Thank you for contacting me about boycotts by public institutions.
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will stop public bodies pursuing their own foreign policy agenda, including with public money, through divisive boycotts, divestment and sanctions campaigns.
I believe that the United Kingdom must speak with one voice internationally, and public bodies running their own foreign policies risks undermining our foreign diplomacy. I am concerned that local level boycotts can pit communities against one another and damage community cohesion. In particular, in the case of boycotts against businesses and organisations affiliated with Israel, there has been a horrific rise in antisemitic rhetoric and abuse which I believe must be stamped out. It is also not right for local authorities and public bodies to waste time and resources when they have key responsibilities to prioritise.
I want to be clear that the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will not restrict individuals’ right to freedom of speech. Nor will it apply to private organisations, except if they are exercising public functions. The Bill will extend to public institutions (as defined in the Human Rights Act 1998) only. To quote the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, the Bill does not prevent any individual from articulating their support for the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, or indeed any particular policy that the BDS campaign puts forward. It simply prevents public bodies and public money being used to advance that case.
The UK has a well-established sanctions policy which remains in place. Ministers have been clear that organisations with links to Russia and Belarus will still be prevented from benefitting from taxpayers’ money with councils able to terminate existing contracts with those linked to Putin’s war machine.
Due to a prior commitment, I am unable to attend the briefing event on 10 January, but I will continue to carefully scrutinise this Bill as it continues its progress through Parliament.
Foreign policy is rightly the reserve of national government. I believe it cannot be right for public institutions to have the power to make divisive decisions which set different parts of the community against each other.
Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.
Sally-Ann Hart MP.