How can Quakers and local meetings take action?
The new guidance was published without any parliamentary or public scrutiny and this debate is the first time the issue will be discussed in Parliament. It's therefore key that as many MPs attend and speak out as possible so the government can see the strength of feeling there is on this issue.
The debate will be held next Tuesday 15 March in Parliament's Westminster Hall from 2:30-4:00pm. Write to your MP to tell them of your concerns and ask them to attend. You can find contact details for your MP on the Write To Them website.
What's in the government's new guidance?
On 17 February 2016, while on a visit to Israel, government minister Matthew Hancock announced new guidance (offsite link) stating that procurement boycotts by all public bodies - including central government, local councils and NHS bodies - were "inappropriate other than where formal legal sanctions, embargoes and restrictions had been put in place by the government". The announcement was covered widely in the media (article in The Independent).
Earlier this year, the government held a public consultation on similar plans to limit the ability of councils to have ethical investment policies. Many Quakers, along with Britain Yearly Meeting, sent in submissions (PDF). The government is yet to publish its response to the consultation.
What are Britain Yearly Meeting's main concerns?
The new guidance says that World Trade Organisation rules prohibit public bodies from discriminating against (ie refusing to award contracts to) companies based on their nationality. However, the guidance leaves it unclear as to whether it is still lawful for public bodies to refuse to award contracts to companies based on their human rights record or compliance with international law. Indeed, the guidance as written appears to imply - although not specifically state - that it would unlawful for public bodies to refuse to award contracts for these reasons. This stands in contrast with legal opinion and with the United Nation's Guiding Principles on Business and Human Righs (offsite link) which calls on government bodies not to award contracts to companies operating in violation of international law.
With regards to Israeli settlement goods, the guidance also appears to contradict the government's own advice (offsite link) to UK businesses which warns against the legal and reputational risks of engaging in trade with illegal settlements.
The government's failure to state clearly what public bodies can, and can't, do comes despite numerous requests for clarification from a wide range of organisations and faith groups. Without this clarification, the concern is that public bodies will refrain from making any ethical decisions in their procurement for fear of falling foul of the rules and the "severe penalties" the government threatens in the guidance.
Current Quaker campaigns on ethical finance
Quakers have a long history of campaigning to move funds away from unethical trades. More recently, Quakers in Britain was the first church denomination in the UK to divest from fossil fuels, and in 2011, Quakers committed to ending trade with settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Quakers are also actively engaged in campaigns to end the arms trade.
Quaker Peace & Social Witness and the Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility have also published the Your Faith, Your Finance website to help Quakers and individuals explore ethical and spiritual questions about how they use their money.