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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 8:15 pm ar 7 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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.