Former Diss student leads petition against UK government plans

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A former Diss sixth-former says the early support for his UK-wide petition against the controversial crackdown on public institution boycotts has served as a “warning shot” to central government.

James Baillie, 21, has gained more than 16,000 signatures on his petition to Parliament, opposing the government’s plans to ban publicly-funded bodies, such as local councils or universities, from boycotting ‘unethical companies’. The government argues that boycotts “undermined good community relations”.

The new law would prevent the likes of Norfolk or Suffolk County Councils from refusing to buy goods and services from companies involved in arms trading, fossil fuels, tobacco products or Israeli settlements in the West Bank and if they did stage a boycott, they would face ‘severe penalties’.

But critics believe this law would damage local democracy, and Mr Baillie, who is originally from South Lopham, says the government “should not be able to dictate” how public bodies spend their funds.

“I think it’s very important that local councils and elected bodies have a mandate from their voters,” he told the Diss Express.

“What many people don’t realise is that these measures extend far beyond the government’s rhetoric, and heavily restrict how councils are allowed to spend and invest their money.

“It’s surely the right of local people and the councillors they elect to take decisions about how their money is spent.

“That should include the right to refuse to invest in companies causing severe environmental damage, or countries that severely abuse the human rights of their citizens.”

Mr Baillie has previously led local campaigns against controversial policies — in 2010, he organised a protest in Diss Park against tuition fee rises, and in 2011, as chair of the Norfolk Campaign for Accessible Education (NCAE), he successfully petitioned Norfolk County Council to postpone planned cuts to school transport subsidies.

He said this latest petition had been “supported very well” and received 16,806 signatures at the time of writing — crossing the initial threshold of 10,000 that prompts an official government response.

Their reply, published this month, states: “Boycotts in public procurement are inappropriate outside where formal legal sanctions have been put in place.

“This does not affect the independence of non-government bodies or the democratic rights of local councils. They may reject a supplier’s application where certain exclusion grounds are met.

“But these decisions have to be made in compliance with the public procurement rules, and must not be discriminatory, as a blanket ban would be.”

However, Mr Baillie claimed the measures will stop public bodies from considering anything other than the financial return on an investment, meaning they may be forced to give money to “not particularly nice companies”.

He is now hoping to reach 100,000 signatures prior to the petition’s six-month deadline on August 17 — a milestone which would require a debate on the issue to occur in the House of Commons.

He added: “The response has been great. I have been surprised by some parts of it, as it’s something I have been pushing as a one-man band.

“If we can get some more high-profile people on board, that provides a lot more knock-on momentum.”

To view Mr Baillie’s petition to the government, visit https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/121704