Westminster Hall debate on “Local government and ethical procurement” House of Commons Tuesday 15th March at 14.30 – 16.00 Introduced by Richard Burden MP
MPs will have their first opportunity on Tuesday to debate two proposed government regulations which seek to restrict even further any discretion that public bodies still have over decisions on contracts, procurement or pension funds other than on strictly financial grounds.
The government is using parliamentary procedures that leave very little opportunity for scrutiny and debate, but Richard Burden MP has succeeded in getting a 90-minute debate in Westminster Hall at 2.30 pm on Tuesday.
Although the regulations cover any kind of action against any country, there is no doubt that their main target are the councils that are trying to take action against illegal Israeli settlements and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
This is clear from two facts:
First, the original announcement did not come either of the two sponsoring departments, the Department of Communities and the Cabinet Office, but in a Conservative party press release on the Saturday before last year’s Conservative conference.
The press release claimed the regulations would stop ‘militant left-wing councils’ boycotting Israeli goods and named Leicester City Council as a target.
Leicester City council passed a motion in November 2014 to ban goods from illegal settlements “insofar as legal considerations allow”. Similar motions have been passed by seven other councils.
Secondly, the Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock announced the next stage of the process not in the House of Commons but at a joint press conference with the Israeli premier, Benyamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem.
There also appears to be a disconnect between the two sponsoring departments, Communities and Cabinet Office, and the two departments actually responsible for trade with Israel, the Foreign Office and the Department of Business.
The UKTI website, sponsored by the FCO and Business, announced new business guidance in December 2014 advising UK firms that that it would “neither encourage nor support” them if they traded with illegal settlements and warning them of legal and reputational risks if they did so:
‘There are therefore 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 as well as other economic activities (including in services like tourism) in Israeli settlements or benefiting Israeli settlements, entail legal and economic risks stemming from the fact that the Israeli settlements, according to international law, are built on occupied land and are not recognised as a legitimate part of Israel’s territory. This may result in disputed titles to the land, water, mineral or other natural resources which might be the subject of purchase or investment. EU citizens and businesses should also be aware of the potential reputational implications of getting involved in economic and financial activities in settlements, as well as possible abuses of the rights of individuals.’
The Communities/Cabinet Office regulations threaten councils with “severe penalties” if they impose a ban or a boycott on trade and investment with any country unless the Government has already taken a decision to impose sanctions.
So while the Foreign Office is warning UK companies and private individuals against trading with settlements, the Department of Communities and the Cabinet Office are threatening to make it illegal for councils and council pension funds to follow their advice.
Britain has a clear position on settlements: “Settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict impossible.” Yet at the same time it keeps the settlements in business with EU trade worth €300 million every year.
Total EU trade with Israel was worth €30 billion (£23 bn) in 2014 so trade with settlements at €300 is just a hundredth of trade with Israel. But whereas the EU is Israel’s biggest trading partner, Israel accounts for only 0.9% of the EU’s trade. The EU is therefore in a strong negotiating position to force Israel to stop building settlements tomorrow. Even the UK alone could exert very strong pressure.
If the UK government says the settlements are illegal, but does not have the courage to do anything about it, why oh why is it trying to stop local councillors from representing the views of their local communities by refusing to trade with lawbreakers. It is vital to defend the right of councillors to represent the interests of their local communities.