Debates between Baroness Noakes and Lord Verdirame during the 2019 Parliament

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Debate between Baroness Noakes and Lord Verdirame
Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, when we debated paragraph 6 of the Schedule in an earlier group, I argued that it was inappropriate to include an international law exception in the Bill. Therefore, it will not surprise the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, to find that I do not support the extension to paragraph 6 that his Amendment 30 seeks to achieve.

The briefing sent by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign asserted that without this amendment, the Bill could compel public bodies to contravene the genocide convention. This extraordinary statement was explained in the context of the much-publicised opinion of a number of UK lawyers, including the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, that the International Court of Justice had ruled that there was a plausible case that Israel has committed genocide. As the then President of the ICJ subsequently made clear, this is a complete misinterpretation of the ICJ’s judgment. Judge Joan Donoghue, the then President of the ICJ, has stated that the court decided that the Palestinians had a plausible right to be protected from genocide and that South Africa had the right to present that claim in court. However, to correct something that is often said in the media, the court did not decide that the claim of genocide was plausible. So the items of international law referred to in the amendment, including the genocide convention, basically have the name “Israel” etched on them. Whether by design or otherwise, this amendment would simply make it easier for public authorities to find excuses to boycott Israel and it would be very damaging if this amendment were accepted into this Bill.

Amendment 32, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, raises rather different issues. I am conscious that I am in dangerous territory because of the acknowledged expertise in labour law of the noble Lord compared with my ignorance of labour law. However, it is my understanding that the ILO conventions do not have direct effect in the UK. I thought that we achieved compliance through our domestic legislation. The noble Lord spoke about ILO matters on the last Committee day and, while he made the point that the UK is bound by the ILO conventions, I do not think that he claimed that they had any direct effect in UK law.

If I am correct, this amendment is a very unwelcome addition to the Bill because it seems to give full legal effect to the ILO conventions directly. These conventions are not drafted as stand-alone laws but in rather broad terms. They lack a lot of definitions and the language is often rather vague. That is why national Governments have to adopt them using their own legislation. I am not speaking against the ILO conventions; I have no views one way or the other on the conventions. My point is that we comply with these conventions through our national law and that law is the foundation of labour-related misconduct, which is covered in paragraph 8. It seems to me that paragraph 8 means that we can hold overseas suppliers to the same standards to which we hold UK suppliers. In particular, it aligns with the provisions of the Procurement Act which was passed last year. That is a wholly proper basis for this Act, rather than some broader concept of principles that cannot be read directly into our law.

Lord Verdirame Portrait Lord Verdirame (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I rise to offer a few remarks on these two amendments.

Amendment 30 does not really extend what paragraph 6 already does, because the expression “international law” in paragraph 6 includes everything that Amendment 30 mentions. My criticism of it, aside from the points that were discussed on day 3, is that it is just redundant. “Convention” is just another term for “treaty” and “obligations under international law” will include obligations arising under treaties to which the United Kingdom is a party. They will obviously include the genocide convention. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a convention or a treaty but a resolution of the General Assembly, but it is widely believed to reflect customary international law and so is binding on the United Kingdom.

The reference in the amendment to the Security Council resolutions is also unhelpful and confusing. Security Council resolutions will be binding on the United Kingdom provided that they contain decisions under Article 25 of the United Nations charter, because it is the decisions of the Security Council that are binding on member states. Those resolutions will be binding on the United Kingdom, whether we supported them or whether we abstained in those votes.

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Debate between Baroness Noakes and Lord Verdirame
Lord Verdirame Portrait Lord Verdirame (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, I rise to move the first amendment in this group, Amendment 18 in my name, with the support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Etherton. It must be read together with Amendment 29, which is also in this group. I shall speak to both of them together. These two amendments deal with the problem arising from the international law exception at paragraph 6 of the schedule.

A number of noble Lords highlighted this problem at Second Reading. In my speech, I referred to the opinion on the Bill by the Richard Hermer KC. I disagree with certain aspects of his opinion, but I agree with his analysis of the effect of paragraph 6 of the schedule. As he put it, a breach by the UK of an unincorporated treaty does not normally give rise to a claim under domestic law, but paragraph 6 of the schedule provides a domestic law foothold for such claims on a virtually unlimited basis. Unless the paragraph is amended or removed, the consequence will be that, contrary to the purposes of the Bill, local authorities, for example, will make their own determinations about UK compliance with international law obligations. If there is a dispute about the correctness of the position they have taken, that dispute will be decided by our courts.

We do not normally implement international law obligations on such an unspecified and broad basis. What we generally do is give effect to specific international law obligations in a manner that is clear, and thus consistent with the rule of law requirement of legal certainty and clarity. There are countless examples of this approach, from the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964 to the Human Rights Act. In essence, what happens is that the implementing legislation identifies specific provisions in a treaty that are to be incorporated in domestic law, and sometimes those provisions will be listed in a schedule to the Act. The legislation will then create special rules or mechanisms that Parliament considers are required to give effect to those international law obligations. Examples include the declarations of incompatibility under the HRA and Foreign Office certificates under Section 4 of the Diplomatic Privileges Act.

Paragraph 6 of the schedule to the Bill does not do any of that. It purports to import the entirety of international law—potentially all treaties, whether incorporated or not—in every rule of customary international law, and invites decision-makers to consider for themselves whether their decisions will be compliant with any such international law. It is an inherently uncertain and unclear provision. Moreover, the international law obligations that might be relevant in this field are contested and unsettled.

This is particularly the case for international legal rules on the duties of third parties vis-à-vis a serious breach of peremptory rules of international law—most notably, Article 41 of the International Law Commission’s articles on state responsibility provides for three very general obligations for states faced with a serious breach of international law by another state. Those obligations are non-recognition, non-assistance and co-operation; but whether this rule entirely reflects customary international law and what it specifically requires of a state are not settled.

Public bodies would also have to determine for themselves whether they can avail themselves of the international law exception. That too requires a complex international law analysis. Whether an entity is a public body under domestic law is, of course, a question of domestic law, but whether the conduct of that body is attributable to the state on the international plain is a question of international law. Universities might be an example of public bodies under domestic law—we have been discussing that in previous debates on this Bill—but it is not the case that the conduct of a university would ordinarily be attributable to the state as a matter of international law.

The amendment that we propose would maintain the international law exception but add clarity to it by ensuring that regulations are adopted to include descriptions of considerations, including disregard thereof, to give effect to the UK’s obligations under international law. There may be a better formulation than the one we propose, but in essence the idea is to replicate the manner in which we have given effect to international law obligations that have not yet come into existence: for example, those that may arise in the future under decisions of the Security Council.

An example of this power is in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. It creates the power to make regulations for purposes of compliance with UN obligations and, more generally, for the purpose of compliance with any other international obligation. What happens in practice is that the Foreign Office lawyer, together with the Attorney-General, will consider the specific international law obligations that have arisen and then contribute to the drafting of clear, specific and precise regulations to give effect to those obligations. To be clear, the power that we are proposing will not, of course, replace the power in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act. It would be in addition to that.

I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, take the view that that power in paragraph 6 may not be needed and could simply fall away. Our proposal is a compromise that reflects the reality that this is a sensitive area and we thought that embedding in the Act a power to make regulations for purposes of complying with international law may, in this context, be useful. I beg to move.

Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, I have Amendment 28 in this group and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for adding his name. I should first say that I am in complete agreement with the thoughts that lie behind Amendments 18 and 29, to which the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, has spoken so eloquently.

My Amendment 28 is simply a more direct way of dealing with the same problem. It deletes paragraph 6 of the schedule in its entirety, so that public authorities cannot use international law considerations as a means of avoiding the effect of Section 1 of the Bill. Public authorities are not experts in international law but might well seek to use ill-founded concerns about the UK’s adherence to international law as a smokescreen behind which they believe that they can hide their boycott activities. Put simply, it creates a huge loophole in the Bill.

I tried to compare the Bill with last year’s Procurement Act to see whether the exclusions in the schedule to this Bill are the same as the mandatory and discretionary grounds for exclusion in the Procurement Act. This was not easy, because it is clear that two completely different sets of draftsmen have been involved in the two Bills. However, the one thing that I am pretty sure of is that the Procurement Act did not have an international law exclusion ground, so the inclusion of paragraph 6 in the schedule to this Bill is somewhat puzzling.

I shall comment briefly on Amendment 31 in this group, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blower, because that would extend the range of things that public authorities could look at to breaches of international law outside the UK. Not only is this way beyond the Procurement Act exclusions as well, but it adds yet another loophole, making the loophole as big as it could possibly be in order to allow public authorities to justify boycotts. For that reason, I cannot support it. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s rationale for the inclusion of paragraph 6 in the schedule.