Cabinet Office minister Matthew Hancock stressed discriminatory boycotts of Israel “must stop” as the Government last night published guidelines aimed at preventing councils and other public bodies from targeting the Jewish state.
A two-page document says public procurement should not be used to boycott other countries except where Government restrictions are already in place and reminds public bodies of legal obligations not to discriminate against members of a World Trade Organisation agreement. The guidance – unveiled after talks with Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem – applies to local authorities, NHS bodies, non-departmental public bodies and the wider public sector.
Ministers claim town hall boycotts can “undermine good community relations, poisoning and polarising debate, weakening integration and fuelling anti-Semitism”, as well as compromising trade. “It can also be unlawful and lead to severe penalties against the contracting authority and the Government”.
The move was welcomed by the Israeli premier, who commended the UK for “standing up for the only and only true democracy in the Middle East”.
But a spokesman for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “The Government’s decision to ban councils and other public bodies from divesting from trade or divestments they regard as unethical is an attack on local democracy. The Government’s ban would have outlawed council action against apartheid South Africa. Ministers talk about devolution, but in practise they’re imposing Conservative Party policies on elected local councils.”
Labour has a long-standing policy of opposition to boycotts but Jeremy Corbyn has previously expressed support for action targeting settlement goods and arms sales. Pressed for a guarantee that there would be no move to dilute the party’s position at a meeting with the Board of Deputies last week, he stressed that party policy was created by conference rather than him.
Labour MP Wes Streeting said: “I think even many of us opposed to BDS against Israel are dismayed by the Government’s centralist diktat, which will cover all sorts of public bodies and all sorts of ethical investment policies. It’s thoroughly undemocratic and rather resembles the worst sort of student gesture politics. I’d prefer to win the argument through democratic debate, rather than to stifle it.”
But Corbyn’s reaction was condemned by former shadow culture secretary Michael Dugher, who said: “We need an explicit position that Labour remains totally opposed to any boycotts of Israel. Inept references to South Africa and apartheid are ignorant and offensive.”
Labour’s comments were also roundly condemned by former Communities Secretary and Conservative Friends of Israel chairman Sir Eric Pickles, who claimed the party wanted councils “to pursue their own militant foreign policies at the expense of Britain’s economic and national security. By defending these divisive town hall boycotts, they are not only risking damage to Britain’s international relations, but weakening integration here at home and fuelling anti-Semitism”.
The new guidance – first trailed ahead of last year’s Conservative Party conference – was widely applauded by community leaders. The Board of Deputies Gillian Merron said boycott moves increase “feelings of vulnerability in the community and do nothing to further peace”, while the Jewish Leadership Council’s Simon Johnson, on behalf of the Fair Play Campaign Group, added: “Local councils, universities and other public odies shouldn’t have their own foreign policies. The Government’s decision to make this clear emphasises imnclusivity over boycotts and coexistence over further dicisions.”
Joan Ryan, chair of Labour Friends of Israel, said she backed “any measure which seeks to prevent the delegitimisation of Israel and would also urge the government to take concrete steps to promote a two-state solution by investing in coexistence projects which bring the Israeli and Palestinian peoples together”.
Lord Leigh commented: “It was very significant that the Minister made this announcement in Jerusalem in front of a visiting group of independent Peers and MPs only for this to be denounced by the Fatah Secretary General. This is a further example of the British Government fulfilling it’s promise to stamp out anti-Zionist and anti semitic behaviour wherever it arises”