Israel boycott ban: Shunning Israeli goods to become criminal offence for public bodies and student unions
Critics say move amounts to a 'gross attack on democratic freedoms'
Local councils, public bodies and even some university student unions are to be banned by law from boycotting “unethical” companies, as part of a controversial crackdown being announced by the Government.
Under the plan all publicly funded institutions will lose the freedom to refuse to buy goods and services from companies involved in the arms trade, fossil fuels, tobacco products or Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Any public bodies that continue to pursue boycotts will face “severe penalties”, ministers said.
But critics said the move amounted to a “gross attack on democratic freedoms”.
A spokesman for the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “The Government’s decision to ban councils and other public bodies from divesting from trade or investments they regard as unethical is an attack on local democracy.
“People have the right to elect local representatives able to make decisions free of central government political control. That includes withdrawal of investments or procurement on ethical and human rights grounds.
“This Government’s ban would have outlawed council action against apartheid South Africa. Ministers talk about devolution, but in practice they’re imposing Conservative Party policies on elected local councils across the board.”
Significantly, and underlining the main target of the ban, the formal announcement will be made by the Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock when he visits Israel this week.
Israeli companies, along with other firms which have investments in the occupied West Bank, have been among those targeted by unofficial boycotts in the past.
In 2014 Leicester City Council passed a policy to boycott goods produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank while the Scottish Government published a procurement notice to Scottish councils which “strongly discourages trade and investment from illegal settlements”.
Under the new rules all contracting authorities including local councils, quangos and universities which receive the majority of their funding from the Government will lose the freedom to take ethical decisions about whom they purchase goods and services from. The only exemption will be UK-wide sanctions decided by the Government in Westminster. Government sources said the ban could also apply to student union boycotts but added this was a “grey area”.
A spokeswoman for the National Union of Students said they were “concerned by any external pressure that could prevent student unions taking decisions on any issue that affects the students they represent.”
Mr Hancock said the current position where local authorities had autonomy to make ethical purchasing decisions was “undermining” Britain’s national security.
“We need to challenge and prevent these divisive town-hall boycotts,” he said.
“The new guidance on procurement combined with changes we are making to how pension pots can be invested will help prevent damaging and counter-productive local foreign policies undermining our national security.”
But Amnesty International’s UK economic relations programme director Peter Frankental condemned the move, warning it could encourage human rights violations. The Conservatives have been accused of turning a blind eye to Israeli human rights abuses in the past.
“All public bodies should assess the social and environment impacts of any company with whom they choose to enter into business relationships,” he said.
“Where’s the incentive for companies to ensure there are no human rights violations such as slavery in their supply chains, when public bodies cannot hold them to account by refusing to award them contracts?
“Not only would it be a bad reflection on public bodies to contract with rogue companies, but it would also be bad for responsible businesses that are at risk of being undercut by those that have poor practices.”
Hugh Lanning, chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, condemned this move as “a gross attack on our democratic freedoms and the independence of public bodies from Government interference”. “As if it is not enough that the UK Government has failed to act when the Israeli government has bombed and killed thousands of Palestinian civilians and stolen their homes and land, the Government is now trying to impose its inaction on all other public bodies,” he said.