Lord Alton of Liverpool
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to support the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, who so ably moved this amendment; to concur with the speeches just made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, Lady Harris and Lady Brinton; and to associate myself with friends from across the House in respect of the work they have put in over many months to push to the top of the agenda the issue of honouring our duties under the 1948 convention on the crime of genocide. I have two things I would like to add. The first concerns our international treaty obligations, referred to a moment ago, what we are required to do from the moment we know that a genocide is under way, and how we must never utilise to our benefit slave labour in a state credibly accused of genocide. The second concerns the way in which the lack of transparency in our procurement policies has led to the improper use of public money.
The amendment is a logical extension of the debates on the genocide amendment, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, said earlier, was passed by three-figure majorities in this House in an attempt to provide a mechanism in the Trade Act 2021 to evaluate when a genocide is or is not taking place. Many promises were made by the Government during that amendment’s many iterations, including the provision of an effective mechanism to determine what constitutes a genocide and to honour our obligations under the 1948 convention. Demonstrably, those promises have not been kept. Worse still, we have established the illusion of a procedure to examine and deal with this most odious and reprehensible of crimes. The fact that we cannot, under that procedure, even look at what is happening in Xinjiang with the Uighurs shows how inadequate it really is.
Can anyone doubt the seriousness of this issue, not least in the light of the pronouncement by the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, that a genocide is under way in Xinjiang; or the resolution passed by the House of Commons; or the December judgment just referred to of the Uyghur Tribunal; or the declaration of genocide by United States President Biden; and much more besides? Do we have any excuse, therefore, for not taking action?
The noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, referred to a report by the British Medical Association, which seems particularly pertinent in the context of this Health and Care Bill. It sent a letter on 26 January, which noted
“the shocking reports of human rights abuses, including torture, forced labour, political indoctrination, and reported forced sterilisation. Since then, the situation has developed in the most abhorrent manner and we”—
“issued a joint statement with the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and other Royal Colleges in December”—
I repeat, December—
“urging the UK Government and international actors to exert pressure on the Chinese Government without delay.”
It goes on to refer to the independent tribunal, saying:
“It found beyond reasonable doubt that the People’s Republic of China … is guilty of genocide. The Tribunal determined that biological genocide is occurring through restriction of births by forced sterilisation and abortion, segregation of sexes within the detention centres, and forced matrimony and procreation between Uyghur women and Han men. Furthermore, mutilation and biological experiments take place in the detention centres.”
If anybody is in any doubt about the enormity of what is taking place, they should read some of the personal testimonies which were given to the Uighur tribunal. I sat through many of its hearings and found the whole process incredibly harrowing. Let us be clear that there will be amendment after amendment to every possible piece of legislation until the promise to hold to account those responsible for these most heinous crimes against humanity are actually honoured. So my first point is that continuing to source goods for the NHS from Xingang is clearly not consistent with the duties laid upon us in the convention on the crime of genocide.
My second point is on the goods themselves and the way in which they are being procured for the NHS. I wonder whether the Minister has had a chance to read this report which appeared in the Daily Telegraph newspaper:
“Ministers handed almost £150m to Chinese firms with links to alleged human rights abuses in Xingang amid a race for PPE after Covid hit.”
It goes on:
“The Health Department paid £122m to Winner Medical, which uses cotton produced by a supplier that works in the controversial region and has ties to a paramilitary group accused by the US of using forced labour. Another £19m contract went to pharmaceutical firm China Meheco and £16.5m was paid to Sinopharm, both of which have been linked to labour programmes in the province.”
Elsewhere in that same article, they state that China Meheco lists the XPCC—which stands for Xingang Production and Construction Corps—as an account payable in a company report. It also lists XPCC as a company used for labour services. Sinopharm is listed as a participant in the Xingang labour transfer programme—a scheme that involved the forced relocation of Uighur workers across the country.
Just before Christmas, as we heard, the United States Congress passed bipartisan legislation, creating a rebuttable presumption that all goods sourced from Xingang are unethically produced, unless clear and persuasive evidence could be provided to the contrary. This is another Five Eyes country, and one of our closest allies. Have we reached a different conclusion? Are we working alongside them? Are we co-ordinating what we are doing? Notwithstanding a fierce corporate lobbying campaign opposing that measure, which was bipartisan and passed bicamerally—unusual in itself, in the United States— including companies such as Coca-Cola, which has a large facility in Xingang and is a sponsor of the Winter Olympics which open this week on 4 February, the United States Senate unanimously voted on 15 December to ban the import of products which may have originated, in whole or in part, in Xingang. Clearly, Congress has gone much further that this modest amendment to the Health and Care Bill. But our cross-party proposal is driven by the same ethical considerations, and by concern for the probity of the NHS and concern to UK interests. As the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, has reminded us, we have become far too reliant and far too dependent on goods that undercut British manufacturing and which, by using slave labour, will always be able to do so.
The noble Lord referred to my question, which extracted the ministerial reply that we had bought 1 billion lateral flow tests from China. What Ministers declined to answer in that question was how much the tests cost the taxpayer, or to provide the names of the companies involved. The International Relations and Defence Committee, on which I serve, refers to the 1 billion tests in its September report, and has asked the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for further information. Perhaps the noble Lord, when he comes to reply, will provide that information today and tell us how much the 1 billion lateral flow tests cost, who manufactured them and how many more tests have been bought from China since the question was answered last July?
I refer noble Lords to an extract from the book written by the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, who has sadly now retired from your Lordships’ House, and Alina Chan. In Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, they point to some of the companies which have produced lateral flow tests and their links and associations, saying:
“according to an investigation by the Associated Press, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention sold the rights to develop and distribute testing kits for the new virus to three little-known companies, all from Shanghai, for 1 million RMB each (roughly $150,000). GeneoDx Biotech, Huirui Biotechnology and BioGerm Medical Technology were relatively small companies, but with personal connections to CDC officials … They were given exclusive rights to develop testing kits based on the genome of the virus, which was not released to other companies.”
I pressed the Government in other questions at the time to be more transparent about where the money was going, who was benefiting and in what ways we were trying to establish how these things were being made. In a reply to me last August, the then Minister said that, in department audits, suppliers had been assessed
“as Acceptable (C) overall, with further improvement needed with regards to social management systems and working hours. No evidence of child labour, forced labour or unethical business behaviour were identified over the course of these audits”.
Could the Minister enlarge on what the C grade represents and what was done to insist on the “further improvement” required? Can he tell us what on-the-ground access his department had to warrant its assertion about the use of forced labour and unethical business behaviour? Did it examine the report published by the Daily Telegraph prior to that question saying that the firms producing PPE were directly linked to Uighur human rights abuses?
On 13 December, I asked the current Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Kamall, whether any person or organisation would be
“censured for defaults involving the 47 VIP public contracts for facemasks and surgical gowns”
and what steps the Government had taken
“in connection with defaults associated with their contract with PPE MedPro.”
In the reply of 19 January, I was again told that details about PPE contracts are “considered commercially sensitive”. Why is it that the Treasury can account for the £4.3 billion lost in fraud under the Covid support scheme but is unable to identify loss on PPE? Even worse, I was told in the same reply that:
“We have no plans to censure a single individual or organisation.”
This is completely unacceptable. The noble Lord, Lord Agnew, resigned as a Minister because of a lack of accountability. The Minister, who has been very receptive and open—I am grateful to him for his engagement with me on these things—has given me a reply today in which he says that the department
“is seeking to recover monies paid to PPE Medpro in relation to a contract for the provision of gowns.”
I will not read the entire reply, but I would like to ask the Minister for confirmation that the outcome of mediation and any proposed settlement will be subject to ministerial approval and made public so that we can learn the details; and that, if acceptable terms cannot be reached, legal action will be pursued to recover public funds—we are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds of public money.
Today the Minister might also like to provide the House with information about the £270 million spent on Zhende and Inivos products which are faulty and cannot be used in the NHS. Where were they made and in what conditions? Who gave the green light to spend that money? Have we no plans to censure those involved in those purchases either? Are we now seriously going to try and sell faulty products, euphemistically described as excess stock, to developing countries, as I have been told in a response from the department? What are we thinking?
Parliament has a right to know what we are doing to recoup taxpayers’ money and to radically overhaul and clean up procurement by insisting on total transparency and accountability. Can the Minister tell us whether the Guardian report that PPE Medpro may have made in excess of £40 million gross profits from its DHSC contracts is correct? Such transactions have been outside usual procurement practices and frequently devoid of transparency or detail about the provenance of goods and by whom and how they were manufactured. What have the Government done to satisfy themselves that no fraud was involved and that the items were not, in whole or in part, made by victims of slave labour and genocide?
These are my two principal reasons for supporting this amendment. Our duty is to combat, and not to collaborate in, genocide; and our duty is also to protect the NHS from exploitation and profiteering. There have been many reports about the use of slave labour in Xinjiang, even prompting the then Foreign Secretary to moot the possibility of import controls. The House should not underestimate the scale and size of the vested interests involved.
We know that around one in five cotton garments sold globally contain cotton or yarn from Xinjiang, and the region also manufactures a significant amount of the world’s polysilicon to make solar panels and smartphones. As with the strengthening of the Modern Slavery Act’s provisions on supply-chain transparency—the subject of a Private Member’s Bill that I have introduced, which is awaiting Second Reading—big vested interests have done all in their power behind the scenes to prevent the promises of Ministers from being acted on.
This amendment is proportionate; it defies the lobbyists who seek to subvert the intention of Parliament; it puts power back into the hands of Parliament and the Secretary of State; it ensures integrity in our procurement policies; it protects the NHS from the taint of association with genocide or slave labour; and it creates a framework and timescale for taking action. If the Government decide to resist the amendment, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, will be prepared to test the opinion of the House when we reach Report.