I completely appreciate the complexity of views regarding this issue and share my constituents' deep concerns about the ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel. I extend my sincere sympathies to those who have lost loved ones on both sides and I would like to assure constituents that the Foreign Office is constantly working with their counterparts in the region to bring an end to the violence.
The UK Government maintains its absolute commitment to a two-state solution - to echo the words of the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, the Economic Activity of Public Bodies Bill enables the UK Government to speak with one voice on behalf of the entire United Kingdom in our determination to secure a two-state solution, however distant that prospect may seem at the moment.
Like my colleague, I believe it is vital that the United Kingdom speaks with one voice internationally, and public bodies running their own foreign policies risks undermining our foreign diplomacy. I am also deeply concerned that local-level boycotts can pit communities against one another and damage community cohesion. In particular, in the case of boycotts against businesses and organisations affiliated with Israel, there has been a horrific rise in anti-Semitic rhetoric and abuse which I believe must be stamped out.
Equally, it is not right for local authorities and public bodies to waste time and resources when they have key responsibilities to prioritise. The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will stop public bodies pursuing their own foreign policy agenda, including with public money, through divisive boycotts, divestment and sanctions campaigns.
I want to be clear this Bill will not restrict individuals’ right to freedom of speech. Nor will it apply to private organisations, except if they are exercising public functions. The Bill will extend to public institutions (as defined in the Human Rights Act 1998) only. It does not prevent any individual from articulating their support for the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, or indeed any particular policy that the BDS campaign puts forward. It simply prevents public bodies and public money being used to advance that case. I believe this is only right given that the BDS campaign is explicitly and regrettably anti-Semitic.
The UK has a well-established sanctions policy which remains in place. Ministers have been clear that organisations with links to Russia and Belarus will still be prevented from benefitting from taxpayers’ money with councils able to terminate existing contracts with those linked to Putin’s war machine. The Secretary of State has also provided assurance that the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will not hinder the action the UK Government is taking to support the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.
Ministers have clarified that the purpose of Clause 3(7) of the Bill is simply to ensure that, given that the BDS campaign has focused on Israel specifically, primary legislation would be required in order for Israel to be exempted from the Economic Activity of Public Bodies Bill. The Bill is not intended to legislate for the UK’s foreign policy on Israel or on any other country. Indeed, the Minister for Housing and Homelessness, Felicity Buchan, has stated that the Bill "will not prevent the UK Government from imposing sanctions, or otherwise changing our foreign policy on any country in future." I hope this provides you with some assurance.
Foreign policy is rightly the reserve of national government; I believe it cannot be right for public institutions to have the power to make divisive decisions which set different parts of the community against each other.