So many of the major challenges we are tackling as a country depend on local government.
Whether it’s levelling up and tackling inequality, helping the most vulnerable deal with inflationary pressures and the cost of living, providing vulnerable citizens with safe and decent homes or supporting the elderly or disabled with social care, we rely on local government to take a leading role.
And so many councils provide an excellent service in tough circumstances.
But in one area — pursuing their own misguided boycotts of foreign countries — some local authorities and other public bodies seem to forget what they are there to do, and adopt the politics of a student union, not the responsibilities of an arm of the state.
We have seen it happen in Leicester, where councillors voted to boycott produce originating from the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Similar measures were passed by Swansea City Council in 2010 and Gwynedd Council in 2014. Whatever your views on the Middle East peace process — and the government’s position remains unchanged — we never think that locally-led boycotts are the answer.
As Jewish Chronicle readers are so painfully aware, the campaigns to boycott Israeli goods often lead to appalling antisemitic tropes and abuse for the Jewish community living here in the UK. They can also have a wider chilling effect by intimidating businesses out of trading and working with Israel, which is one of our most important business partners in the region.
There are many reasons why I have unveiled legislation this week that will stop public bodies pursuing their own foreign policy. This honours a Conservative manifesto commitment and has been a personal priority of mine for many years.
It is wrong, clearly, that organisations — in launching their own boycott and divestment campaigns — act in a way that targets specific groups and jeopardises community relations. It is wrong that individuals who take on roles within a public body can repurpose its policies at taxpayers’ expense to suit their own beliefs and agenda as part of some politically motivated groupthink. And it is wrong that they can sow confusion about the country’s actual foreign policy among our international allies and partners, potentially jeopardising the UK’s credibility. It is for the British government to set our agenda globally and to decide on our tough sanctions regime.
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill puts an end to councils and various other public bodies running campaigns that target any of Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or the Golan Heights.
This will put a stop to Israeli businesses and organisations being targeted through ongoing boycotts by public bodies at a time when antisemitism, the oldest hatred, continues to be a terrible scourge on our society. I hope this will help ease community tensions.
The Community Security Trust recorded a shocking 1,652 antisemitic incidents in the UK in 2022. I draw scant comfort that this reflects a 27 per cent fall on the previous year’s tally considering that in that year, a record number of incidents were recorded.
The bill is backed up by an enforcement regime that gives ministers and regulators powers to investigate and fine public bodies where there is evidence that they have breached the ban.
And public bodies that do not follow the law will also be open to judicial review.
I need only point to our coordinated response to Vladimir Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine as an example of how our institutions can genuinely work together for the common good. Our approach will allow authorities to continue to divest from Russia and Belarus, as we have seen so many councils across the UK rightly doing. The government will retain the power to adjust the powers in this new bill, so we can ensure that public bodies are lawfully able to divest from those countries or territories which, like Russia, the government has carefully determined should be censured.
Our national effort to support those Ukrainians caught up in Putin’s illegal war saw the many benefits of public bodies working together to deliver Government foreign and domestic policy.
Councils, charities and a swathe of organisations continue to rally to provide wave after wave of economic, humanitarian and defensive military assistance to Ukraine, as the government imposed strong sanctions on Russia and Belarus. We have welcomed more than 165,000 guests from Ukraine through our Homes for Ukraine scheme alone.
Our unprecedented package of support for Ukraine would not have been possible without this network of partners, unified behind a single foreign policy agenda rather than divided by rabble-rousing fringe groups.
This — rather than divisive policy-making — is how local government can continue to make a positive difference to people’s lives.
Michael Gove is Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities