorded as minors—a number that has doubled in recent years. We must do everything we can to abate the trend among younger people, some of which is motivated by the BDS campaign. Every time there is a flare-up in the middle east conflict, British Jews are on the receiving end. The current issues, which the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) referenced, of rising tensions in the regions are the biggest argument for the legislation in the form in which it has been produced.
Any rise in tensions in the middle east will result in an uptick in BDS activities. I was interested in what the Scottish National party spokesman, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), said on that. He was careful to say, “Of course, we disassociate ourselves from people in the BDS movement who delegitimise the state of Israel through boycotts.” However, he did not tell us his view of those people when they argue for boycotts in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or in the settlements. The problem is that they are not different people, but the same. He cannot separate them from the people seeking to delegitimise Israel, and say, “Those people are wrong, and racist and antisemitic”, as many in the BDS movement are, and then infer, as I think he was doing, that their activities and what they demand are okay when they relate to other parts. They are the same people who hold the same pernicious, racist views.
Many people with issues about the Bill have legitimate concerns—there is no doubt about that. The Secretary of State said at the Dispatch Box that he was prepared to work in Committee to see how we can improve the Bill if required. That was a sensible thing to say. However, I am afraid that for some who oppose the Bill, it is always about Israel. Their beef is always the state of Israel. I have heard some bizarre arguments against the Bill, one of which is that it will increase antisemitism. That is a strange argument, to put it mildly. Just because some people do not like the legislation, saying that it might result in an increase in antisemitism and “Oh, in which case, let’s not bother with it” rather proves the point of the Bill.
It is not really about liking each other, important though that is. It is about what the Jewish Chronicle itself has said:
“Boycotting Israel is wrong but this anti BDS bill is not the answer…This is a bad bill…and bad especially for British Jews”.
Is my hon. Friend aware of that, and does he realise that many Jews are not in favour of this way of trying to protect themselves from antisemitism?
The editor-at-large of the Jewish Chronicle, in an excellent piece today, wrote:
“There is no room for shades of grey here. You either think it’s fine to boycott Jews—in which case you will oppose the Bill—or you don’t, in which case you will support it.”
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which rather helpfully takes me on to my point about the view of the Jewish community: the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council are united in believing that the Bill is invaluable in the battle against antisemitism.
I was responding to some of the opposition to the Bill. One issue is that of settlements. The Bill will have no impact on the UK’s policy on settlements, which is that they are illegal under international law. That does not change with the Bill. The country does not, at the moment, have a boycott policy against settlement products or products coming from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, precisely because it is so complex in terms of who actually works there and who is damaged economically. The Bill makes no difference to that and neither does it prevent any criticism of Israel. That can continue and we have heard that today. I end where I started: this legislation is necessary to deal with a pernicious and peculiarly sinister antisemitic campaign group.
I am afraid I completely disagree with the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). The Bill reflects what is wrong in politics today.
The Government have put forward legislation that is flawed, poorly drafted, and will have damaging consequences both here and abroad. They have not done it to support Israel, to demonstrate solidarity with the Jewish community, or to show they really care about undermining the BDS movement. They simply want to set a political trap for Labour. By putting their crude party political interests above the public interest, they confirm what voters think about us: that politicians waste time on childish political games rather than trying to make the world a better place. It is that behaviour that leads to a loss of trust. The Bill is not a considered attempt to bring about peace, provide better security for Israel or respond to the threats posed by BDS. It is about using Jews as a pawn in the Government’s political game. To debate the Bill on the day that violence has flared up again in the west bank is a solemn reminder of why this really matters. I say to the Government: our voters have had enough of that sort of politics, and so have I.
Like many who oppose this legislation, I am a proud Zionist. I oppose the divisive and at times antisemitic BDS campaigns. I will always fight antisemitism, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head. Action is needed, but the Bill will do more harm than good. So what is wrong with it? First, it singles out Israel. Many supporters of Israel rightly feel that hostile campaigners single out the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that the same level of attack is not meted out to Myanmar, for example, or to China for its treatment of the Uyghurs. The Bill plays into the hands of antisemites by doing the one thing we should never, ever do: single out Israel as the one place that can never be boycotted. No other country is named. If the Bill is passed, I fear—and know from my own post box—that it will have the unintended consequence of increasing anti-Jew hatred in Britain. We have seen the letter to the Prime Minister from Uyghur exiles opposing the Bill, because it will affect them and make it impossible to boycott goods from China. What thought have the Government given to ethical concerns that public bodies may have about, for instance, the Ugandan Government and their treatment of the LGBT community? By singling out Israel, the Bill pits the mainstream Jewish community against every other valiant human rights campaign, and does so in a way and at a time that will make peace in the region more difficult.
I returned recently from Israel, where I saw the chaos being wrought by the extreme actions of the present Government. From undermining democracy with attacks on judicial independence to the untrammelled expansion of settlements in the occupied territories, Israel has never been more divided and Israeli politics has never felt more broken. The best thing Britain can do is to put diplomatic pressure on the Israeli Government to abandon the judicial reforms and de-escalate the violence. The Bill will deliver the complete opposite. It will be heralded by the Netanyahu Government as a ringing endorsement of their actions. It will send the wrong message at the wrong time.
Like others, I reject the approach of BDS to Israel. Its actions encourage hatred between communities and too often its supporters are antisemitic in what they say. Wrongdoing is never defeated by stifling free speech and open debate, and that is what the Bill does. It prohibits elected public officers from even making statements suggesting that they support boycotts in any state. Clause 4 is a gagging clause, and arguments are never won by suppressing democratic debate. I learnt that fighting the British National party in the 2010 general election. I did not beat Nick Griffin by refusing to engage with him. It was by engaging publicly, by his appearance on “Question Time”, and by allowing him free speech that we exposed what a vile, divisive, racist party he led. Unmasking him through debate helped us to smash him at the ballot box. The Government have just legislated to enshrine free speech in our universities, but are now cancelling the freedom of elected officials in this grubby little Bill. Were they really committed to tackling the BDS problem, they would support our reasoned amendment which would ensure that decisions public authorities took on procurement and investment would be consistently applied to all countries. Israel would not be singled out.
I spent years as a councillor. The idea that local politicians should not express views on either national or international issues is deeply arrogant. We stand for public office because of our political principles, and that is true whether one is a back-bench councillor or a Cabinet Minister. The idea that the two elected positions differ in their democratic status is plain wrong. It is a typical, hugely centralising move by the Government that puts yet another nail in the coffin of devolution. On those grounds alone, the Bill should be opposed. I was in local government when anti-apartheid was a strong movement. Our council joined many others to boycott South Africa. Margaret Thatcher opposed those boycotts in the name of economic liberalism and introduced legislation in 1988 similar to that proposed today. As we now know, that legislation proved ineffective, but the Government seem incapable of learning the lessons of history.
I urge Members to support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). It provides a fair and pragmatic response to the potential damage that BDS could bring to Israel. The Minister may claim to be promoting the Bill in the name of our community, but it fails to protect or advance the interests of the Jewish community: it promotes community discord rather than encouraging community cohesion; it encourages conflict rather than inspiring peace; it cancels free speech rather than promoting democratic debate; it is another centralising move at the expense of localism; and it provides support for the extremist actions of the present Israeli Government, rather than using our influence to express our concerns and calm things down in the middle east. It is a bad, bad Bill. As one of the few Jews on the Opposition Benches, as a committed Zionist and as someone who stands with my community in desperately wanting a peace in the region that brings security to Israel, I ask the Government: please think again.
I thank the Government for bringing forward this important Bill. In my former role as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I took the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Act 2022 through the House, and that marked the first legislative step against BDS. It was a landmark moment, legally enforcing the principle that BDS has no place in the investment decisions of local authorities. I strongly welcome our fulfilling our manifesto commitment to extend that principle.
Put simply, local authorities have no business running a foreign policy parallel to that of His Majesty’s Government. That remit is absolutely within our gift, not theirs. Their role is to deliver local services for the communities they represent, to innovate and to deliver best value. I say that as someone who is a convinced believer in devolution. I believe that we should empower mayors to lead areas of the country in a way that will unlock their economic potential, but I do not want them opining on the rights and wrongs of the behaviour of different countries. It is emphatically unhelpful for local authorities to hinder our country’s export trade, damage our foreign relations and act in a way that is to the detriment of our international or economic security.
Much of the specific concern in this debate is about Israel, and that is because it is always about Israel. This is the point that we cannot elide and that sits at the heart of the reason why Israel needs to be mentioned on the face of the Bill. There are Members arguing against Israel being named specifically in this Bill for whom I have great respect and whom I count as personal friends. But we cannot be oblivious to why Israel needs this protection. The overwhelming focus of the BDS movement is, of course, on this one small state. The BDS movement is not arguing against the horrors perpetrated in Russia, China, Iran or any number of other countries—we could list for hours those countries that perpetrate grotesque wrongs against their people—and I do not see local authorities acting against those countries, either. I see them acting consistently against our ally Israel. There can be no doubt, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) said, that the motivation of some in the BDS movement is dark, sinister and unashamedly linked to the antisemitism that we have seen in our society over recent years, perhaps particularly and most shamefully in our universities. It is disgusting and it is hard not to see aspects of it in the attempt to enforce some of these boycotts and divestments. They simply have no place in modern Britain. It is right that we should act against this and remind local government of its proper responsibilities, which are large and growing under this Government. I certainly believe that that should be its focus.
I come to this debate without any significant minority community in my constituency. I simply see a wrong that we should right, an offence that we should not give, and money, energy and time that our local authorities should be spending to better effect on their significant responsibilities. Foreign affairs should be left to this place, not to town halls.
It is an honour to rise to oppose this Bill in the strongest possible terms. I was very disappointed in how the Bill was presented by the Secretary of State, who left his place without even listening to other Front-Bench speeches. I was incredibly encouraged, however, by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), who gave a reasoned and constructive speech, and, of course, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge). She comes to these issues from a different place from me, but I agreed with every word she said.
I want to cover three main areas: the unprecedented powers that the Bill gives the Secretary of State and, by implication, the removal of balanced decision making from those in local government who have been elected to serve their local communities; the incompatibility of the Bill with international law and the conflation of the UK’s long-standing cross-party position in respect of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights with the state of Israel; and the exposure of the UK Government to extended and repeated legal challenge, which would take away money that, as the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) said, needs to be spent in our local communities.
Let me go through those three points. The Government have often stated their commitment to devolution, and they have delivered it in many areas, allowing as much decision making as possible to take place near the people whom politicians are elected to serve. This Bill flies in the face of that claim. It will act as a gagging order on local authorities in a way that no other piece of legislation does. Many in local government have raised huge concerns about the impact of the Bill, including the Local Government Chronicle, the Local Government Association and the TUC. Particular concerns have been raised about the Bill’s impact on the 6 million local government pensioners. Is that really the Government’s intention? The Bill will ban public bodies—mainly local authorities but also universities and others—from working within current procurement rules and making their own decisions appropriate to their own areas. If we look to history to inform the future, we will see that the most effective example in my lifetime was the successful campaign against the apartheid regime in South Africa. That undoubtedly helped bring down that regime and led to democracy in South Africa, which is something that the international community and the UK should be proud of. Are we really suggesting that we should not be allowed to take such a position again?
I turn to the Bill’s incompatibility with international law and the UK’s long-standing cross-party position in respect of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights, which are being conflated with the state of Israel. Why does the Bill highlight those three areas? On the face of it, it looks as though the Secretary of State wishes to penalise councils that have acted not against the state of Israel but against illegal settlements built on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in flagrant defiance of successive UN Security Council resolutions, which the UK helped draft and voted in favour of. It seems to me that the UK Government are throwing all sense to the wind. We all wish to see this part of the world living in peace. The violence that has erupted today is an example of how crucial it is to bring peace to this area. The failure to distinguish between the sovereign territory of Israel and the territories occupied in 1967, as outlined in UN Security Council resolution 2334, is an alarming deviation from the long-standing UK policy. I ask the Secretary of State to look again and remove the most contentions parts of the Bill. Those who push this Bill make a very dangerous conflation between legitimate criticism of illegal Israeli actions and the horror of antisemitism, which we all abhor.
Finally, and briefly—I am going to stick to the time limit—this Bill, if it goes through in its current state, will result in an appalling waste of money. It will undoubtedly lead to not one, not two but numerous legal challenges, with each costing the Government, and therefore the British taxpayer, an enormous amount of money. In the current economic climate, throwing things to the wind and rushing headlong into such a Bill, which does not solve the problem that it sets out to solve, is absolutely irresponsible in the first degree. I ask the Government to either look again and remove the contentious clauses, or start again and bring to the House a Bill that actually does what it sets out to do and that sorts out the problem and does not cause utter chaos in this area of policy making.
I rise with a heavy heart to agree with many comments from across the House on the nature of this defective Bill. I agree with Richard Hermer KC, who in a very compelling interview published in today’s Jewish News talks about the problems that this Bill presents not just for the UK as a whole but for British Jewry in general.
Taking things in order, my primary concern is the safety of that community. As somebody who has worked very closely with the Jewish community, particularly in the capital over the years, and who has a strong affection for the Haredi community in north London, whom I know well both in policing and crime terms and having dealt with their housing issues as Housing Minister, I am afraid that I agree with the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) that this Bill, should it go through in its current form, is likely to damage and worsen their safety rather than improve it. In that I am with Jonathan Freedland, who wrote in the Jewish Chronicle just last week:
“What is the favourite refrain of the antisemites? That Israel is the one country you’re not ‘allowed’ to criticise. This bill takes a canard and, in the case of boycotts, turns it into the law of the land.”
The inclusions of clause 3(7) and, indeed, parts of clause 4 send a chill through that sense of debate, and will feed some of the disgusting conspiracy theories about the status of Israel and the influence that that country has around the globe. I have to say that I fear for the safety of the Jewish community should the measures be passed in that form. There are those who would do its members harm—we all know that in this House, and I have seen it for myself—and we cannot give them succour by falling into that trap.
My second concern is the practical impact of the Bill on many organisations across the country. As we heard from the hon. Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), this is a lawyers’ charter. There will be challenges to and fro, involving universities, pension funds and councils. Every decision that is taken will be scrutinised, and, moreover, councillors who have strong convictions in either direction will seek to find ways that are oblique to fulfil their own sense of moral or ethical obligation. There are groups out there who represent other countries, such as China and Myanmar, who will seek constantly to push councils in their direction, and not just in terms of Israel or Palestine. As a result, a huge amount of money and effort, and KCs at dawn, will be expended in pursuit of this legislation, and the impact will be enormous.
Thirdly, two key fundamental issues that are intrinsic to the way we live in the United Kingdom are challenged by the Bill. The first is, obviously, the free-speech challenge to which a number of Members have already referred, and which is represented in clause 4(2). It appears that I cannot even criticise this law, whether I am a council leader, a university vice-chancellor, or the chief executive of a company that is performing public services. I have never before seen legislation that outlaws disagreement with the law, and I think that breaching that right to free speech is a very problematic step.
The second of these issues was mentioned by the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). A law granting powers greater than those granted to the police to the investigatory or enforcement authorities identified in the Bill—the Secretary of State, the Office for Students, and one or two others—and allowing them, in particular, to breach legal privilege so that organisations can effectively go on a fishing trip looking at the legal advice that individuals have taken as they contemplate investment decisions is a Rubicon that I believe it would be wrong to cross.
The fourth area that concerns me relates to our tradition of pluralism in this country. There is no doubt that the Bill will send a chill through debate about a series of conflicts across the world. Whether we are talking about the Uyghur Muslims in China, the fate of Hong Kong Chinese or, indeed, those in Israel and Palestine, the fact is that everyone who is engaged in democracy, locally or on a devolved-nation basis, will have to be extremely careful about what they say. They will have to think twice and three times before they discuss these issues, lest that should prejudice, or be seen to prejudice, an investment or other decision that they may make in the future.
This is especially problematic in the context of academic freedom. As we heard from the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), we have just passed a law to guarantee academic freedom: freedom on campus. For that freedom now to be restricted. particularly for those in leadership positions in universities, strikes me as perverse. It should come as no surprise that the Union of Jewish Students is flatly opposed to the Bill, which is apposite given that its members are often the people most exposed to antisemitism in this form.
Finally, I want to raise the issue of timing. The right hon. Member for Barking said that this was the worst Bill at the worst time; I think that it is a defective Bill at a dreadful time. Given what is unfolding in Israel and Palestine today, given the toll of deaths that we have seen so far this year on all sides and given the international concern about the escalating violence in that part of the world, the introduction of this Bill at a time when many countries in that region are extremely concerned about what is going on will be seen by Arab countries in particular—although Members may not feel this themselves—as being partial, and as privileging one country over the others. I think that that will be detrimental not just to our interests in the United Kingdom, which are a primary concern. but to the interests of Israel, Palestine and the wider region.
It is a pleasure to follow another excellent speech dissecting what is wrong with this very faulty Bill. What a contrast it was with the Secretary of State’s opening speech, which was effectively a display of polemical and performative rhetoric, containing assertions that the Bill itself contradicts—and I think that was a shame.
We have benefited from some extremely good analysis, although I have not been able to read all the briefings on the Bill that we have received, not just from eminent KCs—it was, again, a shame to witness one of them being speared by the Secretary of State—but from some leading expert organisations in the field: from the Council for Arab-British Understanding, from our former colleague Richard Burden, from the Balfour Project, from many Jewish organisations including Yachad and the Union of Jewish Students, from many trade unions, and from environmental groups who believe they will be caught up in this as well. I do not think that is what the Secretary of State intended; I think he intended the Bill to appeal to a populist narrative; but I do not think that has happened. Perhaps it is the revenge of the experts whom he trashed so publicly years ago.
While it is good that the Bill is not being given a platform and is not acting in the way in which the Government would like it to act—the way in which all the other legislation they are introducing seems to act at the moment—that does not mean that it is not a dangerous Bill. It does not mean that there is no harm in its provisions: harm to civil society, the rule of law and freedom of speech, principles that the Secretary of State would doubtless say that he wishes to uphold.
I am pleased to say that the nature and number of the risks in the Bill have been helpfully set out by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), in the reasoned amendment, and I commend her for an excellent piece of drafting that really takes the Bill to pieces. I hope it will be approved tonight, because it would deny the Bill a Second Reading. If it does not succeed, some Members may vote against Second Reading, while others may abstain. I will abstain at that point, because I am reassured by the shadow Secretary of State’s assurance that if the Bill is not substantially reformed in the way in which the amendment suggests, it will be rejected. I hope it will be rejected by Members in all parts of the House on Third Reading, before it leaves this place.
In the very limited time available to me, I want to headline my concerns. The first question I want to ask is this: will the Bill help or hinder groups that are under threat around the world, such as the Uyghurs, the Rohingya, minorities in countries, or people in occupied territories—in Western Sahara, Northern Cyprus, Crimea, or the Palestinian territories? Will it help them in any way? The answer is, I think, a clear no. The Bill will run contrary to international law, it will run contrary to United Nations Security Council resolutions, particularly resolution 2334, and it will run contrary to the due diligence and fiduciary duties of local authorities and other public bodies and to legal principles. The FCDO guidance has already been quoted, and we have heard what Ministers have said as recently as last week in making distinctions between our policy towards Israel and our policy towards the Occupied Palestinian Territories. This point has been made a number of times already. By treating Israel exceptionally, the Bill does it no favours. By treating the Occupied Palestinian Territories alongside Israel, in a way that I have not seen before and that runs contrary to Government policy over many years under different Governments, the Bill makes a significant break and gives comfort to those who wish to see the Palestinian territories under permanent occupation, including many within the extremist Government in Israel.
Whatever the Secretary of State says, the Bill is a clear attack on free speech, and it is quite Kafkaesque in how it denies people the ability to speak out against what is happening. By inflicting not only strong powers of search and seizure but unlimited fines and penalties on those who speak out, this really is appalling legislation.
The Bill will have a chilling effect. We do not need to analyse the exact effect on every procurement and investment decision to see that pension funds are conservative bodies that will take decisions in ways that do not lay them open to this very woolly legislation. The consequence is that they will make bad decisions that go much further than the Secretary of State says he wishes to take the Bill.
Finally, I speak up, as many Members do, for the Palestinian people. How does this Bill benefit them? What effect will it have? On a day in which battlefield weapons are being used against civilian areas of the west bank for the first time in decades, we are talking about this scurrilous and performative Bill. The occupied territories have been occupied since 1967. Who will champion, as I wish this Government and this country would, their right to self-determination and their right to have their country recognised as a sovereign state, as we absolutely respect for the people of Israel? This Bill only hampers ambitions along those lines.
For those reasons, I ask Members on both sides of the House to vote for the reasoned amendment and not to allow the Bill to pass from this House in its current form.
I also have grave reservations about this Bill. I want to be clear that it is not exclusively about Israel and Palestine; it is about the mandate and responsibility of elected figures in the UK. It is also about contradictions in policy.
On the one hand, we have legislated to protect freedom of speech in universities, but this Bill will prevent universities from discussing the impact of foreign Governments’ behaviour on their activities. The Bill is wide in scope but confused in its relationship to the Government’s aims as a whole. For instance, clause 1 is worded so that territories recognised as illegally occupied by international law are still within scope, wherever in the world they are. It seeks to prevent public bodies, such as local councils, from
“being influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign states when taking certain economic decisions”.
In fact, those public bodies may well simply be having regard to international law or the previously expressed opinions of His Majesty’s Government.
Clause 4 addresses how a person intends to act. This means that elected officials with serious responsibilities cannot even have a public discussion about how they ae affected by the behaviour of overseas states. A prohibition on publishing means it is impossible to have a discussion at a hustings, in the media or in response to questions about human rights.
As we have heard, the Bill is likely to end up in court, either in the way that Prigozhin tried to muzzle journalists in the UK or, conversely, by someone asserting that their article 10 rights under the ECHR have been breached. The Bill curbs free speech and the free exercise of responsibility for elected bodies whose mandate we should respect.
The Bill’s wording implies that, among office holders, only Ministers can express an opinion on the countries that should be exempted under clause 3. This means that people in other tiers of government with responsibilities within the scope of clause 2 cannot. No matter how bad a country’s human rights record or respect for international law, discussion or action will be prevented.
That brings me on to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the occupied Golan Heights. Why have they been singled out in clause 3(7)? Like my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) and the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), I do not believe this is helpful.
Jonathan Freedland wrote in The Jewish Chronicle of his concern that the Bill will make antisemitism worse, because banning the consideration of the economic consequences of things that are happening in the occupied territories, and issuing financial penalties where consideration is given, will just cause resentment. As he says, the best way to bring about change is to engage and debate.
I disagree with some BDS advocates, such as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Israel has every right to exist, and its people have a right to live in peace. However, where Israel breaches international law, others must be permitted to point this out and hold it to account. This Bill would prevent that.
The Bill mentions the OPTs and the Golan Heights. Does this mean that boycotting the settlements will be against the law? These settlements are illegal under international law, and the UK Government’s own website states that there are
“clear risks related to economic…activities in the settlements, and we do not encourage or offer support to such activity… UK citizens and businesses should be aware of the potential reputational implications of getting involved in economic and financial activities in settlements, as well as possible abuses of the rights of individuals. Those contemplating any economic or financial involvement in settlements should seek appropriate legal advice.”
Israel benefits economically from its illegal occupation, and we should be permitted to comment and consider it in our policies.
The Foreign Secretary’s joint statement with Australia and Canada on 1 July shows the concern about the rapidly increasing number of new settlements on the west bank. How can public bodies show their concern, and why can they not show that concern by not buying goods from settlements or by choosing to buy Palestinian goods instead? Surely this is why we are a free country.
Disagreeing with the policies of the Israeli Government has nothing to do with antisemitism. After all, many Israelis disagree with their own Government. This Bill will not promote community cohesion but do the opposite, opening more divisions. Like others, I fear it may be detrimental to the British Jewish community. I hope this Bill will be substantially changed in Committee and beyond, because I do not understand why we need it.
This poorly drafted Bill will have far-reaching consequences for the UK’s protection and promotion of human rights overseas. I extend my thanks to the coalition of 70 civil society and justice organisations that have expressed strong concerns about this Bill and how it will outlaw a powerful tactic of dissent and freedom of expression that has been used throughout history to achieve social change.
I rise to oppose this Bill and to support our reasoned amendment that would decline to give it a Second Reading. What is at stake today should deeply concern every Member of this House. The Bill risks significantly undermining support for groups around the world that are facing persecution and international human rights violations. Labour steadfastly supports a negotiated diplomatic settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on two states, and opposes the expansion of illegal settlements, settler violence, evictions and demolitions. But how realistic is that when an Israeli national security Minister has pledged to “crush” Palestinians “one by one”?
Let us not forget that boycott campaigns have existed right across the political spectrum and have long been used as peaceful and principled tools to fight oppression and injustice. They are a form of protest that should be protected in a democratic society. Last year, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities asked councils to divest from Russia following the illegal invasion of Ukraine, and he clearly recognised councils’ economic importance and that moral considerations should inform what they do, so why can they not be trusted to make their own choices now?
This Bill is so broad and destructive that it will completely prevent public bodies from taking responsible and ethical decisions in relation to human rights abuses in their investment and procurement decisions. Although the Secretary of State argues that there are safeguards in the Bill, he knows they will do nothing to limit the damage this Bill will cause.
I am proud to represent the city of Liverpool, a city that has never faltered in its solidarity with international liberation struggles. In the 1980s, when the African National Congress and South African trade unions were fighting apartheid, as a city we mobilised across the board to support their struggle. Trade unionists organised in Ford factories to smuggle ANC literature in the boots of cars, and seafarers dropped parcels at South African ports. The boycott movement played a significant role in successfully turning the tide on the apartheid Government, at a time when many powerful international Governments, including our own Thatcher-led Government, supported the regime. The importance of international solidarity when waging a struggle such as that against apartheid cannot be underestimated and this rings as true today as it has throughout history. In the words of Nelson Mandela:
“our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians”.
His words resonate today, with injustices and violations of international humanitarian law across the globe still demanding accountability. Now, as then, international pressure will be key to achieving peace and justice.
Let us be clear: the aim of the Bill is to limit our ability to take action to protest, and the chilling effect that will be created is immeasurable. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the Bill is the so-called “gagging clause”, whereby not only will public officials be prevented from raising the issue of human rights abuses in financial decision making, but it will be illegal for them to refer to the Bill as the reason preventing them from making a financial decision influenced by human rights abuses. For a Government who claim to champion freedom of speech, this is the depths of hypocrisy. It should make Members in all parts of this House seriously consider the impact of their vote today.
Today’s vote is historic and it is up to us to decide which side of history we are on: are we a nation that champions freedom of expression and conscience, one that encourages acts of solidarity with the oppressed, or are we a nation that curbs even the basic right to speak out about violations and abuses of human rights? Vote for the reasoned amendment. Decline to give this Bill a Second Reading.
I strongly support this legislation, and I want to thank all constituents who have been in touch with me to tell me their views on it. It is my honour and privilege to represent a constituency that is home to a substantial Jewish community.
As we have heard this evening, the BDS movement is deeply divisive. The founder of the group and many of its leadership figures do not recognise the right of Israel to exist. They have no commitment to a negotiated settlement and want to drive the two sides apart, not bring them together.
As has been pointed out, these local boycotts split communities here in Britain. Many Jewish people feel a deep sense of connection to Israel, so they could feel intimidated and victimised if their local council were to pursue a boycott. The spillover of anti-Israel to anti-Jewish attitudes and discrimination is illustrated by the supermarket that, in 2014, took kosher foods off the shelf after protesters gathered outside in support of a boycott of Israel.
Moreover, the BDS movement often seeks to justify its campaign using the allegation that Israel can be equated with apartheid South Africa. That is a pernicious slur. In falsely accusing Israel of racism, it singles out the world’s only distinctively Jewish state for unjustified and disproportionate attack. That falls squarely within the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism and we should always reject it. I am gravely concerned that BDS activity has sometimes legitimised and driven antisemitism, and I note that the Communities Secretary has stated that BDS has led to
“appalling antisemitic rhetoric and abuse”.
There is no justification for a boycott or sanctions against Israel. Cutting economic ties with Israel will do nothing to further the peace process, or to get negotiations restarted. Israel is our ally. It is the only real democracy in the middle east; the only country in the middle east where equality for women is fully protected; the only one where the rights of the LGBT community are respected; and the only one with a genuinely free press and a fiercely independent judiciary. We should be strengthening economic, cultural and academic links with Israel, not severing them.
Deeper engagement with Israel means that we as a country can play a stronger role in supporting peace and reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. It also brings advantages for jobs and economic growth here in the UK. I welcome the 2030 road map for bilateral relations between our two countries, which was signed in March and will boost tech, trade and security ties. The phenomenal energy of Israel’s digital economy and its cutting-edge pharmaceutical sector are just two reasons why trade with Israel is an important source of prosperity for us in Britain. In 2017, the Health Minister Lord O’Shaughnessy estimated that every year some 100 million NHS prescription items in England are made by companies in Israel. If we listened to the BDS movement and adopted its approach, we would see major disruption of NHS procurement of the medication that so many of us need and, inevitably, that would lead to rising costs.
I join my right hon. Friend in welcoming today’s legislation. BDS activists who bully councils into adopting these measures are also bullying the UK’s advertising industry. For example, Stop Funding Hate and Ethical Consumer are pro-BDS groups that tell their supporters to follow the BDS national committee, a group with links to Hamas and other designated terrorist groups. Does she agree that today we can, certainly as a first step, set an example in tackling BDS within public bodies?
Indeed. Today is our opportunity to take a stand against BDS and I encourage as many hon. Members as possible to do that.
As part of the largest ever deal between an Israeli and a UK company, Rolls-Royce is delivering engines for El Al Dreamliner aircraft, supporting many highly skilled jobs in Britain. That type of massive commercial opportunity would be a thing of the past if we let these BDS boycotts take hold and spread.
In conclusion, this is a timely Bill that I hope the House will back. I am deeply disappointed that Labour has said that it is voting against it today. The question is: do you support boycotts against Israel or don’t you? I am strongly opposed to boycotts of Israel, which is why I am voting for the Bill this evening. I am proud that it is a Conservative Government who have listened to the Jewish community on this vital issue and brought forward the Bill it asked for to ban council boycotts. Israel is our friend and ally and we should be trying to increase trade with Israel, not trying to ban it. There is no justification for local councils adopting their own international trade policy. These are rightly matters for our democratically elected Government in Westminster. I urge hon. and right hon. Members to support the Bill in the Division Lobby this evening.
I had been looking forward to this legislation. As the chair of Labour Friends of Israel, I am against efforts to destabilise, delegitimise and destroy Israel, the world’s only Jewish state. The purpose of the BDS movement, with its talk of apartheid, genocide and ghettos, is to demonise and, ultimately, destroy Israel. I had hoped we might see a simple Bill designed to restrain the ambitions of BDS, with its single target, the state of Israel. Boycotts are not new for Jews. On 1 April this year, we marked the 90th anniversary of the Nazis’ first nationwide action against the Jews, a boycott targeting Jewish businesses and professionals. There is a long, dark history of boycotts directed against Jewish people. For the world’s only Jewish state to be targeted in this way shows complete indifference to that history and a single-minded determination to destroy Israel’s right to exist.
The effect of BDS is felt not only in Israel. A 2019 Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy report concluded that the victims of BDS include Jews in the diaspora. Let us think what it means to be Jewish in Britain today. There is an understandable affinity between Israel and Jews in this country, but every day Jewish students confront obsessive campaigns for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. BDS seeks to prevent Israeli artists, actors and musicians from performing in Britain. It wants libraries to remove Israeli authors and to “no-platform” Israeli speakers.
Supporters of BDS often seek to draw a comparison with South Africa. The measures taken at that time were designed to end apartheid and bring about the democratic state that we see today. But—here I agree with the Secretary of State—BDS does not support a two-state solution, advocate peace negotiations or seek to bring communities together. To be fair to its leader, Omar Barghouti, he is clear that he opposes a Jewish state in any part of what he calls Palestine. We all know what the chant “From the river to the sea” actually means. BDS is a policy designed to end Israel’s existence. The movement opposes the idea of normalisation; in fact, normalisation has become a pejorative term in relation to Israel and Palestine thanks to the efforts of such movements.
Of course, BDS is not without success: a vociferous campaign against SodaStream led to the closure of a plant in the west bank and the loss of 600 Palestinian jobs. BDS puts at risk the 10,000 UK businesses that have import-export arrangements. The UK is Israel’s second largest trading partner, with a relationship worth about £7 billion. Israeli companies provide one in seven NHS drugs, estimated to save us around £3 billion per year. As we have heard, we are negotiating a new free trade arrangement, which will vastly improve benefits for both countries. Our security arrangements help to save thousands of lives and regularly help to foil terrorist attacks in the UK, yet BDS wants to end military co-operation.
It is against that background that I had hoped to welcome this legislation; instead, we get a dog’s dinner—a Bill that in its present form can serve only to guarantee conflict between the Government, local authorities and other public bodies, and will inevitably result in endless legal challenges. It seeks to limit the freedom for councils and other public bodies to speak out in the face of obvious injustice. Far from not singling out Israel—a key demand of many Jewish and anti-BDS groups—specific attention is drawn to Israel in the Bill.
This is a Bill that has lost focus. Its scattergun approach and willingness to confuse legitimate political protest with what should be simple powers to restrict the demands associated with the BDS movement will provide endless publicity opportunities for Israel’s enemies. It is unworkable in its current form. If there is to be any hope of the Bill becoming a reasonable, practical measure, it requires substantial improvement. I hope that the Secretary of State will not play party or petty politics but seek to build consensus with people across the House who are willing to work together on measures designed to rid us of the malign influence of the BDS movement.
At the same time, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) that, although I am full of admiration for her good intentions and acknowledge that the reasoned amendment has been framed in response to the mess before us, I am not entirely sure that it cuts mustard either. Nevertheless, in deference to her good intentions, I will support the amendment tonight. If I am fortunate enough to serve on the Bill Committee, I hope we can find common ground to create workable legislation to tackle the folly of BDS ambitions and its one and only target. I hope we can achieve that without imposing ludicrous restrictions on legitimate political activities, or the freedom of speech of local government and those who represent public bodies. Having waited so long, tonight is a tremendous disappointment for me, but there is still time to put things right. I urge Ministers not to ignore the opportunity.
I welcome many of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), and particularly his final comments about wanting to work together across the House to see how the Bill can be improved. It will, I think, come as no surprise to many that I am uncomfortable with the Bill as it stands—and arguably more, not less, so after hearing the Secretary of State’s almost exclusive focus on the BDS movement and its antisemitic agenda.
The point of the Bill was to fulfil a Conservative party manifesto commitment, so let me explain why I am unhappy with it. First, as it stands, the Bill fulfils something different from our manifesto commitment; secondly, it seriously undermines our commitment to freedom and tolerance; thirdly, it gives a special and exclusive right not just to Israel but to parts of Israel that are either annexed or illegally occupied; fourthly, it effectively outlaws even the express thought of disagreeing with the Bill, should it be passed; and lastly, it could backfire—and it is elements of the Jewish communities who say that, not me.
Let me bring the detail alive. Our manifesto did not mention Israel or the BDS; it focused on preventing
“public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect …sanctions…against foreign countries.”
That commitment was, absolutely rightly, country-agnostic, yet clause 3(7) specifically protects not just Israel but the Golan Heights and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which are of course not countries. The provisions exempt Israel alone from any change in Government policy—for example, the sanctions on Russia—and that could be changed only by primary legislation.
Our manifesto also rightly committed to championing free speech and tolerance. As I mentioned earlier, as have others, the Secretary of State for Education legislated only recently specifically to enforce that commitment on our universities; now, however, as a university vice-chancellor put it to me, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has told him that he cannot even say, were it allowed, that he would prefer his university not to purchase anything manufactured on illegal settlements in the occupied territories. Is that really what is intended?
This Bill, as presented on Second Reading, appears to be a pro-Israel and anti-BDS Bill much more than the country-agnostic anti-boycott Bill promised in our manifesto. In turn, that has caused—there was no point in some Members denying this earlier—some Jewish commentators in Jewish media, Jewish student unions and Jewish civic society groups to express real concern that the Bill risks backfiring. As The Jewish Chronicle said, it would be
“bitterly ironic if this…bill”
to tackle the
“anti-Israel BDS, ends up hurting those who so many…have sought to help”.
The Union of Jewish Students went further and said that the Bill may
“pit Jews against other minorities”.
So what to do? The Labour party solution is to rip the Bill up and start again in unspecified ways. Our solution should be different. We should fulfil our manifesto commitment to legislate against public-body sanctions in a country-agnostic way, but we do not need a special rule for Israel, let alone for annexed or occupied areas that the United Kingdom does not recognise as a legitimate part of Israel. I very much hope that on Third Reading the Government will reconsider clause 4(1)(b), which as it stands is antidemocratic, and drop clause 3(7), which is neither necessary nor appropriate. I will therefore abstain in the vote on Second Reading. I very much hope that the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider drafting amendments will be strongly realised on Third Reading.
I remind Members that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.
First, I want to be very clear that the Liberal Democrats condemn antisemitism. Anti-Jewish hatred has absolutely no place in our society, and we must all do more—as individuals, as political parties and as a Parliament—to tackle antisemitism in all its forms. Nor do we support the BDS movement or any other singling out of Israel driven by anti-Jewish hatred. However, we do not believe that this piece of legislation is going to help to tackle antisemitism. In fact, as many Members throughout the House, including the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), have already set out, the measures in the Bill could even be counterproductive, which is frankly the last thing we want.
Liberal Democrats are also deeply concerned by a series of the provisions in the Bill. First, it will greatly restrict the ability of public bodies to take action against human rights abuses. Many public bodies as well as civil society organisations are alarmed by the persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, which has led to the detention of more than a million people by the Chinese state. Regrettably, the Government have failed to recognise the genocide that is taking place in Xinjiang, even though Parliament has called on them to do so. It is appalling that a local council will be prevented from calling what is taking place in Xinjiang what it is—a genocide—simply because the Government continue to take a cowardly approach. It seems extraordinary that a local council or museum would risk a significant fine by deciding that they did not want to buy products coming from Xinjiang.
Many of us in this place will remember the popular boycotts of South African goods in the 1980s, which were an effective way of demonstrating opposition to apartheid and which added to the international political pressure to end the regime. In this country, it was local councils that led the way then—and thank goodness they did—but under these new provisions, such action would be illegal.
Secondly, this piece of legislation represents an unjustified restriction on the power of local communities to take decisions for themselves. As a Liberal Democrat, I believe in liberalism, federalism and localism. We believe that it is up to local authorities and public bodies to be able to decide for themselves what they do. If local councillors are elected on a manifesto that includes a commitment to a boycott on ethical or environmental grounds, we believe that those councillors should be held to account by their local electorate, not banned by a distant central Government.
Thirdly, we are hugely concerned by the restriction on the freedom of speech on public bodies and elected representatives in clause 4—the gagging clause. The Bill does not just restrict a public body from engaging in boycott and divestment; it restricts it from saying that it would support such a boycott if it were legal. That represents a significant overreach, which will erode a fundamental democratic right—that of free speech.
Fourthly, I echo the concerns raised by other Members that the provisions in clause 3 represent an attempt by the Government to change their position on the status of the occupied territories. The UK Government have always made a distinction between the occupied territories and Israel, in line with international law. That is clear in everything from our trading arrangements to the advice given to businesses looking to operate in the occupied territories. However, the Bill conflates the two by listing the occupied territories as exempt from the Bill alongside Israel. The Bill goes against not just the widespread consensus held on both sides of the House and by our allies, but international law. What an irony it is that, at the heart of a Bill designed to restrict local councils from speaking out about international issues, we find the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities trying to conduct his own foreign policy. It is almost as if he has forgotten the purported purpose of his own legislation.
On today of all days, when we have awoken yet again to more violence in the region, it is incredibly depressing that the Government are choosing not to stand up for international law, at a time when there is such hopelessness around the conflict.
In conclusion, I firmly agree that we need to do more on the pressing need to tackle antisemitism. I agree that the BDS movement targeting Israel will not help to achieve peace between Israel and Palestine. If there is a need to beef-up legislation on hate crime or prejudice against protected characteristics, such as race and religion, Liberal Democrats would wholeheartedly support such a move. Local councils should not be singling out one country and holding it to a higher standard than others because of their own prejudice, but closing down debate on international human rights issues will not achieve the stated aim of stamping out antisemitism. The resolution to the problem is not to clamp down on debate on international human rights issues. The Liberal Democrats will oppose the Bill for that reason, and will be voting in favour of the reasoned amendment tabled by those on the Opposition Front Bench.
I urge the Secretary of State to rethink this legislation and work across party lines to resolve issues of prejudice and discrimination by more practical and fair means.
I rise to speak in support of the legislation this evening. I welcome the fact that we are following through on a manifesto commitment to bring forward legislation in this difficult, sensitive and complicated area. I very much agree with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), and my right hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers).
We have had a number of speeches striking slightly different tones. There was a very good speech from the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who tried to strike a reasonable tone and explained the rationale behind Labour’s reasoned amendment. Unfortunately for her and for the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), who also made a thoughtful and intelligent speech, many of the speeches from the Opposition Benches seemed to be in favour of boycotts, and wanting to keep a candle burning for being able to use boycotts, divestment and sanctions as tools at a local authority level, or among other public bodies. We on the Conservative Benches are clear that we do not want to see public money being used in that way. We are clear about the main purpose of this legislation, which is to tackle, as has already been discussed, the BDS movement, with its pernicious effects, its links to antisemitism and the very ugly and divisive character behind it. To any Conservative Member who stands up and says that that was not the purpose of our commitment in the manifesto, I say that that is just not true. The gestation of the Bill—the process that it has gone through and the internal discussion—has very much centred on trying to do something for the first time about the BDS movement.
To those Members who argue that the problem with this legislation is that it will attract legal challenge, I say that every single time we have tried to do something about the BDS movement it gets a legal challenge. We know that the BDS movement will try to fight this in the court. That is not a surprise, but that should not be a reason for us to resile from our commitment to do something about the matter.
There will be Members in the House today who believe that the BDS movement, leaving aside its ugly antisemitic characteristics, is a legitimate way of trying to challenge the state of Israel. We heard that in some of the speeches. The trouble with the BDS movement, as we know, is that time and again it singles out the state of Israel in a way that it does not do with other countries.
As for the Labour party trying to maintain a reasonableness about its position, I say look at what it does when it is in government. When the Welsh Labour Government tried to introduce a new national procurement note in 2020, what did they do? Surprise, surprise, they singled out one state for potential sanctions—the state of Israel. I am talking about Labour Ministers of the Crown today serving in the Welsh Government in Cardiff, so Members will forgive me if I do not have total confidence in the reasonableness of the Labour position that it is trying to put forward.
My hon. Friend is right: it is a Palestinian-led movement. When we consider the individuals and organisations—Palestinian and otherwise—at the root of it, we can see that the movement is deeply problematic. I do not believe that any Conservative should be identifying and aligning themselves with any aspect of the BDS movement.
I welcome the legislation. I welcome, too, the fact that the Secretary of State has made a very strong commitment to working with others and seeing whether improvements can be made to the Bill. He has shown a genuine openness in that regard. None the less, improving the Bill cannot mean watering it down to make it ineffective, which we know the opponents of the Bill—the BDS movement outside this place—want us to do. I hope that the Government will remain robust and clear-sighted on this, but I also hope that we can work pragmatically and get good legislation on the statute book.
I am pleased to contribute to what has been a generally thoughtful debate, from the moment that the shadow Secretary of State rose to speak. I am sorry that the Secretary of State left so soon after his own rather provocative contribution, because he would have benefited from hearing many of the speeches.
This is an ill-judged and unnecessary attack on local democracy—unnecessary not least because of the provisions of the Local Government Act 1988, which, alongside the notorious clause 28 prohibiting local authorities from “promotion of homosexuality”, also banned non-commercial consideration on contracts on the basis of
“the country or territory of origin.”
That remains in place, so the Secretary of State has law to refer to, without needing to bring forward this Bill, if there are the problems he describes.
That legislation was a response by the Thatcher Government to a campaign co-ordinated by Sheffield City Council. We were the first council in 1981, under the leadership of David Blunkett, to pledge to end all links with apartheid. Many others followed, and in 1983 we set up Local Authorities Against Apartheid, developing a network of around 120 councils taking action—action that was subsequently praised by Nelson Mandela after his release for its contribution to ending apartheid.
As someone who was in the leadership of the anti-apartheid movement for 20 years, I do not accept the application of the term apartheid to Israel, although I have to say that, if the policy trajectory of the current Israeli Government continues in the way it has, that comparison will be increasingly difficult to resist. My point about the action that we organised is that it demonstrates the long history of local authority action over human rights, which is something we should be proud of, and of local politicians responding to local concerns, whether about South Africa 40 years ago or about China today.
Clause 3 will enable action to be taken where dispensation is given—by the whim of the Secretary of State, not even by Parliament. However, that highlights the exception provided in clause 3(7) in relation to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights.
I want to be clear that I do not support the BDS campaign against Israel. I do think that we should long ago have taken action on economic engagement with the illegal settlements, to match our words with positive measures, and it is extraordinary that this Bill prevents public bodies from implementing the Government’s own advice to business not to trade with the illegal settlements. However, for those of us who do not support BDS, that does not mean we should support banning it, and much of Israeli society would agree.
I am grateful to Yachad, which many colleagues will know is a significant voice within the mainstream British Jewish community, campaigning for a political resolution in which Israel thrives alongside a viable and independent Palestinian state. In its briefing on this Bill, it drew parallels with the debate in Israel on its own anti-boycott law in 2011, in which Tzipi Livni, then Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset and previously Foreign Secretary, said:
“I disagree with those that demand boycotts, but I will fight for their right to express their views.”
Dan Meridor of Likud, then Deputy Prime Minister, said:
“I oppose boycotts, but they should not be illegal.”
Ruvi Rivlin, then Leader of the Knesset and subsequently President of Israel, slammed the law for
“turning freedom of speech into a civil injustice.”
The Government argue that this Bill is necessary in opposing antisemitism, but, as others have said, there are important voices within the Jewish community who disagree. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for students, I have worked closely with the leadership of the National Union of Students in challenging antisemitism within its own organisation, and on every step of that journey I have liaised with the Union of Jewish Students. Nobody will question the UJS’s credentials as a robust opponent of antisemitism. At its annual conference recently, UJS unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming its opposition to BDS, but rejecting any attempt to outlaw it. One of those involved in that motion wrote recently in The Times:
“Using legislation to outlaw BDS will do nothing in the fight against antisemitism… We may disagree with the BDS movement—we may even think that there are some people who support the BDS movement who are motivated by antisemitism—but the tactics of boycott, divestment, and sanctions are non-violent and legitimate.”
The Secretary of State has argued that it is his responsibility to bring forward this legislation in the context of the Government’s manifesto commitment. I am conscious of the fact that the Government have fairly casually disregarded manifesto commitments in the past, but even if that were his justification, he should recognise that things have changed enormously since 2019. The new extremist Israeli Government are moving from de facto to de jure annexation of the occupied territories. Illegal settlements have been legalised and many more are planned, with the responsibility for them given to a far-right Minister who denies the existence of the Palestinian people and has been condemned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
Today, we have seen the massive Israeli attack on Jenin, and not the first; it follows months of raids across the west bank and on Nablus. Across the west bank, settler attacks—killing and injuring Palestinians, torching their homes, their businesses and their cars—are being encouraged by the Israeli Government and those responsible are going unpunished. All that is designed to end the prospect of a viable Palestinian state and frustrate attempts to secure a just settlement.
Those Israeli civil society voices who support our ambition for a two-state solution have made it clear that there could not be a worse time for the UK to send a signal that we see the occupied territories as part of Israel in the way that this Bill is framed. We should not do it. I urge the Government to think again.
I draw the attention of the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), with whom I very largely agreed.
I want to start with a challenge to my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) to finish off the answer to my question about BDS itself. BDS is a Palestinian-led movement, so it is not remotely surprising that its attention centres on the policies of Israel, which is in illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. It is Israeli policy that is preventing any possibility of a two-state solution from becoming a reality and BDS is the only movement within Palestinian civil society that is pursuing a non-violent course of resistance.
We need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions about what we expect of the occupied Palestinians. If we present the BDS movement in the very extreme way—described to me as “disingenuous” by someone who has messaged me in the course of this debate—it has been presented in this House, we are denying the Palestinians in that sense by banning their only legitimate way of expressing resistance to that occupation.
That is where we need to take a step or two back. We are now on the receiving end of more than 50 years of illegal Israeli occupation of somebody else’s territory. In an egregious way, Israel has occupied and settled that territory with 700,000 Jewish people. The physical result of those settlements is that a two-state solution is now in effect impossible.
There needs to be some serious consideration of the implications of Israeli policy, because it has been deliberate. We sit here parroting our support for a two-state solution, and the only point of difference I have with my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) who is now Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee is that I am afraid I now do support a one-state solution, because a two-state solution is now impossible.
I hope that hon. Members on the Front Bench will reflect that the people who convinced me of that were the negotiation support unit that the Department for International Development was paying for in 2002 to give the Palestinian negotiators a bit of capacity and heft in conducting negotiations with their Israeli counterparts. Diana Buttu and Michael Tarazi were themselves then in favour of a one-state solution. What is wrong with that as a vision? Indeed, it would mirror the original sense of moral purpose about the state of Israel. It was a great achievement of the 20th century to find a homeland for the Jewish people, who have been on the wrong end of history for hundreds and hundreds of years, particularly the appalling policies towards Jewish people in Europe.
I say to my colleagues: do not try to present the one-state solution as a terrorist answer driving Israelis and Jews into the sea—that is absolute nonsense and of course it will never happen. If we are about trying to create national reconciliation and a path to peace, we need now to start thinking originally. Palestinians are looking over the wall at Israel and, strangely enough, young professional Palestinians want what the Israelis have. I do not think that Israelis in a similar position want to send their children, in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time, to police the occupation.
We see today the terrible events in Jenin, which are a product of the disaster and false horizon that the Oslo process has turned out to be for the Palestinian people. There is desperate anger in occupied parts of Palestine, where everything is being taken away from people, but here we are attacking a movement that tries—although, of course, there are elements of unacceptable rhetoric—to stay within the limits of peaceful resistance to illegal occupation.
It would be thought absolutely astonishing that we are faced with this measure in the British Parliament. We need to think back on our history and the Balfour declaration. There were two parts to that declaration. We have delivered on one of them, but I am afraid that the rights of the people who were living in the territory that is now Israel have been violated in the most profound and fundamental way. We now have to deal with the dispossession that came of the establishment of the state of Israel. We need to deal with the results of this illegal occupation. We in this House are about to take away not only the ability to seek peacefully the means to do that through local authorities, but people’s right to express support for it. This is a very un-Conservative measure and it needs to be rejected at the first opportunity, which is this evening, and that is how I will be voting.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt).
Like many others, I think this is a sordid and grubby little Bill that takes away many of the political freedoms that we have enjoyed for decades in this country. It follows, of course, similar pieces of legislation from the Government over the past few years. They have sought to restrict our freedom to dissent and protest, but this Bill goes further, as others have already remarked upon. For the first time that I can remember, the Bill seeks to criminalise thought as well as deeds. That takes it into a whole new dimension and is reason enough for it to be thrown out by this House tonight.
We live in a dangerous and uncertain world. Humanity faces many challenges, some of them existential in nature. I would argue that this is a time in our public discourse and public life when we need more moral judgments and ethical considerations, not fewer as the Bill tries to suggest. In fact, the Bill does not actually outlaw local authorities and public authorities taking ethical and moral judgments; it simply outlaws them taking ones that the Government disagree with. The Government are trying to tape to themselves not just the legitimacy of being the elected political Administration of the country, but the role of arbiter and mouthpiece for all of civil society. That is quite ridiculous.
As others have said, many people elect their public officials to represent their point of view, and they have a right to do so. If we constrain the ability of the representative, we also constrain the ability of the people. It is in the field of pension policy that this is most ridiculous. Like others, I am, since the age of 60, in receipt of a local government pension. That is because I paid into a savings fund for the years in which I worked in local government. It is my money and that of my fellow pensioners. What right do this Government have to tell me what I can and cannot do with my own money?
The Government have sought to place the question of Israel right at the heart of this legislation and of their argument. It is fundamentally based on a flawed premise: that criticism of the Israeli Government or of Israeli state policies is in itself antisemitic. That is wrong. We in this House should never get ourselves into the position of thinking that we have to choose between defending the human and political rights of Palestinians in the middle east, and fighting antisemitism on the streets of our own country and throughout the world. We can and we must do both.
I had the privilege to attend last week a meeting called by Yachad, a Jewish organisation, in this House. I heard Michael Sfard, a distinguished human rights lawyer from Israel, speak on the situation. He gave a concise picture of what is happening in Israel today and described the actions of the current Israeli Government—the most right-wing, anti-Palestinian Government that Israel has ever had. He described how two projects are under way in that area of the world at the moment: the first is the de jure annexation of the Occupied Palestinian Territories into the state of Israel, and the second is the changing of constitutional law inside the state of Israel to allow that to happen. That is what has provoked mass demonstrations by the ordinary Israeli public on the streets of Israel, where hundreds of thousands of people are turning up to protest.
That is what has led to a situation in which the current Government of Israel has opinion poll ratings down at 20%. If there were an election today, they would be thrown out of office by a landslide. Yet in the context of what is happening on the streets of the middle east at the moment, and of even the American Administration trying to put distance between themselves and President Netanyahu, what is the policy of the UK Government? Their policy—an outlier in the international community—is to welcome the Israeli Administration with open arms. No one would be more pleased or gain more succour from the passing of such legislation than the current Israeli Administration, and no one would be more crestfallen about its passing than those of progressive liberal opinion inside the state of Israel, who do not want that to happen. The choice that we need to make is whether we will stand with the people of Israel and of Palestine in protecting their human and political rights against a very right-wing anti-Palestinian Administration, or give succour—almost alone in the world in doing so—to that Administration.
I have already run out of time, Madam Deputy Speaker, but let me finish with this. We have to ask ourselves why the Bill comes at this particular time, in the middle of all the crises in the world and the domestic economic crises right here on our own doorstep. Why this piece of legislation at this particular time? I think the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) hit the nail on the head: this is a grubby measure by the governing party to try to embarrass His Majesty’s Opposition for party political advantage. It is sordid, bad politics. It will not help Jewish communities in this country and it will not help to find a solution in the middle east for all the people who live there.
I join the Front-Bench spokespeople in their tributes to the late Lord Kerslake. I will never forget the help and advice that he gave me on delivering the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. It is sadly ironic that the Kerslake commission, on which I was proud to serve, was due to meet tomorrow to approve a long-awaited report, but it has been cancelled because of his sad death.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on this long-awaited Bill, in which we take on—let us be clear—the BDS movement directly. This legislation is an endeavour for which I have been campaigning for many years, and I thank him for his tireless work in bringing this policy to fruition. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). I know his views—they are very clear, and he has espoused them on many occasions in the Chamber. He is vocal about them, and he is rightly held in regard, but I am afraid that he is wrong.
The House will be aware that the ability for public bodies to take powers unto themselves that should correctly be reserved for the Government has sown division and discord across our nations. Calls for universities to sever ties with academic partners in Israel have led to a great number of prejudicial motions at our institutions, isolating and alienating Jewish students. The National Union of Students has reported that anti-Israel hatred is plainly linked to the racist treatment of British Jews, corroborating findings from the Community Security Trust, which found that campus antisemitism has hiked by 22% in the past year alone. This brand of student politics should not be permitted at our universities, let alone in our great democratic institutions. This is not news. When I was at university the same things went on—and that was a long time ago.
Speaking of democracy, I shall elaborate on the claim that I have heard in recent days that this Bill somehow harms our commitment to free speech. I believe that it is the proponents of BDS who are pitting one community against another, which results in a chilling effect on honest debate. It is intimidation, marginalisation and incitement to hatred. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), a former Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who said in 2021 that
“successive studies have shown the single best statistical predictor of anti-Jewish hostility is the amount of BDS activity”.—[Official Report, 22 February 2022; Vol. 709, c. 213.]
Hon. Members do not have to take my word for it. Omar Barghouti, founder of the BDS movement, wrote 20 years ago in 2003 that
“the two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israel conflict is finally dead…the more just, moral and therefore enduring alternative...the one-state solution...where, by definition Jews will be a minority”.
The BDS national committee, the directive organ of the BDS movement, has on its board organisations including the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, and a coalition of proscribed terrorist groups, including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and many others. The council’s leader, Khaled al-Batsh, acts as a senior official for Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The council’s general co-ordinator, Mahmoud Nawajaa, has publicly supported the armed wing of Hamas, the terrorist organisation that heinously murdered three British nationals—a mother and her two daughters—in April. Today in Holland, two BDS fundraisers were arrested for securing €5 million to go directly to Hamas.
The propositions set out in the Bill are a safeguard against the rising tide of discrimination and double standards, and will provide the balance crucially needed in our national conversation. The Bill will empower the Government to introduce secondary legislation to enforce a boycott of states committing human rights abuses. In response to colleagues who have cited particular countries, that means that the Government can introduce those measures through secondary legislation. In turn, public bodies will be able legitimately to advance their own trade sanctions in support of the national interest, as determined by the democratically elected Government. Surely, that is welcome. This is precisely what will, I hope, happen shortly in relation to Russia.
The Bill will inevitably generate much debate, but I restate its importance in protecting the Government’s foreign policy interests, the Jewish community and the wellbeing of the many citizens who have grown tired of grandstanding public bodies exploiting the public purse and the money on which they depend. The Government will have my full support on this important matter. I listened carefully to the shadow spokesperson, who gave a very reasonable speech. When the Bill goes into Committee—I hope that it will go into Committee—all these different elements should be examined carefully to make sure that we end up with a Bill which, I hope, can command the support of the overwhelming majority in the House.
It is genuinely an honour to speak in this debate. There have been some incredible contributions, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) for the way in which she recalibrated the tone of the debate. It got off to an appalling start, so I congratulate her on her tone and the way in which she has engaged in discussion of this vexed issue.
This is a difficult Bill. It is one of the most freedom-damaging, human rights-destroying pieces of legislation that I have ever seen. It is badly drafted and ill thought-through. I take issue with the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). The concept of trying to correct an appalling Bill that cannot be corrected is not one that I share. That said, the Labour party has tabled a reasoned amendment, which rightly declines to give the Bill a Second Reading, and sets out a compelling case as to why it should be given short shrift. I speak in favour and support of the powerful arguments contained in the amendment.
The Bill will, as we have heard, prevent public bodies from making decisions to procure goods or services, or invest or divest according to their own ethical framework. Local authorities have long played an important role in the protection and promotion of human rights overseas, for example, in opposing the apartheid regime in South Africa, as Members have mentioned. The Bill will make the Westminster Government the ultimate arbiter of what is acceptable. As the reasoned amendment sets out, the Bill is a clear and obvious fetter on the principle of devolution and on freedom of speech. By hamstringing the due diligence that public bodies carry out, it will entirely disregard the European convention on human rights.
The Bill will be a disaster for the environment and the drive to net zero, by withdrawing the freedom of public bodies to boycott countries that pollute our environment. As for Palestine, which has been the subject of a lot of attention in this debate, the legal opinion of Richard Hermer KC, commissioned by Labour Front Benchers, states that
“legislation prohibiting local authorities from taking steps to promote Palestinian self-determination within the OPT, taken with the terms of the exclusion in Clause 3(7), would likely place the United Kingdom in breach of international law obligations.”
Labour’s amendment points to the way in which that clause conflates the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan heights with the state of Israel, undermining the UK’s long-standing cross-party position, and running contrary to UN Security Council resolutions, specifically resolution 2334.
By singling out the territories under Israel’s control in this legislation, the UK will give licence to the continuation of the terrible events that unfolded in Jenin today, without an appropriate, legitimate and peaceful response. No other people should be put in the position of the Palestinians. At this very moment, we are seeing the images from Jenin, where a massive number of Israeli occupation forces are committing what the Palestinian president has called a “war crime” as they storm the city and refugee camp. They have killed at least nine Palestinians, including three children, and injured countless innocent civilians. Over 180 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since the beginning of 2023—about one a day. At least 34 of those have been children. The destruction of schools, homes and lives is being carried out with total impunity.
How many times have we heard warm and ineffective words from Ministers at the Dispatch Box? One wonders how such an attitude and policy would have played out in respect of South Africa. The Tory Government of the day deemed the South African apartheid regime legal, and Nelson Mandela a terrorist. If that policy had succeeded, he would have been left to rot in jail. What has happened to any sense of a moral compass in our country? Have we forgotten the lessons of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa?
The Bill would make it an offence for someone from a public body to say that, if not for the legislative ban contained in the Bill, they would have chosen to pursue some form of sanction. That has been rightly called a “Minority Report” provision and I know it worries many Members across this House. The Bill is wholly incoherent, given how we have rightly imposed sanctions on Russia following its illegal invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory. The Bill is simply wrong—an offence against human decency and international law. I will be exercising one of my human rights, the freedom of expression and of conscience, by voting consistently against it at every stage. It is unworthy of this House and I have no doubt that history will judge it so. I urge Members to support the reasoned amendment, but to reject the Bill in its entirety.
I declare my interests as a vice-president of the Local Government Association and the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on British Jews. I am privileged to represent a very diverse constituency with a large and established Jewish population, and indeed many people from every possible religious background. It is great to see that, on the whole, those different communities get on extremely well, but this legislation is necessary for the reasons that many Members have outlined.
As the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) said, the long-standing BDS campaign creates a situation where the state of Israel, and Jewish people here in the UK and elsewhere, are singled out for criticism and discrimination. However, like my neighbour and hon. Friend, the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), I will be voting for the legislation, having noted a number of areas in which improvement is required, which I hope we will be able to address in Committee. I will take each in turn. First, I urge Front-Bench colleagues to give serious consideration to entirely dropping clause 4(1)(b), which has raised a number of concerns among Members. In the context of local government, especially in respect of pensions committees, a significant population of councillors are decision makers for the purposes of the legislation and, as an increasing number of local authorities—especially small ones—move to the committee system, the constituency of members who would be considered decision makers for the purposes of the legislation gets larger and larger.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) will probably remember the late councillor Ray Davies: everywhere you turned, you would find him protesting against something or chaining himself to railings about something else. We can imagine a situation in which a back-bench member of a local authority called to attend a pensions investment committee as a substitute member expresses the view that their preference would be to not make a particular decision because of concerns about the behaviour of a particular Government, and finds themselves in breach of the law as a result. That would seem to have a chilling effect on freedom of speech. We should ensure that those who disagree with a policy are able to express that view while still making a decision that is within the law, as outlined in clause 4(1)(a).
The second piece of important context goes to the point that was raised by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge): we should give our local government colleagues a degree of respect for their common sense in this matter. At the Local Government Association, it was my privilege to do some work on exactly this issue, working with the Local Government Friends of Israel—a very good organisation. Through that process, we identified that, at the time, at most two or three councils had passed BDS motions. We should accord respect to our local government colleagues by removing clause 4(1)(b), recognising that, on the whole, they have been wise and sensible in exercising their powers.
The next issue is the way in which these powers are exercised in respect of contractors and subcontractors. On, for example, an investment committee or a procurement committee charged with making decisions to place contracts, elected members may not necessarily be aware of the decisions and policies of the bodies with which they are contracting. It is not unusual for a local government pension committee to have 15 to 20 investments at any one given time. Given that those private companies may themselves be under similar pressure to exercise BDS views, what is not always going to be transparent to those elected members is how those things are taking effect in practice. We need to ensure that, in bringing in what is intended to be about decision makers in public bodies, we are not losing our desired intention to ensure that BDS is not present in the public sector by ensuring that those bodies that are contracting or subcontracting are also within sight.
Again on my concern in respect of how these decisions will affect elected members in local authorities, the legislation envisages that it will apply where matters are in line with, or outside of, the policy of the Government. Paragraph 9 of the explanatory notes sets out the example of where a specific legislative provision was introduced in respect of sanctions against Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. It is my view that when this legislation passes we need to be completely clear what we mean when we talk about the policy of the Government. Do we mean as expressed in legislation? Do we mean as expressed by the Minister at the Dispatch Box? What is it that we mean when we talk about the policy of the Government? Is it a policy of different Government Departments? We need to make sure, given that it would be a breach of the law to express opposition to it, that the position from which the policy of the Government is drawn is absolutely clear.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), with his very pleasant reference to the late Ray Davies, who was a wonderful campaigner all his life.
A truly appalling piece of legislation has been put before us. It fits into the bigger picture of anti-democratic legislation that this Government have put forward that reduces the rights of free speech and assembly, over-empowers the police, restricts trade unions and tries to criminalise people who seek a place of safety and asylum on our shores. We have to put it in that context; it is yet another attack on the civil liberties of people in this country.
Over 70 organisations have expressed deep misgivings and opposition to the Bill. Muslim organisations, Jewish organisations, trade unions, human rights organisations, libertarian organisations, religious groups and many others have said that the Bill is wrong and that it will damage the civil liberties of everyone in this country. It gives massive power to the Secretary of State effectively to decide what local authorities can say, think or do. If a local authority, for example, decided it wanted to speak up about human rights in a country when a significant number of people from that country were living in its community—for example, there is a very large Somali community in my constituency—would my local authority not be allowed to say anything about Somalia under the Bill? It would have to seek the permission of the Secretary of State before it could do anything, and so it goes on; there are so many other examples.
Having been in this House since the 1980s, I sat through many debates about South Africa. There were many Members over there on the Government Benches—many—who supported the apartheid regime. They openly supported the apartheid regime, called Mandela a terrorist and asked for the banning of the African National Congress in this country. The ANC had its offices in my borough, and the South West Africa People’s Organisation, which led to the liberation of Namibia, had its offices in my constituency. There were calls to ban them and, when local authorities such as Sheffield led the way on local authority action and opposition to apartheid, they faced sanctions from the Government. Why were they so concerned about it, other than to prevent any effective, peaceful show of loyalty and support to the people of South Africa who were facing the horrors of the apartheid regime?
Under this legislation, what we did over South Africa would be impossible or illegal, so we would end up suspending councillors, prosecuting local authorities and surcharging councillors. I am not sure where it would lead. Some of us supported the people of Chile after General Pinochet seized power, and called for a boycott of Chilean goods and a non-investment policy in Chile; again, that would be illegal. On a different basis, some of us called for a boycott of Californian grapes when Californian grape pickers were facing oppression from police forces in California; again, that would be illegal. All the issues around the world that we are faced with, such as Indonesia’s behaviour in West Papua, the failure of Morocco to allow a referendum on the future of Western Sahara, Saudi Arabia and its war against Yemen—any expression of that would be banned by the Bill. A terrifying Bill has been put forward here today.
Most of the Bill has been framed around Palestine and Israel. Many groups in Israel are frightened by the Bill and what goes with it and also believe that there should be justice for the people of Palestine. I spent Saturday evening talking to Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative, who believes in non-violent resistance to the occupation. He pointed out to me—I noted the figures down as he was talking—that, at the moment on the west bank, there are 150 settlements, 70 more settlements are being planned or actually built at present, more than 400,000 Israeli people have been moved into those settlements and it is impossible for Palestinian people to move around their own area of land. The idea that the products made on those settlements that are sold outside should be seen as legitimate products—they are illegal within terms of international law and within terms of EU law. So I just ask that we understand the importance of the right of protest.
Today in Jenin, as an example of the occupation, 14,000 people are in a refugee camp that is less than 0.4 square kilometres—14,000 people in less than half a square kilometre of land. Israel Defense Forces says that it is not targeting civilians. It is impossible to use any kind of weaponry against the population there without targeting civilians. More have died. More bitterness, more hatred and more problems come down the road. Those people all around the world who want to support the Palestinian people are not antisemitic. They are not anti-Israeli groups, but what they do want is justice for the Palestinian people. That surely would be a much better and stronger message to send out from this House today, rather than the attempt to close down free speech in this country.
Three decades ago, Margaret Thatcher said that the ANC was a “typical terrorist organisation”, adding
“Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land”.
History proved her wrong on that, but that history was shaped by the determined efforts of people worldwide, including millions in this country and many local governments, to boycott South Africa. The lesson is clear: Governments are not always right; Governments do not always make moral decisions; Governments do not always act in line with the wishes of the population, but through the democratic process, millions of people can effect change. This Bill ignores that lesson. It shuts down the freedom of people to exercise a key democratic right. It is just another example of this Government’s anti-democratic crackdown, with restrictions on the right to vote, the right to protest and the right to strike.
Labour’s reasoned amendment, which declines to give the Bill a Second Reading and which I will be supporting, makes the case clearly about the many deep flaws in the Bill, as did the shadow Secretary of State in her response. In summary, the Bill is a huge attack on the concept of ethical investment and procurement by preventing public bodies from being influenced by “political or moral disapproval” of the actions of any foreign state. The Government claim that boycott and divestment will still be possible, but just not where it
“relates specifically or mainly to a particular foreign territory”.
That simply does not wash.
Almost all cases of companies engaging in human, labour or environmental abuses have a territorial element. If we are talking about divesting in companies that cut down the rainforest, for example, that activity will obviously take place in areas with rainforests, and certain countries would be targeted by campaigns. This Bill even bans public bodies from saying they would support such boycotts were it legal to do so. It is a gagging Bill that breaches freedom of speech and would prevent a local councillor in hustings debates or other public forums from giving their political view.
This Bill also has chilling elements in how it will be enforced, including potentially huge fines and far-reaching information compliance notices. The aim is clear: to put so much fear into public bodies of ending up in court that they do not just act within the law, but go beyond it in an effort to reduce that risk. As legal advice provided to the Labour party makes clear, this Bill would be likely to place the UK
“in breach of international law obligations”
“effectively equates the Occupied Palestinian Territories with Israel itself and is very difficult to reconcile with the long-standing position of the United Kingdom which supports a ‘two-state solution’ based on ‘1967 lines’ in which the security and right to self-determination of both Israelis and Palestinians are protected.”
I am afraid that I do not have any faith in the exemptions listed in the Bill at schedule 3. Just as apartheid was legal in South Africa, much environmental destruction takes place entirely legally. The very fact that something is illegal is often the rationale for a boycott and divestments campaign in the first place. Many people in the discussion today and around this Bill have mentioned boycotts—not just those relating to illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where we have seen terrible scenes today in Jenin, but arms boycotts against Saudi Arabia over its war crimes in Yemen, boycotts in Colombia over its past treatment of trade unionists, and commercial boycotts of goods relating to the treatment of the Uyghurs in China or the Rohingya in Myanmar. It is not for us to decide which countries people are allowed to boycott—that is a huge curtailment of basic freedom. We need to maintain the democratic rights of people to challenge Government policy through boycotts and divestment, if that is their wish.
To conclude, the Bill has faced widespread civil society opposition, including from the Quakers and the Methodists, the Muslim Association of Britain, Friends of the Earth, the Union of Jewish Students, the TUC, Unite the union, Unison and the directors of 14 Israeli civil society and human rights organisations, as well as Human Rights Watch, Liberty and Amnesty, whose own legal ruling suggests that the Bill would be illegal. Not all those groups support boycotts, but they do support the right for people to boycott. That is what we are voting on today. We cannot allow the Government to scrap this cherished democratic right.
Reference has been made to Bob Kerslake consistently throughout today. Bob and I were friends. I go back longer than most, because I go back to 1981, when I was a young man and a GLC councillor and Bob was a young man and a GLC officer. I fully concur with all the tributes that have been paid, but I also want to say that he was a good man. He was a very good person and a good friend, and we will miss him.
Let me come on to this debate. I do not want to repeat some of the arguments, but I want to get on record for my constituents why I am voting the way I am this evening. I will vote in solidarity with the amendment, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on her speech, but I will also be voting against the Bill, because I cannot do anything else.
The debate has largely focused on the specific BDS movement and Israel. Just to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), I want to talk about the right to boycott, to disinvest and to sanction as an issue. At the weekend I drafted an article, because I wanted to get clear in my own mind the whole issue around boycotts and the past history of the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement. To be frank, virtually all of my life I have been involved in some boycott, disinvestment or sanctions campaign, so it was almost like a flashback. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), I was outside the South African embassy when the City of London anti-apartheid group was on a 24-hour permanent picket.
I got off lightly. All we were singing for was the release of Nelson Mandela.
For the other one, I plead guilty. I was one of the organisers of the demonstrations over a decade ago against the royal visit of the Saudi leaders. We were calling for no public contracts to be awarded to companies operating in Saudi Arabia, because at that time they were beheading gay people for being gay. That was later focused on military support from this country for the Saudi attacks on Yemen. The list of BDS campaigns that I have supported goes on and on. I campaigned against the Bahraini regime and its ongoing brutal repression of the country’s democratic movement, and the continued imprisonment of opposition political leaders. We have met some of them over the years, and they are still inside.
I have campaigned against the Sri Lankan Administration owing to their genocidal attack on the Tamils, with their continued abuse of human rights, their use of torture, the disappearances, and the colonisations of Tamil homelands. Again, I have lost constituents who have been disappeared when they have gone out there. I campaigned for sanctions against the military junta in Myanmar to halt the attacks on the Rohingyas and to demand the freedom of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Yes, I have supported the boycott of goods coming from the Palestinian territories occupied illegally by Israel. The campaign in my constituency was undertaken by young people when the bombings in Gaza were killing young people there. In solidarity, young people in my constituency went round the local shops asking them to check where their goods were coming from and urging them not to sell goods from the occupied territories.
There has been some reference to BDS campaigns being associated with antisemitism. That is not what I have witnessed in my constituency, but if there is evidence that individuals associated with these campaigns are antisemitic, we already have laws to deal with that, and I believe that the full force of the law against racist behaviour should therefore be deployed.
More recently, I have called for sanctions against the Chinese Government for the barbaric treatment of the Uyghurs, and also because they have imprisoned a group of my Unite trade union friends who worked with me on the British Airways campaigns. All they were demanding was adherence to democracy by the Chinese, and they have been inside for two and a half years, without any form of access to their families in many instances.
The common factor in all those campaigns is that they would not have been supported by Government policy. Therefore, they would have been rendered illegal in their demand for action by public authorities to boycott, disinvest and sanction. I agree with the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) that there needs to be clarity about who is making foreign policy and what is being referred to, because actually the Bill makes the Secretary of State ex cathedra—infallible—and puts at his whim decisions about what is right and what is wrong across the globe, when Governments in this country have consistently got it significantly wrong. They have certainly not backed such campaigns and would have outlawed them overall.
All those campaigns have focused on pressing for action from Government, local councils, pension funds, private companies and investors. It is interesting that a few hon. Members have mentioned the focus on the local government pension fund. I declare an interest as a member of the local government pension fund, and I think it is up to members of the fund to determine its investment policies. I must say, as a constituency MP, that the campaigns have reflected the diversity of my constituency. There is not a campaign that has not involved a constituent or group of constituents or has not been asked for by my constituents. It is a matter of standing in solidarity.
The advice of every human rights lawyer I have spoken to so far, and all the briefings from human rights groups and trade unionists, have all made it clear that that range of activities will be outlawed and it will be made illegal for decision makers even to talk about the strategy. That is why I oppose the Bill. I am voting against it because we have heard today, right across the House, that not a single clause has stood up to scrutiny. Therefore, I do not believe it can be amended; it is fundamentally flawed and should be defeated.
Let me make one final point, as an aside. We should change the Standing Orders or look at “Erskine May”, because it would have been useful if the Secretary of State coming here to present the Bill had actually read it or addressed the same Bill that we are addressing in this debate. All we saw today was a diatribe of the lowest politics we have seen for a long time, which divides our community unnecessarily and, to be frank, appallingly.
Let me be absolutely clear that the Bill before this House, which should be rejected, is not just bad and unworkable but fundamentally flawed and dangerous. Hon. Members across the House have rightly stated that it does not just prevent public bodies such as local councils involving themselves in foreign policy—as the Government innocently declare—but meddles in the autonomy of local government pension schemes to make the best investment decisions, and swings a wrecking ball through the UK’s obligation to respect international law and countless United Nations resolutions.
The Bill undermines the ability of public bodies and civic society to divest from those who are harming our environment and driving climate change. It provides the Government with unprecedented and deeply alarming powers of enforcement that curtail freedom of expression and democracy by gagging public bodies that have the audacity to speak and act on their conscience. It forces public bodies and civic society to kneel, against their own moral convictions, to the Secretary of State’s foreign policy.
Most alarmingly, by preventing public bodies from adopting positions that deviate from this Government’s foreign policy of turning a blind eye to persecution, oppression and injustice in other countries, the Bill quashes the ability of those individuals, public bodies and members of civic society with any sense of humanity to take a stand against human rights abuses, at a time of rapid increase in those abuses right across the world.
Each of those reasons alone is enough to bin the Bill but, taken together, they make it not only one of the most far-reaching and dangerous pieces of legislation this Government have ever sought to make law, but one of the most repressive. That is why it must be struck down today.
As pointed out by hon. Members across the House, the Bill directly contradicts decades of established UK foreign policy on illegal Israeli settlements built on occupied land. It is astounding that it has to be repeated in this Chamber time and again that settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are illegal under international law. Why does the Bill not recognise that international position?
Instead of introducing legislation to Parliament that provides cover to the Netanyahu Government’s illegal annexation of Palestinian territory, Ministers must decide whether they agree with the established position of the rest of the international community that the settlements and the Israeli Government’s repeated disregard for international law are illegal. As hon. Members have stated, the Bill as it currently stands is in direct contravention of not just international law but United Nations resolutions.
Many of us fear the anti-democratic precedent the Bill will set. Effectively, if a human rights campaign does not enjoy the support of the Government, it will be criminalised for attempting to bring abuses to light. The Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the Rohingya in Burma, the Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Kashmiris in Indian-occupied Kashmir—members of those communities, many of whom are resident in my constituency, have now had their fear doubled. Not only are they witnessing numerous human rights abuses in their countries of origin, they are now being silenced here, too. Indeed, until just recently the UK Government refused to approve sanctions against the Burmese military despite the horrific genocidal campaign it waged against the Rohingya, with Ministers declaring that they did not want to unbalance what existed of Burma’s democratic Government. Instead, it was left to other organisations and groups to lead the resistance against a genocide taking place while the UK Government looked on. The Government are in a better place on that issue today, but we are still left with the question of what happens if there is a return to the same form of democratic Government in Burma that existed before and which allowed the Rohingya genocide to take place. It is clear that Ministers will lift sanctions and force local authorities to do the same through the Bill, leaving the perpetrators of genocide able to escape justice and accountability for their grave crimes against humanity.
The impact the Bill will have on human rights in Indian-occupied Kashmir, where Kashmiris continue to face persecution, oppression and injustice is even more alarming, because it is in this region that UK foreign policy under this Tory Government is not only most unreliable but most spineless. Even as the Indian Government blatantly engage in violent, physical and psychological suppression of any resistance to the military occupation, however peaceful it may be, and seek to deter further opposition to their brutal rule by making an example of campaigners such as Yasin Malik, whose execution Indian prosecutors are now seeking, all the UK Government remain focused on is securing a trade deal with the right-wing Modi Government before the next general election. They could not even bring themselves to object to and boycott, as other countries did, the shameful decision to hold the G20 culture working group summit last month in Srinagar. In the absence of the UK Government stepping up to fulfil their historic, moral and international obligations to the region, it is once again left to local councils and public bodies to do what they can to protect human rights in Indian-occupied Kashmir by refusing to engage with those whose hands are stained with the blood of Kashmiris. Yet under the Bill the Government will put a stop to that and force public bodies to be party to human rights abuses because they think it is in the UK’s best foreign policy interests.
This rotten, unworkable and dangerous Bill is an alarming overreach of Government powers that breaks the UK’s international obligations and undermines efforts to protect our environment and fight climate change. It protects human rights abusers in countless nations and gags democratically elected local representatives. We cannot pick and choose which human rights abuses to act on and which to turn a blind eye to. Let me be clear: human rights are a universal obligation and a universal right. It is time the UK Government accepted that. I will therefore be standing up, as I always have done, for democracy, for our environment and for human rights by voting for today’s amendment that will reject the Bill.
On first reading the Bill, memories of my childhood came flooding back, when my family and I were very heavily involved in the South Africa anti-apartheid movement in Wales. That campaign deployed a range of campaign methods, including boycott, divestment and sanctions, and lobbying local councils to divest and use sanctions against South Africa. We campaigned and succeeded in stopping a local choir from touring South Africa, as well as boycotting goods. That was some of my formative political campaigning. It was legitimate, proportionate and all about challenging racism. It informs me on why I must oppose the Bill in its entirety.
This Bill is the latest example of the shrinking space for freedom of expression in the UK, following the passage of the Elections Act 2022, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the Public Order Act 2023, and the continued progress of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill. Today’s Bill is an attack on democracy and rides roughshod over democratically elected representatives at a local, regional and devolved level. It is the epitome of cancel culture that the right-wing culture warriors on the Conservative Benches complain about so bitterly. It really does, as others have said, contain a direct threat to freedom of speech by barring public authorities from taking action and, indeed, from even making statements of policy.
The Bill will assist the suppression of campaigns for justice and accountability across the globe on issues as wide ranging as pollution, the environment, exploitation of children and women, and fossil fuel divestment—the list goes on. I and others who have spoken out against this Bill are not alone in opposing it. A wide range of human rights organisations, lawyers, trade unions, charities, non-governmental organisations, faith groups, climate justice groups and cultural organisations share our concerns. And all of those would rightly reject the use of boycott tactics being used to stoke racism or antisemitism.
The Bill, as has been said, undermines elected local councils and regional Mayors by not allowing them to make decisions that they have been democratically elected to make. It also clearly and definitely undermines the devolved settlement. What consultation has been carried out with the Welsh Government and the other devolved nations? How will the Bill impact on the devolved nations’ procurement policies, which are currently being pursued and are ethical and have human rights considerations at their heart?
It has already been highlighted how this Bill, while giving the Government broad-brush powers to prevent criticism of any state Government, uniquely privileges Israel. That is despite its repeated and escalating human rights abuses in the west bank and Gaza, and, as we are witnessing today, the horrific and heartbreaking events in Jenin. Despite assertions that foreign policy is unchanged, for the first time a piece of British legislation will require Israel and the territories it illegally occupies to be treated in the same way, departing from decades of international consensus on the illegality of settlements.
There is a proud record of the use of boycotts in progressive struggles—from the sugar boycotts of slavery abolitionists in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the anti-apartheid boycotts of South Africa, divestment from fossil fuel companies and action against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Boycotts have been used legitimately, proportionately and often successfully to peacefully put political, economic or cultural pressure on a regime, institution or company to force it to change abusive, discriminatory or illegal policies. They have historically been anti-racist campaigns, and I believe that they must and will continue in the future.
I want to finish with a quote from Nelson Mandela, who came to Cardiff in 1998:
“When the call for international isolation of the forces of apartheid went out to the world, the people of Wales responded magnificently. The knowledge that local authorities all over Wales were banning apartheid products from canteens and schools…was a great inspiration to us in our struggle.”
I believe that he too would have said that those opposing this Bill in its entirety are on the right side of history. That is why I support the Labour Front-Bench position to decline a Second Reading, and as a matter of conscience I must oppose the Bill in its entirety. Diolch yn fawr.
It has been a joy to hear the different opinions expressed in the Chamber today, both from those in favour of the Bill and from those against it. I have to say to my good friends, as I call them, sitting near me in the Chamber that my opinion differs from theirs, but that will not be a big surprise to them.
I am a well-known friend of Israel, and I make no apology for registering my interest and my support. Having said that, I know that it will—again—come as no surprise to any Member that I support the Bill, and, indeed, I said as much to the Secretary of State in an intervention earlier. The anti-Israel sentiment that flourishes in the absence of legislation must be addressed. I know that some Members who are present believe that the principle of boycotting has been used effectively for years, recalling the boycott of German goods, and I know of many a person who has boycotted a company in opposition to a decision or policy in that company. However, it is not the job of universities or other Government-funded bodies to make the decision to boycott for a political reason without an outright decision in this place, which is why the Bill is before us tonight. While some may also believe that only a principle is being debated today, the fact is that there is an active boycott against Israel in some political circles, and it does have an effect.
Let me give some examples from Northern Ireland. In 2014, the Sinn Féin mayor of what was then Newry and Mourne Council wrote to shopkeepers in the council district requiring them to inform him about all the Israeli goods that they stocked. In his capacity as mayor, he told local businesses in Newry that unless they immediately withdrew Israeli goods from sale, they were giving
“financial support, succour and legitimacy”
to “apartheid” and racism. Well, no, they were not. Those receiving the letter from the mayor—local shopkeepers and business people—understandably felt targeted, and some said that the letter struck them as deeply sinister, intimidating and extremely divisive.
This boycott is clearly racially motivated, which is underlined by debates taking place on the Israel issue. In a Belfast City Council debate on Israel in 2019, Israel was presented by nationalist and Marxist councillors as a unique evil in the world, requiring unique measures to be taken against it. People Before Profit councillors referred to Israel’s establishment and existence as a racist endeavour. Well, no, it is not, but they said that it was. The reality of any conflict in the middle east was denied; it was only their perceived Jewish oppression of Arabs. Concerns expressed about growing antisemitism were shamelessly deflected and ridiculed; it was just a deliberate tactic to silence criticism of Israel. It was suggested by some councillors that only Jews who held anti-Zionist positions deserved the council’s solidarity, a view that is perpetuated by the boycott of Israeli goods on a global scale in which this nation has been a silent partner for so long. That is why the Bill is so important.
Let me be clear: Israel’s existence and survival are vital to many in our Jewish community as a matter of their core identity, religious faith, family connections and sense of physical safety and security. Criticism of an Israeli Government or policy is one thing; demonisation of Israel as a unique evil, along with demands for the Jewish state’s elimination from the face of the earth, is quite another. Demonisation, boycotts and expulsions directed against the world’s only Jewish state do not sit well with me or with my colleagues, and, indeed, should not sit well with any member of this House. Local authorities in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, should be working hard to support diversity and good relations, not isolating and undermining one of our smallest and much-cherished communities.
Recently, a media outlet in Northern Ireland published a letter from a self-styled interfaith group identifying the leadership of Ireland’s tiny Jewish community with genocide and apartheid in the middle east. Well, no, they do not do that. The letter called on the 80 Jews in Belfast to support their “moderate” aim of bringing down the Zionist regime. To put it starkly, this is where the so-called BDS campaign will lead if it is never properly called out and challenged: it will lead to the targeting and isolation of not just the Jewish state, but those of us—and I am one—who consider ourselves friends of Israel, including many members of our Jewish community.
Let me give some more examples in the last couple of minutes available to me. Family businesses in Northern Ireland, such as Wilson’s Country Ltd, were subjected to a vicious attack on social media because they stocked Israeli new potatoes. An Israeli-owned stall at CastleCourt in Belfast was regularly physically attacked, and its staff intimidated. Some of these attacks were so serious that they led to custodial sentences. The stall was forced to close and has never returned.
Staff at the Linen Hall library in Belfast complained of online bullying after it hosted an event celebrating the centenary of Chaim Herzog’s birth in Belfast. Library staff were harangued.
During the conflict in the middle east, Belfast’s synagogue had its windows smashed and the community’s rabbi received threats and needed escorts to and from the synagogue. The community has frequently been targeted by online abuse.
A County Tyrone sports personality with an online following tweeted, “If you’re lucky enough to know a Jew, punch him in the face.” The PSNI is investigating. Pubgoers in the Bogside were recorded by an undercover Israeli reporter telling him, “Jews are the scum of the earth. Hitler didn’t kill enough of them.” The PSNI is investigating.
There were calls to cancel a friendly football match between Northern Ireland and Israel. The Israeli national team is more diverse than any other team in the world, because it includes Jews, Muslims and Christians. Again, the line of abuse is incredible.
My last example is from 2016, when Derry City and Strabane District Council claimed to be the first local authority in Northern Ireland to pass a motion boycotting Israeli goods. In 2018, the same council voted that to have a Friends of Israel representative speak to the council to put their side of the case would be a disgrace to the city. It did not want to hear the other side of the argument. The voice of freedom and free speech was not heard.
I will not be siding with the threat of expulsions, boycotts and isolation. I therefore welcome this Bill, which will prevent our local authorities from being abused in this extreme and divisive manner. We in Northern Ireland have seen more of that than most.
It is a pleasure to close this challenging but important debate on behalf of the Opposition. The debate has covered Britain’s place in the world, freedom of speech, human rights, genocide and a whole range of other important topics.
At the heart of the debate lies a central question: does the Bill balance legitimate, strongly held and well-meant desires to challenge behaviours overseas on principled grounds against important protections for particular nations or regions in the face of disproportionate treatment? I am afraid the answer is no.
We believe there should be legislation to frame boycott and divestment-type activities—legislation that allows communities to decide where their money goes—in response to human rights or genocide concern, while ensuring such decisions are made equitably and consistently so that the world’s only Jewish state, for example, is not singled out and targeted. This is consistent with our long-held stance against the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.
Colleagues can have confidence that we believe in such framing legislation, because the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), and I tabled such amendments to the Procurement Bill in Committee, some months ago, and on Report. The amendments were rejected by the Government, but the Bill tabled in their stead, the Bill before us, is considerably worse than the option we offered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) called the Bill a “dog’s dinner.” He is generally not a man to disappoint, but his sentiment was one of disappointment, which was echoed in the remarkable contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), who spoke of the frustration of those, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, who want to see legislation that the House can unite behind. We do not have that currently.
There has been a range of other excellent contributions. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), referenced clause 3(7), as did my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). This subsection breaks the distinction between the state of Israel and the occupied territories, which is a significant change in Government policy, and it asks significant questions about our compliance with UN resolutions. The Minister must account for that change of policy and assuage some of those concerns in her summing up.
The right hon. Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said that foreign policy matters of this nature are not for local decision makers. Well, we do not think that is right. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) made a very strong argument about how it has worked and been effective in his community in the past. In a bolder argument, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) rightly said that it is our communities’ money. I, like many colleagues, am a member of the local government pension scheme—that is our money; and I am a council tax payer—that is our money. It is not unreasonable that we might want to have a say in how it is spent.
This Bill is anti-democratic and anti-human rights. It frustrates peace efforts in the middle east and it is an obstacle to social justice everywhere. As such, it has been condemned by a huge range of civil society organisations, including trade unions, charities and faith organisations. Does my hon. Friend agree with them and with me that for those reasons the Bill must not receive a Second Reading?
Yes, I think that what has been striking is that colleagues who come at this from very different places and parties have reached that conclusion of the inadequacy of this legislation. I hope the Government will reflect on that. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) asked what our alternative was. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) made a powerful contribution, but I slightly challenge his suggestion that we were saying that we should rip this up in an unspecified way. That is not the point we are making. We are saying that we tabled an amendment to the Procurement Bill that we think is better. If the Government think it is technically inadequate, we would be happy to work with them to improve it. What we do know is that it is much better than what is before us today.
My hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) made important points about what this Bill does to the devolved regional and national settlements—it challenges and presses them greatly. The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) and the hon. Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made powerful anti-BDS cases. I hope the position that my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and I have taken on that assuages some concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford is my friend and we should always be honest with our friends, so let me say that he has done peerless work in this place on tackling the persecution of Christians abroad and he should have real concerns about how this legislation would fetter such activities in the future.
I will cover some more of the contributions as I get through the rest of my points, but certain concerns must be addressed by the Minister in her closing remarks. First, which of the two possible readings of clause 1 do the Government intend? Does the “territorial consideration” provision mean that not wishing to procure from Xinjiang is unacceptable but that not wishing to procure from the entire nation of China would be acceptable? Or does it mean that all actions of all foreign Governments are beyond the scope of local decision makers? How, at this stage, can it be satisfactory that there is ambiguity? As we have heard, this is legislation that will head straight to the courts. Secondly, to accept clause 3 is to exalt the Secretary of State ahead of any other public representative, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said. It is to set aside the mandates of the Mayor of the West Midlands, the Mayor of Greater Manchester or of the leaders of councils in favour of the Secretary of State. It is to give that person, whoever they may be, sole arbitration of human rights abuses, of genocide. That should give all of us pause, but it is worsened by clause 4, the gagging clause, which my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), for Leeds East (Richard Burgon)—
We heard a powerful and compelling contribution from my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, about pernicious political thinking behind this Bill. Does my hon. Friend agree that that has happened multiple times? We are talking about a smackdown on democracy. We had the so-called “gagging Bill”, which was about gagging charities and became the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014; in 2016, we had the wrapping up of trade unions in even more red tape; and, recently, we have had more attacks on trade unions and the right to protest. Are the Government not crushing dissent on the part of any organisation or body that wants to challenge them?
I am grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend almost reads to the end of my paragraph, so I will address that point presently. The point on gagging clauses was also made by my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds East and for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), and the hon. Members for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds). The Bill means that not only does the judgment of the Secretary of State supersede any and all local leaders, but the Government seek to ensure that those leaders are not even allowed to talk about their desire to challenge human rights abuses or not to consume settlement goods. The Government are taking away not only the right to act, but the ability to speak. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) says, that is consistent with a legislative programme designed to whittle away at the civic space, with the Trade Union Act 2016, the 2014 Act, the Public Order Act 2023 and more. What we have in front of us is an unacceptable fetter on free expression.
Separately, but no less importantly, the Bill will, as the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) said, have consequences for billions of pounds in local government pension funds. Any hard deadline that is imposed on them to change their operations in accordance with new law could be deeply destabilising, and the Minister ought to talk about how much she has looked into that impact. We know that at the moment a pension fund makes a divestment decision on a financial ground that relates to territories named in the Bill, that decision will be challenged in the court as a moral judgment. That will bind up our pension funds in court case after court case.
Let me turn to an issue that has had little airing in the debate so far and will have a lot more to run. Through clause 7, the Bill permits extraordinary powers to compel information—powers that demolish long-held legal privileges. It is not proportionate to hand to the Secretary of State even stronger powers to compel information from public bodies than the security services have. Surely the Government see the unsustainability of that position. As detailed by Labour and other colleagues, these are weighty concerns that make the Bill unacceptable in its current form.
But there is an alternative, as covered in our reasoned amendment. Our country has a proud history in the development of modern international humanitarian law, from the ashes of world war two to the creation of the United Nations and the role that we continue to play on the world stage. We have always defended the fundamental and inalienable rights of all human beings. It is vital that procurement decisions made in respect of such rights are then applied across the board to prevent unethical actions against specific states and to ensure that common actions have the greatest impact. That could be readily achieved by requiring public bodies to produce a document that sets out their policy on procurement and human rights, and for that to be developed in accordance with guidance published by the Secretary of State. That would ensure consistency in how contracting authorities decide on such matters.
What would that suggestion mean in practice? The practical effect would be to make it clear and unambiguous that if a public body does not wish to procure goods from Russia because of President Putin’s abhorrent human rights abuses in Ukraine, the law will be on its side. If that same body does not wish to procure services from Xinjiang because of the appalling treatment of Uyghur Muslims, the law will be on its side. But if a public body acts only against a particular state—let us say the world’s only Jewish state—while turning a blind eye to human rights abuses elsewhere, such actions would be illegal. We offer this workable solution to the Government and I hope the Minister picks it up. If colleagues do not hear that in the Minister’s response, I encourage them to vote in favour of the reasoned amendment tabled in my name and the names of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
I thank Members from throughout the House for their impassioned and heartfelt contributions. Let me remind the House why we have introduced this legislation: we believe that we should have one foreign policy, and we also believe that BDS campaigns risk undermining community cohesion. We believe that public bodies should not be wasting time and money on pursuing their own foreign policy agendas and should instead focus on providing vital public services and delivering value for money for the taxpayer in their procurement and investment decisions.
Let me also clarify certain misapprehensions that certain Members have about the Bill. First, the Bill applies only to public authorities. It does not apply to private individuals or private companies, except if they are exercising public functions. It does not place restrictions on local councillors, except when they talk expressly on the behalf of their local authority. It does not prevent public authorities from making statements on foreign policy; it prevents them only from making a procurement or investment decision if it is motivated by moral or political disapproval of a foreign state’s conduct.
Many Members have mentioned clause 4. I reassure Members that clause 4 only prevents public authorities from making statements of intent to boycott or divest. It does not prevent public bodies from disagreeing with this legislation. The Bill does not ban ethical, religious or socially conscious funds, so, for instance, climate change funds can continue with the Bill unless there are issues that are country-specific.
A number of Members mentioned clause 3(7). I want to clarify the role of the clause. The Bill applies equally to all countries. Countries can be exempted from the ban by secondary legislation, which is what we are planning to do with Russia and Belarus—[Interruption.]
Order. This has been a very good-natured and difficult debate. It has been held with disagreement, but courtesy across the House. People have now come into the Chamber who have not been here during the debate and it is most discourteous of them now to make so much noise that we cannot hear the Minister. That is bad behaviour and it is bad for the way in which we do things in here, especially on a day when we have had a very well-constructed and conducted debate.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Given the focus of the BDS campaign on Israel, we are simply saying in this clause that, for Israel to be exempted from the legislation, it will require primary legislation. I want to make that very clear. This policy does not affect our foreign policy position. We are not legislating for the UK’s foreign policy on Israel or on any other country in the Bill. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure a consistent approach to foreign policy across our public bodies, led by the UK Government. The Bill will not prevent the UK Government from imposing sanctions, or otherwise changing our foreign policy on any country in future.
I stress that none of the provisions in the Bill changes the UK’s position on Israeli settlements in the west bank and the Golan Heights. We are continuing to urge Israel not to take steps that move us away from our shared goals of peace and security. We support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and a just, fair and realistic settlement for refugees.
Furthermore, our position on settlements is clear: they are illegal under international law; present an obstacle to peace; and threaten the physical viability of a two-state solution. Our position is reflected in our continued support for UN Security Council resolution 2334, with which the Bill is compliant.
What the Minister says is not really what is reflected in the Bill because a specific exemption is given not just to Israel, in what should be a country-agnostic Bill—just like our manifesto commitment—but to two parts of Israel which we do not recognise as part of Israel under international law. Therefore, there is specifically an exemption for Israel. Does she agree—the Secretary of State said earlier that he would listen very carefully to suggested amendments—that this is something that needs to be worked on during the Bill Committee?
UN Security Council resolution 2334 asks countries to differentiate between Israel and the occupied territories. We have done that in this clause; they are clearly separated out in different paragraphs. However, as the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, we are open to any discussions on the Bill and of course we want the best legislation here.
My hon. Friend knows the incredibly high esteem I hold her in, but it just is not credible to keep repeating that this does not change how we treat the Golan Heights, which have been annexed, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Foreign Office’s own legal advice states that the Bill could breach UNSC 2334. How am I being told repeatedly from the Dispatch Box that that is not the case, when that is what Government lawyers are saying themselves? We have a responsibility to uphold that resolution. We drafted this legislation and therefore we need to remove clause 3(7). We on these Back Benches have offered a landing platform to the Government: “Remove that clause. You can still do this.” But please do not repeat that this does not change anything when the Government lawyers themselves say it does.
The Government’s view is that the Bill is compliant with UN Security Council resolution 2334.
I move on to the reasoned amendment, which rightly recognises the impact that boycotts and divestment campaigns can have on undermining community cohesion. The Government, however, are resisting the amendment on the basis that this legislation is a robust and proportionate means of stopping public bodies engaging in divisive campaigns and of fulfilling our 2019 manifesto commitment. The amendment refers specifically to the Uyghur Muslims. This Government are concerned about the issue of Uyghur forced labour in supply chains and are taking robust action. The exceptions in this Bill, alongside the exclusion grounds in the Procurement Bill, will keep suppliers involved in labour market misconduct, including human trafficking and modern slavery, no matter where they are in the world, out of public sector supply chains.
We have already discussed the point on the occupied territories and the Golan Heights. The amendment claims that this Bill limits freedom of speech, but that is not the case. Private individuals and bodies are not affected by the legislation. The right to freedom of speech is protected by article 10 of the European convention on human rights and the Government remain strongly committed to the UK’s long and proud tradition of freedom of speech.
The amendment also criticises the powers given to the Secretary of State to enforce this ban. Far from being the unprecedented powers claimed, they are modelled on existing powers of regulators such as the Office for Students and the Pensions Regulator. It would simply not be logical to impose a ban with a toothless enforcement regime.
This legislation delivers an important manifesto commitment. It will ensure that the UK has a consistent foreign policy approach and speaks with one voice internationally. I look forward to working with hon. Members throughout the Bill’s passage to deliver this important legislation and to continuing engagement on the issues that hon. Members have raised in the House today. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 62(2)), That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Bill read a Second time.
Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill:
(1) The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
(2) Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 14 September 2023.
(3) The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
(4) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
(5) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
(6) Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
(7) Any other proceedings on the Bill may be programmed.—(Scott Mann.)
Question agreed to.
Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill (money)
King’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of:
(a) any expenditure incurred under the Act by the Secretary of State or by the Treasury; and
(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable under or by virtue of any other Act out of money so provided.—(Scott Mann.)
Question agreed to.