Scottish ministers have rejected a controversial UK Government bill which bans public bodies from boycotting foreign countries and allegedly “backs Israel’s apartheid regime”.
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill bans councils, universities and other bodies from enacting economic boycotts on countries not sanctioned by the UK Government, singling out Israel as particularly worthy of protection.
Tory ministers at Westminster argue that UK foreign policy should be a matter for the UK Government only, and that the bill protects Jewish communities against campaigns it believes are fuelling antisemitism.
These include the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which campaigns for organisations to cut economic ties with Israel in protest over its treatment of Palestinians.
However, critics of the bill argue it protects the Israeli government from a legitimate international movement concerned over human rights, and would limit campaigns against abuses in other parts of the world – such as the persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China.
Last month, The Ferret reported that human rights groups, unions and environmentalists in Scotland were urging Scottish ministers to reject the bill.
Supporters of the bill include the British Board of Deputies and the Scottish Conservative MSP, Jackson Carlaw.
The Scottish Government said then it was examining the bill and would set out its view on whether consent should be given.
The government has now said it will not recommend that consent be given to the bill. The issue will go before the Scottish Parliament.
In a letter to the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s chair, Dr Eurig Scandrett, on 31 July 2023, the government wrote: “On 19th July, the Scottish Government lodged a legislative consent memorandum (LCM) with the Scottish Parliament, setting out Scottish ministers’ views on the bill as it interacts with devolved matters. It makes clear that the Scottish Government will not be recommending consent to the bill.”
The LCM referred to says that Scots ministers consider the bill to be a “wholly unnecessary and unwelcome alteration of Scottish ministers’ competence”.
It also says the Scottish Government has “always acted responsibly and in line with the UK’s international commitments”, and that people in Scotland “rightly expect that decisions should not be made in an ethical or moral vacuum”.
“The UK Government’s approach to apartheid government in South Africa, refusing to condemn it when others were actively boycotting it, demonstrates the danger inherent in this restriction,” says the LCM.
“We are rightly proud of those in Scotland who took a stand against apartheid. Under the provisions of this bill, many of them would have been silenced. For a government to outlaw the expression of ideas different to its own is wholly unjustifiable and entirely incompatible with the notion that we live in a functioning democracy.”
Dr Scandrett welcomed the Scottish Government’s decision and said ministers were right to take a stand against “consenting to such an iniquitous piece of legislation”.
He added: “The anti-boycott bill was first raised in the 2019 Queen’s Speech for Boris Johnson’s government as ‘boycotts by public institutions’. It is clearly aimed as an attack on the ongoing success of the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, a campaign called for by Palestinian civil society.
“The anti-boycott bill is a clear attempt by the UK Government to back Israel’s apartheid regime and its murderous persecution of the Palestinian people at a time when the killing of Palestinians by Israeli settlers and occupation forces has reached unprecedented levels.”
Ephraim Borowski, director of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, said: “We are currently consulting among the community in order to assess how the proposed legislation might impact on Jewish people in Scotland, and will then submit evidence once the legislative consent motion has been published.
“As anticipated, there are a wide range of opinions throughout the community but until our internal consultation has concluded we are not in a position, as a representative organisation, to express an opinion on behalf of the entire community.”
A legislative consent motion is the means by which a devolved legislature indicates it is content for the UK parliament to pass a law on a devolved matter.
Sometimes referred to as Sewel motions, they arise out of the convention that the UK parliament will not normally legislate on a devolved matter without the consent of the Scottish Government.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government has lodged a legislative consent memorandum with the Scottish Parliament setting out the reasons why ministers believe the parliament should not give its consent to this bill as drafted.
“It is now up to the Scottish Parliament to consider how to respond to the bill. If it does not give its consent, then in accordance with the Sewel Convention, the UK Government should amend the bill to reflect and respect the Scottish Parliament’s decision.”
The UK Government and the Scottish Conservatives were asked to comment, but neither replied.
The development comes as hundreds of academics and public figures – including dozens in Israel – signed an open letter equating Israel’s occupation of the West Bank with apartheid.
The letter says: “Palestinian people lack almost all basic rights, including the right to vote and protest. They face constant violence: this year alone, Israeli forces have killed over 190 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and demolished over 590 structures. Settler vigilantes burn, loot, and kill with impunity.
“Without equal rights for all, whether in one state, two states, or in some other political framework, there is always a danger of dictatorship. There cannot be democracy for Jews in Israel as long as Palestinians live under a regime of apartheid.”
However, the Israeli government has robustly rejected allegations it is an apartheid state, arguing that such claims amount to anti-semitism.
Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan last year attacked the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other rights groups for launching “a Jihad war against the only vibrant democracy in the Middle East.”
Their recent reports, he reportedly said, “have attempted to brand Israel with absurd claims and heinous accusations.”
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