The Boycott Bill: ‘another pernicious piece of legislation’—Lord Hain

26 February 2024

By Tim Llewellyn

Two Balfour Project patrons, Lord Hain and the Lord Bishop of Southwark, the Right Reverend Christopher Chessun, spoke in the Lords on Tuesday 20 Feb, in opposition to the so-called Gove Boycott Bill, which was having its Second Reading in the House of Lords.

The Bill, which the Balfour Project opposes, was introduced into Parliament last June by the Minister for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, and its full title is the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill. It would, if passed, effectively prevent local councils, universities, pension funds and other local bodies from disinvesting for ethical reasons in Israel or Israeli settlement projects. In a piece for our website, BP Trustee Richard Burden, wrote that “if passed, the Bill will drive a coach and horses through Britain’s compliance with Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights published by the United Nations to which the United Kingdom signed up over a decade ago.”

The Bill started its journey through Parliament some four months before the 7 Oct, 2023, attack into Israel by Hamas and Israel’s ensuing aerial bombing and ground campaign against Gaza and its largely Palestinian refugee population. If anything, in light of these events, opposition to this Bill can only have increased, outside Parliament if not inside it.

A delay to the Bill in the House of Lords would certainly help opponents to it see time run out for its Parliamentary progress into law.

In Tuesday’s debate, Lord (Peter) Hain, himself the leading activist 40 years ago in the UK of the campaign against apartheid South Africa, called the Gove Bill “another pernicious piece of legislation attacking the freedom to protest against injustice and oppression except when the Government approve.”

He went on: “It is abolishing the right of British citizens to make their own choice [preventing public bodies making their own ethical choices about spending or investment]…Tory Ministers…want to ban even those advocating boycotts of Israeli products from settlers in the West Bank who have stolen Palestinian land in flagrant breach of international law.”

“The Bill,” said Lord Hain, “ violates UN Security Council Resolution 2334 [23 Dec 2016], which the UK voted for and which declares Israeli settlements…legally invalid and a clear violation of international law.”

He said the Conservatives had “previous form on authoritarian repression of such ethical boycotts,” Mrs Thatcher having tried in 1988 to apply similar measures against local authorities boycotting goods from apartheid South Africa and withdrawing investments there. That legislation did not work as the apartheid regime was collapsing.

The Lord Bishop of Southwark asked the House to remember that action against the South African apartheid state would not have been possible if such a Bill as the one under discussion had been in force. The controversy about disinvestment in South Africa “was at the level of argument, not statutory prohibition.”

He went on: “It is also deeply worrying that territory illegally occupied by [Israel] is treated identically in the Bill, as if it is the sovereign territory of that state.” The Bishop said he endorsed what the Minister [Michael Gove] had said “about the need to eradicate anti-Semitism, but have the Government heard the concerns of bona fide Jewish bodies?”

He cited a motion passed unanimously by the most recent conference of the Union of Jewish Students, which represents 9,000 Jewish students, in December, 2023, which stated, inter alia: “UJS reaffirms its support for the democratic right to non-violently protest and opposes the Government’s proposed Boycott Bill which is a curtailment of that right, as well as presenting a risk to British Jewish communities and a setback to Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

Tim Llewellyn is a member of the Balfour Project Executive Committee and editor of the BP website

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