Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Nadia Whittome Excerpts
2nd reading
Monday 3rd July 2023

(10 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill 2022-23 Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Let me add trade unions and workers who decide to take strike action. Yes, we know who the Government’s enemies are because they have been legislating against them in the last year since they crashed the economy.

Nadia Whittome Portrait Nadia Whittome (Nottingham East) (Lab)
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In Nottingham, we have significant numbers of people, including Hongkongers and those from other parts of the world, who have fled from many countries perpetrating human rights abuses. They rightly do not want their councils or universities to be complicit in human rights abuses that their family and friends continue to experience. Does the hon. Member agree that public bodies must have the right to take a principled stance against, for example, the persecution of the people of Hong Kong, the Uyghurs in Xinjiang or political dissidents across China?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I do agree. I am going to quote an exchange between the hon. Lady and a Minister later in my remarks, so she may want to intervene again. I have Uyghur Muslims as constituents. I know how serious the issues are. I have Kurdish constituents who are very concerned about the oppression of Kurdish people in Turkey and Syria, for example. I will always stand beside those people, but the Bill will prevent public bodies and institutions from taking such steps. That is a real concern.

The Government are leaving themselves open to a new slogan: never mind the probity, feel the width. Their ability to grow trade is now severely constrained, so they seem to be selling off their own principles to the highest bidder. Previous attempts to work with others in making the world a decent place are now to be put aside. Rogue nations are to be tolerated for the sake of business and their transgressions ignored. The Bill—the dog’s breakfast that it is—leaves them open to that charge.

Amnesty International UK is right to say that the Bill will

“make it almost impossible for public bodies to use their procurement and investment policies to incentivise ethical business conduct that is human rights compliant.”

However, perhaps the objective is not surprising. From the UK being an original drafter of the European convention on human rights, I note that some on the Government Benches now wish the UK to leave that. We would have hoped that the Conservative Government might have learned from their disastrous policy of giving succour to the apartheid regime in South Africa. When the world railed against that regime, the then Conservative Government turned a blind eye, even though we already knew the consequences of appeasement from earlier experiences.

We have learned in the last century what happens when Governments do not have a conscience and turn a blind eye to wrongdoing. We have learned that responsibility lies not just at a national level but at a local level—and, yes, even at the level of the individual. Now we are informed that giving expression to that conscience locally will be penalised under the law. It would appear that the only good conscience is a Tory conscience as expressed by a Government Minister at Westminster.

I ask myself: why are the Government pursuing this policy? Does every Government Member want to stifle local democracy? Every society has its share of people who are mainly self-interested, with little concern for those outside their own circle. It would be good to think that that proportion of society has shrunk as we have become more aware of world affairs. But it still seems to be far too substantial, suggesting to niche voters that principles are costly to us and we cannot now afford them. That is a dangerous game. It is much easier to break down society than to build it up; to make people isolationist rather than internationalist. Patching that fragmented society together again would be a monumental task. But there is good news: there are some parts of the United Kingdom where that dystopian dream is not being pursued—quite the opposite, in fact.

We have had helpful support in our position regarding Israel, for example. On Thursday, at that very Dispatch Box, the International Trade Minister told the House that the UK has a clear position on Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories:

“they are illegal under international law, present an obstacle to peace and…a two-state solution.”—[Official Report, 29 June 2023; Vol. 735, c. 408.]

As set out in Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office guidance on overseas business risks, there are clear risks to UK businesses related to economic and financial activities in the settlements and we do not encourage or offer support to such activity. So the Government’s position seems to be, “Don’t do it. We don’t support it, but we’re not going to allow people to boycott it.” That is a very confusing position for the Government to find themselves in. The Secretary of State suggested that the Bill does not stop boycotts of occupied territories, but actually we need just to read the Bill to see that that is exactly what it proposes.

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Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to close this challenging but important debate on behalf of the Opposition. The debate has covered Britain’s place in the world, freedom of speech, human rights, genocide and a whole range of other important topics.

At the heart of the debate lies a central question: does the Bill balance legitimate, strongly held and well-meant desires to challenge behaviours overseas on principled grounds against important protections for particular nations or regions in the face of disproportionate treatment? I am afraid the answer is no.

We believe there should be legislation to frame boycott and divestment-type activities—legislation that allows communities to decide where their money goes—in response to human rights or genocide concern, while ensuring such decisions are made equitably and consistently so that the world’s only Jewish state, for example, is not singled out and targeted. This is consistent with our long-held stance against the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

Colleagues can have confidence that we believe in such framing legislation, because the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), and I tabled such amendments to the Procurement Bill in Committee, some months ago, and on Report. The amendments were rejected by the Government, but the Bill tabled in their stead, the Bill before us, is considerably worse than the option we offered.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) called the Bill a “dog’s dinner.” He is generally not a man to disappoint, but his sentiment was one of disappointment, which was echoed in the remarkable contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), who spoke of the frustration of those, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak, who want to see legislation that the House can unite behind. We do not have that currently.

There has been a range of other excellent contributions. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), referenced clause 3(7), as did my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) and the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). This subsection breaks the distinction between the state of Israel and the occupied territories, which is a significant change in Government policy, and it asks significant questions about our compliance with UN resolutions. The Minister must account for that change of policy and assuage some of those concerns in her summing up.

The right hon. Members for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Sir Simon Clarke) and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said that foreign policy matters of this nature are not for local decision makers. Well, we do not think that is right. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) made a very strong argument about how it has worked and been effective in his community in the past. In a bolder argument, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) rightly said that it is our communities’ money. I, like many colleagues, am a member of the local government pension scheme—that is our money; and I am a council tax payer—that is our money. It is not unreasonable that we might want to have a say in how it is spent.

Nadia Whittome Portrait Nadia Whittome
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This Bill is anti-democratic and anti-human rights. It frustrates peace efforts in the middle east and it is an obstacle to social justice everywhere. As such, it has been condemned by a huge range of civil society organisations, including trade unions, charities and faith organisations. Does my hon. Friend agree with them and with me that for those reasons the Bill must not receive a Second Reading?

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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Yes, I think that what has been striking is that colleagues who come at this from very different places and parties have reached that conclusion of the inadequacy of this legislation. I hope the Government will reflect on that. The hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) asked what our alternative was. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) made a powerful contribution, but I slightly challenge his suggestion that we were saying that we should rip this up in an unspecified way. That is not the point we are making. We are saying that we tabled an amendment to the Procurement Bill that we think is better. If the Government think it is technically inadequate, we would be happy to work with them to improve it. What we do know is that it is much better than what is before us today.

My hon. Friends the Members for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) and for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) made important points about what this Bill does to the devolved regional and national settlements—it challenges and presses them greatly. The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) and the hon. Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made powerful anti-BDS cases. I hope the position that my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and I have taken on that assuages some concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford is my friend and we should always be honest with our friends, so let me say that he has done peerless work in this place on tackling the persecution of Christians abroad and he should have real concerns about how this legislation would fetter such activities in the future.

I will cover some more of the contributions as I get through the rest of my points, but certain concerns must be addressed by the Minister in her closing remarks. First, which of the two possible readings of clause 1 do the Government intend? Does the “territorial consideration” provision mean that not wishing to procure from Xinjiang is unacceptable but that not wishing to procure from the entire nation of China would be acceptable? Or does it mean that all actions of all foreign Governments are beyond the scope of local decision makers? How, at this stage, can it be satisfactory that there is ambiguity? As we have heard, this is legislation that will head straight to the courts. Secondly, to accept clause 3 is to exalt the Secretary of State ahead of any other public representative, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said. It is to set aside the mandates of the Mayor of the West Midlands, the Mayor of Greater Manchester or of the leaders of councils in favour of the Secretary of State. It is to give that person, whoever they may be, sole arbitration of human rights abuses, of genocide. That should give all of us pause, but it is worsened by clause 4, the gagging clause, which my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson), for Leeds East (Richard Burgon)—