Plans to stop UK public bodies boycotting foreign countries and British companies doing business with them represent a further attack on the right to freedom of expression, civil society groups say society.
Officials from the Department for Leveling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) said the boycotts, divestment and sanctions bill, announced in last year’s Queen’s speech and designed to stop actions against Israel, will be presented in soon.
The move, first reported by the FT, comes amid anger at the crackdown on protesters at King Charles’ coronation last week, days after the Public Order Act was given royal assent.
The bill will ban campaigns, including those related to the purchase of goods and services or investments. The government previously sponsored a 2014 Leicester city council motion banning goods from illegal Israeli settlements, while the communities secretary, Michael Gove, claimed that Israel-targeting BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) movement is fueling antisemitism.
However, the 60 civil society groups under the umbrella boycott claim that the bill will hinder social and climate justice campaigns.
Ben Jamal, the director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK, said it was “another example of the government’s attack on democratic participation”.
He said: “With support growing around the world for the call issued by Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, the British government seems determined to protect Israel, and companies involved in it occupies, from accountability for its violations of human rights and international law.
“This bill will weaken campaigns against deforestation, environmental pollution, and exploitation of children and workers. So a wide range of groups came together, from trade unions, charities and NGOs, to faith, climate justice, human rights, culture, campaigns, and solidarity organizations. How can we trust ministers to uphold ethical standards around the world while they remove our democratic rights at home? “
In February, despite opposition from the BDS movement, the Union of Jewish students passed a motion opposing the bill, saying it would restrict the “democratic right to nonviolent protest”.
Ruth Ehrlich, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty, said: “For a government that claims to care about freedom of speech, the proposed anti-boycott bill, once again, shows their little commitment to protect freedom of expression.
“This bill must be seen in the context of the wider government’s attempt to restrict our rights to protest and for people to stand up for what they believe in. We urge the government to rethink its plans .”
Opponents of the bill say boycotts, divestments and sanctions are used to deal with historical injustices, including the transatlantic slave trade and apartheid in South Africa.
Unison said it would “silence any attempt to shame China’s appalling treatment of Uyghurs”.
Dave Timms, head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth, says fossil fuel divestment has led to institutions with a combined net worth of more than $40tn (£32tn) diverting their money away from pollution. industries. “Banning public bodies from using these important tactics unless they support UK foreign policy is a scary and authoritarian move,” he said.
A spokesman for the DLUHC said it would legislate “as soon as parliamentary time allows”, adding: “We are strongly opposed to local boycotts that undermine community unity and cohesion, hinder exports, and undermine our economic security.”