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Government plans ‘anti-boycott bill’ for public bodies

What is the government’s proposed Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions bill and what are the criticisms of it?

Under the current Tory government, people haven’t had much of a break from taking to the streets to oppose repressive planned government bills.

The Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill brought citizens out in swathes in an effort to protect their right to peaceful protest.

Migrant rights activists responded with uproar to the Nationalities and Borders Bill, which heads for the jugular of people coming to the UK in search of asylum.

Next on the agenda is the indiscreetly named ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Bill’, which aims to stop local public bodies from being able to spend according to their ethics, in particular in support of Palestinian human rights.

What does the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions bill mean?

The Queen’s Speech this May was used to announce the plans to introduce the new legislation, which it said would “prevent public bodies engaging in boycotts that undermine community cohesion”.

The proposed bill specifically aims to make it obligatory that all public institutions follow UK foreign policy when it comes to spending and investing – which would make it illegal for local councils to for example divest from Israeli weapons factories in support of Palestinian human rights.

It’s no coincidence that it’s been named the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) bill. BDS is the term Palestinian civil society uses for its call for non violent pressure on Israel until it complies with international human rights laws.

Some local councils have, for example, passed motions in support of BDS saying they will not buy goods from companies operating in illegal Israeli settlements (for example Leicester City Council did this in 2014).

Black and white image of crowd of people demonstrating

The Tories have been trying to stop public bodies participating in BDS for years

Local government motions in support of the Palestinian BDS movement haven’t gone down well with the government.

In 2016 government guidance was issued prohibiting local governments from pursuing boycott, divestment or sanctions against “foreign nations and UK defence industries” through, for example, pension funds.

A long drawn out duel ensued between the government and Palestine campaigners. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) challenged the legality of this guidance in the High Court in 2017 and won.

But in 2018 this was overturned in the Court of Appeal. Then, in 2020, the PSC took it to the Supreme Court and won.

Despite the prolific efforts of the PSC in securing the Supreme Court victory, this new bill would undo everything it achieved when it comes to what public bodies are allowed to do.

The bill has been on the agenda for some time. Pretty much the same headlines hit in December 2019 after it was announced in the Queen’s Speech that the government planned to “ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, divestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries”. Then Covid struck and not much more was said about it. Until now.

What is the #RightToBoycott campaign?

51 civil society organisations, including War on Want and Campaign Against the Arms Trade, have signed a public statement called the #RightToBoycott (coordinated by the PSC).

What can you do?

There are various actions you can take to make your views known about the right of public bodies to boycott.

You can express opposition to the bill through the following actions:


  • Use this template Tweet: “Thanks @johnmcdonnellMP for saying you will oppose the government’s proposed Anti-Boycott Bill at every opportunity. Protect the #RightToBoycott”
  • Use this template tweet “I oppose the government’s planned Anti-Boycott Bill. Defend the  #RightToBoycott @cabinetofficeuk”


Both sites help you find your MP if you are unsure who it is.


Boycotts List

Individuals still have the right to spend and invest their money however they like – the legislation won’t touch individuals.

Check out our Boycotts List – the leading source of information about active boycotts in the UK today. The list currently features 12 active Palestinian BDS boycott campaigns.

And boycotts can and do work - check out a summary of some successful boycotts.

History of repressive legislation

Nearly 30 years ago, Ethical Consumer published the first of many articles speaking out against Section 17 of the 1988 Local Government Act.

The Act forbade local authorities in the UK from supporting the global boycott of South Africa over its brutal and openly racist approach to governing its citizens. The Act was passed by the then Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher, who felt no shame in openly championing racism at that time.

It was part of a wider raft of repressive legislation during that period targeting such heinous activities as public protest, music events, trades union disputes, and the 'promotion of homosexuality'.

The current proposals are part of a general raft of repressive legislation seeking to target similarly nefarious activities like climate protest and seeking asylum in the UK.

One thing this proposed legislation has done is tell us that ethical purchasing by local authorities has been having real impact on this issue. Otherwise why would anyone bother to take this step? The same is true of the message sent by the Police and Crime bill about the effectiveness of non-violent direct action.

It also tells us that the Government may not have been paying attention in its history lessons. Some elements of the 1988 Act, which are still in force, already appear to outlaw the thing they are trying to outlaw again. This tells us that previous attempts to use the law to try to prevent local councils from buying ethically may not have been too successful. This might be because some ethical boycotts may not have been challenged or even noticed. Or indeed that the law itself has been frequently misunderstood.

In the same way that using the law to try to prevent protest, music events and homosexuality was ultimately not that successful, is is unlikely that these poorly considered interventions around ethical purchasing, protest and seeking asylum will have a great deal of impact in the longer term either. This is of course no reason not to oppose these new rules, nor the remnants of the 1988 Act that remain on the statute books. But it is some consolation in a time of bewilderingly chaotic government.