Much Ado About What?

Evidence Submitted to House of Commons Committee on the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Public Bill, 5 September 2023

With a host of other pressing matters, domestic and foreign, already on its plate, puzzlingly the Sunak government has chosen to pursue a murky piece of legislation ponderously entitled the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. After its second reading in the House of Commons, the Bill is now going through its committee stage before returning to the House for its third, and final, reading. If approved by MPs – an uncertain outcome given the reservations many, from across the political spectrum, have expressed – the Bill will go to the House of Lords for its review, as constitutionally required. Among those who gave expert evidence this week about its likely consequences was the Balfour Project.

According to Government Ministers, the Bill seeks to prevent local authorities and other public bodies in the UK such as universities or pension funds from opining on foreign policy matters or, worse, taking ethical decisions that go against the policy of the government in London. It is also aimed at “preventing harm to intercommunal relations” in Britain. By this, the Government means not aggravating antisemitism. That is the give-away, as the real target is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which aims to exert pressure on Israel to change its policies towards the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

The use of non-violent tools to address wrongs and bring about change for the better has a long, distinguished history in our national life, dating back to the anti-slavery campaigns of the 18th and 19th centuries. Boycotts, divestment, and sanctions were central elements of the anti-Apartheid movement against South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. They are also used today by the UK and other states against Russia over Ukraine. So, the questions are: Why is Israel being singled out in this Bill as an exception to the rule? And why has the Government ignored alarm bells many are ringing about its likely effect on freedom of expression and on the health of local democracy in the UK, choosing to press ahead?

Among the issues our Chair, Andrew Whitley, raised in his oral evidence to the Committee was the fact that the conflation of Israel proper with the OPT and the occupied Syrian Golan Heights in the Bill seriously undermines the UK’s commitment to upholding international law. He added that it amends, through the backdoor, decades of bipartisan policy towards the conflict. Even if the likelihood of it being realised looks increasingly remote, the Two-State Solution with borders along the pre-1967 Green Line, adjusted by agreed land swaps, remains the UK’s often-stated policy. Whitley warned the Committee that passage of the Bill would aggravate already poor relations between Israel and the Palestinians and damage Britain’s standing in the region. While it would bring comfort to Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli right it would dismay the many Israelis of good conscience who are disturbed by the ongoing occupation; they see a clear connection between Netanyahu’s assault on Israeli democracy and the pernicious effect of the longstanding treatment of Palestinians by Israel.

To what end, is the abiding question for our government?

The Balfour Project fervently hopes MPs across the divide as well as members of the Lords will see sense and quietly bury this misbegotten piece of legislation in the coming weeks. Please feel free to send the Balfour Project memo to your MP, asking them to oppose the Bill at 3rd reading.

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