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How could the UK government’s latest anti-boycott bill be defeated?

As this ill-informed bill makes its way through UK Parliament, civil society has an opportunity to unravel it from all angles. 

The “Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill”, otherwise known as the "anti-boycott bill", is slowly making its way through Parliament, and had its second reading in July. 

If approved, public bodies may end up legally obliged to invest in or procure from companies involved in illegal or unethical activity.

While designed to specifically target the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the bill would affect a diverse range of other campaigns too, from animal rights and climate change, to free speech proponents and pension fund owners. 

It's not surprising that a diverse range of organisations have stated opposition to this draconian bill, including around 70 NGOs and the Scottish government.

Up until September a parliamentary committee is accepting evidence from organisations and individuals who want to add to their understanding of the bill and its implications, which is a prime opportunity for those opposed to the bill to get their voices heard.

What’s the latest on the anti-boycott bill?

What is the Conservative Party saying?

This is a Tory bill and so it has a lot of support from the Tories.

However, significant hostility towards the bill among its own party was clear during its second reading in July.

Concerns highlighted related to:

  • Individuals’ rights to decide what to do with their own money and pensions
  • The impact on climate and social justice campaigns
  • The singling out of Israel in the bill
  • Free speech proponents worried about the gagging clause

The clause that specifically singles out Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories was highlighted as particularly problematic, because it’s at odds with the UK’s commitment to UN resolution 2334. The Foreign Office has highlighted that, for example, Russia would be able to use this bill to point out that Britain isn’t abiding by UN resolutions.

What are the opposition parties saying?

Most Labour MPs followed the party line and abstained, with just ten defying the party line and voting against it (as well as Jeremy Corbyn who is currently sitting as an independent). Concerns about restrictions the bill would place on climate change and boycott activism more generally mainly came from opposition benches such as Labour.

There’s big opposition in the devolved governments, especially Scotland, and potentially in Wales too.

Amending the bill versus scrapping it

One potential risk is that if campaigners against the bill single out only one or two specific problems with it, these could be dropped or amended and then the rest of the bill still gets passed.

For example, if the clause mentioning Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories is removed, the rest of the bill could still be passed, resulting in pretty much the same restrictions on boycott campaigns.

If several areas of the bill prove to be problematic, however, this could make the bill difficult to pass at all. It could reach the stage when the Conservatives say “This bill is just unmanageable” and it gets pushed into the long grass and doesn't progress.

It was mentioned in the party’s manifesto, however, so it's likely the Conservatives will take significant efforts to try to get it passed.

What’s next for the bill?

The next stage for this bill is the committee stage in September 2023. It’ll then go on to a third reading.

The committee is accepting written evidence, so NGOs, experts and companies have the opportunity to submit evidence about their understanding of the bill and its implications, to be taken into account.

If these come from a range of organisations – environmental organisations, human rights organisations, banks, ESG investors… this could demonstrate to the committee the breadth of opposition and might convince the government to get cold feet.

Make your voices heard

We’re submitting evidence to the parliamentary committee explaining why we oppose the bill, specifically focusing on the valuable role whole-country boycotts have played in animal rights campaigns.

You can ask other organisations you know that might have reason to oppose the bill to do the same.

Contact organisations as soon as possible, and before the deadline of 14th September. The committee said: "The sooner you send in your submission, the more time the Committee will have to take it into consideration."

There are also ways you can take action as an individual.

Take action

Write to your MP

If you're concerned about the bill, now is the time to write personal emails to your local MP. Speak to an issue that matters to you personally, for example:

  • The right to boycott (for example, its role in Apartheid South Africa)
  • The right to decide how your money is invested, including public money
  • The right of animal rights activists to campaign (for example, historical boycotts of Canada over seal culling)
  • Palestinian human rights
  • Freedom of speech
  • The right to put sanctions on countries like Russia and China

Find and contact your MP on the Write To Them website.

Do this as soon as possible, so that they can consider it before the next reading of the bill.

If you live in Scotland or Wales you can also write to your MSP or AS to ask the respective devolved parliaments to oppose the bill. This gives them more evidence that people are opposed to it.

Why Ethical Consumer opposes this bill

Some reasons are:

1. The right to base investment and purchasing decisions on ethics is at the core of our work at Ethical Consumer. We’ve been campaigning for this and helping make it possible for over 30 years. This bill tries to limit the public's right to spend according to ethics.

2. We support universal human rights, including Palestinian human rights, and view boycotts and divestment as peaceful ways to hold oppressive governments to accounts for human rights abuses.

3. We recognise the role country-wide boycotts have played among campaigners, including when it comes to animal rights. For example, campaigns around seal-culling in Canada, whaling in Japan, and monkey exports in France. We think it's important that the impact this bill could have on this type of campaign is fully considered.