Xinjiang: Forced Labour - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 4:21 pm on 19th January 2021.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 12 January.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the situation in Xinjiang and the Government’s response.

The evidence of the scale and severity of the human rights violations being perpetrated in Xinjiang against the Uighur Muslims is now far-reaching. It paints a truly harrowing picture. Violations include the extrajudicial detention of over 1 million Uighurs and other minorities in political re-education camps; extensive and invasive surveillance targeting minorities; systematic restrictions on Uighur culture, education and, indeed, the practice of Islam; and the widespread use of forced labour. The nature and conditions of detention violate basic standards of human rights. At their worst, they amount to torture and inhumane and degrading treatment, alongside widespread reports of the forced sterilisation of Uighur women.

These claims are supported now by a large, diverse and growing body of evidence that includes first-hand reports from diplomats who visit Xinjiang and the first-hand testimony from victims who have fled the region. There is satellite imagery showing the scale of the internment camps, the presence of factories inside them and the destruction of mosques. There are also extensive and credible third-party reports from non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, with the United Nations and other international experts also expressing their very serious concerns.

In reality, the Chinese authorities’ own publicly available documents also bear out a similar picture. They show statistical data on birth control and on security spending and recruitment in Xinjiang. They contain extensive references to coercive social measures dressed up as poverty alleviation programmes. There are leaks of classified and internal documents that have shown the guidance on how to run internment camps and lists showing how and why people have been detained.

Internment camps, arbitrary detention, political re-education, forced labour, torture and forced sterilisation —all on an industrial scale. It is truly horrific—barbarism we had hoped was lost to another era is being practised today, as we speak, in one of the leading members of the international community.

We have a moral duty to respond. The UK has already played a leading role within the international community in the effort to shine a light on the appalling treatment of the Uighurs and to increase diplomatic pressure on China to stop and to remedy its actions. I have made my concerns over Xinjiang clear directly to China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. We have led international joint statements on Xinjiang in the United Nations General Assembly Third Committee and the UN Human Rights Council. In the Third Committee, we brought the latest statement forward together with Germany in October last year and it was supported by 39 countries.

China’s response is to deny, as a matter of fact, that any such human rights violations take place at all. They say it is lies. If there were any genuine dispute about the evidence, there would be a reasonably straight- forward way to clear up any factual misunderstandings. Of course China should be given the opportunity to rebut the various reports and claims, but the Chinese Government refuse point blank to allow the access to Xinjiang required to verify the truth of the matter.

We have repeatedly called for China to allow independent experts and UN officials, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, proper access to Xinjiang, just as we in this country allow access to our prisons, our police custody suites and other parts of the justice system to independent bodies who hold us to account for the commitments to respect human rights that we have made.

China cannot simply refuse all access to those trusted third-party bodies that could verify the facts and, at the same time, maintain a position of credible denial. While that access is not forthcoming, the UK will continue to support further research to understand the scale and the nature of the human rights violations in Xinjiang. But we must do more, and we will.

Xinjiang’s position in the international supply chain network means that there is a real risk of businesses and public bodies around the world, whether inadvertently or otherwise, sourcing from suppliers that are complicit in the use of forced labour, allowing those responsible for violations to profit—or, indeed, making a profit themselves—by supplying the authorities in Xinjiang. Here in the UK, we must take action to ensure that UK businesses are not part of supply chains that lead to the gates of the internment camps in Xinjiang, and to ensure that the products of the human rights violations that take place in those camps do not end up on the shelves of supermarkets that we shop in here at home week in, week out.

We have already engaged with businesses with links to Xinjiang; we have encouraged them to conduct appropriate due diligence. More widely, we have made a commitment to tackling forced labour crystal clear. With the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, the United Kingdom was the first country to require companies by law to report on how they are tackling forced labour in their supply chains. Today, I can announce a range of new measures to send a clear message that those violations of human rights are unacceptable and, at the same time, to safeguard UK businesses and public bodies from any involvement or links with them.

I have been working closely with my right honourable friends the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for International Trade and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Our aim, put simply, is that no company profits from forced labour in Xinjiang, and that no UK business is involved in their supply chains. Let me set out the four new steps that we are now taking.

First, today the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for International Trade have issued new, robust and detailed guidance to UK businesses on the specific risks faced by companies with links to Xinjiang, and underlining the challenges of conducting effective due diligence there. A Minister-led campaign of business engagement will reinforce the need for UK businesses to take concerted action to address that particular and specific risk.

Secondly, we are strengthening the operation of the Modern Slavery Act. The Home Office will introduce fines for businesses that do not comply with their transparency obligations, and the Home Secretary will introduce the necessary legislation setting out the level of those fines as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Thirdly, we announced last September that the transparency requirements that apply to UK businesses under the Modern Slavery Act will be extended to the public sector. The FCDO will now work with the Cabinet Office to provide guidance and support to UK Government bodies to exclude suppliers where there is sufficient evidence of human rights violations in any of their supply chains. Let me say that we in the United Kingdom—I think rightly—take pride that the overwhelming majority of British businesses that do business do so with great integrity and professionalism right around the world. That is their hallmark and part of our USP as a global Britain. Precisely because of that, any company profiting from forced labour will be barred from government procurement in this country.

Fourthly, the Government will conduct an urgent review of export controls as they apply, specifically geographically, to the situation in Xinjiang, to make sure that we are doing everything we can to prevent the export of any goods that could contribute directly or indirectly to human rights violations in that region. The package that has been put together will help to ensure that no British organisations—government or private sector, deliberately or inadvertently—will profit from or contribute to human rights violations against the Uighurs or other minorities. I am of course sure that the whole House would accept that the overwhelming majority of British businesses would not dream of doing so. Today’s measures will ensure that businesses are fully aware of those risks, will help them to protect themselves, and will shine a light on and penalise any reckless businesses that do not take those obligations seriously.

As ever, we act in co-ordination with our like-minded partners around the world, and I welcome the fact that later today Foreign Minister Champagne will set out Canada’s approach on these issues. I know that Australia, the United States, France, Germany and New Zealand are also considering the approaches they take. We will continue to work with all of our international partners, but the House should know that in the comprehensive scope of the package I am setting out today the UK is again setting an example and leading the way.

We want a positive and constructive relationship with China, and we will work tirelessly towards that end, but we will not sacrifice our values or our security. We will continue to speak up for what is right and we will back up our words with actions, faithful to our values, determined, as a truly global Britain, to be an even stronger force for good in the world. I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

My Lords, the serious human rights violations in Xinjiang are of enormous concern across all sides of this House. I welcome the Statement and the Government’s recognition of the need for the UK to act. However, it is disappointing that, once again, the Government have been unable to bring forward proposals for sanctions against those responsible for the abuses. We in this House have repeatedly asked whether they will apply Magnitsky-style sanctions to officials involved in the persecution of the Uighur Muslims, only to be told that they will not provide a running commentary on the designation of sanctions. The evidence of slave labour, in addition to forced detention and other serious abuses, is overwhelming. So, in the absence of such a proposal, can the Minister at least confirm whether discussions with global allies are taking place to prepare for sanctions like those already authorised by the US?

On the measures in the Statement, first, the Government have announced guidance to UK businesses on the specific risks faced by companies with links to Xinjiang. Such guidance is welcome but, unless it is legally enforceable, there may regrettably be some who do not feel the compulsion to comply. What representations has the Minister made to British companies that have supply chains running through the province, particularly those in the apparel industry? Considering that the European Union will introduce legislation next year on due diligence, does the Minister believe that such guidance should be legally enforceable?

Secondly, on changes to the operation of the Modern Slavery Act, I appreciate that the Foreign Secretary acknowledged that the Act is not working, and the proposed changes are welcome. Can the Minister indicate when we can expect the necessary legislation to be laid before Parliament, and will the affirmative procedure be used to allow both Houses to consider it in full? I hope that the Government will consider strengthening the Modern Slavery Act with more substantive changes; for example, Section 54 applies only to large companies with a turnover above £36 million. Do the Government intend to broaden the scope of the provisions?

Thirdly, on the guidance, is the Minister able to confirm that he is confident that this guidance alone is sufficient at this stage—or whether the Government intend to introduce necessary legislation to hold to account those who act against such guidance?

Finally, on the review of export controls, I warmly welcome this step. The Minister will be aware of the amendment to the Trade Bill, in my name and those of the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Alton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans; that amendment is, of course, being considered by the Commons as I speak. Whatever the outcome of the Commons’ consideration of those amendments, I hope that the noble Lord will be able to explain tonight how the Government will ensure future trade agreements will not contribute to human rights abuses such as those in Xinjiang. The best way is to give Parliament proper opportunity to scrutinise, which it has not had with the rollover agreements we have seen since Brexit.

Whatever action we take must involve like-minded international partners. It is now over a year since the Government called for United Nations observers to be given “immediate and unfettered access” to Xinjiang to verify claims, and the Government of China continue to refuse. Can the noble Lord set out what steps the United Kingdom will take at the UN, including at the Human Rights Council, to hold the Government of China to account? What steps are being taken to support the appointment of a UN special rapporteur for the investigation of forced labour and ethnic persecution in Xinjiang?

In addition to the UN, there is the G7 in June of this year, which the UK is set to host. Can the noble Lord tell the House whether there are any plans to place the horrendous human rights abuse in Xinjiang on that agenda? The human rights violations in Xinjiang have shocked the world in recent months, and it is now time for the world to respond and act.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord for bringing us this Statement. The Foreign Secretary describes an appalling situation, with which we have become familiar. It is vital that our businesses do not benefit from slave labour in Xinjiang or anywhere else. The possibility of genocide must always be at the forefront of our minds, not least as we come up to Holocaust Memorial Day.

The Commons is indeed currently considering the amendments to the Trade Bill that we sent there. Ministers have been saying that Parliament, not the courts, should decide on genocide in relation to trade agreements. The noble Lord usually says international courts should decide on genocide, but he also admits that this is impossible when it comes to China. Yesterday, in relation to Nagorno-Karabakh, he said that

“it is a long-standing government policy that genocide is a matter for judicial decision rather than for Governments or non-judicial bodies.”—[Official Report, 18/1/21; col. 991.]

That seems in line with the amendment in the Commons. He said, “judicial decision”, not “international judicial decision” or “Parliament”: could he comment?

The Chinese Communist Party has described the forced sterilisation of Uighur women as “emancipation”. The UN convention on genocide clearly forbids this. The noble Lord will know that under the convention, when a state learns, or should have learned, of the serious risk of genocide, it must take action. Is his department making an assessment in relation to the Uighurs, and will he publish its conclusions? Given that China blocks routes to international courts, does he agree that the United Kingdom has a responsibility to find alternative routes to make the legal determination?

The second area I want to ask about, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins did, is the Magnitsky sanctions. The Government always say they keep these under review. The Minister will no doubt say that today, yet the US applies such sanctions in relation to China. Why do we not? The Foreign Secretary noted last week:

“Of course, many countries are nervous in their dealings with China because of its asymmetric economic clout.”—[Official Report, Commons, 12/1/21; col. 173.]

That is indeed so. The noble Lord rightly says that sanctions are most effective when undertaken jointly with others. There are three major economic blocs in the world: the United States, China and the EU. We now have to work that much harder to gain traction among European allies, not just France and Germany, so what progress are the Government making here?

The last area that I want to ask the noble Lord about is in relation to company law. I worked on the Companies Act 2006. We included supply chains. Can the noble Lord explain why neither the Companies Act nor the Modern Slavery Act have proved sufficient here? Clearly, reputation is vital. I noted how quickly companies acted after the Rana Plaza disaster when they realised that their reputations were at stake. What about public procurement? Can we be sure that the PPE that we so anxiously sought during the pandemic did not come from Xinjiang? There were reports of some of it originating in North Korea. Who will monitor and act on the proposed new measures? Which Minister in which department? Will legislation be brought forward as indicated—and, if so, when—to close the loopholes that the Government clearly identify exist in the Companies Act and the Modern Slavery Act?

The European Union, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, noted, intends to introduce legislation on due diligence, which will be mandatory. Are we working with it so that our standards are at least equivalent? Will this issue be considered at the G7 or D10, or however it is defined, in June? I look forward to hearing the noble Lord’s response and also to the questions and answers from noble Lords who have so much experience in this area.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for their welcome of the provisions that have been announced. I also reassure them that, as they will have seen, earlier today I was engaging with one of the key NGOs that I speak to on a regular basis on issues of human rights, with a specific focus on Xinjiang.

It is worth just taking a step back. I pay tribute to many in your Lordships’ House and in the other place, as well as other advocates around the world, in seeing where we have got to on this important issue, even over the last three years. There was a time where the issue of Xinjiang and the situation of the Uighurs was not often debated. However, because of the advocacy from across your Lordships’ House and in the other place, there is a real strength and a real momentum behind the actions we have seen in international action, with the United Kingdom working with key partners. We have also had rich debates on various Bills, as well as more generally as we are doing today on specific matters relating to the situation in Xinjiang. I pay tribute to all noble Lords and Members in the other place for their continued not just interest but strong advocacy, for that is what is required.

Picking up on some of the specific questions, first, on the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on guidance and working with businesses, from my own experience of the private sector over 20 years I think that the approach of successive Governments, because of the nature of the environment we work in, has always been to work with business and to offer guidance and structure so businesses can act. This new robust and detailed guidance to UK business sets out quite specific risks faced by companies with links to Xinjiang, underlining the challenges of effective due diligence—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, as well. There will be a Minister-led campaign of business engagement—which was a point the noble Lord, Lord Collins, again raised—led by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary with an organised forum called the Business Against Slavery Forum made up of businesses, which I understand my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary will also attend.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also raised sanctions and further designations, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. I have to be consistent with what I said before: we keep the situation under review, across the world, because it is important in the new regime introduced by this Government that we continue to monitor abuses of human rights. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to act.

Answering a point that the noble Baroness raised about acting with key partners, we have carefully noted the action taken by the United States. We worked closely with the European Union during the transition period and, as we have come to the end of that, we will build a new engagement and relationship. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said, we want to be the closest ally and friend to the European Union, and we will work together on our shared values agenda.

As I have said—and I stand by this, as it is important for sanctions policy—there is sometimes no necessity for institutional frameworks, as we have seen and demonstrated in our relationships with Australia, Canada and the US. But it is important for relationships to be strengthened further. We will continue to work with all our allies, including the European Union, as we bring forward sanctions, across the world, to ensure that those who abuse human rights are held to account and suffer as a consequence.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked of new legislation and confirmation through the affirmative procedure for some of the changes proposed to the Modern Slavery Act. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will shortly bring forward details of those changes; these will be discussed through the usual channels. They will include further intent to impose financial penalties on businesses that do not comply with their transparency obligations in this respect.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, both raised this issue. I go back to 2015, when my right honourable friend the Member for Maidenhead, Theresa May, was Home Secretary. I remember working directly with her on this ground- breaking Act, when we were spurred on by what was happening in the UK. This was well supported across all parts of your Lordships’ House. It set the premise and basis for actions that we can take today. Other countries, such as Australia, have followed the United Kingdom’s lead. Yes, more work needs to be done and more actions need to be brought, but the steps we are taking on Xinjiang underline our commitment to further strengthening the Modern Slavery Act. It was set up to ensure that we stop supply chains that abuse people’s human rights. We will make full use of and, where necessary, strengthen the provisions of that Act.

I also assure the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, that the Government will provide guidance and extend provisions to support all UK public bodies to use public procurement rules to exclude suppliers where there is sufficient evidence of human rights violations in supply chains. Compliance will be mandatory for central government, non-departmental bodies and executive agencies. We expect this to increase public sector bodies’ ability and willingness to exclude specific suppliers, and we expect increased scrutiny to drive up standards and due diligence. Again, the noble Baroness raised this point on companies supplying the Government.

Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness raised international co-operation and continued advocacy. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly raised action within the context of UN institutions, particularly the Human Rights Council. I look forward to engaging with him and the noble Baroness on this, as we look forward to the next Human Rights Council. The United Kingdom returns as a member, but it is also notable to see China returning. I assure your Lordships that we will focus on our agenda as we did at the previous Human Rights Council; our item 4 statement was specifically just on the issue in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. We will continue to retain focus and build momentum. We have seen success, as all noble Lords know, in the UN third committee, where 39 members, building on the 28 in June, supported our statement on the situation in both Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

On the G7 agenda, which was raised by both the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, obviously we are working through the importance of the agenda. The Prime Minister recently announced that he himself will be hosting the G7 leaders in Cornwall, and of course the Foreign Secretary will be convening a meeting of G7 Foreign Ministers. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said, the importance of the values agenda and of defending human rights will very much be factored into our thinking. As we are able to share some of the specifics of that agenda, I will of course do so.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, we now come to the 20 minutes allocated to Back-Bench questions. Questions and answers should be brief so that the maximum number of speakers can be called.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Economic Affairs Committee 4:40 pm, 19th January 2021

My Lords, my noble friend said a few moments ago that he had to be consistent with what he said before. I would like to raise with him the issue, which is being discussed now in the other place, of the determination of the crime of genocide. He has always said that that is a matter for the courts, yet Ministers and the Government are now arguing that it would be quite wrong for the High Court in this country, which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, has made clear is perfectly competent, to do that. So how can it be right to say that it is a matter for a court, which my noble friend has already indicated would be subject to a veto, but not right for the High Court here to determine behaviour such as we are seeing in Xinjiang as being genocide?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, my noble friend is indeed correct. We have consistently talked about the importance of competent legal authorities—the courts—ruling on these issues. When it comes to international matters, the institutions that exist, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, have been frustrated because of the lack of co-operation. The challenge that we have with the amendment being discussed in the other place—that is a live debate so I am mindful of what I may be saying to ensure consistency not just across two Houses but across two departments with two different Ministers speaking at the same time—comes to the issue of the separation of powers. I think our concern comes from the High Court having the power to frustrate trade agreements and the operation of the Government’s foreign policy. I assure my noble friend that it is not about whether or not genocide has occurred in Xinjiang; it is about the crucial issue of the separation of powers, which is the key concern of the Government.

Photo of Lord Field of Birkenhead Lord Field of Birkenhead Non-affiliated

I thank the Minister for presenting the Statement. Might he tell the House a little more about the instructions that the Government have given to those who purchase a considerable range of goods on their behalf, including goods made in China, including cotton goods made there under slave labour conditions? If he could give the House more details about how he thinks the Government’s Budget is going to be used in this respect, we would all be grateful to him.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to raise this issue. One of the specific announcements that we made was that, while there were obligations on the private sector within the context of existing legislation, there was a notable omission in the guidance issued to UK public bodies. We have used the proposal to further detail what we expect. That guidance for all the agencies that I have already listed will be shared with all departmental bodies and executive agencies, and it will increase public bodies’ ability and willingness to exclude specific suppliers. I think the sharing of evidence of where those specific suppliers are will also be helpful, particularly when you are talking about various departmental bodies. We also believe it will increase scrutiny to drive up standards and the due diligence that public sector bodies themselves apply when supplying to the Government. When we have the full details of that, I will be happy to share them with the noble Lord and put a copy in the Library.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

Unfortunately the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, could not be reached. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, in his previous response, the Minister pointed out that the advice given to the public sector was not the same as that given to the private sector. Can he reassure the House that public sector procurement has not included PPE or other imports from slave labour? The House and the rest of the United Kingdom really needs that reassurance.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I cannot—and I am sure the noble Baroness would not expect me to—give 100% affirmation that every single public sector body and contract has complied fully with the issues that she raised. I assure her and all noble Lords, as I have the noble Lord, Lord Field, just now, about the new government guidance. We will work with public bodies to ensure that the rules are fully understood and that there is a sufficient focus on, and sufficient evidence of, human rights violations that occur in supply chains. We will make public bodies fully cognisant of these so that they can act appropriately. With that reassurance, I hope and am certain that we will strengthen our work within the public procurement sector.

Photo of Lord Garnier Lord Garnier Conservative

My Lords, the Government’s Statement, for which I thank my noble friend the Minister, is clear and well motivated, but, if I may say so, it is only so far, so good. Does he agree that China will do absolutely nothing until we name the senior Chinese government officials responsible for this inhumane activity, ban them and their families from travelling abroad, freeze their bank accounts and impose the widest possible Magnitsky sanctions on them?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My noble and learned friend may know the answer I am about to give before I give it. He makes very powerful points about the importance of the end result of the human rights sanctions regime that we apply. It sends a very strong signal to those who abuse human rights that there will be consequences to their actions. I also assure him of what I alluded to earlier: there has been a real move in international action on this important issue. As we look forward to strengthening our work with partners, I note, on China not co-operating, that we are pressing for access to Xinjiang for the human rights commissioner, whose visit is the next key stage. We will continue to work with our partners to ensure greater transparency on the Chinese side. The Chinese take note not just of debates here and in the other place but of the action taken internationally. They are concerned about the situation currently being raised internationally in relation to their position on the global stage.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, in the House of Commons last week, the Foreign Secretary said that what is happening in Xinjiang is “on an industrial scale”. Perhaps the most shocking example of this has been the reported export of 81 tonnes of human hair, shaved off the heads of Uighur slave labourers. Dominic Raab’s predecessor, Jeremy Hunt, said that no responsible country would engage in free trade agreements with a state committing genocide. Can the Minister give a firm commitment now, on the Floor of the House, that the United Kingdom will not negotiate a free trade agreement with China until the United Nations is permitted to investigate Xinjiang and these violations on an industrial scale? Also, will he ask the Foreign Secretary to urgently respond to the request of the movers of Amendment 3 to the Trade Bill, both here and in the House of Commons, to meet Mr Raab to discuss the next steps in dealing specifically with the crime of genocide?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, I know that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and his team will look at all requests that we receive from colleagues across both Houses. I will certainly follow up what the noble Lord has raised. On his earlier point, the important thing is that, in any trade agreement that we look to negotiate and are involved with, human rights will be reflected in our discussions; I speak as a Human Rights Minister. As I have said before, China is an important strategic partner to the United Kingdom, and it has an important role to play in the world but, in doing so, it needs to recognise that the situation in Xinjiang is not going unnoticed. China is now being pressed and held to account for what is going on.

Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Independent Labour

My Lords, I welcome the fact that the Statement recognises the appalling nature of the human rights abuses by Chinese authorities against the Uighur people, some of which have just been described by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Given the denial of access to the region and refusal to admit that these abuses are taking place by the Chinese authorities, I wonder why we are being so slow in applying Magnitsky sanctions to the violators. I want to support what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Garnier, has already said. The Minister has said we are keeping this under review. I hope that he will not mind me saying that this seems rather feeble in the circumstances that we are now in. Surely, it is time for action and not just keeping something under review.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I hear what the noble Baroness says. The new sanctions regime was only launched last summer. I am sure she would agree with me that many, if not all, the designations that have been made have been valid and done because of the strength of the abuses that have occurred. I say this very clearly: the situation in Xinjiang and the action we have taken is demonstrable of not just our concern but, as the Foreign Secretary has said in the other place, the dire situation faced by the Uighur Muslims and, let us also not forget, other minorities within Xinjiang. We have acted. Of course, I take note of the issue around sanctions, but the actions we have taken—in Hong Kong, in engaging and showing international support, on the issues and limitations on extradition treaties with Hong Kong, arms exports and the recent provisions we have announced on forced labour—show that the Government are not sitting back. We are taking action, and there is a wide range of steps we can take. Of course, as ever, I note very carefully what the noble Baroness has put forward.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, I welcome and support these proposals but, bearing in mind the response of the Chinese government when the Australian government supported an independent inquiry into the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, are the Government ready to hold the line and not back down if there is a similar response in this case?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that the government of China has not been, in any way, pleased with the leadership that the United Kingdom has shown on this important issue, both bilaterally in raising the issues directly with Chinese authorities, but also importantly in building international alliances—and we will continue to do so. We have an important relationship with China, but that does not hold us back from calling out challenges and abuses of human rights as we see them and when we see them.

Photo of Lord Sheikh Lord Sheikh Conservative

My Lords, I feel that what is happening in China is reminiscent of the Holocaust, which has also been said by the Board of Deputies. The unfortunate victims this time are Muslims. We must now all decide to put a stop to what is going on. While I support the measures set out in the Statement, we need to take more robust actions and proceed to declare the persecution as genocide, invoke Magnitsky sanctions and consider legislation similar to the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in the United States. Furthermore, if the amendment on the Trade Bill is not accepted in the other place, we need to think about introducing similar measures in future. I would also like to add that if China does not allow outsiders, including a UN Commissioner, to have access to Xinjiang, we must stop Chinese officials from coming to the United Kingdom.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, there were a series of questions there. Some I believe have already answered, and I am sure my noble friend would acknowledge that. Of course, I share with him—as do the Government—the view that it is important to act and act now. As I have already illustrated, over the last few years we have seen real action being taken through multilateral fora, as well as directly, as the Statement from the Foreign Secretary has demonstrated. Of course, this does not stop here. If China fails to co-operate, we will continue to look to see what further provisions and actions can be taken. We take note of what our international partners are doing as well. As I have said consistently before, the application of sanctions works most effectively when we do so in partnership. On the point of stopping access to the UK for officials, one thing I will share with my noble friend, particularly through my engagement on multilateral fora, even with your worst foe you should never stop talking because by talking you are able to deliver your point of argument. China remains an important partner, so I do believe we will continue to work constructively where we agree with China and raise issues of human rights concerns where we do not.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Crossbench

My Lords, I too welcome the Statement, but I am conscious that it talks about co-operation with international partners. The Minister will recognise that sanctions in whatever form work best when there is across the board co-operation among countries. I note that the EU has just completed an investment accord with China. What actions will the Government take if EU firms manage to export items made with forced labour to the UK, while UK firms are disadvantaged? What conversations are being had with France and Germany to ensure that this does not happen?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I agree with the noble Baroness. I can assure her that we are working closely with our European allies and friends on the important issue of global human rights sanctions. Indeed, they followed our sanctions regime. The practical issue that she raises is a matter for the EU and I am sure it will act swiftly in this respect.

Photo of Baroness Goudie Baroness Goudie Labour

My Lords, last week I asked the Minister for Trade to what extent human rights issues were part of our trade negotiations and the signing of contracts. He was not able to say whether this would be the first item when we discuss trade with China and other countries. Can the Minister undertake that we will not enter further negotiations with China or anyone else without having human rights as one of the first items on the agenda?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I can assure the noble Baroness that human rights are a key consideration in our discussions on bilateral trade agreements.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative

My Lords, as I have said in this Chamber before, we have to look at the broader picture when it comes to China. The Belt and Road initiative is about a very different China’s place in the world. We need to pull ourselves together with the United States and Europe and take a common position. How are we going to get people on the ground to see what is going on? The Chinese are not allowing anyone in. Unless they do, we will not find out. We could not even find out what was going on in Leicester, which is in our own country. We must find a way of putting people on the ground in the province.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. China is part of the international community. We continue to state the point he has articulated so strongly through all our multilateral fora engagements.

Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

Lord Singh of Wimbledon? There is no response from the noble Lord, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Stuart of Edgbaston.

Photo of Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Non-affiliated

My Lords, when it comes to Xinjiang, no one can say that we did not know. I welcome the Statement and, in particular, the transparency requirements for companies. In a liberal democracy, however, it is important to show that it is not just the Government who object to this but also the people of the British Isles. Will the Minister make it obvious when companies are not complying with the transparency requirements and encourage retailers, such as Marks & Spencer, which have made it clear that they will stop trading in cotton and garments that result from slave labour? We, as consumers, should be clear that we should not purchase any of these products.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

The noble Baroness makes a powerful point. We will look carefully at strengthening communications in this area.

Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Labour

My Lords, I welcome the Statement. I have been particularly concerned about the horrific practice of enforced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in Xinjiang and other parts of China. The China Tribunal concluded that, with regard to the Uighurs, there was evidence of medical testing on a scale that could allow them to become an organ bank. Will the Government take action to hold British companies to account for their human rights obligations by preventing them exporting to China equipment that could be used for this horrific practice?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I assure the noble Lord, with whom I have engaged previously on this issue, that we take this very seriously. He makes some very pertinent points that I shall reflect upon. Seeing how we can move to a practical application is very high up my agenda, and I am seeing Sir Geoffrey Nice later this week to discuss it further.

Photo of Lord Austin of Dudley Lord Austin of Dudley Non-affiliated

My Lords, this is a brutal and corrupt dictatorship, and the idea advanced by some that the closer the relationship with the West the quicker it will move to freedom and democracy has been proved completely wrong. While trade has increased massively over the last 30 years, China today is more illiberal and guilty of worse atrocities: a million Muslims in concentration camps, slave labour, people being killed, forced sterilisations, children removed from their parents, and anyone who opposes the regime locked up. The Minister and the Government should listen to noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon and we should impose Magnitsky sanctions on the dictatorship’s leadership and those who use this regime’s brutality to enrich themselves.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I assure the noble Lord, and indeed all within your Lordships’ House, that we are not just listening very carefully in a number of areas; we are acting quite decisively, and we will continue to do so. I have had this portfolio as Human Rights Minister for three years. About three years ago—the noble Lords, Lord Collins of Highbury and Lord Alton, among others, may have insights in this respect—the debates on this in your Lordships’ House were few and infrequent. Today, we may have different perspectives on the speed at which the Government are moving, but I listen very carefully to the wise counsel of your Lordships, as do my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers. I assure noble Lords that we will continue to engage both within and outside the Chamber on the important issue of human rights, not just in China but across the world.

House adjourned at 5.02 pm.