A top lawyer used by Labour for legal advice on the BDS bill has a “record” of taking “political” positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, MPs have heard.
Richard Hermer KC, a high-profile human rights lawyer, advised Labour that the Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill would have “a profoundly detrimental impact on the United Kingdom’s ability to protect and promote human rights overseas”.
Hermer, of Matrix Chambers, warned the bill “will stifle free speech at home” and was “in certain respects inconsistent with our obligations under international law” in legal advice to the party.
But speaking in the House of Commons on Monday during a second reading of the BDS bill, Conservative MP Simon Clarke pointed out that Hermer had previously co-authored a chapter in a book edited by some controversial figures.
Addressing Communities Secretary Michael Gove, Clarke said: “I wonder if he could clarify his thoughts on Richard Hermer KC who is providing advice to the shadow front bench on this legislation.
“Mr Hermer has previously authored a chapter in a book called ‘Corporate Complicity in Israel's Occupation: Evidence from the London Session of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine’ which is edited by some extremely interesting people, interesting I fear in the most negative sense.
“Is this really the calibre of individual he believes should be advising the official opposition?”
Responding, Gove said: “My right honourable friend raises an important question because the opposition have brought forward a reasoned amendment and I believe they have brought that amendment forward of course in good faith.
“But as my right honourable friend pointed out, there are some lawyers who take a different view and one of those lawyers was commissioned by the Labour Party in order to produce a legal opinion.
“But the gentlemen concerned, a distinguished KC, has a record in this area and a record of political commitments which everyone can see clearly predisposes him towards a political and particular view on this question.
“I’m merely pointing out what is in the public domain.”
It comes as Labour tabled an amendment during a second reading of the bill in the House of Commons which would radically weaken its provisions.
Communities Secretary Michael Gove introduced the bill which will impose heavy fines on public bodies that impose their own boycotts on foreign government or territories.
But under Labour’s proposed “reasoned amendment”, public bodies would be allowed to make their own investment and procurement decisions and the threat of fines being issued to local authorities would be removed.
Speaking in favour of the bill, Gove said there was an "organised and malign campaign" which aims to "de-legitimise" the "world's only Jewish state".
The Communities Secretary said the bill prevents "local authorities singling out individual nations for discriminatory treatment on the basis of an ideological opposition to that nation and its fundamental basis".
He added: "And action is required here because there is an existing organised and malign campaign, which aims to target and de-legitimise the world's only Jewish state, and that campaign seeks to persuade public bodies to make commercial decisions solely on the basis of harming that state and its people.
"The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement deliberately asks public bodies to treat Israel differently from any other nation on the globe. It asks them to treat the Middle East's only democracy as a pariah state and to end links with those who have a commercial presence there.
"Now, let me be clear, there are legitimate reasons to criticise the Israeli government, to question their policy, and if individuals wish to, to repudiate their leadership, as there are with many other countries.
"And nothing in this Bill prevents or impedes the loudest of criticisms of Israel's government and leaders."
Meanwhile, the Government was urged by the Conservative chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee to strike out specific references to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories from the Bill.
Alicia Kearns told the Commons there was a "conflation of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories" in Clause 3.7 of the Bill, which departed from the UK's position that there should be a two-state solution to conflict.
She said: "The UK recognises the Golan Heights is annexed, and the West Bank and east Jerusalem as occupied Palestinian territories. This is a departure from our foreign policy."
Kearns later claimed the Bill "essentially gives exceptional impunity to Israel", adding: "This is something we should not give to any country and I would be standing here making the same request if any country was named.
"There is significant unhappiness among colleagues in the House and in our party.
“To enable him (Mr Gove) to still deliver on our manifesto commitment can I urge him to please remove clause 3.7, which is unnecessary to deliver our commitment? We can still do this with just small compromise from the frontbench."
Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy reaffirmed that Labour would be forced to vote against the Bill if it is not subject to sweeping changes.
Moving Labour's amendment to decline to give the Bill a second reading, the shadow communities secretary told the Commons: "We have a number of serious suggestions about the way in which this problem can be tackled. We have outlined an alternative approach; we have provided him with a solution, and we urge him to take it.
"Otherwise, he should know that we will be compelled to vote against this Bill at third reading, as I suspect will significant numbers of his own colleagues. It is an outcome we should all strive to avoid.
"If a pledge to tackle division, around which there is broad consensus, was derailed by a combative approach and a government that refused to listen to the wide range of voices that have expressed their concerns, that would be a crying shame.
Lisa Nandy said the bill amounts to an unjustified attack on free speech (Photo: Getty)
"But with goodwill and good faith on the part of the Government we can proceed together. We have proposed how, the ball is now in his (Michael Gove's) court.”
In a statement on Monday night provided to the JC, Hermer said: “As an international human rights lawyer I am frequently asked to give my objective assessment of the legality of the acts of numerous foreign governments and the meaning and effect of UK legislation. The values of the independent Bar require that I do so without ‘fear or favour’ and without regard to my own personal views.
“Your questions infer that my analysis was somehow influenced by some form of malign intent towards Israel. It was not. As it happens, I am from a “Blue-Box” Jewish family, a former Jewish youth movement chanich/madrich (a movement that my kids are now actively involved in), a graduate of the Machon, a former active member of UJS, a former volunteer for Searchlight magazine and a current member of Alyth Gardens shul. I actively support a range of Jewish and Israeli organisations.
“I have dear family members currently serving in the IDF. I also happen to believe (again completely unconnected to my professional analysis on the Bill) that the continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank is unlawful, deeply damaging to the interests of Israel and wholly contrary to the values of tikkun olam that I grew up with and continue to guide me."