Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill - Committee (3rd Day) (Continued)

– in the House of Lords am 7:37 pm ar 7 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Clause 3: Exceptions

Debate on Amendment 20 resumed.

Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Warner and Lord Oates, and others want to remove reference to Israel. The question has been raised as to why one country should be singled out. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, drew attention to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton. He did not mention the noble Lord’s other remarks—that part of his deal to recognise Palestine as a state would be that Hamas was expelled and, of course, the release of all hostages, which is an integral part of the jigsaw.

Others have commented that the Bill, which I support, does nothing about anti-Semitism. That is a minority view within the Jewish community. Jews for Justice for Palestinians, which was referenced, has an extremely small minority view. The vast majority of the Jewish population in the UK is represented by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, on which I serve as vice-president. They are both in favour of such a Bill. They would not be in favour of this Bill if they had any worries that it would lead to an increase in anti-Semitism.

Likewise, with reference to the impact on the West Bank, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, was asked whether she goes to the West Bank much. I have been to the West Bank. I chair a charity called the Jerusalem Foundation. One of the projects we are doing is building a very large sports centre in east Jerusalem. It includes a swimming pool, and it will be run by the locals for the benefit of the local community. It would be a great shame if this sports centre could not be built by a British contractor in whole or part because of fear of sanctions and thus its inability to win local council contracts.

It is obvious why Israel has to be protected by this Bill: precisely because it is the one country singled out for unparalleled abuse, criticism, misinformation and, sadly, hate. Which other country has people on the streets of the UK calling for its complete destruction? A country controlled by autocrats, or denying the rights of women, gays, minorities or religious groups? No. In fact, it is only one country—the one that achieves the reverse of all that.

This pattern has happened since Israel’s creation, facilitated in 1948 by a body—the United Nations—that has subsequently done all it can to demonise it. So why should special protection be given to Israel as Clause 3(7) suggests? I can answer that if noble Lords can explain to me why, since 2003, the UN has issued 232 resolutions in respect of Israel. Some 40% of all resolutions issued by the UN in that period have been on Israel, six times that of the second-placed country, Sudan. In 2023 alone, the UN General Assembly brought 15 resolutions against Israel and only seven on the multitude of conflicts around the world. Furthermore, the UN Human Rights Council has a dedicated, permanent line item—item 7—on Israel, specifically and alone. It has not done this with any other member state.

I argue that special prejudice and discrimination deserve special protection. The UN has had nine meetings of the Security Council to discuss the situation in Gaza, but not one about the hostages. If such a once-distinguished—now, sadly, widely regarded as discredited—organisation can show such bias against Israel, and only Israel, we need to take steps to ensure that this cancer of thought does not spread to UK institutions. Many agitators have run out of causes to address with their ire and prejudice, so their polemics are focused on a country they believe they can, by means fair or foul, destroy by a series of lies and hate- filled allegations.

I take the noble Lord, Lord Collins, at his word and believe him to be keen to find a way to avoid BDS. He is an honourable person and he says what he means. So I am disappointed that those on the Labour Front Bench support this amendment. I thought that they, and indeed all noble Lords, would understand that stopping BDS is right, fair and just, as are steps to protect the State of Israel from abuse by organisations themselves funded by the fair-minded British taxpayer.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I rise to offer Green support for Amendment 20 while stressing our continued opposition to the entire Bill. The argument for Amendment 20—that Clause 3(7) not be in the Bill—has already been powerfully made, but I will make three brief points. The first is about international law. This point has been powerfully made by many noble Lords already, and you do not have to listen to me; you can listen to Alicia Kearns MP, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, who pointed out that, as the Bill is written, it constitutes a departure from British foreign policy that

“puts the UK in breach of our commitments under UN Security Council resolution 2334

My second point picks up a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Oates. We have seen changes, over the months, in the British Government’s rhetoric at least, if not in their policy, when it comes to arms sales to the Israeli state, which will become only more legally, diplomatically and politically pressing. But we are not here talking about policy. We are talking about law: something on the statute book that remains until the law is changed. The convention, of course, is that no Parliament binds its successors, but we know how time-consuming and energy-consuming it is to change past errors as circumstances change.

The third point I want to make is one that no one else has made, but I am afraid that I have to, which is to refer to what is happening as we speak. Hundreds of thousands of people are in desperate fear with nowhere left to run, nowhere to seek safety. The Israeli state has seized the Rafah border crossing. A couple of figures haunt me. One of them is, of course, the death toll, which is approaching 35,000 in Gaza, but another figure I saw last week is that 5% of people in Gaza have been killed or injured. That is a deeply shocking figure.

There are many horrors around the world. We hear little enough in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere about Sudan and South Sudan. As Greens, we are always seeking support to focus on the massive human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. I also have to put the situation of the people of Afghanistan, particularly its women, into this list. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, referred with displeasure to what is happening now in our universities and those around the world, where mostly young people are expressing their horror at what is being done to an occupied people, of whom 5% have been killed or injured. I believe those young people should have the right to do that. We will come shortly to the issue of universities.

I must stress that the horror and anger must not be directed at the wrong targets but we are seeing people expressing their humanity and their care for others, particularly the most vulnerable. To suppress that is indefensible in general, but to pick on an area where there is so much suffering at this moment makes Clause 3(7) particularly indefensible.

Photo of Baroness Janke Baroness Janke Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 7:45, 7 Mai 2024

My Lords, I should like to add a few points. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, says, many of them have been made by others but the confusion in this Bill that is causing us a great deal of difficulty is of understanding its benefits. We have heard that the Bill singles out protection for Israel in perpetuity and conflates Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the Golan Heights, despite the fact that these are recognised as distinct by UK foreign policy. Primary legislation would be needed if Israel were to be removed from being protected by UK legislation. Also, the Occupied Territories are illegally occupied, as we have already said. How can it be justified and embedded in UK law that such protection in perpetuity for illegal settlements should be given by our own country?

There is more confusion, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, about Foreign Office guidance. What the advice said, in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, was:

“There are … clear risks related to economic and financial activities in the settlements, and we do not encourage or offer support to such activity. Financial transactions, investments, purchases, procurements” and other activities

“in Israeli settlements or benefiting Israeli settlements, entail legal and economic risks”.

Presumably, trustees and advisers of pension funds considering such advice may need to take action and not procure or invest in these areas; they would be contravening the provisions of the Bill.

We also know that the ICJ has warned that Israel may be committing genocide and is currently investigating a case brought by South Africa to that effect. Should that be found to be the case, public bodies would be prevented from taking any action against Israel or settlers in illegally occupied territories unless primary legislation were to be enacted. Again, how can this possibly be justified?

The Government’s explanation of the need for such extreme measures is that sanctions and boycotts of Israel cause anti-Semitism in communities. While we have seen no evidence of this, several Jewish organisations believe that the Bill will impede the UK’s ability to combat anti-Semitism. Many organisations are opposing the Bill and saying that the reverse will be the case. The Union of Jewish Students, for example, unanimously decided to oppose the Bill, as have 40 Israeli NGOs, and has called on our Parliament to reject it. Finally, Diaspora Alliance said:

“The rhetoric promoting this bill erroneously conflates efforts to hold Israel accountable with hostility against Jewish people. This kind of rhetoric gives the impression that the most effective solution to combatting antisemitism lies in the protection of the interests of a foreign power, rather than in the policies that protect Jewish citizens of the UK from prejudice, harassment and discrimination—like all other British citizens”.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow that speech, although I respectfully point out that groups such as Diaspora Alliance hold the same sway and weight in the Jewish community as, for example, Gays for Trump would in the homosexual community in America. You can always find a Jew or Jewish group who will say whatever you want; going back to the Talmud, we are a disputatious people. I would gently warn noble Lords against picking people in the Jewish community who happen to agree with what they say. The two main communal bodies, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council have been forthright in support of the Bill.

Let me turn to Clause 3(7), which is what this amendment focuses on. As we know, the way in which the Bill works is that unless a country is added to the Schedule by the Secretary of State, a public body cannot discriminate against it on essentially political grounds—I paraphrase. Clause 3(7) provides more procedural protection to Israel and to the territories listed in it because its effect is that a future Secretary of State cannot add Israel or those territories to the Schedule—that can be done only by way of primary legislation, as the noble Baroness just pointed out.

The purpose of this amendment is obvious although I note that, perhaps wisely, its proposers were neither able nor willing to say so in terms in a Member’s explanatory statement. Its purpose is to strip Israel of that procedural protection to make it easier procedurally, and therefore also politically, for a future Secretary of State to give a green light to a boycott of Israel. That, in terms, is what this amendment is designed to do and what, if it became part of the Bill, it would do.

Two main arguments have been made in support of removing Clause 3(7) from the Bill—let me say a word or two about each. The first is that Clause 3(7) does not distinguish between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, as it is said the UK is required to do. There are two points in relation to that: first, what is the source of this supposed obligation?

I referred in an earlier group to the opinion from Richard Hermer KC. I declare an interest: he is a friend, but the fact that he is will not stop me saying that I think he has got it hopelessly wrong on this point. His opinion says that there is a

“wider international law obligation on all states to ensure that impediments to Palestinian self-determination are brought to an end”.

To support that proposition, he cites the 2004 ICJ advisory opinion on the separation wall. That, of course, is an advisory opinion and, in terms, is limited to the separation wall itself, which the ICJ refers to as an “impediment” to Palestinian self-determination

“resulting from the construction of the wall”.

We could mount a very good argument, and I would, that it is the construction of that wall which advances Palestinian self-determination because without it, there would still be suicide bombings and people blown up on buses and in cafes, but let us put that to one side.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

I just want to correct the noble Lord. The judgment did not say that the wall was illegal; it said that it was placed illegally because it was placed in the Occupied Territories, not on the boundary between the State of Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Ceidwadwyr

That is not the point I was making, but the noble Lord is absolutely right. My point was whether there is in that judgment some sort of obligation on us not to impede the construction of a Palestinian state. However, the noble Lord is absolutely right in his characterisation of that part of the advisory opinion.

The only obligation the judgment refers to, therefore, is an obligation not to recognise the Occupied Palestinian Territories as part of Israel. That is in the advisory opinion as an obligation. UK government policy does not do so, and this Bill does not do so either.

Then we look at the other supposed source of this obligation: UN Security Council Resolution 2334, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, in moving the amendment. That goes no further. That, in paragraph 5, “calls on states”. Let us just be clear: that is not an international law obligation. With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, who characterised that as a UK commitment, it is not. As other noble Lords will know much better than I do, the use of words such as “requires,” “obliges” and “calls on” are important distinctions—we will come later to what distinctions are—in UN Security Council resolutions. In any event, that only “calls on states” to distinguish between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and not to lump them together.

Secondly, in so far as there is any legal obligation, which there is not, it would only be one to distinguish between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Clause 3(7) does that. It does distinguish: you distinguish between things by treating them distinctly. You do not need to treat them differently. Those are two distinct, or different, things. This Bill is therefore entirely consistent with UK government policy and with UN Security Council Resolution 2334. That is a complete answer to the first point.

Let me go to the second point, which is the question about why Israel is treated differently. That is the main question underlying much of the debate on this clause. I have already explained that the differential treatment is procedural and not substantive; so why, asked the noble Lord, Lord Warner, in moving his amendment, is Israel treated differently in this Bill? I answered that question in my speech at Second Reading. The short answer—and I will not repeat it—is that Israel is constantly subjected to differential and discriminatory treatment, both by international bodies such as the UN and its rather unhappily named Human Rights Council, on which sit some of the world’s biggest abusers of human rights, and by some public authorities in this country. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Warner, has asked the question about why Israel is treated differently, let me answer it by reference to his oral contributions in your Lordships’ House.

Over the past 10 years, the noble Lord has—and I have benefited from them—contributed to many debates on many topics in your Lordships’ House. I thought I would have a look at some of his contributions relating to some of the countries set out in the list from the noble Lord, Lord Hain, in his Amendment 49. I know he is now no longer going to move that amendment, but it is a useful list because it sets out those countries that have poor, or worse, human rights records.

On the basis of my researches in Hansard, the current position is as follows. I am not going to go through them all, but here are some. The number of times in the last 10 years that the noble Lord, Lord Warner, has referred to Saudi Arabia is zero; Yemen, zero; Myanmar, zero; Sudan, zero; the Uighurs, zero; North Korea, zero; Congo, zero; Venezuela, zero; Iran, zero; China, one, in the context of a speech on the West Bank; Syria, one, in the context of a speech on Gaza; Ukraine, one, to ask why we do not treat Israel the same way we treat Russia; Israel and Palestine—nine.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Crossbench

I am a great believer in only talking about things you understand and have observed. What I have done is go very often to Gaza and the Occupied Territories and talk to some of the people who have been trying to intervene to help the cause of an independent Palestinian state. That has caused me to actually come back rather horrified as to what I have seen about the way the Israelis have treated some Palestinians. There has been a prolonged occupation of territory by successive Israeli Governments— territory that was won by war and is illegal internationally. There have been untold numbers of allegations of breaches of international law by the occupying forces of Israel, so all I have done in my humble way is to report these to His Majesty’s Government as part of cross-party groups that have been to those countries.

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Ceidwadwyr 8:00, 7 Mai 2024

My Lords, all I am doing is highlighting that, when it comes to gross breaches of human rights around the world, Israel is treated differently, both in the manner that I have described and, if I may say so respectfully, by the noble Lord in his contributions to this House. When people stop treating Israel differently, Clause 3(7) will not be needed, but until then it is a necessary and essential part of this Bill.

I am disappointed to see His Majesty’s Opposition supporting the amendment. I echo the comments of my noble friend Lord Leigh about the regard that many of us have—certainly I do personally—for the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury. He will understand that, when I say I am disappointed at the Opposition’s stance, I am not making a personal comment, but I am disappointed at the substantive position that they are taking.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The noble Lord knows that I listen attentively to what he says. Earlier he said that the Occupied Palestinian Territories were being afforded a protection under the Bill. He is aware that existing trading and investment relations are covered by a UK-Palestinian Authority bilateral agreement. Is he aware that the Palestinian Authority has asked for this protection?

Photo of Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Lord Wolfson of Tredegar Ceidwadwyr

I am looking at the time. I am happy to continue this conversation elsewhere, but I will say this: I would be happy if Clause 3(7) encompassed not only Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories but the Palestinian Authority, because I do not want anybody using divestment or boycotts as a lever in the Middle East. We should all be working for peace, and we do not work for peace through BDS. I hope that the Opposition will reconsider their position but, in the meantime and with apologies to the House for overstaying my welcome a little, I support the Bill as drafted and therefore oppose the noble Lord’s amendment.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, I support the remarks of my noble friends Lady Noakes, Lord Leigh and Lord Wolfson. This amendment would be deleterious to the Palestinians themselves. I cite the example of SodaStream, which had to close down its factory in the Occupied Territories at a loss of 600 Palestinian jobs because of the BDS movement; it was a particular factor. I shall quote two people who worked there. Ali Jafar, a shift manager from a West Bank village, said:

“All the people who wanted to close” it

“are mistaken … They didn’t take into consideration the families”.

Anas Abdul Wadud Ghayth, who had worked there for four years, said, as he wiped tears:

“We were one family. I am sad because I am leaving my friends who have worked here for a long time”.

I am not in favour of settlements. I certainly believe that Israel has offered many times, and would offer again, to get out of territory that is currently occupied in exchange for a genuine peace deal. It has tried and would try again. Currently, there is perhaps a different mindset among those leading the country, but that is not necessarily permanent. At the moment, they consider these territories part of Israel. They are not necessarily permanently part of Israel, and I believe that they would ultimately be given up or exchanged in return for a genuine peace deal.

Currently, however, it is occupying them and providing jobs for Palestinian people who want them and could not find gainful employment otherwise. That was confirmed when, for example, the SodaStream factory shut down. From a security perspective, if Israel were to give back to the Golan Heights, it would be signing its own death warrant. You will know that if you have been to that area and seen what is there. Equally, with the Occupied Territories on the West Bank, I believe there is potential for a two-state solution that recognises both sides’ right to exist, but Israel needs a partner that is willing to recognise its own right to exist. This Bill is designed to protect, in the meantime, both Israel and the jobs being created in those territories.

However, like my noble friends, I have the most enormous respect for the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who I think genuinely wants to find a way to work through this and a wording that will let us deal with this issue in a way that is acceptable to all sides. I have no problem with that, and I hope we might have some meeting of minds, through which we can move forwards and try to achieve the aims of the Bill without offending noble Lords, on all sides. I have enormous respect for the noble Lord, Lord Warner, as well, who I have worked with in the past. Whether or not we agree on this issue, I hope that noble Lords can see the points I am trying to make about the things I believe the Government are trying to achieve.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Independent Labour

My Lords, the noble Baroness paints a very rosy picture of the West Bank. From all my experience of being there, it is totally unlike what she is describing. There may be some factories employing Palestinians that have been closed down, but thousands of Palestinians have lost their livelihoods as a result of the settlements and the Israel Defense Forces promoting violence, and certainly allowing violence, by settlers against ordinary Palestinian farmers, who have lost their olive orchards and the land where they were growing grapes. I just do not believe she can have spoken to many representatives of Palestinian people, who are utterly miserable as a result of the Israeli occupation. To say that it is part of Israel—that is simply, legally, not the case.

Lastly, I want to challenge the noble Baroness on the suggestion that the Israeli Government are in favour of a two-state solution—on the contrary. The noble Baroness said just now that she is in favour of a two-state solution, as are many other people, and that she believes it will happen. If it is to happen, there has to be a complete change in tone and views by the Israeli Government. Successive Israeli Governments have done nothing to promote a two-state solution. On the contrary, they have done many things to make it impossible, through the constant building of settlements. It is not that they happened a long time ago; they continue to be built all the time.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Ceidwadwyr

May I, with all due respect, clarify a few points for the noble Baroness? First, I understand that the current Israeli Government are not in favour, and I have said myself that I am not in favour of the settlements. I am in favour of a two-state solution, and always have been. Past Israeli Governments have offered a two-state solution and offered an exchange of land for peace time and again. I am not sure why the noble Baroness is shaking her head. Israel withdrew from Gaza itself without even an offer of peace from the other side, and this is where we have ended up.

I have great respect for the noble Baroness, and one can always hear two sides to any argument, but there are a large number of Palestinians who welcome the employment they have in those territories. There are others who may have a different view, but in the end, the only solution, as far as I am concerned, must be a two-state solution. The noble Baroness is ignoring the fact that the other side, whether it is the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, is intent on wiping Israel off the map. It is not interested in a two-state solution. Israel would offer, and has offered, a two-state solution. As I say, I have spoken to people on both sides, and I hope the noble Baroness might be able to meet some of the others I have met, who have a different view, clearly, from the ones she has spoken to.

Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

Before the noble Baroness sits down, I am sure she will agree with me that violence by settlers or Palestinians has to be condemned without reservation, and the full force of the law used against such perpetrators.

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Ceidwadwyr

I completely agree. I do not agree with the settlements, and I do not agree with the actions of the settlers. But that does not in any way change the situation we are dealing with here, which is that until there is a two-state solution, some partnership for peace and some agreement, the idea of boycotting, whether the Occupied Territories or Israel, will do damage both to Israel and to the Palestinians who are gainfully employed there. That is the point I was trying to make, not to defend the settlers or settlements.

Photo of Lord Sentamu Lord Sentamu Crossbench

My Lords, third time of asking. First, I stand here as somebody who still mourns the death, the assassination, of Yitzhak Rabin, a great statesperson who was on the cusp of finding a solution that has evaded many people. I also mourn the loss of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I was a great student of his; he taught me Hebrew and how to read the Hebrew scriptures. Also, before he died, he planted nine trees in Israel for me, so I have a little plot of land where those nine trees are.

What would he say about Clause 3(7)? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay; I am not sure that it is wisdom that, unfortunately, has included Israel in the clause. I know it is differentiated, as the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, has told us; we then have in paragraphs (b) and (c) the Occupied Territories and the Occupied Golan Heights. I just wonder what it is that is being asked of us. Legislation, at the heart of it, is a statement of public policy. What public policy are we doing with subsection (7)? What are we saying? I have never believed that you can use statute as a way to give assurance, because when the law is passed, it is already dated, so it may never actually deliver what you want. I am not so sure that these three paragraphs are a wonderful opportunity; is there not a better way of saying what you want?

I totally agree that, as the noble Lord reminded us, this differentiation is made because Israel comes up more than any other country in the world. What is it that drives that? Of course, being a Christian, I cannot say, but given the Second World War and the Holocaust, you have to have a heart that tells you, “Be very careful that you do not tread on holy ground”.

I am reminded of another great name who influenced me greatly on issues such as this: Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who was asked by a child on the radio, “Where was God in the Holocaust? Why wasn’t he there? Why didn’t he defend them?” Like all good rabbis who know the Torah, he gave the most beautiful answer: “In Auschwitz, God was being blasphemed and violated. The real question is, where was humanity, made in God’s image and likeness?” The question is, will our humanity find itself better in this subsection (7)? I am very doubtful, the way it is drafted, because it conflates two pieces of land, and I am not sure that is a very wise thing.

Of course, there is a need to make sure that a country that is small can develop. I was there not long ago; you discover that in 75 years the development is just unbelievable. The same could have happened in Gaza and in the West Bank. That opportunity is now becoming more and more difficult. What is it? How can humanity emerge here? How can the springs of solidarity come out, instead of just either defending or criticising? I just want to say to the Minister that I am not so sure about that phrase—the way it is been put. Yes, it may give today some kind of assurance that people will not boycott Israel—“Don’t do this”. But the fact is that it is still the Holy Land and will still attract a lot of people, whatever anybody else tries to do, so I am not so sure. Is there a better way of putting it? Do you need to put “Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories or the occupied Golan Heights”? I am very doubtful; I am together with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, on this.

I have one more thought. Recently I was the chair of Christian Aid and we did quite a lot of work in Gaza—there was a lot on educational health. I am no longer the chair, but the memory that I have is of people who somehow were in a very difficult place. Now, I do not know how you can describe it, because it is just horrendous. How do we as legislators find a way of never losing sight of our hope that the State of Israel will ultimately one day live in peace, the Palestinian people will have their own self-determination, and the neighbours around Israel will not intimidate it in whatever way? How do we create the thing that has eluded all of us? I suspect in the end that this legislation has to be extremely careful that it does not scare the horses or give assurance which you cannot actually physically deliver, because that is what can happen. It does not change the footprints on the ground. One last thought is from Martin Luther King, Jr. He said that, in the end, what we will remember are not the terrible actions and words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 8:15, 7 Mai 2024

My Lords, inevitably this group has raised the wider issues that we have debated within it. A week has not gone by without either Statement repeats or Questions that I have contributed to. Since 7 October, I have visited the region; I have visited the kibbutzim, the hostage families and the illegal outposts and settlements. I say, in the most sincere way I can, to the Minister, that I do not believe that this particular part of the Bill and the Bill as a whole will reduce any of the tensions or make a complex situation any simpler or clearer. For many people, it will make the situation even more complex and divisive at the very time when we need there to be more common ground. So it is with regret that I need to support the amendments in this group.

Paragraph 20 of the impact assessment states:

“The intended outcome of the Bill is to ensure there is a consistent approach to”

UK Government foreign policy. However, it should also be noted that there has been inconsistency in the statements of Ministers over recent months. On 12 March, the Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, replied to my question on the occupation of Gaza:

“It is our legal position, and has been for some time, that Israel is the occupying power in Gaza”.—[Official Report, 12/3/24; col. 1913.]

However, on 24 April, a Home Office Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, replied to my question on Gaza:

“I might dispute the noble Lord’s premise there: I am not sure that I would characterise it as an occupying power”.—[Official Report, 24/4/24; col. 1466.]

So there is inconsistency even between government departments.

I would have thought that the definitive position on the topic would be the statement from the Government in their document on the strategic objectives of a UK-Israel free trade agreement, which sets the parameters for UK trade and investment with the State of Israel. I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, is listening, as it states in very clear terms:

The UK is clear that it does not recognise the Occupied Palestinian Territories as part of Israel, including the settlements. The UK is clear that Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are illegal under international law. As set out in FCDO guidance on overseas business risk, there are clear risks related to economic and financial activities in the settlements”.

This Bill is a very substantial change to government policy that is still extant in the discussions between the UK Government and the Government of Israel over an FTA. I have no opposition to those discussions when it comes to UK free trade—as we said at Second Reading, these Benches do not support the BDS campaign and never have—but we cannot have this Bill and that statement at the same time. Which is the superior element? We know, I think, that when this Bill becomes legislation, it will trump the statement, but there needs to be a change in government policy so that the Bill does not state simply that authorities must adhere to government policy, because the Bill is changing government policy.

Currently, a business choosing to invest or carry out business in the Occupied Palestinian Territories will be referred to the business risk and it can make its own judgment as to whether that risk will outweigh the benefit—or it may be liable for legal considerations. This Bill will prohibit it from making that decision, which is wrong and makes no sense for our relationship with either the Occupied Palestinian Territories or the State of Israel.

It is doubly wrong because, as many noble Lords may know, the issue is not just about the settlements. There are also outposts. The fastest growth recently has been in outposts in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. For Members of the Committee who may not be aware, outposts—the fastest-growing element—are illegal under Israeli law. This Bill would prohibit anyone making a decision to invest in something which is illegal under Israeli law. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that point, because it is a very significant issue.

My noble friend Lord Oates made a very convincing argument about the inclusion in Clause 1(7) of an equivalence in law, notwithstanding the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson. I am not going to make a semantic argument about whether there is a comma, or an “or” that should have been an “and”. The issue of substance is perfectly clear. It is the argument that the noble Lord said he would reflect on when I asked him about this question.

Why does this Bill provide protections to the Occupied Palestinian Territories when they have not asked for that? Indeed, they have specifically asked not to have it, because it is not a protection; it is an inhibitor for the British authorities to police the current British approach of advising on risk for investments in the illegal settlement areas of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It removes protection, and the concern about the subsection is that it removes it in perpetuity, because it does not allow Ministers to change the schedules when it comes to singling out the outposts that I referred to before. We might have to rely only on the element of sanctions when we have designated individuals who are settlers. That is the only time there would be the prevention of having an economic relationship with them. So, instead of offering a protection, the Bill singles out a diminishing of the ability of those within the Occupied Palestinian Territories to protect themselves effectively.

I can inform the Committee that this is not an esoteric or theoretical argument; it is active now. Every six months the British consul writes to the Israeli Government seeking compensation for settler violence—compensation which seeks redress through the Israeli courts. The investment risks are real, but the Bill would prohibit any British decision-maker from taking that into consideration. That cannot be right.

Finally, I regret the fact that Ministers have given inconsistent statements on the position of the Occupied Territories. There is confusion about the investments. I ask one final question of the Minister. There may well be—and in fact there are—public-private partnerships that include British investors in enterprises both in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority area. If their partner in Israel or the Palestinian Authority area chose to stop that activity as a result of their own Government’s policy—we know that that is happening, particularly in Tel Aviv—the British partner would be prohibited from ending that agreement. Surely that is a nonsensical position. So my appeal to the Minister is to pause and reflect, even at this late stage, not only the diplomatic consequences of this measure but on its practical implications, which could be considerable.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I echo a number of the noble Lord’s comments. I must admit I find it difficult to understand how, at a moment of crisis in the Middle East, the Government have allowed Michael Gove to proceed with this reckless diplomatic and cavalier approach. How can we be a credible voice for a two-state solution when they legislate at home against their own foreign policy? That is the key issue.

I said repeatedly at Second Reading and in many groups that I recognised that there was a problem. My party recognises that there is a problem. We do not support BDS; we oppose it. How, in this very delicate situation, do we deal with it? You do not deal with it by undermining the very thing that would bring about peace and stability for Israel. Sadly, as we have heard from across the House, the Bill means a protracted legal battle in the courts. It will create more uncertainty than it addresses and, worse, it simply fuels yet more division. It will have achieved nothing. In fact, it could make matters worse. That is my position, and my party’s position.

On my previous amendment, we hoped to find a way forward where we could work together without causing those divisions. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, too; I have seen his work in action in Israel. I have seen my noble friend Lord Turnberg’s work trying to build intercommunity respect, peace and activity. I applaud that work and want to see it continue.

Sadly, I was in the West Bank last May and I did see the outposts—not settlements; these were outposts on the top of hills above Palestinian villages. I witnessed the fire of the harvest. I witnessed the burning of the cars of the Palestinian farmers who were trying to put out the fires. When I was standing there, I also saw the IDF watching it; it did not intervene, because it said that its sole responsibility was to protect citizens of Israel. That was truly shocking. I felt that it in no way was going to help support the Israel I believe in. We have to address these issues.

Why did I put my name to this amendment? I will tell you. I read Kit Malthouse’s speech in the House of Commons. I read the other comments from Conservative Members about it. I thought that what he said was incredibly powerful:

“I am afraid the Secretary of State is playing into the antisemitism we have seen rise in this country over the past few weeks””.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/10/23; col. 904.]

He quoted Jonathan Freedland at Second Reading:

“What is the favourite refrain of the antisemites? That Israel is the one country you’re not ‘allowed’ to criticise. This bill takes a canard and, in the case of boycotts, turns it into the law of the land”.

There is no requirement in law for this carve-out to exist. My previous amendment, if adopted, and if we could reach agreement on it, would mean that we would not need the Israel carve-out currently in the Bill. That is why I signed this amendment. My amendment seeks a way forward that shows that we should not treat Israel differently. We should not make it have a standard different from other countries. We should be consistent in our foreign policy; that is what we are trying to do.

I repeat that we need to work together to address what I know is a genuine problem but, for God’s sake, do not let us undermine our diplomatic effort to seek a peace in the Middle East. This is the most damaging part of the Bill because there is no doubt that it currently runs counter to decades of British diplomacy by both Conservative and Labour Governments. It could not come at a worse time.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, that we should deal with the reality. The reality is that we are moving further and further away from a two-state solution. I agree with the Foreign Secretary that we should ensure that we give hope to Palestinians. Let us not take it away from them; let us ensure that there is a pathway to a two-state solution. It means trying to reform the Palestinian Authority and give it more credibility. It means that Hamas, which wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, needs to be removed, but that requires time, investment and support to the Palestinian people.

Sadly, while we spend hours debating this Bill, we are not focusing on what should be our real effort: to support the diplomatic efforts. We are bringing the Bill in at a time when the Americans and the British were working with Arab neighbouring countries, together with the Israeli Government, to seek a way forward. The Abraham accords were a means to something, and we are in danger of completely losing that.

I support the Foreign Secretary’s efforts. I think he is right to focus on these issues and to say that we must give hope to the Palestinians, but the Bill does nothing to enhance our efforts towards a two-state solution. It absolutely has the opposite effect and that is why I supported Kit Malthouse’s amendments. What he said in the other place was right. I hope noble Lords and the Minister will agree with me.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 8:30, 7 Mai 2024

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his comments. I feel a bit left out as the only person who has not been to Palestine or Israel. I was due to go on 7 October. As we have discussed, this amendment would remove Section 37 from the Bill so that Ministers could by secondary legislation allow public authorities to carry out their own boycott campaigns against Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and the occupied Golan Heights. I am keen to make progress on our line-by-line consideration of the Bill, but I think I should briefly repeat that this legislation has three objectives: first, to uphold the integrity of British foreign policy decided by the Cabinet collectively on advice from the FCDO and others; secondly, to enable public authorities to focus on their core functions when delivering for the public on investment and procurement and to avoid damage to community cohesion; and, thirdly, to prevent the most divisive of these campaigns by public authorities which target Israel in particular and promote anti-Semitism in the UK.

We have seen the disturbing things happening in our universities today, with Jewish students not feeling safe, and what has happened in some local authorities in recent years. Our manifesto commitment and this Bill seek to address one aspect of the current troubles, including divestment campaigns. We need to find a way through. I am grateful for the suggestion of meetings between now and Report.

This amendment introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Warner, would allow Ministers to negate by secondary legislation the key objective of our primary legislation. That would not be right. We have heard from the Jewish Leadership Council and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Leigh, about how the BDS campaign singles out the world’s only Jewish state for unique treatment, and we heard in the Public Bill Committee of the distress felt by the Jewish community when Israel is targeted in such a manner by public authorities that, it seems to it, in no other case attempt to pursue foreign policy. These anti-Israel BDS campaigns do very little to promote peace in the Middle East, while sowing division and distrust in the UK.

I want to take the opportunity of our discussion of international issues to return briefly to the question raised earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis. He asked whether public authorities would make the judgment of whether a procurement or investment decision risked putting the UK in breach of international law. Public authorities would make that judgment. They would need to do so to the existing legal standard of reasonableness and would be subject to the enforcement powers in the Bill if they did not. I have committed to taking away and considering carefully the points made about international law today, and I look forward to returning to that issue on Report.

Let me return to my overall case. The purpose of Clause 3(7) is to give Parliament the ability to scrutinise a future ministerial decision that would reverse a core objective of this legislation. Such a decision could have a very harmful effect on community cohesion while doing very little to advance peace and security in the Middle East. The amendment would allow Ministers to use secondary legislation to negate the key objectives. That would undermine parliamentary sovereignty. Should a future Government wish to allow such campaigns by public authorities, they should go through the same legislative scrutiny that this Government are going through to prevent them. The Government have ensured in the Bill that the scope of delegated powers is appropriately limited and that the core of the Bill cannot be altered by statutory instrument. In addition to this clause, we have limited the ability of the Secretary of State to remove local authorities, UK and devolved government Ministers and local government pension schemes from the scope. I also want to highlight that we have not received any challenge from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee with regard to the Bill.

We should be in no doubt that preventing BDS campaigns by public authorities against Israel, the Occupied Territories and the occupied Golan Heights is a core part of the Bill. This is due to the impact that such campaigns can have in contributing to and legitimising anti-Semitism, as highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes.

However, it is important to note that nothing in the Bill changes our foreign policy in regard to these areas. We do not recognise—I emphasise this—the settlements as part of Israel. Our position is reflected in our continued support for UN Security Council Resolution 2334. The Government’s position is that the Bill is in compliance with that resolution. My noble friend Lord Wolfson explained well why this is the case, and why Israel can, and should, be treated differently, reflecting the way that it is often singled out for unique treatment by many others.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She is responding very carefully to this debate. It is the Government’s position that the Occupied Palestinian Territories are a separate legal entity that the Government of Israel do not represent. Indeed, the UK has its own direct bilateral relationships with the representatives of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Have they asked for the particular protections under this clause?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, our position on the Middle East peace process, which I am not sure entirely answers the noble Lord’s question, is that we support a negotiated settlement leading to a safe and secure Israel, living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states, and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees.

My noble friend Lord Ahmad updated the House earlier on Gaza. The Prime Minister has told Prime Minister Netanyahu and regional leaders that we are deeply concerned about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah. The immediate priority must be a humanitarian pause in the fighting, which is the best route to secure the safe release of hostages and significantly step up aid to Gaza.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. With respect, she has not answered my question. The Government do not recognise the Government of Israel to represent the Occupied Palestinian Territories in our discussions with their representatives. I ask in clear terms, since we are at the stage in this legislation where it has to be crystal clear, have the representatives of the OPTs requested the protections under the Bill in this clause?

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

I am clear that the Occupied Territories are separate. I think that that three-quarters answers the noble Lord’s question but let me reflect further. I certainly would not want to mislead him on such an important point.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

Can I also ask a question? The Minister mentioned that the Delegated Powers Committee did not comment on the Bill in a negative way. On the point about the amendment on free speech, I know that we have other clauses to deal with it, but the Constitution Committee was quite clear that Clauses 4(1)(a) and 4(1)(b) unduly limit freedom of speech by preventing public bodies from stating that they would—or even might—make a procurement or investment decision. That committee asked this House to consider whether Clause 4 should be removed from the Bill, so the Minister’s assertion is not quite true. Regarding the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Warner—the Constitution Committee shares some of his views.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Clearly, I do not think that we will be able to agree on this this evening. I replied to the excellent report by the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, and the Constitution Committee, and I will refresh my memory on that, if the noble Lord will allow.

In the meantime, in response to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, who asked about the Government’s position on Gaza—it is that Israel remains the occupying power in Gaza, as advised by the FCDO.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

Yes, but does the Minister know why it says that? It is because an occupying power has duties—particularly under international humanitarian law—which is why the Foreign Secretary is monitoring this and has repeatedly said to the House that he will continue to monitor it. Israel has duties as an occupying power.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Minister of State (Cabinet Office)

Indeed, in situations of occupation, international humanitarian law expressly requires the occupier—I think this is the point that the noble Lord is making—to the fullest extent of the means available to it, to ensure food and medical supplies for the population of the occupation territory. We expect Israel to fulfil its obligations, and for all parties to adhere to humanitarian law. I am glad to be able to repeat that.

Nothing in the Bill changes the Government’s support for a two-state solution. We believe that open and honest discussions, rather than imposing sanctions or supporting anti-Israeli boycotts, best support our efforts to help progress towards a negotiated solution. This is the position shared by the whole Government. But I continue to believe that it is important to retain for Parliament the ability to scrutinise a decision that would be so detrimental to community cohesion, through primary legislation and subject to full parliamentary scrutiny. I therefore respectfully ask that the noble Lord withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Crossbench

I am glad it was “respectfully”, but I am totally unconvinced by what the Minister has said, just as, for the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about Clause 4, I was totally unconvinced in the previous discussion about my Amendment 48.

The Bill is a total mess. I was very happy to be taken down memory lane by the noble Lord, Lord Wolfson, about my interventions on events in Gaza, the West Bank and the Occupied Territories generally. One concentrates on these things in a parliamentary career because they are the things that often stand out a mile as cases of huge injustice. That has prompted me to make those visits and report back on them to Ministers in this Government. I am ashamed to say that, under successive Governments, we have made a poor fist of responding to some of those situations, which have persisted over a long period of time for the Palestinians. I make no apologies for attending to those kinds of concerns.

I have heard nothing in these debates this evening to make me resile from supporting the ideas that the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, shared at Second Reading: that the Conservatives should be concentrating on delivering their manifesto commitment about boycotts. That is what the purpose should be. What the Government have now done has turned this into an argument not about BDS but about Palestine, the Israeli Government and these events. They have done it at a time—probably the worst possible time—when we should be engaging in these kinds of discussions.

In the circumstances, I am totally unconvinced. In recommending the removal of Clause 3(7), I see myself as a peacemaker. From the many contributions made this evening, I think we should give serious consideration to doing the simple thing of taking this provision out of the Bill. I guarantee that I shall come back to this on Report. I would be happy to meet with Ministers to discuss it. I would very much like to go with my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and join in a discussion about trying to make the Bill more sensible. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 20 withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed.

Schedule: Exceptions

Amendment 20A not moved.