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Welsh Government Throws Down the Gauntlet in Bid to Stop Controversial ‘Anti-Boycott’ Bill

Opponents of the bill say it is designed to undermine the freedom of speech of those critical of the Israeli Government

Children in the ruins of demolished Palestinian homes in the South Hebron heights in 2020. Photo: B’Tselem

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The Welsh Government has joined the Scottish Government in attempting to block Westminster’s so-called ‘anti-boycott’ bill, branding it a threat to devolution.

Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has welcomed the announcement by the Welsh Government that it is formally opposing the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, known as the ‘anti-boycott bill’ and recommending that the Senedd withhold its consent. 

This decision by the Welsh Labour Government is the latest blow to Michael Gove’s anti-boycott bill, following the Scottish Government’s decision to formally oppose it in August.

Opposition has been growing across the political spectrum amid a campaign by more than 70 civil society organisations including the Trades Union Congress, Amnesty UK and Liberty. 

Welsh Senedd members, including Labour first minister Mark Drakeford, were lobbied to oppose the bill as an “attack on freedom of expression” and the right of devolved administrations and public bodies to make their own ethical decisions around investment and procurement.

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The bill has been criticised for effectively barring councils from supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against alleged human-rights abusers – including Israel for its occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. The legislation is also likely to affect boycotts of authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. 

The bill faces an uphill struggle to be passed in time for the closure of this session’s parliamentary business before the King’s Speech in November. 

This month, the TUC passed a motion at its annual congress, announcing opposition to the bill from the trade union movement and the 5.5 million workers it represents. 

Rebecca Evans, Welsh Minister for Finance and Local Government, said in her memorandum to the Senedd: “I cannot recommend consent is given whilst questions remain as to the compatibility of this Bill with convention rights and international law. 

“In addition, I note that there has been widespread criticism of this Bill from amongst the legal and academic community, in relation to the way it has been drafted and how it is intended to operate in practice. I share those concerns.” 

Ben Jamal, Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK (PSC), said in a statement: “This principled decision by the Welsh Government is the latest blow to this pernicious bill. The Welsh Government has rightly identified the incompatibility of the anti-boycott bill with conventions of rights and international law.

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“This decision will add further weight to the growing opposition to this Bill – in the UK Parliament, Scottish government, across civil society and amongst the general public.  We urge all of those who recognise the threat the anti-boycott bill poses to democratic freedoms to ramp up the pressure on MPs to ensure it is defeated when it goes back to Parliament for its next reading.” 

Those opposing the bill include Liberty, Unison, Unite the Union, University and College Union, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace UK, Muslim Association of Britain, Methodist Church in Britain, and Campaign Against Arms Trade. 

The Welsh and Scottish Governments cannot block the legislation but it is seen as semi-unconstitutional to overrule devolved parliaments when they withhold legislative consent.

Over 18,000 people have signed a 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.

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 earlier this month.

A Government source told Byline Times this month that ministers were fully committed to the legislation.

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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