What happened: The Government will introduce new laws to make it illegal for UK public bodies to conduct their own foreign policy, including boycotts and divestment of Israel.
- The new law was announced in the Queen’s Speech on 19 December and the Government said the new measures: “Will stop public institutions from imposing their own approach or views about international relations, through preventing boycotts, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries and those who trade with them.”
- The scope incudes: “institutions across the public sector, not just councils” which suggests it may also cover universities and colleges, but it won’t apply in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland as these matters are handled by their devolved administrations.
- Speaking in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said yesterday: “One innovation that this Queen’s Speech introduces, is that we will stop public bodies from taking it upon themselves to boycott goods from other countries, to develop their own pseudo foreign policy against countries, which with nauseating frequency turns out to be Israel.”
- The Government believes the legislation is important to prevent community cohesion being undermined by councils trying to adopt boycotts against Israel , which it believes has legitimised antisemitism and harassment of Jewish communities for example: leading to kosher food being removed from supermarket shelves, Jewish films being removed from film festivals and Jewish university societies being threatened with bans.
- BICOM CEO James Sorene said: “We welcome the Government’s proposal to stop public bodies introducing boycotts against foreign countries. The movement to boycott Israel is tainted by a leadership and narrative that legitimises violence and believes Israel should cease to exist. Too often its activists in the UK have deployed their extremist politics to create a dangerous and hostile environment for Jewish people. It is right and proper that we have a vigorous and productive debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Britain. There are many charities and NGOs doing brilliant work to promote dialogue and work towards a peaceful end to the conflict, but there can be no excuse for harassment, violence and racism.”
Context: The new legislation builds on two Government measures in 2016.
- In February 2016, the Government published guidance to public bodies that made clear that procurement boycotts by public authorities are inappropriate, outside where formal legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions have been put in place by the Government. It said that discrimination on the basis of nationality against suppliers from EU member states or signatory states of the WTO Government Procurement Agreement – of which Israel is a signatory – is illegal.
- Even prior to this guidance there is no example of a council ever having implemented a procurement boycott as such moves were already illegal under Local Government Act 1988, section 17(1), and European Union legislation on public contracts.
- In September 2016 a second piece of guidance was issued concerning investment by Local Government Pension Schemes (LGPS). This gave the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government the power to prohibit councils from using their “pension policies to pursue boycotts, divestment and sanctions against foreign nations and UK defence industries”, except in cases where the government itself has put in place “formal legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions”.
- The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) brought a judicial review case against the regulations. In June 2017, the High Court found in favour of the PSC’s case, ruling that the government had acted improperly by seeking to use pension law to pursue its own foreign and defence policy. Following an appeal by the government, the Court of Appeal overturned the original ruling in May 2018, stating the government’s action “fell within the powers conferred by the legislation.” A PSC appeal to the Supreme Court was heard on 20 November 2019 and a judgement is expected next year.