Government takes first historic step towards banning BDS in Britain

Amendment passed to stop council pension funds from backing boycott sanctions


LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 12: Demonstrators gather outside Downing Street demanding justice for Palestine on June 12, 2021 in London, England. In May 2021 Israel launched an 11-day aerial bombardment of Gaza, killing 248, including 66 children and with more than 1,900 wounded. Hamas bombings in Israel during the same period have killed 12 civilians including two children. Many pro-palestinian groups have protested in cities around the world following the latest attacks. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

The government has taken the historic first step in outlawing the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in Britain.

Amid protests from some Labour MPs, an amendment tabled by former Communities Minister Rob Jenrick has been passed with the government support to stop local authority pension funds from backing BDS sanctions against UK companies connected with Israel.

The move comes on the day Hertfordshire County Council rejected a bid to divest millions from companies linked to Israel and in advance of a BDS vote by Wirral council promoted by expelled Labour councillor Jo Bird. 

Changes to the Pensions Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill will give the Local Government Secretary new powers to direct Local Government Pension Funds not to make decisions that conflict with government foreign and defence policy. 

It comes after the Supreme Court, in May, 2020, overruled a previous attempt by the government to curb BDS in Britain at the end of a four-year legal battle bought by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. 

At the time, the government said it was committed to stopping “local boycotts” from being introduced.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Jenrick said public sector pensions, paid for by the taxpayer and underwritten by the government, were “quite clearly the preserve of the state” and it was “perfectly legitimate” for the government to have a say in how they were regulated. 

He added:  “For too long we have seen public pension schemes pursue pseudo foreign policies and all too often the foreign policy of these public pension schemes is I’m afraid, exclusively focused on re-writing the UK’s relationship with the world’s only Jewish state, Israel.

“The latest example of the politicisation of public pension schemes is by Wirral Council who are currently considering releasing almost £5m within investments in seven companies. This pet project of a small minority who seek to hijack the money of hard working taxpayers for their own political ends is of no interest to the public pension holders of the Wirral…”

Branding BDS campaigners a “minority of an extreme and well organised clique” he said:  “You don’t have to look very hard to find a pattern of antisemitic behaviour in connection with campaigns promoting a boycott of Israel. Successive studies have shown the single best statistical predictor of anti-Jewish hostility is the amount of BDS activity…”

However several Labour MPs spoke out against the amendment.  Coventry South MP Zarah Sultana said it would have a “chilling effect” and ensure that pension funds were “weaponised against human rights campaigns”. 

Hammersmith MP Andy Slaughter said it had no place in the Bill and Kemptown MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle said it would not allow for any fund to operate with an “ethical framework”.

Labour’s former deputy leader John McDonnell said: “I don’t believe it is the role of the state to ride roughshod over my moral choices.”

Following the vote,  Mr Jenrick told the JC: “BDS against Israel is all too often connected to antisemitism her in the UK and does nothing to promote peace and is increasingly out of step with the mood in the Middle East following the Abraham Accords, whereby a number of Gulf states are forging productive links with Israel. 

“It is unacceptable for local councils to be making divisive foreign policy interventions contrary to the position of the UK Government.  I am delighted that my amendment has passed and wil be the first step in legislation outlawing BDS in the UK.   I hope it presages a wider Bill in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech tackling BDS throughout the public sector.”

Hertfordshire County Council today rejected a bid to stop its own pension fund from being tied to the BDS cause. 

The authority was legally bound by its constitution to hear a public petition, organised by David Leigh from the Herts Palestine Support Coalition, because it had support signatures from more than 1,000 voters in the county. 

However Cllr Bob Deering, Executive Member for Resources, said the council had no power to interfere in the commercial decisions of the pension fund, which operates on behalf of 120,000 members. 

Conservative group leader Caroline Clapper, together with three other Conservative councillors Morris Bright, John Graham and Seamus Quilty, had written to the authority in advance of the petition to state they were “united” in opposing any anti-Israel boycotts.

Wirral Council’s Pensions Committee is also due to consider next week a proposal to link the Merseyside Pension Funk to divestment in seven UK companies connected to Israel.  The move is thought to be orchestrated by Jo Bird, expelled from Labour for her support for a proscribed group Labour Against the Witch Hunt which downplayed the scale of Labour’s antisemitism crisis. 

Claudia Mendoza, Co-CEO of the JLC said: “We welcome the decision today to put an end to attempts to politicise the decision making process of public sector pension funds’ investments in Israel. We thank Robert Jenrick for bringing forward the amendment and the government for supporting it. Councils should be focusing on community cohesion and not stoking division by importing of a foreign conflict through BDS.”

Mr Jenrick is set to assume the position of co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on British Jews. 

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