Boycott effort in London council falls flat
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Boycott effort in London council falls flat

French multi-national Veolia’s claim to run trash pickup in Brent hits, and transcends, a rocky start when BDS comes to call

A Palestinian woman and her children wait for the light rail, in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat in north Jerusalem. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)
A Palestinian woman and her children wait for the light rail, in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat in north Jerusalem. (photo credit: Sliman Khader/Flash90)

LONDON – A company that was the target of a boycott campaign because it has carried out work in Israel has expressed relief after a local London council stopped a vote on whether it could bid for contracts, deeming it “illegal, improper or irregular.”

“Thankfully the council is happy to allow us to continue the bidding process,” said Dan Lester, a spokesman for Veolia Environmental Services.

The company belongs to the French multi-national Veolia, which runs bus routes between Israeli settlements and was part of the consortium that built Jerusalem’s light railway. Its application to renew and expand its contract to provide refuse collection, recycling and street cleaning services in the borough of Brent, a heavily Jewish area in North-West London, was strongly opposed by anti-Israel campaigners, led by the No to Veolia Action Group.

The contract, which expires in 2014, is worth £16.1 million ($24.5 million) a year.
On June 24, the council was due to vote on a motion proposed by four Liberal Democrat councilors, which said that the company’s work in Israel and the West Bank “amounts to complicity in violations of international law” and called on the council not to sign any contracts with Veolia “or any other company complicit in breaches of international law.”

However, a legal opinion provided by Brent’s senior solicitor, Kathy Robinson, said “there are no grounds for excluding Veolia… on the basis of ‘grave professional misconduct.’ Motions which are illegal, improper or irregular are not permitted and in consequence it will not be appropriate to debate or vote on this Liberal Democratic Group motion.”

‘There are no grounds for excluding Veolia… on the basis of grave professional misconduct’

The decision was greeted with disappointment by the Liberal Democrat faction, who said that the council already takes a stance on ethical issues when procuring some supplies, for example encouraging the purchase of Fair Trade goods, and that they believed “it is a logical extension of that principle that when buying services the council should be able to exclude companies who break international law or violate basic human rights.”

According to Cllr Ann Hunter, the primary sponsor of the motion, Brent is known as a borough with good relations between residents of all different backgrounds.

“Veolia shares in the building and running of services which Palestinian residents are not allowed to use,” she said. “Just imagine if on our way into London we had to divide: Asians on one bus or tube, White British on another, Jews on another and Afro-Caribbean residents on another. Of course, here that would be illegal. We should not put local taxpayers’ money into the pockets of companies which act in this way.”

Paul Lorber. 'If the Labour party or council officers wanted to put forward a different view they should have had the guts to do so in open debate.' (photo credit: courtesy)
Paul Lorber. ‘If the Labour party or council officers wanted to put forward a different view they should have had the guts to do so in open debate.’ (photo credit: courtesy)

Leader of the Liberal Democrat group Cllr Paul Lorber, who seconded the motion, said he was “shocked” that the council officers did not even allow the discussion.

“It has been lawfully debated elsewhere,” he said. “Councilors are elected to speak out for the residents of Brent. If the Labour party or council officers wanted to put forward a different view they should have had the guts to do so in open debate instead of trying to stifle the democratic process.”

Brent Council, however, is standing firm, with a spokesperson telling Times of Israel that it “is currently in the middle of a procurement exercise and so cannot take into account any external factors which would jeopardize this process. The council has a duty and responsibility to act within the law.”

According to a spokesman for the Fair Play Campaign Group, the anti-boycott project run by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, “Anyone who has traveled on the Jerusalem Light railway will know it provides an excellent and much-needed service for Israeli Jews and Arabs alike. Indeed its signs and announcements are in Arabic as well as Hebrew and English. The call to boycott Veolia because of its involvement in that scheme is wrong-headed as well as improper. This is another major rebuff for the obsessive and ill-thought-out Boycott Israel campaign which seems intent on wasting local authority time and money.”

Linking the city's disparate parts, for the first time: Passing the Ottoman walls of the Old City on the light rail (Photo credit: Miriam Alster / Flash90
Linking the city’s disparate parts, for the first time: Passing the Ottoman walls of the Old City on the light rail (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Arieh Kovler, who consults the group, said that the campaign against Veolia had been going on for many years and that similar motions against it in London boroughs, for example in Tower Hamlets, have also been ruled illegal, as European Union law does not allow public bodies to boycott on the basis of politics.

“They should stop. Every council gets legal opinions saying the same thing,” he said.

Last November, another London council, Hackney, refused to receive a delegation from the “No to Veolia” campaign, saying it did not have a foreign policy.

The following month, No to Veolia claimed a major success when Veolia Environmental Services pulled out of a bid for a £4 billion, 25-year contract with the North London Waste Authority (NLWA). However, Veolia spokesman Dan Lester told Times of Israel that the decision to withdraw was made due to “changing requirements in the contract which we felt were not right for us,” and not due to the boycott campaign.

Fair Play, which was set up in 2007, alerts councils where boycott motions are proposed that there is a legal issue, and has also raised the subject with government ministers.

For anti-Israel activists, said Kovler, the Veolia campaign is worth pursuing because “it is a way of drip-dripping anti-Israel hostility into the debate.”

But the disastrous local effect is “to set communities against each other. Whenever you bring the Middle East conflict into local areas, it increases community tensions. We need to try and keep that off the streets.”

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