Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
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My Lords, in her opening speech, the Minister rightly reminded us of the very difficult circumstances, particularly in Israel and Gaza, that are the background to the Bill, while we have just heard in that powerful intervention a reminder of the lively public debate about the case for and against boycotts, divestment and sanctions. However, whatever we may think of those issues, surely across the House people are shocked by clauses of a Bill with titles such as:

“Disapproval of foreign state conduct prohibited”


“Related prohibition on statements”.

It is indeed to be an offence for someone to indicate that they would intend to act in such a way were it lawful to do so. These are shocking provisions to bring before this House.

Many of us debate these issues in a host of environments, including this Chamber, and many of us have had responsibilities in public bodies and public authorities. It is very hard to draw the distinction that the Minister has attempted to draw between somehow acting in a leadership role in a public body and expressing a personal opinion. That is a distinction that I do not believe will bear the weight that she hopes to put on it.

There was a manifesto commitment, of course, which was clearly put:

“We will ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries”.

There is nothing there about expressions of view or statements of opinion. It is focused entirely on banning BDS campaigns. The Government can claim a manifesto right for that proposal but nothing that goes beyond it.

The Minister has said in her letter to us about this legislation—and this is an argument that we have heard elsewhere—that one argument for it is that such campaigns will damage community cohesion. That is a legitimate concern and of course it needs to be taken into account, but I have to say that if there had been an attempt to amend the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill so that freedom of speech was not permitted where it would damage community cohesion, the Government rightly would have had nothing to do with such an argument as a constraint on activity and freedom of speech. It would be a suitable irony, if the Bill goes forward as currently proposed with new powers for the Office for Students, if the newly appointed free speech tsar should be given authority as well for trying to implement the provisions that the Government are now putting forward.

The parallel with the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act is relevant since, as we have heard, universities are clearly covered in this Bill under a government definition of “public bodies”. This creeping definition of public bodies is another worrying feature of the Bill. One reason why Britain has such an internationally respected and successful university system is the autonomy of our universities. We cannot carry on, week by week and month by month, bringing in more regulation and more legislation that tries to control what they do without jeopardising their position as autonomous institutions. Indeed, we know that the Office for National Statistics is currently reviewing their position as to whether they should count as part of the public sector. Every time we add a new set of instructions as to what universities should do, we increase the risk that they are classified as part of the public sector and become subject to far heavier public sector control.

As well as community cohesion, the other argument, which we have heard both in the other place and here, is that it is not the role of all these bodies to run the Government’s foreign policy. I am not sure that I completely understand this argument. It is perfectly clear where the Government’s foreign policy resides. I have enormous respect for the work of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary. I think we know what his foreign policy is; occasional actions by other bodies do not interfere with any understanding of what foreign policy is or should be. However, it is absolutely clear—and encouraged by the Government themselves in other guidance—that bodies such as universities should take account of legitimate foreign policy concerns. I used to sit on the board of UKRI when the Government introduced some of this guidance and, as a visiting professor at King’s and a member of the council of the University of Southampton, I am very aware of the Trusted Research Guidance for Academics. It asks and encourages universities to know their partners. It asks them to address questions such as:

“Are there any potential ethical or moral concerns for the application of your research? … Could your research be used to support activities in other countries with ethical standards different from our own, such as internal surveillance and repression?”.

It goes on to urge universities to note the importance of understanding the “democratic and ethical values” of the country that they partner. So that is absolutely encouraged by the Government but meanwhile, in this legislation, explicit consideration of such issues is apparently also to be forbidden.

I was privileged to serve in the Government of my noble friend the Foreign Secretary. One of his best slogans was that he believed in a big society with a small state. This is absolutely a “big state with a smaller society” Bill. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to consider amendments to it. I believe it will be possible to amend the legislation in ways which are still consistent with the manifesto pledge on which the Government were elected.