The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will stop public bodies pursuing their own foreign policy agenda, including with public money, through divisive boycotts, divestment and sanctions campaigns.
I believe that the United Kingdom must speak with one voice internationally, and public bodies running their own foreign policies risks undermining our foreign diplomacy. It is not right for local authorities and public bodies to waste time and resources when they have key responsibilities to prioritise. I am also concerned that local level boycotts can pit communities against one another and damage community cohesion. In particular, in the case of boycotts against businesses and organisations affiliated with Israel, there has been a horrific rise in antisemitic rhetoric and abuse which I believe must be stamped out.
I want to be clear that the proposed legislation would not restrict individuals’ right to freedom of speech. Nor will it apply to private organisations, where they are not carrying out public functions. The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will extend to public institutions (as defined in the Human Rights Act 1998) only.
The UK has a well-established sanctions policy which remains in place. Ministers have been clear that organisations with links to Russia and Belarus will still be prevented from benefitting from taxpayers’ money with councils able to terminate existing contracts with those linked to Putin’s war machine.
The UK’s 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. The UK regularly raises its concerns on this issue with the Israeli authorities and urges them to reverse their policy of settlement expansion. However, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is deeply complex: settlements are not the only obstacle to peace. The people of Israel deserve to live free from the scourge of terrorism and antisemitic incitement, which gravely undermine the prospects for a two-state solution.
While the UK should not hesitate to express disagreement with Israel wherever necessary, I know Ministers believe that imposing sanctions on Israel or supporting anti-Israeli boycotts would not support efforts to progress the peace process and achieve a negotiated solution. I share these concerns and completely agree.
The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has provided assurance that the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will not hinder the action the UK Government is taking to support the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. The Bill includes exceptions to the ban in order to deal with serious issues in supply chains. The ban will not apply to decisions made by relevant public bodies on the basis of consideration of financial and practical matters, national security, international law, bribery, labour-related misconduct, competition law infringements or environmental misconduct. There is also a power in the Bill which will allow the Government with the agreement of Parliament to permit action against a specific country or territory which supports the UK’s foreign policy.
The Bill will apply to the UK as boycotts and divestments against foreign countries and territories are foreign policy and therefore a reserved matter. I have been assured that the UK Government is engaging closely with the devolved administrations.
Foreign policy is rightly the reserve of national government. I believe it cannot be right for public institutions to have the power to make divisive decisions which set different parts of the community against each other.