Amendment 15

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords am 6:30 pm ar 17 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Lord Hain:

Moved by Lord Hain

15: Clause 3, page 2, line 24, at end insert—“(2A) Regulations under subsection (2) may not amend the Schedule to remove environmental misconduct as an exception from the application of section 1.” Member's explanatory statementThis amendment seeks to ensure that the Secretary of State cannot remove environmental misconduct as an exception in the Schedule by regulations.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Llafur

My Lords, my Amendment 15 seeks to answer the question: what would happen if a public authority imposed a boycott campaign which related to Israel and arose as a result of environmental misconduct in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, illegal under international law?

Under the Bill’s Schedule, the Clause 1 prohibition on the consideration of moral or political disapproval is lifted, so far as that

“consideration … relates to environmental misconduct”.

This includes, according to the Schedule,

“consideration related to the possibility of environmental misconduct having taken place or taking place in the future”,

while the definition of environmental misconduct here

“means conduct that … amounts to an offence, whether under the law of a part of the United Kingdom or any other country or territory, and … caused, or had the potential to cause, significant harm to the environment, including the life and health of plants and animals”.

Surely such accusations of environmental misconduct should also apply to the State of Israel. There is credible evidence that Israel has engaged in such misconduct, particularly through the actions of the Israel Defense Forces, in its occupation and military actions.

In its military action in Gaza, there are serious questions to be raised about environmental misconduct. Dr Saeed Bagheri, scholar of international law at the University of Reading, stated of Israel in January this year that there may

“be evidence to suggest that they have acted contrary to the International Committee of the Red Cross … position that the prohibition on inflicting widespread, long-term and severe harm to the natural environment is a rule of customary international law”.

He added:

“The actions by the Israeli Defence Force in Gaza have left chemicals from white phosphorus weapons that could linger in the environment for years. This can have a long term impact on the soil, affecting the growth of crops, and in Gaza agriculture takes up about a quarter of land. For individual farmers and their communities, this pollution and its long-term impacts could be devastating”.

However, such questions far pre-date the current horror in Gaza. The Institute for Middle East Understanding has set out a long list of allegations of environmental misconduct. In its actions in the Occupied Territories, long-standing allegations against Israel have been made about the deliberate destruction of olive trees and olive orchards; at least 2.5 million trees have been destroyed since 1967, yet Palestinians depend on these trees as a primary source of food and income. The destruction of natural wildlife since October has been stark: a recent estimate states that around 4,300 acres of trees and plant life have been cleared around the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces, not to mention the complete devastation of the natural and built environment within the Gaza Strip.

What of Israel siphoning off water supplies from the Occupied Territories? This has caused a permanent drop in the West Bank’s water table and distorted water flows, damaging agriculture and increasing flood and drought vulnerability. In February this year, the IDF itself confirmed that it is dumping seawater into tunnels and waterways below Gaza, an act which the director-general of the Geneva Water Hub described as polluting and contaminating, and poisoning Gaza’s aquifer.

We also know that Israel discharges 52 million cubic yards of untreated sewage and other hazardous materials each year into the West Bank. The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories reported:

“Israel’s environmental policy in the West Bank—including situating polluting waste treatment facilities there—is part and parcel of the policy of dispossession and annexation it has practiced in the West Bank for the past fifty years.”

In the West Bank, and in contravention of the Geneva convention, Israel has appropriated most water sources for itself and restricts Palestinian access to them. Of course, this is not Israeli state or Israel Defense Forces activity alone; the administration of this occupation relies on a vast number of agencies and companies. Is it not reasonable for any public authority doing due diligence on environmental matters to prefer to disengage with any companies or agencies which are involved in such acts?

Many of these instances could feasibly fall foul of international law, such as Rome statute prohibitions on inflicting damage to the natural environment, Hague regulations provisions on natural resource use, and customary international humanitarian law principles on hostilities to the natural environment, to name a few. But the matter goes beyond the practical application of these examples raised. The question is also: can we exempt Israel and the Occupied Territories from the Schedule’s considerations without denying the very real possibility, now or in the future, of Israeli state or corporate environmental misconduct?

Israel’s human destruction of Gaza is being compounded by an environmental crisis. In Rafah, large family groups have been living cramped together with no running water or fuel, while surrounded by running sewage and waste piling up. Like the rest of Gaza’s residents, the air they breathe is heavy with pollutants and the water carries disease. Beyond the city streets lie ruined orchards and olive groves, and farmland destroyed by bombs and bulldozers. Forensic Architecture, a London-based research group, has shown how family farms close to Gaza’s border with Israel, cultivated for generations, have been destroyed, their orchards uprooted and replaced by military roads. Israel has suggested it could make this sort of thing permanent to create buffer zones along the border, where a lot of Palestinian farms are sited.

An analysis of satellite imagery, reported by the Guardian newspaper recently, showed the destruction of nearly half of Gaza’s tree cover and farmland—mainly because of the military onslaught by the Israel Defense Forces but also because, starved of fuel, desperate Gaza residents have cut down trees to burn for cooking or heating. Not only have olive groves and farms been reduced to rubble but soil and groundwater have been contaminated by munitions and toxins. The sea is full of sewage and waste. The air is polluted by smoke and particulates. The impact on Gaza’s ecosystems and biodiversity is colossal, leading to calls for it to be recognised as ecocide and investigated as a possible war crime.

United Nations environmental experts report massive amounts of debris and hazardous material in Gaza, with harmful substances such as asbestos, heavy metals, fire contaminants, unexploded ordnance and hazardous chemicals. When Israel cut off fuel to Gaza after the 7 October terrorist pogrom, power cuts meant that wastewater could not be pumped to treatment plants, leading to 100,000 cubic metres of sewage a day spewing into the sea. The sheer scale and long-term impact of all this environmental destruction has led to calls for it to be investigated as a potential war crime, and to be classed as ecocide, which covers damage done to the environment by deliberate or negligent actions.

Under the Rome statute, which governs the International Criminal Court, it is a war crime to intentionally launch an excessive attack knowing that it will cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment. The Geneva conventions require that warring parties do not use methods of warfare that cause

“widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment”.

Forensic Architecture argues that:

“The destruction of agricultural land and infrastructure in Gaza is a deliberate act of ecocide”.

I put Amendment 15 to your Lordships’ Committee with the intention of asking: how should a public authority act if it wishes to disengage with a company or enterprise which may be involved in acts such as these, which could amount to environmental misconduct under UK or international law, if that company is Israeli or if it engages in alleged misconduct overseen by the State of Israel?

The Bill is clear that the Schedule considerations override Clause 1 prohibitions on boycotts. However, it is not clear whether the Schedule also applies to Clause 3, which likewise overrules Clause 1. This could present a glaring contradiction in the current formulation of this Bill, and one which I very much hope the Government and the Minister will respond to. It needs to be resolved through this amendment. I hope the Minister will come back on Report having accepted the amendment to deal with this matter.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green

My Lords, I will speak to my Amendments 32A and 32B. Amendment 32A would expand the environmental grounds on which a public body is allowed to make certain economic decisions. Amendment 32B would extend the definition of environmental misconduct to include damage, regardless of whether it is legal or illegal, and to include species, habitats and the natural world.

It is quite positive that this Bill at least recognises that public authorities should be able to consider environmental issues when deciding whether to spend taxpayers’ money on goods and services purchased from outside the UK, or when deciding how to invest the pensions of public sector workers and retirees. However, this environmental carve-out is far too narrow. I do not understand how public authorities can be forced to ignore environmental destruction as long as that destruction is not a criminal offence. I have worked closely with Friends of the Earth on these amendments, and they were also tabled in the Commons by my honourable friend Caroline Lucas.

We are all deeply concerned about this fundamentally flawed Bill and the impact it will have on public bodies’ legitimate procurement or investment decisions about companies or products that are destroying the natural environment, including pollution overseas and climate breakdown. All public bodies must be free to avoid investment in fossil fuels, which are contributing to climate breakdown.

This Bill sets out an uneven treatment between local or UK-based businesses and foreign enterprises, particularly where they are owned or controlled by a foreign state. A local council will remain entitled to refuse to purchase timber from a business that is clear-cutting the local woodland, but if it is in a foreign country linked to a foreign Government then the council will be prohibited from even considering the impact of clear-cutting woodlands and rainforests around the world. These types of considerations—so-called ESG criteria—are now quite routine, even mundane, among both the public and private sector. Public authorities should be entitled to consider the same types of environmental issues that they would consider if interacting with a UK-based business. There is no justification for it to be any other way, other than a totally misguided belief that the nature, land, air and water in the United Kingdom is inherently more valuable or deserving of protection than that outside the United Kingdom. That sounds slightly colonial to me.

Why have the Government chosen to draft this so tightly, so that the only environmental considerations are whether or not the environmental damage constitutes a criminal offence? I hope the Minister can see the glaring flaws in this approach and the obvious harms it will lead to. I ask noble Lords across the Committee, including the Minister, to work with us on this issue so that we can bring something that we can all support to Report. Environmental crime must not be set as a bar beyond which anything goes in public procurement and the investment of public pensions.

House resumed.