Wednesday, 9 March 2016
The Tory government is planning to introduce legislation that will make boycotts of 'unethical' firms illegal. Under the proposed legislation, all publicly funded institutions will be banned from refusing to buy goods and services from companies involved in the "arms trade, fossil fuels. tobacco products or Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank." Public bodies that continued to pursue boycotts, would face "severe penalties", according to a government minister.
Under the proposed legislation, organisations would have been prohibited from campaigning against apartheid or in future, from promoting boycotts against firms involved in supplying arms to countries with a record of abusing human rights.
At least three local authorities, including Labour controlled Birmingham Council and Leicester, have threatened to end contracts with the French-owned water, energy and waste-management company Veolia, over its involvement in the West Bank settlements. As a result, the company announced that it was ending its operations in Israel. In November 2014, Leicester Council adopted a policy to boycott goods from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Jewish groups have denounced the decision declaring that it "amounts to a get-out-of-town order to Leicester Jews" and have launched a judicial review.
Government sources say they are cracking down on town-hall boycotts because they "undermined good community relations, poisoned and polarised debate and fuelled anti-Semitism." Critics say that the government proposals are a "gross attack on democratic freedoms and local democracy" which should be free of central Government political control. Student union bans, could also be illegal under the proposed legislation.
Although much of the publicity about this issue has been focused on boycotts affecting Israeli companies, the proposed legislation may be intended or have unintended consequences, for a range of different groups who hope to urge public bodies to deny contracts to organisations deemed unethical. For example, a body such as the 'Blacklist Support Group', is seeking to promote a boycott of construction companies, known as the 'McFarlanes Defendents', that includes Carillion, Kier and Sir Robert McAlpine, who have admitted guilt in the High Court to "infringing workers' rights to confidentiality, privacy, reputation and data protection." The construction companies have also admitted to a further claim of 'defamation.
John McDonnell, the Labour Shadow Chancellor, believes that the 'blacklisting' of construction workers by these companies, is a national scandal. Although some Labour councils in the North West, such as Tameside, in Greater Manchester, continue to use construction companies such as Carillion and Kier, who have admitted to infringing workers rights and to having been affiliated to a secretive blacklisting organization called the 'Consulting Association', the Shadow Chancellor says:
"Labour will do everything in our power to ensure that taxpayers money is only given to companies with the highest ethical standards by ensuring that public contracts are not awarded to companies involved in serious human rights violations."
If the planned proposals by the government to ban boycotts of 'unethical' firms goes ahead, this sort of action may well prove to be illegal.