Press release from Britain-Palestine APPG

This press release follows the UK Government’s announcement that it would ban local authorities and other publicly financed bodies from boycotts, including those of illegal Israeli settlement goods.

22/2/2016

Richard Burden MP blasts Ministers for ducking Parliamentary Scrutiny of “Anti –Boycott rules”

Richard Burden MP, Chair of Britain-Palestine All-Party Group has today accused Cabinet Office Minister Matthew Hancock of trying to duck Parliamentary Scrutiny for new restrictions on public sector procurement and ethical investment decisions, stating last week’s announcement should have been made to MPs, rather than on a visit in Israel.

Mr Burden said today:

This all started last October at the Conservative Party Conference, when Matt Hancock issued a press release outlining the Government’s intention “to stop politically-motivated boycott and divestment campaigns by town halls against UK defence companies and against Israel.”

Most of the examples given by Ministers at the time of what they had in their sights however, were not  boycotts of Israel as a nation but rather responses to illegal actions by Israel in the Occupied territories –  for example settlement building in the West Bank. This even seemed to fly in the case of the Foreign Office’s own advice to business which warns of the risks associated with trade relationships with Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Foreign Office and Department for International Development seemed to be facing one way while the Cabinet office seemed to be heading off in the opposite direction.

Ever since then I have been trying to find out what is going on. I have tabled several written questions about prospects for parliamentary scrutiny on both issues, and information was not forthcoming – until Matt Hancock announced his intentions on procurement guidance in Israel earlier this week.

 It is still not clear what the Minister’s announcement in Israel actually means. One message coming out of the Government is that it simply repeats existing rules regarding discrimination on the grounds of nationality against other WTO members. However, if that is the limit of what the Government is intending, why have they made such a song and dance about it on the international stage?

 And if that is all that Ministers are saying, how do they square that with their attacks on decisions by councils or others which seek not to boycott Israel but to sever connections with illegal settlements in the West Bank and other breaches of the 4th Geneva Convention? There is nothing about those kinds of decisions by councils that breaches WTO rules.

 So, it is vital that Ministers urgently clarify its intentions when Parliament returns on Monday. That is why it is particularly worrying that last week’s announcement was made in Israel rather than in the House of Commons either before or after the current recess.

 The danger is, of course, that with so much uncertainty surrounding the actual meaning of what the Government is doing – both in respect of pension funds and procurement policies – Councils and other public sector institutions could be deterred from taking ethical investment and procurement decisions in general. That could certainly include decisions in response to Israel’s actions in the occupied territories but it could go a lot further.

 A wide range of individuals and organisations have expressed concern about these proposals – including those campaigning for Council and pension fund divestment from fossil fuel and tobacco, and those working to promote fair trade principles. Would the kind of thing Ministers are suggesting today have ruled out Councils from divesting from companies involved in South Africa during the Apartheid era? Who knows?

 Ethical investment decisions are often seen as good business practice in the private sector. For local councils, it can be particularly important to community cohesion for procurement and investment decisions to contain ethical dimensions.

 Ministers have a duty to explain to Parliament why their new rules mean, and to come clean about why they are doing this.

————-ENDS ————–

NOTES

  1. “Government to stop ‘divisive’ town hall boycotts & sanctions” | Conservative Party Press Release, October 2015: https://www.scribd.com/doc/290041998/Government-to-stop-divisive-town-hall-boycotts-sanctions.
  2. These proposals contradict current Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice, “Overseas Business Risk — the Occupied Palestinian Territories”, 14/7/2015, which states: “Settlements are illegal under international law . . . There are therefore clear risks related to economic and financial activities in the settlements, and we do not encourage or offer support to such activity.” See here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/overseas-business-risk-palestinian-territories/overseas-business-risk-the-occupied-palestinian-territories
  1. The International Development Secretary reinforced the position of following Foreign Office advice following a question during oral questions on 16 December 2015: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm151216/debtext/151216-0001.htm#151216-0001.htm_spnew5:

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): Surely the Secretary of State will be aware of the guidance on the Foreign Office website, which warns UK companies thinking of investing in the Occupied Palestinian Territories of the “legal and economic risks” if they engage in “financial transactions, investments, purchases, procurements and other economic activities in Israeli settlements or benefitting Israeli settlements” because of the illegal nature of those settlements and their being an obstacle to peace.

Does the right hon. Lady therefore agree that it is perfectly reasonable for both public and private institutions to pay due regard to that advice when they make their own investment and procurement decisions.

Justine Greening: They should do that; that is good Foreign Office advice. We have been very clear that we deplore illegal settlements, because they take us further away from a two-state solution and peace in that part of the world, when we need to be taking what could be final steps and final chances to reach a two-state solution.

  1. Richard Burden MP received the following answers to written PQs recently:
  2. On pension changes: http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2016-01-27/24476/
  3. On procurement changes: http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-question/Commons/2016-01-27/24475/
  4. During Business Questions on 28 January, Shadow Leader of the House, Chris Bryant MP, also raised the importance of parliamentary scrutiny on the issue, to which Leader of the House, Chris Grayling did not acknowledge in his response.

CB: “… concerns the Government saying they want to stop councils making ethical pensions and procurement decisions. They want to amend the Local Government Pension Scheme (Management and Investment of Funds Regulations) 2009 and publish a revised Cabinet Office procurement policy note. I believe that this constitutes a major curtailment of local authorities’ power to act. Can the Leader of the House guarantee that the changes will be subjected to proper scrutiny? That means a debate and vote on the Floor of the House on any changes in the pensions regulations, and a separate debate and vote on the procurement policy note.” See full Hansard transcript here: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm160128/debtext/160128-0002.htm#160128-0002.htm_spnew33

  1. “Putting a stop to public procurement boycotts” | Cabinet Office Press Release 17 February 2016; https://www.gov.uk/government/news/putting-a-stop-to-public-procurement-boycotts

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