Council is ‘on wrong side of history’ says Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign pensions protest in public gallery of Hackney Town Hall chamber, 29 November 2023

Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign pensions protest in public gallery of Hackney Town Hall chamber, 29 November 2023. Photograph: Julia Gregory. Free for use by partners of BBC news wire service

Campaigners said Hackney Council is “on the wrong side of history” because it has failed to remove pension fund investments from companies “complicit in human rights abuses” in Palestine.

The call came as Hackney Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) held a protest outside the Town Hall on Tuesday 29 November to put renewed pressure on the council to stop investing in companies supplying Israel with military equipment, technology and other supplies it is using in Gaza.

Hackney PSC has stepped up its campaign calling for the council to divest funds from the companies following the renewed conflict in Gaza and Israel this autumn.

They claim that £30m of pension fund money is invested in these companies – higher than the council’s figure of £2.02m.

Hackney Council’s pensions committee refused to hear their deputation over concerns about “community cohesion”.

After their protest on the Town Hall steps campaigners went into the public gallery at the council chamber.

They chanted “stop funding apartheid”, “stop the genocide” and “Hackney Council shame on you” before the pensions committee left.

It moved to another room and resumed the meeting. Committee chair Cllr Kam Adams said: “We recognise the grief, fear and anger it (the conflict in Gaza and Israel) is causing.”

Cllr Adams wrote to campaigners explaining that “the council takes very seriously the right of its residents to participate in the democratic process. We also have a duty to foster good community relations, which is part of our public sector equality duty.

“At such a difficult time for so many people, we are concerned that any perception that we are centring one set of voices on this subject could damage community cohesion.”

Adams said the council’s pension fund has “passive investments” worth £1.9m in “companies conducting business activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories”.

He said neither the pension fund nor the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights “have made any determination on the human rights activities of these companies”.

The council has a further holding in defence company Elbit Systems, which was valued at £25,700 this June.

Adams said: “We do not directly own any stocks or shares in individual companies.”

He explained that even the investment fund manager does not control which stocks are included in a passive fund.

“The only way of divesting from the stocks listed would be to dispose of the whole investment fund and find an alternative solution which would guarantee exclusion of those companies. This would expose the Hackney pension fund to significant costs.”

He told Hackney PSC: “While we cannot commit to divestment in this instance, responsible investment remains at the forefront of our agenda.”

Hackney PSC said the total investment is much higher.

The group’s secretary Sussan Rassoulie said: “We do not believe they are including enough firms in the list.”

Hackney PSC said: “The council must stand up and be counted, they cannot continue to stand on the wrong side of history.”

Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP Diane Abbott criticised the pensions committee’s decision not to hear from the delegation.

She has received more than 11,000 letters about the conflict since early October when Hamas launched its attack on Israelis.

Speaking at the protest outside the Town Hall she said: “There is nothing at this time that the people in Hackney feel more strongly about and that alone is a reason for doing what you’re doing,” said Abbott.

“I’m amazed that people said to me that the council don’t want you to come to committee because it’s a controversial issue. What is the point of being a local politician if you can’t talk about politics.”

She added: “The situation in Gaza is really tragic and everybody that’s having anything to do with it, like the UN, like Save the Children, say they’ve never seen anything like it.”

Activist Abdi Hassan said: “I don’t know how many times we have come here to demand some kind of justice.”

He said: “We are witnessing genocide. This pension fund is contributing to the destruction of Palestine.”

Hassan added: “We call on Hackney Council to stop procrastinating, because children are being murdered and slaughtered.”

Passing motorists sounded their horns, and people at the protest outside the Town Hall joined in a chant of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”.

This chant is considered offensive by some people who believe it is calling for the destruction of Israel.

Hackney PSC disputes this and said: “It means that we want everybody to have equality.”