The Guardian / June 24, 2023
Backbenchers tell Michael Gove they may oppose bill designed to stop sanctions separate to those set by government
Michael Gove is on a collision course with a handful of Conservative MPs over his plans to stop public bodies boycotting Israel.
A group of Tory backbenchers have made clear to the levelling up, housing and communities secretary they have concerns about the economic activity of public bodies bill, which is due to return to the Commons within weeks for a second reading.
The government has criticized two councils – Leicester and Lancaster, both of which have Labour as the largest party – for imposing boycotts on Israeli goods, but Conservative MPs have a range of concerns about the bill, from its singling out of Israel to the possibility it will stop public bodies targeting other countries such as China.
Alicia Kearns, the Conservative chair of the foreign affairs select committee, said: “I support the principle that taxpayers’ money should not be politicized and should not be used to undermine the government’s foreign policy.
“My concern is we should not specifically name Israel on the face of the bill. We should not do country-specific legislation as it undermines our foreign policy. I also worry whether this will undermine community cohesion.”
Tory sources said Kearns was one of almost 10 MPs and peers who had expressed their concerns before the second reading.
The government announced the bill in the last Queen’s speech and introduced it to the Commons this week. It is designed to stop public bodies, including councils and universities, enacting their own sanctions that are separate from those set by the government.
The bill specifically names only one country, Israel, saying the legislation should equally apply to the occupied territories and Golan Heights.
Supporters of the bill have said the mention of Israel is designed to stop a future government excluding Israel from its remit.
Gove said this week: “These [boycott, divestment and sanction] campaigns not only undermine the UK’s foreign policy but lead to appalling antisemitic rhetoric and abuse. My message to these organizations is to get on with your job and focus on delivering for the public.”
However, campaigners have said the bill would give Israel a unique status in British law.
Tayab Ali, the director of the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians, said: “The clause that specifically mentions Israel essentially provides it with unique and permanent impunity.” Amnesty International has called the bill “outrageous”.
Others worry the bill will stop public bodies taking action against other countries if they persecute minorities.
Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative party leader, said he was worried the bill could stop government bodies refusing to buy Chinese-made goods. He said: “We have to make sure nothing gets in the way of stopping slave labour from Xinjiang being used in supply chains.”
He argued that councils and other public authorities should make sure they do not enable slave labour when buying two of the Xinjiang region’s biggest exports: cotton and polysilicon.
Luke de Pulford, the executive director of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said: “The UK should be using its purchasing power to eradicate slavery, not contribute to it.
“Progress has been made over the past few years, not least through the Health and Care Act and recent procurement bill. It would be a great shame if a legal loophole were exploited to continue to funnel UK tax moneys into the pockets of Xinjiang’s slave-masters.”
Influential Conservatives will spend the next few weeks lobbying Gove to change the bill, though most have not yet decided whether they will vote for it even if he does not.
A government spokesperson said: “The economic activity bill will ensure that the UK speaks with one voice internationally and the taxpayer only has to pay for foreign policy once. Public bodies should not be pursuing their own foreign policy agenda.”
The spokesperson added that the bill contained exemptions for public bodies to boycott goods where modern slavery has been involved.
Kiran Stacey is a political correspondent based in Westminster