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The Government’s controversial anti-boycott bill returns to Parliament next week amid growing opposition.
The bill is about to enter its Committee stage in Parliament, having passed its second reading in the Commons but facing widespread, cross-party criticism. The Scottish government has formally announced its opposition to the bill and pressure is reportedly growing on the Welsh government to do the same.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and a delegation of civil society groups handed in a petition at 10 Downing Street on Thursday, calling on Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to scrap the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) bill, or anti-boycott bill.
Campaigners say the legislation aims to prevent public bodies – including local councils, universities, and public sector pension funds – from deciding how to spend, invest and trade ethically, in line with international law and human rights.
It is particularly targeted at council-led boycotts of companies operating in occupied Palestinian territories or in Israel – but it is also likely to affect boycotts of authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
Nearly 18,000 people have signed the petition in support of the right to boycott, highlighting the history of boycott and divestment campaigns as a means to campaign peacefully for progressive change in this country and around the world, and calling on MPs to reject the bill.
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A delegation led by PSC and representing more than 70 civil society groups visited Downing Street to hand in a petition signed by thousands of people opposed to the government’s anti-boycott bill on Thursday.
The delegation to Downing Street comprised PSC Director, Ben Jamal, Director of War on Want, Asad Rehman, Clare Baker from Unite the Union, and Grace Da Costa from Quakers in Britain.
A coalition of more than 70 civil society organisations – including trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, and solidarity groups – have stated that the bill will stifle a wide range of campaigns for justice, erode local democracy, and present a threat to freedom of expression.
The main provision in the Bill (Clause 1) is a prohibition on public bodies being influenced by “political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct” when taking procurement and investment decisions. Exemptions are provided for certain matters arising from bribery, labour-related misconduct, environmental misconduct and the UK’s international law obligations.”
Amnesty International argues the Bill undermines human rights in several key ways:
- The human rights group says 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
- Companies depending on public contracts will feel “more confident” that their global impacts on human rights and the environment will be “irrelevant to their success” in tendering processes, Amnesty argues
- Businesses making an effort to adhere to global standards such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights may “find themselves at a competitive disadvantage”
- It “undermines the freedom of expression of public sector decision-makers” who may find that statements of principle are illegal and punishable even if they are not reflected in their public body’s decisions
- It uniquely “privileges one State, Israel, at a time when Israeli authorities continue to flagrantly breach international law”, including through imposing what Amnesty calls a “system of apartheid” on Palestinians
- It conflicts with the UK’s long-standing policy to “differentiate between Israel’s internationally recognised borders and the Occupied Palestinian Territories”, which the UK doesn’t recognise as part of Israel.
- It undermines the attempts of the UK’s devolved governments to “integrate human rights into their procurement policies”
Amnesty argues that the proposed law would hinder public bodies from addressing human rights abuses in their supply chains, as any attempt to do so would risk being challenged for reflecting “political or moral disapproval of a foreign state.
A spokesperson for the group said: “If NHS bodies took steps to avoid sourcing surgical equipment and rubber gloves from certain suppliers in Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan and Mexico that have been implicated in modern slavery, then the companies concerned could take legal action under this law on grounds that the decision makers were influenced by “political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.
“It would be left to the courts to determine whether the exemption in the Bill for ‘labour-related misconduct’ applies in a particular case. The same would hold for a public body excluding a tenderer who sources goods from the Xinjiang region of China. If challenged, the onus would be on the public body to prove that their decision was determined entirely by international law and labour-related considerations rather than “disapproval of foreign state conduct”. This is an almost impossibly high bar to meet.”
Amnesty believes this creates a significant risk for any public sector body looking to take such a decision. “It would encourage them to desist from such decisions at a time when the role of public purchasing in leveraging ethical business conduct is widely viewed as an important driver of change”, the non-profit group says.
Handing in the petition on Thursday, Ben Jamal, Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK (PSC), said: “The huge response to this petition reflects widespread alarm across whole swathes of progressive civil society that the anti-boycott bill represents a major attack on freedom of expression.
“Opposition to this bill is growing because it threatens, not just the ability of public bodies to take part in boycott and divestment campaigns in support of Palestinian rights, but all those who seek change through peaceful and democratic means.”
A coalition of campaigners have launched Right to Boycott to oppose the bill. Critics of the bill include PSC, Liberty, Unison, Unite the Union, University and College Union, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace UK, War on Want, Muslim Association of Britain, Methodist Church in Britain, Quakers in Britain and Campaign Against Arms Trade.
A Government source said ministers were fully committed to the legislation. It returns for committee stage scrutiny on Tuesday, before progressing further on Thursday. The intention is to push the legislation through before the end of the parliamentary session in November – but it faces a tough battle against time.
Announcing the bill earlier this year, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove said: “It is simply wrong that public bodies have been wasting taxpayers’ time and money pursuing their own foreign policy agenda. The UK must have a consistent approach to foreign policy, set by the UK Government.
“These campaigns not only undermine the UK’s foreign policy but lead to appalling antisemitic rhetoric and abuse. That is why we have taken this decisive action to stop these disruptive policies once and for all.
“My message to these organisations is to get on with your job and focus on delivering for the public.”
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