Briefing note: Concern over proposed amendment to public service pensions legislation
On 4 February 2022, Robert Jenrick MP moved an amendment to the ‘Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill’, seeking to attach ‘guidance or directions on investments which it is not proper for pension scheme managers to make in light of UK foreign and defence policy’. This follows from intentions he stated in comments to the press to ‘outlaw Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions,’ and it comes in the context of the government’s intentions to introduce primary legislation to prevent public bodies from ‘imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment, or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries.’
This amendment is clearly intended to establish a power in legislation to prevent divestment of public service pensions from companies involved in human rights abuse abroad, especially through the arms trade or other ‘defence’ industries. We are deeply concerned about the impact that this amendment may have on human rights and climate justice campaigns working on ethical investment and/or disinvestment.
More specifically, our concerns have to do with: 1) the content of the amendment and 2) the manner in which the amendment is being introduced:
1) Gross overreach with broad implications for human rights and climate justice
- The wording of the amendment is so broad in its reference to ‘UK foreign and defence policy’ that it could be easily weaponised against any human rights campaign raising concerns about pension investments in any company that is not formally on a UK sanctions list, for example: companies involved in illegal settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory or occupied Western Sahara; companies implicated in the oppression of Uyghur communities in China; companies selling arms to Saudi Arabia used against civilians in Yemen; companies involved in environmental and/or labour abuse through mining or other extractive industries.
2) Attempts to sneak in controversial legislation at the last minute
- A similar attempt by the government to prevent pension divestment/ethical investment decisions was blocked when the Palestine Solidarity Campaign won a court case against the government in 2020; the Supreme Court ruled that attempts by the government to issue guidance to this effect were unlawful.
- The bill is currently at report stage in the House of Commons. Introducing the amendment at this late stage shows that it is being rushed, with little to no time for assessment of its impact or implementation before it is put to the house, despite, or maybe because of the Government’s awareness that its previous attempts to introduce such regulations were highly controversial and ruled illegal.
Legal experts who have looked at the amendment for us have commented on the hasty introduction and clumsy wording. The lack of clarity in the directive has the potential to make the guidance and directions a blunt instrument that could be used widely. They’ve also commented that limiting the power of local authorities via such an amendment could be considered anti-democratic.
This amendment should be opposed because of how it could hamper human rights and climate justice work, but even for those who don’t care about those issues, it should be opposed because of its attempts to evade proper scrutiny and legislative oversight.