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UK Parliament votes to ban boycott of Israel in public pension funds

Amendment will stop investment decisions that 'conflict with UK foreign policy', with pro-Palestine BDS movement likely affected
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Pro-Palestine activists in the UK have vowed to challenge Conservative MP Robert Jenrick's amendment (AFP/File photo)

The United Kingdom parliament overwhelmingly voted on Tuesday in favour of an amendment which would ban public sector employees from boycotting Israeli investments within their pension pots.

An amendment to the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices bill tabled by Conservative MP Robert Jenrick posited that authorities administering public sector pension schemes “may not make investment decisions that conflict with the UK’s foreign and defence policy”. 

While the pro-Palestine Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel was not explicitly mentioned in the wording of the bill, Jenrick made clear during the parliamentary debate that the policy centred around the issue.
 
“The BDS movement does absolutely nothing to advance the cause of peace,” Jenrick told MPs during the parliamentary debate. 

He accused BDS activists of blaming only Israel, while failing to call out other actors in the region, such as Palestinian group Hamas and the Lebanese group Hezbollah. He also claimed that there were no similar calls for divestment against Indian and Chinese companies following the treatment of Muslims in those countries. 

Jenrick suggested that the amendment “should merely be the beginning of a wider effort to tackle BDS within the public sector”, and added that he hoped a "BDS bill" would be forthcoming.

The amendment passed with 296 votes in favour and 81 against. Labour MPs were whipped to abstain; however, 22 Labour MPs voted against, joining the Liberal Democrats and Scottish National Party.

'Criminalising peaceful expression'

Several opposition politicians criticised the amendment, including former shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

“On moral grounds, I want to be able to influence the investments. I do not want my pension invested in armaments or fossil fuels either, and I believe that that is my right,” McDonnell said.

He cited concerns about investing in Saudi Arabia, given its war in Yemen, as well as China, among other countries with questionable human rights records. 

“I do not believe it is the role of the state to ride roughshod over my moral choices without extremely good reason,” he said.

Zarah Sultana, Labour MP for Coventry South, said during the debate that 39 local councils divested from companies operating in apartheid South Africa and Namibia in 1985.

“Had it been in place back in 1985, because the Conservative government supported apartheid South Africa - let us not forget that - local councils, no matter the strength of local feeling or the righteousness of the cause, would have been prevented from divesting pension funds from apartheid South Africa.” 

Several MPs took issue with the wording of the amendment, stating that it went far beyond BDS, and would deny public institutions the right to divest from arms companies and other organisations involved in human rights abuses. 

Amnesty International noted that it would be difficult for pension fund managers to practically ensure that investments were always compliant with UK foreign and defence policy, both of which were constantly evolving.

“Who would be responsible and pay for ongoing monitoring of the totality of the UK government’s foreign and defence policies and understanding their complex application in the investment sphere?” it said in a briefing published last week. 

The Muslim Association of Britain described the amendment as “a contemptible attempt at criminalising any form of peaceful expression against regimes around the world that commit some of the most egregious human rights abuses”.

In May 2020, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign after it brought a case against the government for attempting to restrict local council pensions from divesting from defence companies and human rights-abusing countries. 

The activist group said on Tuesday that it would “challenge any attempt to use this amendment to prevent pension schemes making ethical investment decisions.

“We won at the Supreme Court before, and will win again,” it added.