Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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We are of course dealing with investment and procurement and the public bodies themselves.

Perhaps I should respond to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who mentioned the Occupied Territories, which we will be coming back to on later amendments. Although the Government recognise the risks associated with—

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Lab)
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My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I am perplexed by her view that foreign policy is simply a matter for central Governments. Foreign policy affects the population of the UK; it affects thousands of institutions in one way or another. We live, after all, in a global world. We do not live in a completely isolated country with no contact with the rest of the world. Foreign policy is not just something that can be determined and administered entirely by central government without the engagement, involvement and acceptance of those policies by a very large number of public and private institutions and individual members of this country.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I note what the noble Baroness says, but the Bill does not change UK foreign policy. That is for FCDO and the UK Government to decide. This applies only to public authorities and to investment and procurement, which I have continued to emphasise, because I think some of the discussion is needlessly wide-ranging—and, if I may, I will now make progress.

The Government, as I was saying, in relation to the Palestinian Occupied Territories, recognise the risk associated with economic and financial activities in the Israeli settlements, but we do not support boycotts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. They are inherently divisive and may lead to inadvertent negative effects on Palestinians, as well as undermining the aim of the Bill, which is to ensure that we speak with one voice internationally. None of this changes existing government guidance.

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Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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The noble Lord is right that the FCDO highlighted the risks and said that businesses involved should seek their own legal advice but it absolutely did not say, “and you mustn’t do it”. It is a fact of life that there will be economic activity in the Occupied Territories and that that may or may not involve businesses from Britain.

The only point I am trying to make is that the Occupied Territories are a fact of life at the moment; there is no easy solution and it is probably not a near-term solution. At the point when it is settled via a two-state solution, they will cease to be Occupied Territories, so that bit of the Bill will cease to have any relevance—but, for the moment, it has relevance. The other point I am trying to make is that anything that deliberately harms that is just as likely to harm Palestinians as it is Israeli citizens.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Lab)
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My Lords, I am puzzled by the speech that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, has just made. First of all, I do not know why she feels that she can speak up on behalf of the Palestinians or how much time she has spent on the West Bank. I do not think that most of them would agree for one moment with anything she said about the proposal that we should stop, or that including Israel and the Occupied Territories in the Bill would damage the Palestinians. The Palestinians are concerned about their basic rights both to have their own state and to be able to live in what is now occupied by the Israeli Government and the Israeli Defence Forces in the completely different way that that occupation has created.

I am also very puzzled by what she said about anti-Semitism, which is in complete conflict with what was said by Margaret Hodge MP, who has thought about this very deeply—that the Bill is damaging from the point of view of creating anti-Semitism rather than alleviating it. The noble Baroness does not really respond to that point but has made points about what is happening in universities at the moment, which does not seem terribly relevant to this.

However, the point I really want to make is not to address the rather odd speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. I want to ask the Minister: what legal advice have the Government taken about including the Occupied Territories in the Bill in the way that they are? I draw the Committee’s attention to what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said: under international law, which we have accepted, this occupation is illegal and the settlements, which have grown and grown, are also illegal. So how can it be that the Government bring to Parliament a Bill that includes the Occupied Territories and does not differentiate them from the state of Israel? The counsel’s advice that I have seen says that to distinguish them is absolutely essential; it is pure sophistry to say that a distinction is made in the Bill and is an untenable view without any legal merit. I wonder whether the Minister would like to comment on that.

House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 7.24 pm.