Many constituents have written to me about the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill – or Boycott Bill as it has become known – and last night I spoke in the Second Reading debate in the Commons setting out my opposition to the Bill.

You can read my speech below and can read Lisa Nandy’s speech here in which she set out Labour’s opposition to the Bill, as our Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing, Communities & Local Government.


“ This is an ill-judged and unnecessary attack on local democracy — unnecessary not least because of the provisions of the Local Government Act 1988, which, alongside the notorious clause 28 prohibiting local authorities from “promotion of homosexuality”, also banned non-commercial consideration on contracts on the basis of “the country or territory of origin.” That remains in place, so the Secretary of State has law to refer to, without needing to bring forward this Bill, if there are the problems he describes.

That legislation was a response by the Thatcher Government to a campaign co-ordinated by Sheffield City Council. We were the first council in 1981, under the leadership of David Blunkett, to pledge to end all links with apartheid. Many others followed, and in 1983 we set up Local Authorities Against Apartheid, developing a network of around 120 councils taking action—action that was subsequently praised by Nelson Mandela after his release for its contribution to ending apartheid.

As someone who was in the leadership of the anti-apartheid movement for 20 years, I do not accept the application of the term apartheid to Israel, although I have to say that, if the policy trajectory of the current Israeli Government continues in the way it has, that comparison will be increasingly difficult to resist. My point about the action that we organised is that it demonstrates the long history of local authority action over human rights, which is something we should be proud of, and of local politicians responding to local concerns, whether about South Africa 40 years ago or about China today.

Clause 3 will enable action to be taken where dispensation is given—by the whim of the Secretary of State, not even by Parliament. However, that highlights the exception provided in clause 3(7) in relation to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights.

I want to be clear that I do not support the BDS campaign against Israel. I do think that we should long ago have taken action on economic engagement with the illegal settlements, to match our words with positive measures, and it is extraordinary that this Bill prevents public bodies from implementing the Government’s own advice to business not to trade with the illegal settlements. However, for those of us who do not support BDS, that does not mean we should support banning it, and much of Israeli society would agree.

I am grateful to Yachad, which many colleagues will know is a significant voice within the mainstream British Jewish community, campaigning for a political resolution in which Israel thrives alongside a viable and independent Palestinian state. In its briefing on this Bill, it drew parallels with the debate in Israel on its own anti-boycott law in 2011, in which Tzipi Livni, then Leader of the Opposition in the Knesset and previously Foreign Secretary, said: “I disagree with those that demand boycotts, but I will fight for their right to express their views.” Dan Meridor of Likud, then Deputy Prime Minister, said: “I oppose boycotts, but they should not be illegal.” Ruvi Rivlin, then Leader of the Knesset and subsequently President of Israel, slammed the law for “turning freedom of speech into a civil injustice.”

The Government argue that this Bill is necessary in opposing antisemitism, but, as others have said, there are important voices within the Jewish community who disagree. As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Students, I have worked closely with the leadership of the National Union of Students in challenging antisemitism within its own organisation, and on every step of that journey I have liaised with the Union of Jewish Students. Nobody will question the UJS’s credentials as a robust opponent of antisemitism. At its annual conference recently, UJS unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming its opposition to BDS, but rejecting any attempt to outlaw it. One of those involved in that motion wrote recently in The Times:

“Using legislation to outlaw BDS will do nothing in the fight against antisemitism… We may disagree with the BDS movement—we may even think that there are some people who support the BDS movement who are motivated by antisemitism—but the tactics of boycott, divestment, and sanctions are non-violent and legitimate.”

The Secretary of State has argued that it is his responsibility to bring forward this legislation in the context of the Government’s manifesto commitment. I am conscious of the fact that the Government have fairly casually disregarded manifesto commitments in the past, but even if that were his justification, he should recognise that things have changed enormously since 2019. The new extremist Israeli Government are moving from de facto to de jure annexation of the occupied territories. Illegal settlements have been legalised and many more are planned, with the responsibility for them given to a far-right Minister who denies the existence of the Palestinian people and has been condemned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

Today, we have seen the massive Israeli attack on Jenin, and not the first; it follows months of raids across the west bank and on Nablus. Across the West Bank, settler attacks—killing and injuring Palestinians, torching their homes, their businesses and their cars—are being encouraged by the Israeli Government and those responsible are going unpunished. All that is designed to end the prospect of a viable Palestinian state and frustrate attempts to secure a just settlement.

Those Israeli civil society voices who support our ambition for a two-state solution have made it clear that there could not be a worse time for the UK to send a signal that we see the occupied territories as part of Israel in the way that this Bill is framed.

We should not do it. I urge the Government to think again.”

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