Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Baroness Blackstone Excerpts
Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann (Con)
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My Lords, I support the remarks of my noble friends Lady Noakes, Lord Leigh and Lord Wolfson. This amendment would be deleterious to the Palestinians themselves. I cite the example of SodaStream, which had to close down its factory in the Occupied Territories at a loss of 600 Palestinian jobs because of the BDS movement; it was a particular factor. I shall quote two people who worked there. Ali Jafar, a shift manager from a West Bank village, said:

“All the people who wanted to close”


it

“are mistaken … They didn’t take into consideration the families”.

Anas Abdul Wadud Ghayth, who had worked there for four years, said, as he wiped tears:

“We were one family. I am sad because I am leaving my friends who have worked here for a long time”.


I am not in favour of settlements. I certainly believe that Israel has offered many times, and would offer again, to get out of territory that is currently occupied in exchange for a genuine peace deal. It has tried and would try again. Currently, there is perhaps a different mindset among those leading the country, but that is not necessarily permanent. At the moment, these territories are part of Israel. They are not necessarily permanently part of Israel, and I believe that they would ultimately be given up or exchanged in return for a genuine peace deal.

Currently, however, it is occupying them and providing jobs for Palestinian people who want them and could not find gainful employment otherwise. That was confirmed when, for example, the SodaStream factory shut down. From a security perspective, if Israel were to give back to the Golan Heights, it would be signing its own death warrant. You will know that if you have been to that area and seen what is there. Equally, with the Occupied Territories on the West Bank, I believe there is potential for a two-state solution that recognises both sides’ right to exist, but Israel needs a partner that is willing to recognise its own right to exist. This Bill is designed to protect, in the meantime, both Israel and the jobs being created in those territories.

However, like my noble friends, I have the most enormous respect for the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who I think genuinely wants to find a way to work through this and a wording that will let us deal with this issue in a way that is acceptable to all sides. I have no problem with that, and I hope we might have some meeting of minds, through which we can move forwards and try to achieve the aims of the Bill without offending noble Lords, on all sides. I have enormous respect for the noble Lord, Lord Warner, as well, who I have worked with in the past. Whether or not we agree on this issue, I hope that noble Lords can see the points I am trying to make about the things I believe the Government are trying to achieve.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Lab)
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My Lords, the noble Baroness paints a very rosy picture of the West Bank. From all my experience of being there, it is totally unlike what she is describing. There may be some factories employing Palestinians that have been closed down, but thousands of Palestinians have lost their livelihoods as a result of the settlements and the Israel Defense Forces promoting violence, and certainly allowing violence, by settlers against ordinary Palestinian farmers, who have lost their olive orchards and the land where they were growing grapes. I just do not believe she can have spoken to many representatives of Palestinian people, who are utterly miserable as a result of the Israeli occupation. To say that it is part of Israel—that is simply, legally, not the case.

Lastly, I want to challenge the noble Baroness on the suggestion that the Israeli Government are in favour of a two-state solution—on the contrary. The noble Baroness said just now that she is in favour of a two-state solution, as are many other people, and that she believes it will happen. If it is to happen, there has to be a complete change in tone and views by the Israeli Government. Successive Israeli Governments have done nothing to promote a two-state solution. On the contrary, they have done many things to make it impossible, through the constant building of settlements. It is not that they happened a long time ago; they continue to be built all the time.

Baroness Altmann Portrait Baroness Altmann (Con)
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May I, with all due respect, clarify a few points for the noble Baroness? First, I understand that the current Israeli Government are not in favour, and I have said myself that I am not in favour of the settlements. I am in favour of a two-state solution, and always have been. Past Israeli Governments have offered a two-state solution and offered an exchange of land for peace time and again. I am not sure why the noble Baroness is shaking her head. Israel withdrew from Gaza itself without even an offer of peace from the other side, and this is where we have ended up.

I have great respect for the noble Baroness, and one can always hear two sides to any argument, but there are a large number of Palestinians who welcome the employment they have in those territories. There are others who may have a different view, but in the end, the only solution, as far as I am concerned, must be a two-state solution. The noble Baroness is ignoring the fact that the other side, whether it is the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, is intent on wiping Israel off the map. It is not interested in a two-state solution. Israel would offer, and has offered, a two-state solution. As I say, I have spoken to people on both sides, and I hope the noble Baroness might be able to meet some of the others I have met, who have a different view, clearly, from the ones she has spoken to.

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Lord Verdirame Portrait Lord Verdirame (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I will return to a question that I raised on the first day in Committee: the way in which the Bill will impact on academic collaborations. Out of abundant caution, I also refer to the register of interests: I am a professor of international law at King’s, although, as far as I know, if my understanding of the Bill is correct, I do not think I am involved in investment or procurement decisions.

I raise this issue because paragraph 20 of the Explanatory Notes states:

“The ban in clause 1 is not intended to prohibit a higher education institution from deciding to terminate a collaboration with a foreign university on the grounds of academic freedom”.


Can the Minister say whether it follows from that that the ban is intended to prohibit a higher education institution from deciding to terminate, or not to initiate, a collaboration with a foreign university on the grounds of political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct?

Academic collaborations can come about in a wide range of ways. Sometimes it is just the initiative of a single academic, who will get in contact with academics they know and have worked with in another institution. If they are to be caught by the Bill, it is important to have clarity, because that is the sort of activity a lot of academics would be involved in. It appears to be an example of serious overreach of the scope of the Bill, which the amendments proposed would take good care of. However, I would like to understand a bit better from the Government how they think the Bill as it stands would impact academic collaborations.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Lab)
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My Lords, I would like to add my support to that already given to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Willetts.

I should declare a past interest, if not a present one. I worked for many years as an academic and led two higher education institutions, where I was very much involved in international collaborations. Indeed, as a Minister, I led the then Labour Government’s campaign, known as the Prime Minister’s initiative, to include a number of international collaborations and international students. To pick up on the last speaker’s questions, if this Bill were to damage that in any way, it would be extremely deleterious and affect the long-term reputation and quality of British higher education.

The main problem I have with this has been reflected in what others have said. This Bill creates a problem that does not exist. We should never legislate to create problems that do not exist; it is a crazy way of going about things. I was very much affected, as the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, was, by the excellent and powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mann. This will not help Jewish students one iota. There are many things we should be doing to ensure the safety and freedom of Jewish students in our universities, but this is of no help whatsoever. The other point I will pick up on is that made by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts: this will not do anything to help community cohesion, either, which is of course extremely important.

On freedom of speech, which is at the centre of this, one of the things that defines universities—it is part of the nature of the academy—is that argument takes place. It is part of their lifeblood. Indeed, universities have a duty to promote freedom of speech and argument, and in that I would include argument about foreign policy. There is no single foreign policy, as I was trying to say earlier, if in not a very coherent way. Foreign policy is diverse, and changes. It is a reflection of world movements of all kinds, and of economic matters as well as political ones. The idea of a top-down foreign policy is, to me, utterly ludicrous.

Perhaps one of the worst things about this Bill is its gagging nature. To suggest that you cannot discuss and debate the issues that lie behind the Bill is horrendous. It is not what mature democracies do; it is what tyrannies do. I am sure the Minister is not in favour of tyranny— I know her well enough to be fully aware of that—but what she is doing this evening is presiding over something that is somewhat tyrannical.

Universities are not in the public sector. They are subject to regular ONS reviews regarding their status; there is one going on at the moment. The Bill is, in a sense, jumping over this review by suggesting that they are public bodies. The next thing that will happen is that a review of this sort will be effected by the Bill, and we will have universities in the public sector. That will be hugely damaging to their autonomy, which has been central to British universities since the war and, indeed, before. This would lead to all sort of practical disadvantages, such as the loss of autonomy, including in respect of borrowing and investment, which would become a matter for the Treasury. At one time, the Treasury ran the UGC, and that was not a terribly sensible approach. The Department for Education would be the body that decides what universities could do in this area. That would make it very difficult for them to access commercial borrowing. Is that what we want? Surely not.

As the noble Lord, Lord Johnson, said, it is extremely heavy-handed, overkill and, in any case, unnecessary. Can the Minister tell the Committee where the pressure has come from to introduce universities into the Bill? Is this from the imagination of Michael Gove, who invented the Bill? I cannot see it coming from anywhere else. Have the Government had any sensible consultation with UUK and other representatives of the higher education sector about whether universities should be in the Bill?

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, I have not spoken previously on the Bill and apologise to the Committee that I could not be here at Second Reading, but I have listened to the debates through the last several weeks. I will make just three points.

First, to pick up directly the point about foreign policy from the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, United Kingdom universities are privileged among European countries to host some of the finest international relations departments in the world. The only international relations departments that perhaps rank as superior to those of some of our universities—including my alma mater, the London School of Economics—are those at the American universities. To say to your international relations scholars that they will suddenly have thought control through legislation, and will be unable to teach with the rigour of academic freedom that has made these departments as good as they are, would be astonishing. It would be beyond an own goal. Leaving aside the pertinent points made by noble Lords across the Chamber on the duties of the Office for Students—including the powerful points by the noble Lord, Lord Johnson—the idea that foreign policy should be subject to some kind of legislative parameters is extraordinary and will stop us producing the calibre of diplomats that we have been lucky to have over many decades.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, talked about to what extent universities are public bodies. This is extraordinary. For at least the last 10 years, I have asked several questions in this Chamber about one or two aspects of the autonomy of universities, generally about student fees or the catastrophe that affected the universities superannuation pension scheme some years ago when the wrong calculations were made, which really disadvantaged junior academics. Every time, I was told from the Dispatch Box: “Universities are autonomous; we can’t possibly look into what’s happening to interest rates on student fees or the pension fund”. Suddenly, we now discover that they are more and more in the public sector, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said.

I should have declared an interest—everybody knows it—as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but I am speaking in a personal capacity. The public sector equality duty of course applies to universities, but the Equality and Human Rights Commission is also a human rights commission and has to look to Article 10 rights. It has worked closely with the Office for Students on some of these areas since it was established. I wonder what consideration the Government have given in what they have been saying, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, powerfully said, about on the one hand wanting absolute freedom of expression while on the other, within months, seeking to curtail it. It will be very interesting to hear what the Minister has to say.

Before concluding, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mann, on making such a powerful speech. He is absolutely right. The reports I get, when speaking to Jewish organisations about anti-Semitic incidents, are that individual students are now finding themselves friendless, when university life is meant to be the exact opposite of that. I share his despair in that regard.