Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Lord Leigh of Hurley Excerpts
Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Debate on Amendment 20 resumed.
Lord Leigh of Hurley Portrait Lord Leigh of Hurley (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Warner and Lord Oates, and others want to remove reference to Israel. The question has been raised as to why one country should be singled out. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, drew attention to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton. He did not mention the noble Lord’s other remarks—that part of his deal to recognise Palestine as a state would be that Hamas was expelled and, of course, the release of all hostages, which is an integral part of the jigsaw.

Others have commented that the Bill, which I support, does nothing about anti-Semitism. That is a minority view within the Jewish community. Jews for Justice for Palestinians, which was referenced, has an extremely small minority view. The vast majority of the Jewish population in the UK is represented by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, on which I serve as vice-president. They are both in favour of such a Bill. They would not be in favour of this Bill if they had any worries that it would lead to an increase in anti-Semitism.

Likewise, with reference to the impact on the West Bank, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, was asked whether she goes to the West Bank much. I have been to the West Bank. I chair a charity called the Jerusalem Foundation. One of the projects we are doing is building a very large sports centre in east Jerusalem. It includes a swimming pool, and it will be run by the locals for the benefit of the local community. It would be a great shame if this sports centre could not be built by a British contractor in whole or part because of fear of sanctions and thus its inability to win local council contracts.

It is obvious why Israel has to be protected by this Bill: precisely because it is the one country singled out for unparalleled abuse, criticism, misinformation and, sadly, hate. Which other country has people on the streets of the UK calling for its complete destruction? A country controlled by autocrats, or denying the rights of women, gays, minorities or religious groups? No. In fact, it is only one country—the one that achieves the reverse of all that.

This pattern has happened since Israel’s creation, facilitated in 1948 by a body—the United Nations—that has subsequently done all it can to demonise it. So why should special protection be given to Israel as Clause 3(7) suggests? I can answer that if noble Lords can explain to me why, since 2003, the UN has issued 232 resolutions in respect of Israel. Some 40% of all resolutions issued by the UN in that period have been on Israel, six times that of the second-placed country, Sudan. In 2023 alone, the UN General Assembly brought 15 resolutions against Israel and only seven on the multitude of conflicts around the world. Furthermore, the UN Human Rights Council has a dedicated, permanent line item—item 7—on Israel, specifically and alone. It has not done this with any other member state.

I argue that special prejudice and discrimination deserve special protection. The UN has had nine meetings of the Security Council to discuss the situation in Gaza, but not one about the hostages. If such a once-distinguished—now, sadly, widely regarded as discredited—organisation can show such bias against Israel, and only Israel, we need to take steps to ensure that this cancer of thought does not spread to UK institutions. Many agitators have run out of causes to address with their ire and prejudice, so their polemics are focused on a country they believe they can, by means fair or foul, destroy by a series of lies and hate- filled allegations.

I take the noble Lord, Lord Collins, at his word and believe him to be keen to find a way to avoid BDS. He is an honourable person and he says what he means. So I am disappointed that those on the Labour Front Bench support this amendment. I thought that they, and indeed all noble Lords, would understand that stopping BDS is right, fair and just, as are steps to protect the State of Israel from abuse by organisations themselves funded by the fair-minded British taxpayer.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I rise to offer Green support for Amendment 20 while stressing our continued opposition to the entire Bill. The argument for Amendment 20—that Clause 3(7) not be in the Bill—has already been powerfully made, but I will make three brief points. The first is about international law. This point has been powerfully made by many noble Lords already, and you do not have to listen to me; you can listen to Alicia Kearns MP, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, who pointed out that, as the Bill is written, it constitutes a departure from British foreign policy that

“puts the UK in breach of our commitments under UN Security Council resolution 2334”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/7/23; col. 604.]

My second point picks up a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Oates. We have seen changes, over the months, in the British Government’s rhetoric at least, if not in their policy, when it comes to arms sales to the Israeli state, which will become only more legally, diplomatically and politically pressing. But we are not here talking about policy. We are talking about law: something on the statute book that remains until the law is changed. The convention, of course, is that no Parliament binds its successors, but we know how time-consuming and energy-consuming it is to change past errors as circumstances change.

The third point I want to make is one that no one else has made, but I am afraid that I have to, which is to refer to what is happening as we speak. Hundreds of thousands of people are in desperate fear with nowhere left to run, nowhere to seek safety. The Israeli state has seized the Rafah border crossing. A couple of figures haunt me. One of them is, of course, the death toll, which is approaching 35,000 in Gaza, but another figure I saw last week is that 5% of people in Gaza have been killed or injured. That is a deeply shocking figure.

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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.

Lord Leigh of Hurley Portrait Lord Leigh of Hurley (Con)
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Before the noble Baroness sits down, I am sure she will agree with me that violence by settlers or Palestinians has to be condemned without reservation, and the full force of the law used against such perpetrators.

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Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, my noble friend Lord Willetts and others have queried whether there is any evidence of a problem. It may be true that there is not much evidence of actual BDS activities by universities to date, but it is certainly true that there is a problem of anti-Semitism on campuses. It may also be true, as the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said, that it is less acute than in the United States—most things are less acute here than in the United States—but I do not think that means we should ignore it. It is clear that the accelerating protests on campuses are having a deleterious effect on Jewish students on campuses. Indeed, the Union of Jewish Students said only last week:

“Jewish students are angry, they are tired, and they are hurt by the continuous torrent of antisemitic hatred on campus since October 7th”.


I am not sure that gives the Union of Jewish Students a veto on whether the Bill should go through, but it indicates that there is still a very real problem.

The current round of student protests—the encampments and related demands—do seem, as I have seen reported, to include BDS demands on the universities. As far as I am aware, none of the universities has yet succumbed and changed its policies on BDS, but at least one has given in to some other demands, such as renaming buildings and changing some other organisational arrangements, and we cannot be sure what universities will do in the longer run. The Bill would close the option of them ever implementing BDS policies and would therefore be one small step to closing that route off and helping to create an environment for Jewish students, who would be even more oppressed if the universities publicly announced BDS policies against them. I do not think it is a very big item, but I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mann, that the Bill does nothing. I think it does something towards closing off an avenue that universities might be tempted to go down in order to see off the undoubted nuisance of all these student protests.

I would just like to briefly say something about the ONS as well. The ONS reviews all sets of bodies that are on the borderline between the public and private sectors at regular intervals, and it does it in a careful way in accordance with international definitions. These are all careful considerations. It is clear that universities are in a grey area: they are public authorities for the Human Rights Act, are included in the Freedom of Information Act and were included in the Procurement Act that we considered last year. They are already subject to a lot of the public sector laws, and nothing is going to change that. I agree with my noble friend Lord Willetts that this Bill will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but it is always legitimate to ask on which side of the line these bodies that exist half in and half out fall.

Just being classified by the ONS does not of itself lead to other consequences. There may well be further considerations down the line, but we certainly cannot stop the ONS doing the job that it is set up to do, which is to consider classifications in accordance with international guidelines,

Lord Leigh of Hurley Portrait Lord Leigh of Hurley (Con)
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My Lords, it seems to me to be fundamental to this Bill that universities and other relevant bodies are included. We are not talking about individual academics having their right to free speech being affected at all. We are talking about institutional behaviour. Yes, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has pointed out, what happens in universities really matters. I also went on a trade trip to China with the vice-chancellors. I remember, because they were the ones sitting in business class. They are a very important part of the fabric of our society—

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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You were in first class—

Lord Leigh of Hurley Portrait Lord Leigh of Hurley (Con)
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Possibly first class. No one can forget that academia is not immune to bigotry. Let us recall that Heidelberg University in Germany was no less prestigious than any UK university in its day. In the 1920s, it was the centre of liberal thinking. A decade later, a mob of Heidelberg students burned Jewish and other so-called “corrupt” books in the Universitätsplatz. Jewish students and Jewish academics were banned, its faculty developed pseudo-academic fields such as race theory, eugenics and forced euthanasia. Heidelberg was led by administrators who lacked moral leadership—and we all know how this ended.

It cannot be right that students at universities around the world feel unprotected and threatened. Most ironically, only a few years ago, children of Jewish friends of mine were telling their parents they did not feel comfortable going to a UK university, so they applied to go to one in the United States. The appalling lack of leadership in some US universities has quite rightly led to the removal of their leadership in some famous cases. We are all watching Columbia University, apparently led by the noble Baroness, Lady Shafik, most carefully to see whether it can exhibit proper leadership against the vile intimidation and abuse.

In the UK, we have seen many universities fail to take proper action. I will cite some alarming incidents indicative of this unsafe environment. For example, in Leeds there was the attack on a Jewish chaplain, a rabbi, the sit-in at the Parkinson building, the daubing of the Jewish student centre and the encampment outside of the student union. Apart from the absurdity of the protesters protesting against an occupation by occupying university buildings, the demonstrations themselves are misplaced—and, as at other universities, such as King’s College, Cambridge, are causing huge distress to Jewish students, as has been noted.

Despite very sterling work by the noble Lord, Lord Mann, it is endemic. In Birmingham, students called for “Zionists off our campus”. We know what they mean, “No Jews here”—as they did in Heidelberg. A while ago, in December 2021, City University students, among others, demanded a BDS ban. It was stopped only because the Charity Commission ruled that this was in breach of its charitable status. Interestingly, the leader of the call for BDS there, Shaima Dallali, was subsequently elected president of the National Union of Students before she was suspended for anti-Semitism. The connection between the call for BDS and anti-Semitism is staring us in the face

Lord Davies of Brixton Portrait Lord Davies of Brixton (Lab)
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Today, it has been reported that she has been compensated for unfair dismissal—so I do not think the point quite works as the noble Lord intends.

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Lord Leigh of Hurley Portrait Lord Leigh of Hurley (Con)
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I thank the noble Lord for telling us that. I had not heard that and I will check it out. None the less, she was dismissed for anti-Semitic behaviour, so it is suggested. We know what lies behind much of BDS. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and my noble friend Lord Johnson, the BDS movement, as he said, has taken credit and claimed it scored a victory in respect of divestments by Manchester and procurement by King’s College Cambridge and Southampton. It is true that the UJS’s previous president raised objections to the Bill, but that was before 7 October and before the heat turned up so dramatically. It certainly voted unanimously against BDS.

Most recently, we have seen student demands that Goldsmiths College rename a hall after a Palestinian, give scholarships to Palestinian students and participate in BDS. It looks like the college has agreed to all these demands without carefully considering the impact this might have—again showing absolute failure of leadership. Where does this lead? I am told today by people at Goldsmiths that there is now a movement to prohibit students entering the library unless they sign up to supporting BDS.

In my opinion, this Bill will help those in leadership positions in the above examples and at other universities. It will help them stand up to these outrageous demands by making it clear that intimidation is no longer allowed, and they have no choice but to refuse to enact BDS because the law now demands this. Universities cannot hide from their responsibilities. They should of course be focusing on their core public duty of providing quality higher education and undertaking excellent research while protecting those on campus who are currently threatened by the proponents of BDS with intimidatory anti-Semitic behaviour.

Lord Shipley Portrait Lord Shipley (LD)
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My Lords, the Minister will have listened very carefully and I hope concluded that she has heard several notable contributions on this group, to which the only conclusion, in my view, is that this amendment should be accepted by the Government. I listened very carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley. In the case of the noble Baroness, I think her argument was that the problem of anti-Semitism on campus is too high, and one would agree. The problem I have with her conclusion is that this Bill would actually make it worse. It would make community cohesion more difficult. It would be worse.

The noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, talked about institutional behaviour and said that the institutional behaviour in universities would be improved by this Bill. He gave a number of examples, and one has to take those seriously and look at them. I will just say that it is a very dangerous policy to generalise from the particular and to say that across all our universities and higher education institutions, that pattern of behaviour is being followed, because I do not actually believe it is true.

I take very seriously what the noble Lord, Lord Mann, said. I think he made an extremely important contribution. He basically said that the Bill does nothing in the context of universities. There has been no successful BDS campaign, he said. The Union of Jewish Students does not want the Bill, I recall him saying.

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Baroness Chapman of Darlington Portrait Baroness Chapman of Darlington (Lab)
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My Lords, this has been a helpful discussion. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, for tabling his amendment, and I was very glad to be able to add my name on behalf of these Benches. There seem to be two parts to this case. One is that this simply will not work. The other is that universities are not public bodies and that this in some way is another penny on the scale towards making them public bodies, which is something I think that any us who are in any way involved in universities would seek to resist at every opportunity. I should declare my interest as chancellor of the University of Teesside.

When you have two Tory former Universities Ministers and the Government’s anti-Semitism adviser saying in the strongest terms that they fundamentally disagree with this legislation’s approach to this issue and support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, it is a wise Minister who reflects on that and perhaps takes it away and considers it a little bit further.

I can see why, when the Government conceived this Bill, they included universities because, as the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, quite rightly reminded us, there is a problem on some campuses for Jewish students and Jewish members of staff, and the atmosphere has deteriorated since October 7, in particular. There should be nobody in this Committee or anywhere else who dismisses that and thinks that there is no problem that we ought to set our minds to try to resolve because it is not right that in the name of free speech or anything else we allow that to continue. That must be tackled. My point to the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, is that the calls that he mentioned, such as about the naming of lecture theatres and the awarding of scholarships to Palestinian students, are made by those doing the protests, the sit-ins and all the other activities that he talked about. He mentioned Goldsmiths specifically. I have a copy of the agreement that was reached between the senior management team at Goldsmiths and the students’ organisation that I think is called Goldsmiths for Palestine. It is seven items long. Many things have been discussed, but only one section looks in any way at investment, divestment or boycotts. The rest are things that would never be within the scope of the Bill.

I am afraid that when the noble Lord, Lord Mann, says that the Bill will not do anything about these protests, he is probably right. I have not spent a lot of my life sitting on protests or going on marches, but I have done a bit, and the fact that what you are asking for, or demanding, is unlikely to happen—or is perhaps even legally impossible—at the point at which you are making the demand does nothing to stop you making it. That is the way protest works—we can like it or not; it is just a fact of life.

Many of the demands being made are nothing to do with BDS any more. BDS has been around for a very long time, as we all know, but taking away universities’ ability to succumb to these campaigns—not that any of them have—will do nothing to improve safety on campuses; it could make things worse. The noble Lord, Lord Leigh, is shaking his head. I hope that he will recognise that I am being genuine about this; I want to see this resolved as much as he does. However, I do not think that telling protesters that we are preventing universities taking the decision they wish them to take will mean that they stop making their demands, or that the temperature goes down. Protesters feel that they are right and are acting in the interests of humanity. We can agree or disagree on how they do that and the language and methods they use. We can have a discussion about that, and perhaps we should, but the Bill will not improve the situation. As the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and others have said, there is a risk that it could make it worse. I do not want us to take another step down a path that could end up making this worse when there is still an opportunity to work together and find an alternative means of making improvements that we all wish to see.

I do not think that the theory that the Government have put forward—that if you remove a university’s ability to adopt BDS, the protests somehow diminish, and that life becomes more tolerable and safer—is realistic. That is my main reason for wanting universities to be removed from the Bill.

I also support the arguments made by the noble Lords, Lord Willetts and Lord Johnson, about the independence of universities; they are very important. Our universities are feeling somewhat beleaguered and got at by this Government. There does not seem to be a lot of understanding or support, and they would argue that many of the challenges they are now facing have been made worse by the actions of this Government and the attitude that they seem to take towards universities—wanting to plant them front and centre of a culture war. Our universities are wonderful institutions. They bring huge investment into our country. I am sure that we are all immensely proud of them. They employ a great number of people. They bring jobs and prosperity to parts of the country that desperately need them. They are inspiring and educating the next generation of engineers, pharmacists and doctors, and we thank them for all that they do.

I say to the Minister that to go further down this path, without pause, would be a mistake. A far better approach to tackling this problem, which we all accept needs to be addressed, is to work alongside universities —my party would be part of this if that would be helpful—to work out the most effective way of dealing with this. The Bill will not work, and there is a risk that it could make the situation worse for Jewish students.

Lord Leigh of Hurley Portrait Lord Leigh of Hurley (Con)
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I heard what the noble Baroness said very clearly, but does she agree that Goldsmiths has now agreed to take on a policy of BDS, and that if the Bill had passed, it would not have been able to succumb to intimidatory pressure so to do?

Baroness Chapman of Darlington Portrait Baroness Chapman of Darlington (Lab)
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I have the agreement that Goldsmiths made in front of me, and the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, is right. One of the six issues concerns BDS, but I suggest that he read the wording very carefully. It says that the senior management team will raise concerns with the college’s ethical investment fund manager; it is not saying that it will enact any divestment at this stage. I read the agreement very carefully, not least because I thought that it may have made a decision that undermined my case this evening. I would be very happy to meet with the noble Lord and discuss this further, because it leaves the door open, perhaps, to Goldsmiths taking the decisions that he fears it might. It does not look as if it has done so far, but even if it does not and were prevented from even discussing that, there would still be the other six elements that were driving the campaigns, the sit-ins and the activities on campus which were so problematic.