The anti-boycott Bill is a dangerous assault on democracy

Caroline Lucas explains how the Bill is part of a coordinated attack on democratic principles

A photo of Palestine solidarity protesters

Caroline Lucas is the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion

On Monday, the Government’s Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill passed its second reading by a majority of 268 to 70. Its wordy title disguises its deeply dangerous nature – this is an anti-boycott Bill, sitting alongside reams of recent legislation rolling back the right to strike, the right to protest, and the right to seek asylum, to form a co-ordinated attack on democratic principles. Alarmingly, it will also undermine a wide range of campaigns for social and climate justice.  

The Government’s aim is to force public authorities – including local councils, universities, public-sector pension funds, and cultural or other public institutions – to ignore the ethical concerns of voters when making spending or investment choices.  

Most of the lobbying I have received is from constituents and civil society concerned the legislation will stop campaigns in support of Palestinian human rights – something that would itself be wrong in principle. But other movements who use boycott or divestment tactics will also be impacted – including the Uyghurs in China, who often advocate boycotting goods from Xinjiang created from slave labour. 

This law could curtail campaigns against deforestation, pollution, and the exploitation of children and workers, in countries where these practices are tolerated by authorities or where they are unethical but not explicitly illegal. Some of the most inspiring and essential work to create a safe climate and liveable future – in which local people and communities are at the forefront – is now at grave risk.  

Rightly fearful of a public backlash, the Government has tried to muddy the waters by bolting on a schedule of exceptions from the ban for campaigns – against what it describes as “environmental misconduct”. Yet this only applies to practices that are illegal in this or another country and also cause significant harm to the environment.  

As climate campaigners know all too well, harmful and dangerous activity takes place without any legal restriction. The distinction, for instance, between logging that meets the threshold for illegality and that which is ‘merely’ damaging and destructive, can be difficult to determine.  

In fact, many boycott initiatives seek to mobilise public pressure to bring about a change of policy or law, and campaigns such as these would fall squarely within the restrictions imposed by the Bill. Likewise, while Ministers insist that the right to divest from fossil fuels in general is protected while only campaigns that ‘single out’ a particular country are prevented, this could in practice make it near-impossible to exercise that right in many real-world situations.  

Boycotts work when they are targeted and specific, while the boundaries between states and state-owned oil and gas companies could easily become blurred. Unsurprisingly, a report produced by Friends of the Earth this week neatly summarises these provisions as simply ‘too weak to work.’ 

Supporters of the Bill will argue that big issues are best left to Ministers. But the effects of our current collision course with climate catastrophe are already being keenly felt at a local level. This is only set to continue, as rising seas menace coastal populations and local rivers and streams run dry. It is in our universities that world-leading research into these devastating consequences is every day being carried out. No wonder it is often on campuses and in our council chambers that we encounter calls for action to plug the gaps left wide open by central government’s short-sighted and utterly inadequate policies.  

Shockingly, clauses in this anti-boycott Bill go so far as to gag local representatives and prevent them from explaining their position to the electorate. Clause 4(1) forbids all those subject to the proposed new law from even stating on a public platform or a hustings event, that they would support taking a decision to ethically divest if it were legal for them to do so.  

From the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, to the struggle for LGBTQ+ liberation and against the notorious ‘Section 28’, we know that locally accountable decision-makers are often far in advance of their counterparts at Westminster. Local councils and universities must be allowed to decide how their money is invested – and should be encouraged, not prevented, from stepping up to act as leaders in taking climate action by divesting from companies that are destroying our planet. 

The anti-boycott bill is a major attack on freedom of expression, an erosion of fundamental democratic principles and a genuine threat to climate and human rights campaigns. I, and my Green Party colleagues, will take every opportunity to vote against this toxic piece of legislation in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I sincerely hope that other parties will do the same.  

Image credit: Socialist Appeal – Creative Commons

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