Thank you for contacting me about boycotts by public institutions.
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. I am 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. It is also not right for local authorities and public bodies to waste time and resources when they have key responsibilities to prioritise.
I want to be clear that the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will not restrict individuals’ right to freedom of speech. Nor will it apply to private organisations, except if they are exercising public functions. The Bill will extend to public institutions (as defined in the Human Rights Act 1998) only. To quote the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, the Bill does not prevent any individual from articulating their support for the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, or indeed any particular policy that the BDS campaign puts forward. It simply prevents public bodies and public money being used to advance that case. I believe this is only right given that the BDS campaign is explicitly and regrettably antisemitic.
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 Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill includes powers to exclude a particular country or territory from the ban on boycotts. This would be enacted through secondary legislation. I understand that the Government intends to use these powers to exempt Russia and Belarus from the ban. Ministers have clarified that the purpose of Clause 3(7) of the Bill is simply to ensure that, given that the BDS campaign has focused on Israel specifically, primary legislation would be required in order for Israel to be exempted from the Economic Activity of Public Bodies Bill. The Bill is not intended to legislate for the UK’s foreign policy on Israel or on any other country. Indeed, the Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Felicity Buchan, has stated that the Bill "will not prevent the UK Government from imposing sanctions, or otherwise changing our foreign policy on any country in future."
I note that during the Bill's Second Reading, the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, pointed to evidence given before the Supreme Court in 2020 which highlighted a pattern of antisemitic behaviour in connection with campaigns promoting a boycott of Israel. If you would like to, you can read the Secretary of State's speech in full here: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2023-07-03/debates/CF82F174-BC12-….
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.
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.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Craig Whittaker MP