Ken Moon examines the ‘Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill (UK)’ and its possible impact on the right to boycott in Wales.
Following a long running campaign by the international Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement, on the 8th September the Welsh government announced that it is formally opposing the ‘Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill (UK)’ (or anti-boycott Bill) and has recommended that the Senedd withhold legislative consent. But the chances are that you’ve never heard of this Bill, let alone had an opportunity to consider what impact it might have for governance here in Wales.
According to a letter sent to First Minister Mark Drakeford recently by PSC UK, and copied to all members of the Senedd: ‘The Bill seeks to limit the ability of public authorities to make ethical choices about spending and investment and will affect local councils, universities, and the Welsh Government. Given its potential impact on areas of devolved competence this Bill could encroach on the powers of the Welsh Government and Senedd, for example by trampling on the ethical commitments contained within Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Act’.
The proposed Bill is of great concern to environmental and social justice campaigners here in Wales, directly affecting the work of campaign groups and NGO’s working for better outcomes for both people and the planet.
This should be of great concern to anyone working for change within civil society in Wales. That the bill has already passed its second reading in the House of Commons on July 3 2023, with little comment here in Wales, should be of even greater concern. The UK Government has now started a ‘legislative consent motion’ on the bill. A legislative consent motion’ determines how the parliaments in each of the devolved nations are asked to consent to the passing of a UK law which will have impacts on a devolved matter.
On July 19th the Scottish Government issued their Legislative Consent Memorandum on the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill outlining their reasons ‘for not recommending legislative consent’. The memorandum states that the measures included in the bill are ‘an assault on democratic expression and will stifle the ability for democratic debate’. In reviewing the measures of the Bill, the memorandum makes reference to apartheid-era South Africa, reflecting that:
‘The UK Government’s approach to apartheid government in South Africa, refusing to condemn it when others were actively boycotting it, demonstrates the danger inherent in this restriction. We are rightly proud of those in Scotland who took a stand against apartheid. Under the provisions of this Bill, many of them would have been silenced. For a Government to outlaw the expression of ideas different to its own is wholly unjustifiable and entirely incompatible with the notion that we live in a functioning democracy’.
In conclusion the memorandum states that: ‘This Bill represents an unnecessary and unwelcome limitation on the executive competence of the Scottish Ministers.’ And that: ‘The Scottish Government will not be recommending that the Scottish Parliament gives its consent to the Bill’. And earlier this month, the TUC also passed a motion at its annual congress announcing opposition to the Bill.
How is Wales responding?
On August the 5th 2023, writing in Nation Cymru, Martin Shipton reported that grassroots campaigners here are calling on Senedd members to oppose the Bill and are urging Senedd Members in Wales to withhold legislative consent when the motion comes before the Welsh Parliament. The article states that: ‘The bill not only seeks to limit the ability of public authorities to make ethical choices, it also represents a potential attack on Welsh decision-making’. ‘Given its potential impact on areas of devolved competence, the anti-boycott bill could encroach on the powers of the Welsh Government and the Senedd’.
The proposed Bill is of great concern to environmental and social justice campaigners here in Wales directly affecting the work of campaign groups and NGO’s working for better outcomes for both people and the planet. The Bill could also provide a direct challenge to the interpretation and implementation of legislation here.
One significant area of concern is in public sector pensions. Friends of the Earth Cymru, People & Planet & Palestine Solidarity groups, amongst others, have been calling for the divestment and decarbonisation of pension funds for several years. In July 2023 several Welsh Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) groups wrote to their local authorities to express their concerns about the continuing investments of over £4.6bn of funds; ’invested in companies complicit in Israeli apartheid, including arms companies and those supplying bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes and properties’.
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Speaking on behalf of the Welsh PSC groups, Abergavenny-based Betty Hunter, honorary president of PSCUK, said: ‘The Bill’s main target is the Palestinian-led campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions’. She states that the proposed legislation gives Israel ‘a unique status through a special clause in the bill that would make it the only state in the world permanently protected from divestment, no matter what it does to violate international law and human rights’.
Writing to Mark Drakeford, PSC reference Wales’ proud history of utilising the right to boycott for social change, from the poet and abolitionist Iolo Morganwg, who refused to stock sugar from slave plantations in his Cowbridge shop, to Wales’ role in the worldwide campaign to end apartheid in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela later officially recognised Wales’ role when receiving the freedom of the City of Cardiff in 1998, stating: ‘The knowledge that local authorities all over Wales were banning apartheid products from canteens and schools – and that the universities, the Welsh Rugby Union, and the choirs had cut their links – was a great inspiration to us in our struggle.’
Across the UK the ‘Right to Boycott’ campaign is made up of over 70 organisations including ‘trade unions, charities, NGOs, faith, climate justice, human rights, cultural, campaigning, and solidarity organisations, advocating for the right of public bodies to decide not to purchase or procure from, or invest in companies involved in human rights abuse, abuse of workers’ rights, destruction of our planet, or any other harmful or illegal acts’. The Right to Boycott campaign recognises the key role of boycotts as part of a healthy, functioning democracy, and opposes the UK government’s proposed law to stop public bodies from taking such actions.
In Wales, work began in July to pull together a broad-based civil society campaign to raise awareness of the likely impacts of this bill. This work was initiated by the Wales branches of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK.
Although not binding on the UK Parliament (which could still pass the Bill), withholding legislative consent would send a clear message that the Senedd believes that the Bill represents a significant act of overreach by Westminster.
On September the 4th more than 15 civil society organisations in Wales, including Size of Wales, the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, CND Cymru, the Church in Wales, Tai Pawb, the Quakers in Wales, Council of Wales Youth Voluntary Services, Oxfam Cymru, Undeb Yr Annibynnwr Cymraeg, the Women’s Equality Network Wales, Wales Environmental Link, Friends of the Earth Cymru, Cytun, Amnesty International in Wales and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign groups signed up to a letter to all MPs and Senedd members outlining their concerns and asking them to speak out against it.
Speaking in Nation Cymru Heledd Fychan, Plaid Cymru MS for the South Wales Central region, said:
‘The proposed bill shows the determination of this UK government to limit the ability of campaigners and public bodies to hold governments and institutions to account. Removing the right to boycott or disinvest poses a threat to freedom of expression and the ability to challenge non-ethical practices or ones that breach human rights wherever they may take place in the world. The bill must be opposed so that here in Wales we can continue to play our part as globally responsible citizens.’
On September 20th the Welsh Government published the response to the proposed Bill. In the ‘Legislative Consent Memorandum’ to the Senedd finance minister Rebecca Evans said:
‘I cannot recommend consent is given while questions remain as to the compatibility of this Bill with convention rights and international law. In addition, I note that there has been widespread criticism of this Bill from among the legal and academic community, in relation to the way it has been drafted and how it is intended to operate in practice. I share those concerns.’
She also noted that:
‘The provisions seek to limit the executive competency of Welsh Ministers in making decisions about procurement and investment. We do not accept that the executive competence of the Welsh Ministers should be altered in this way and it is not clear what UKG are seeking to address by doing so’.
Although not binding on the UK Parliament (which could still pass the Bill), withholding legislative consent would send a clear message that the Senedd believes that the Bill represents a significant act of overreach by Westminster and signals opposition to the provisions of the Bill. The Bill will now be debated at committee stage in the UK parliament, where a detailed examination of its provisions will take place. The Senedd’s business committee has said the Welsh Parliament will consider the recommendation by November 24.
You can find out more information about protecting the right to boycott here.