Procurement Bill Amendments November 2022
Can I take the Minister to the present rather than the past, and to two Written Answers which he gave to me yesterday on the 120 million items of PPE which are currently still stored in the People’s Republic of China and costing taxpayers £770,000 every single day—three-quarters of a million pounds, daily? I asked the Minister how much this has cost to date, but in telling me that the cost has been £16.3 million, he simply took the period of April to September. I would be grateful if he could produce a more complete set of figures and say how much longer we are going to go on paying £770,000 every day to companies linked to the People’s Republic of China, to the Chinese Communist Party, and to goods that have been made by slave labour in the Xinjiang region.
I will happily provide those updated figures in writing; I thank the noble Lord for his question because it sparked a number of inquiries on my front. As he will be aware, I am only two months into this job. But one of those very questions—a hard question for us to think about—is the cost of storage versus, dare I say, scrapping it, because we have tried to donate all we can from it, and, God forbid, having to buy it again if there is another pandemic. In many cases it is cheaper right now to scrap it and buy it again at current prices. Of course, you cannot be certain whether prices could then get inflated again, but I hope your Lordships can tell from this answer that I am very much looking into the cost-benefit of the best approach.
My Lords, I can be brief. I thoroughly support everything that the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said to us in moving his amendment. I do not need to repeat arguments that I placed before your Lordships earlier this week on Monday, in December last year, and then again in January and March this year, and even in the Question that we had just before our proceedings on PPE, which continues to be stored in the People’s Republic of China at a cost to us of some £770,000 every day.
I am extremely grateful that the Minister responded so quickly after our debate on Monday with a letter that I received this morning. For the purposes of the record, I will read out one paragraph. She wrote:
“You made a number of points about PPE contracts which have been found to have underperformed. I also understand you have asked written questions … on these matters. I appreciate your desire for more information on this and I will be writing to the Secretary of State highlighting both your views and those expressed by others in the House.”
That is a very welcome response and I am grateful to the noble Baroness for going to that trouble.
I have sent a copy of our Hansard from Monday to my noble and learned friend Lady Hallett, who is chairing the public inquiry to which the Minister referred during our debate on Monday. The Minister said that lessons would be learned, and that the Covid inquiry would
“cover procurement and the distribution of key equipment and supplies, including PPE”.—[Official Report, 28/11/22; col. 1593.]
I am grateful to her for that.
I have only one other point. On Monday, I raised the issue of repayments. That is not something that can wait for the several years it might take the public inquiry to make its recommendations. I refer the Minister to my two questions about defaulting PPE suppliers and the actions that will be taken through the faulty contract PPE recovery unit. I also asked about individual settlements, which, as she said, are protected by commercial secrecy. I asked
“how will Parliament and the public be notified about money returned to public funds by defaulting PPE suppliers through the actions of the faulty contract PPE recovery unit?”—[Official Report, 28/11/22; col. 1581.]
How will that work? Can the Minister illuminate us a little further? If she cannot, would she be
prepared to put pen to paper in a follow-up letter to me as a result of today’s debate? I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, for giving us the opportunity to explore this issue further.
My Lords, as in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, has made a very eloquent, powerful and compelling case for supporting this modest Amendment 91. I am happy to be a signatory to this amendment again.
In Committee, the noble Lord and I, with the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, asked the Government about a hospital being built in China in connection with a British company. I thank the Minister for the parliamentary reply about that hospital, which she gave me on 29 November. But I am concerned to learn that the company involved, International Hospitals Group, has a continuing hospital partnership in the People’s Republic of China.
I draw the House’s attention to the words of the British Medical Association, which describes China as a country where there is
“evidence of medical involvement in the Chinese state’s genocide against Uyghur people”,
and the statement of the China Tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice KC, which describes the “significant scale” of enforced organ harvesting throughout China, all of which should surely encourage us to think very seriously about what more we can do, as we did on the Health and Care Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said. All of us who heard the arguments then went into the Lobbies to support him, and I hope that if it becomes necessary—which I hope it will not—we will do the same tonight.
I am also a signatory to Amendment 141, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud. This is an argument, again, that we have had in previous legislation—again in the health Bill—about the use of slave labour in Xinjiang. I draw attention to my being vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uyghurs. It is an issue that I have raised again and again, and mentioned here again during debates on this Bill on Monday last. I will not try to curtain-raise for the noble Baroness—she is more than capable of doing that for herself.
My purpose, therefore, in rising, is to specifically draw attention to and speak to the cross-party Amendment 94, which is in my name and, not for the first time, in the name of my noble friend Lord Blencathra—to use a phrase the Minister used earlier on. I do so because the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, is my noble friend in so many respects, and we have joined common forces. Old Chief Whips should stand together on such matters, and I am always pleased to be in the same Lobby as the noble Lord. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, who has been so formidable, and the noble Lord, Lord Fox, who again has been formidable on these issues throughout, are also signatories to this amendment.
The amendment would require the Government to set out a timetable. In a way, we have already been given half a cake, and I want again to be grateful to the noble Baroness. She was able to say to me that she accepts the substance of our case, but what she has not been able to accept—I hope we will convince her to do so this evening—is that there should be a timetable determining when we will prevent further surveillance cameras entering the United Kingdom and being placed often in very sensitive positions, as I will describe. This amendment would remove them from the Government’s procurement supply chain where there is established evidence that the supplier has been involved in modern slavery, genocide or crimes against humanity.
It is particularly topical, as we read reports today of the use of surveillance technology in arresting, imprisoning and re-educating protesters caught up in the wave of unrest in China. There are reports in British and American newspapers today about how surveillance technology—some of the very things we are debating in this amendment—has been used to arrest young people, who then have the whole of their personal histories seen through the devices that they own. Some of their friends have been arrested as a result of access to that information and been arraigned in police stations.
As a result of the hangover from the Government’s so-called “golden era” of relations with the PRC, which the Prime Minister said in his Mansion House speech on Monday was over, we have allowed our surveillance and technology supply chain to be dominated by Chinese surveillance companies with credible links to the genocide taking place in the Uighur region. I am not using that word in a rhetorical way. It was a word used by the former Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, Liz Truss; it was her word that “genocide” was under way in Xinjiang. It is a word that Secretary of State Blinken has used in describing events there, and many others have, too.
Both Hikvision and Dahua Technology, two of the companies in question, have been blacklisted in the USA for their links to the internment camps in Xinjiang and their role working hand-in-glove with the CCP to construct the largest authoritarian surveillance state, which has surpassed even George Orwell’s wildest dreams. There is little distinction between these Chinese technology companies and the state that they serve. They not only work on behalf of the PRC but receive generous state subsidies to do so, which allows them to undercut their rivals and dominate the domestic UK market.
It is therefore little surprise that the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has attacked any notion of the United Kingdom Government banning the use of Hikvision and Dahua cameras as “unreasonable suppression” of Chinese companies. I appreciate the engagement from Ministers on this topic, from the noble Baroness but also the noble Lord, Lord True, who met with me privately on this matter on a couple of occasions. During one of those meetings, we were told that there are now 1 million—I repeat, 1 million—Hikvision cameras in the United Kingdom alone.
The announcement last week, then, by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster that the Government are following the example of the Department of Health and Social Care in banning Hikvision cameras from sensitive areas and removing existing cameras from the network, which mirrors the action from the US that I have just referred to, and has just finalised a permanent ban on the sale and import of Hikvision and Dahua Technology cameras, is a welcome one. This is an issue which the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and I have raised on the Floor of the House in regret Motions, in months gone by and in previous debates.
Now that the Government have finally recognised the security and human rights concerns of having Hikvision and Dahua cameras in government departments, the question arises: will they commit to a plan for their removal from the public sector supply chain in its entirety? That is what the amendment is about. As the Government will note, successive freedom of information requests from IPVM, Big Brother Watch and Free Tibet, and Parliamentary Questions, have revealed that Hikvision and Dahua are deeply entrenched in our public sector supply chain. Local councils, NHS trusts, schools, prisons, jobcentres and our railway network all have Hikvision and Dahua cameras in their supply chain and their physical infrastructure.
Do we really want the prying eyes of an authoritarian state that has been accused of genocide, and which, as the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said just last month, is the
“biggest state based threat to our economic security”,
in our schools, hospitals, and local council buildings? Similarly, how can the Government justify public contracts and taxpayers’ money going into companies where there are credible links of complicity in genocide and the internment camps in Xinjiang? This requires more than “robust pragmatism”, whatever that may mean.
The Government urgently need to come forward with a strategy to remove Hikvision and Dahua Technology cameras from the whole of the procurement supply chain. In the words of the Biometrics and Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Fraser Sampson, whom I met last month, these cameras are built on “digital asbestos”. We need a serious government-led plan for their removal. That might take several years. It is the same issue that we had to face with Huawei. We should also develop technology to mitigate the risks these cameras pose in the meantime. We can do that by looking at issues such as connectivity through software, which Canadians are developing at the present time, which might not require the physical removal of all cameras.
Such a plan could emulate a similar timetable that Ministers set out in the then Telecoms (Security) Bill—to which I moved amendments—for the removal of Huawei from the UK’s 5G network. This would include setting a hard date to phase out and remove Hikvision and Dahua technology and hardware from the procurement supply chain; looking at provision and support that can be offered to cash-strapped local authorities to help with the removal; and considering following the USA in banning the sale and import of these cameras in the United Kingdom.
I welcome the leadership that Ministers have shown recently in banning the use of Hikvision and Dahua cameras in government departments, but I urge them to consider applying that same leadership to the rest of the procurement supply chain. The Government are no longer saying that they are unaware of the security and ethical concerns of using these cameras and they cannot wish away the existence of these cameras in the wider procurement supply chain. We need an urgent timetable and a plan to remove Hikvision and Dahua from the UK supply chain in its entirety. I hope the Minister will further consider accepting the entirety of this amendment so that such a timetable and plan to be put in place
With the leave of the House, I shall speak for a moment on behalf of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and as one of the four sponsors of the amendment, to say how encouraged we were by the offer made earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, for a meeting with the sponsors of the amendment. Given that this Bill is not in ping-pong but will be going to another place for further consideration, it is now the intention of the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, not to move the amendment and to return to this question once we have had the opportunity of meeting the Minister and, in due course, returning to the issues we explored during the debate this evening.
Amendment 141 not moved
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is right to remind us not just of events in Victorian Britain but of what is happening at the moment and the impact that events in Ukraine and elsewhere will have on our procurement programmes.
I serve on your Lordships’ International Relations and Defence Committee. As the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie—it is wonderful to see her in her place—knows, throughout the whole of this year we have been conducting an inquiry into procurement and defence priorities, which the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, touched on. We began it before the second invasion of Ukraine in February. From my discussions with the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, who pressed this issue in Committee, I know how important this is, for all the reasons he described. He has a great sense of patriotism and cares for our Armed Forces, and I strongly associate myself with him and the desire for a probing amendment to test some of these questions.
One reason why I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, will be able to reply in terms to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, on Ajax especially, is that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, who is chair of our Select Committee, was here during his speech—she was unable to stay—and said that I can tell the House that she strongly agrees with the questions he put. She hopes that the noble Baroness will be able to answer them because they will be part of the terms of our committee’s report, which we have to complete before the House rises for the Christmas Recess at the end of December. So it is important that, if the noble Baroness is not able to answer those probing questions this evening, we are given answers in due course.
One of the witnesses to the Select Committee inquiry was Professor John Louth, who was the director of defence, industries and society research at RUSI from 2011 to 2019. When we asked him directly about the way in which we should go about defence procurement, I asked him specifically about the Bill and whether it would be welcome. He said:
“I have tried to read as much of this as possible … It is hard to identify the end state that the Government are looking for”.
He said that there are
“lines and lines of rhetoric and legalistic reform”,
some of which is incomprehensible even for those of us who are academics.
I asked him specifically about Ajax, which the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, has been raising, and he replied that it has been a “disaster”. As we have heard, it was intended to be a state-of-the-art reconnaissance vehicle for the Army, and it has cost a staggering £3.2 billion to date, yet so far not a single deployable vehicle has been delivered—not one. It was of course supposed to enter service in 2017, but it has been subject to what the Commons committee called a “litany of failures”, including noise and vibration problems that injured the soldiers testing the vehicles. Can the Minister tell us whether those safety issues have been resolved, or whether they are ever likely to be?
The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, reminded us that the House of Lords Select Committee said the programme had been “flawed from the outset” and also that it was illustrative of a deeper failing, commenting that the Ministry of Defence
“once again made fundamental mistakes in its planning and management of a major defence programme.”
Pulling no punches, the Public Accounts Committee accused the department of failing to deliver vehicles which the Armed Forces need
“to better protect the nation and to meet our NATO commitments”.
In the current situation, with one eye eastwards to Ukraine, that is a very serious statement by a senior committee of Parliament—and this Bill, of course, is a Bill that will go down to the other place. It will go as a pristine Bill from the House of Lords, but the other place will be able to amend it, and I have no doubt that people from the Public Accounts Committee will want the answers that the noble Lord has gently been asking for this evening.
I will end by quoting Meg Hillier, who chaired the committee inquiry. She said:
“Enough is enough—the MoD must fix or fail this programme, before more risk to our national security and more billions of taxpayers’ money is wasted. These repeated failures … are putting strain on older capabilities which are overdue for replacement and are directly threatening the safety of our service people and their ability to protect the nation and meet NATO commitments.”
That is good enough reason alone, surely, for the Minister to give the House a comprehensive reply.
will be put in place.