Procurement Bill – procurement of goods made in states credibly accused of genocide and states using slave labour

May 26, 2022 | Uncategorized

House of Lords,
Wednesday 25 May 2022 

Lord Alton of Liverpool  (CB)

My Lords, with his customary thoroughness in opening today’s debate, the noble Lord, Lord True, outlined the purpose of this Procurement Bill with its 13 parts, 116 clauses and 11 schedules. We have just heard a very incisive speech from my good friend the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, about defence procurement. I will not follow her on that particular line of argument today—I certainly will be interested in amendments later on—but I simply draw to her attention, and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, and the noble Lord, Lord True, the evidence given this morning by Sir Nick Carter, former Chief of the Defence Staff, and expert witnesses on procurement by the Royal Navy to the International Relations and Defence Select Committee, which I think will have a bearing on what the noble Baroness has just said to the House.

At the very outset, I thank the noble Lord, Lord True, for setting aside time to meet on two occasions to discuss the Government’s policy in connection with the procurement of goods made in states credibly accused of genocide and states using slave labour. I particularly welcome what he said at the very outset of the debate, following that Urgent Question earlier on about John Sudworth’s harrowing documentary, which was broadcast by the BBC, documenting the terrible excesses taking place in Xinjiang. He, and the noble Lord, Lord Fox, are right that work is being done across both Houses already to bring forward amendments to tackle ethical procurement, slave labour and national resilience. So, although I welcome this Bill, and the intentions which lie behind it—not least the ambition outlined in the Green Paper and in the Explanatory Notes that value for money must always be conditioned by the public good, transparency, integrity, equal treatment and non-discrimination—I would add to that list, as the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, added in his remarks, words like “ethical” and “resilience”.

In drawing attention to my non-financial interests in the register, I think the House will not be surprised to learn that, as the Bill proceeds, I would like to return to the purchase of products made by slave labour in terrible conditions by Uighurs in the genocidal state of Xinjiang, which I have pursued as an issue with others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Fox, during the passage of recent legislation. I see the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, is in his place, and it has been a pleasure to work with him too on the Health and Care Bill, the Nationality and Borders Bill, the telecommunications Bills and the Trade Bill, in bringing in amendments on this theme.

The very welcome decision of Parliament to insist that the eradication of slavery is a lodestar for the National Health Service procurement is a curtain-raiser for this Bill, and I congratulate the Government on that. Some of these issues are addressed in the—still undebated—report of the International Relations and Defence Committee, published in September last, on China, trade and security, which we subtitled A Strategic Void. This Bill offers an opportunity to fill some of that void, and I would commend the report to the noble Lord, Lord True, as a very good background document to these specific issues.

Essentially, procurement should strengthen national resilience. It should reduce dependency on states which pose risks to our national security. It should protect British manufacturing from competitors that use slave labour, or grossly exploited labour, and send a signal to the private sector that it is simply unethical to buy cheap goods from states where citizens are being subjected to appalling inhumanity, including genocide. After all—this is not hyperbole or some piece of sloganeering or virtue signalling—it is the Foreign Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, who has said that a genocide is under way.

A third of all UK public expenditure, around £300 billion a year, is earmarked for public procurement. This is a staggering amount of money, which—as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, was quite right to say —can be used to achieve a great deal of public good. I know the noble Lord well enough to know that he is not lighting a bonfire of 350 regulations simply to create a fertile ground for anarchy. It is a perfectly reasonable public policy objective to try and accelerate and simplify public procurement, but we must use this opportunity to do more than that. I know that the noble Lord shares my strongly held belief that we should tackle the strategic void, the incoherence, and in some quarters the unwillingness to squarely face the threat posed by rising authoritarianism. I am certain that this Bill provides an admirable opportunity to put flesh on the bones.

When it comes to challenging authoritarianism and ridding companies and actors that do their bidding from our procurement supply chain, we are streets behind our Five Eyes partners, like Australia and the bipartisan approach now being evidenced in the United States. We must better co-ordinate procurement policies with our allies. Let me give just two examples. Two years ago, the US Government blacklisted Hikvision and Dahua Technology from their procurement supply chain and, alongside Australia, has actively been removing Chinese cameras and technology from sensitive government buildings.

Since January 2020, on 25 occasions in speeches and questions in this House, I have raised the UK’s decision to procure 1 million Hikvision cameras. Yet we continue to use them in government departments, local authorities, NHS trusts and schools. I am told that they may even be bought and placed alongside the entire length of HS2—perhaps the Minister could tell us if that is indeed the case. A negligent procurement policy means that we will ultimately end up stripping them out, as we did with Huawei, at huge public cost.

Last week, IPVM, the world’s leading video surveillance information source, released a 32-page white paper on Hikvision. It noted that the company has been

“contracted to design, implement, and directly operate Xinjiang surveillance”

as part of the network of concentration camps where over a million Uighur Muslims are detained until 2040. Hikvision even actively collaborates with the Chinese Government as a co-author of national and provincial standards of surveillance and the development of cameras that target Uighurs. More than 42% of Hikvision is owned by the Chinese state. During the first half of 2021, the company received RMB 223 million in state subsidies, and its chairman, Chen Zongnian, is a member of the National People’s Congress.

I believe the Government privately recognise the threat posed by Hikvision and Dahua Technology, and I welcome the steps taken by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid, who acted recently to remove their cameras and technology from his department. What is needed is a cross-departmental strategy to remove cameras not only from government departments but from the UK procurement supply chains as a whole. In a letter to the Cabinet Secretary dated 21 April, Professor Fraser Sampson, the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, said he was

“encouraged to see reports … that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has now prohibited any further procurement of Hikvision surveillance technology by his department”.

Will the Minister undertake to share his own department’s response to that letter from Professor Sampson, and will he explain why, if this is the right thing to do in one department, is it not right to do it across government? It cannot be right that the domestic surveillance market is dominated by a Chinese company which is complicit in genocide and has been blacklisted by our closest partner, and yet is able to use state subsidies to undercut its competitors.

On 2 February, in a debate on a Motion to Regret, I set out at length the arguments about Hikvision, and pointed out:

“In the 1940s, we did not allow the widespread use of IBM’s machines, or other tools of genocide used in Nazi Germany and manufactured by slave labour in factories and concentration camps, to be sold in the United Kingdom”.—[Official Report, 2/2/22; col. 987.]

This Procurement Bill should set a bar as high as that. Mass surveillance systems have always been the handmaiden of fascism. The Government should come forward with a timetable to remove these cameras and technology from the public sector supply chain, and campaign to encourage and support businesses in the private sector to do the same. We simply cannot allow the tools of genocide to continue to be used so readily in our daily lives.

My second and very brief point concerns resilience and dependency. I have regularly raised my concerns about the potential sale of Newport Wafer Fab, the country’s biggest producer of semiconductors and microchips, to a company with links to China and, 

inevitably, the CCP. We will always be purchasers of microchips and semiconductors; perhaps the Minister can tell us how many contracts it has had over the past 10 years with the Ministry of Defence, and their worth —and it is particularly helpful that the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, is in her place to help him with that response. What is more, there is an urgent need for a strategic, joined-up and coherent approach.

To conclude, I hope the Minister will consider amending Part 2 of the Bill to include a duty to have regard to national resilience, and to reduce dependency on states with interests that are hostile to those of the United Kingdom. Like my noble friend Lord Stevens of Birmingham and the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, I have pointed regularly to the £10 billion we have spent with China on 1 billion items of PPE. That amount is about the size of our entire reduced budget for our overseas aid programme. A duty to have regard to national resilience might be a good way of challenging this.

I thank Minister for his courtesy and his time in meeting to discuss these issues and I look forward to participating during the passage of this important and timely Bill.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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