New Clause 18 - Procurement and human rights

Procurement Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 21 February 2023.

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“(1) A contracting authority may apply a policy under which it does not contract for the supply of goods, services or works from a foreign country or territory based on the conduct of that foreign country or territory relating to human rights, provided that—

(a) the contracting authority has a Statement of Policy Relating to Human Rights, and

(b) that statement of policy is applied consistently and not specifically to any one foreign country or territory.

(2) Within six months of the passage of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish, and lay before Parliament, guidance on the form, content and application of Statements of Policy Relating to Human Rights for the purposes of subsection (1).

(3) Contracting authorities must have regard to the guidance published under subsection (2) when applying a policy in accordance with subsection (1).”—

This new clause would enable public authorities to choose not to buy goods or services from countries based on their human rights record. They would not be able to single out individual nations to apply such a policy to, but would have to apply it consistently, and in accordance with guidance published by the Secretary of State.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

As we have discussed at length, we feel that public procurement can be a hugely important tool in using the power of the state to drive specific outcomes. That is why the rules and framework that the Bill sets out are so important, and why it is right that the Committee scrutinises them.

Often, we think of the power of procurement simply in terms of outcomes, or perhaps in terms of the economic benefit that can be delivered by the right procurement decisions, but we must not lose sight of procurement’s ethical dimension. Ethical considerations should, and inevitably will, arise during discussions about procurement.

The power of procurement can be used to send a message that we as a country do not condone certain actions or wrongdoing by another country. It should be a totally legitimate position for our country not to procure goods from countries that have committed human rights abuses or war crimes. However, as it stands, the Bill fails to account for that.

New clause 18 seeks to set out a framework for ethical considerations during procurement decisions. It would enable public authorities to choose not to buy goods or services from countries based on their human rights records. In that respect, the new clause would allow for human rights abuses, specifically, to affect procurement decisions.

Human rights abuses are crimes of a different order, and I am sure that colleagues on both sides of the Committee agree that our country should condemn them. We have a proud history in the development of modern international humanitarian law, from the ashes of world war two and the creation of the United Nations, to the role we continue to play on the world stage. We have always defended the fundamental and absolute rights of all human beings. The new clause would further that endeavour and embed its principles in procurement law.

However, if procurement decisions made in respect of human rights are to have the greatest impact, it is vital that they are applied across the board. Indeed, it would be contrary to the spirit and letter of the proposed provisions if they were used to single out individual nations. Therefore, the new clause clearly states that contracting authorities must produce a document to set out their policy on procurement and human rights, which must be developed in accordance with guidance published by the Secretary of State. This will ensure that there is consistency in how contracting authorities decide on these matters.

The practical effect of that will be to make it clear and unambiguous that if a contracting authority does not wish to procure goods from Russia because of President Putin’s abhorrent human rights abuses in Ukraine, the law will be on its side. Equally, if the same authority does not wish to procure services from China because of the appalling treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, the law will be on its side. However, if an authority acted only against a particular state, while turning a blind eye to human rights abuses elsewhere, the new clause would make such actions illegal.

Our party is clear that actions that seek to isolate and target particular states are wrong and should not be tolerated. The new clause would therefore prohibit such actions. Human rights considerations must be applied fairly and consistently, and that is what the framework set out in the new clause would provide for.

The provisions of the new clause are reasonable and proportionate. They would embed our country’s proud humanitarian principles in procurement law. I hope that all Members will agree that this is a serious issue, especially given what is being played out across the world, and I hope that they and the Minister will support the inclusion of the new clause in the Bill.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

New clause 18, which was tabled by Alex Norris, would allow public authorities to apply their own policies, under which they would not procure from certain countries because of those countries’ human rights conduct.

It is obviously right and good that human rights abuses have no place in public supply chains, but the new clause is unnecessary and would give authorities too broad a discretion to apply blanket boycotts. Although the new clause would not allow for the singling-out of individual countries, it would allow authorities to exclude suppliers from entire nations without any consideration of whether a supplier itself has had any involvement in abuses or of the steps a supplier has taken to self-clean, both of which are important features of the new exclusions regime to manage risk appropriately and fairly.

Excluding suppliers based on where they are located would be disproportionate and in some cases would be contrary to the UK’s international obligations. The Bill already contains a robust regime for the exclusion of suppliers that are unfit to hold public contracts. Schedules 6 and 7 set out a wide range of exclusion grounds that target the most serious risks to public procurement, including modern slavery and human trafficking. We have taken action to strengthen the way in which those terms are defined, so that suppliers may be excluded where there is sufficient evidence that they are responsible for human rights abuses anywhere in the world, whether or not they have been convicted of an offence.

Guidance already exists to help contracting authorities to address human rights risks and there is well-established practice during procurements. The guidance is detailed, at over 40 pages long, and includes sections on managing risk from new procurements to assessing existing contracts, taking action when victims of modern slavery are identified, supply chain mapping, useful tools, training, and questions to ask.

I will also highlight the new debarment regime provided for in the Bill, which allows Ministers to consider whether any supplier meets one of the grounds for exclusion and whether the issues in question are likely to recur. Suppliers on the debarment list face exclusion across the public sector. This is a significant step forward in our approach to supplier misconduct.

We respectfully request that the new clause be withdrawn.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

Division number 39 Procurement Bill [Lords] — New Clause 18 - Procurement and human rights

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 7 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 7.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill, as amended, to the House.

Photo of Alex Burghart Alex Burghart The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Thank you, Mr Mundell, for chairing so ably and excellently. I thank the Clerks for their fantastic work. I thank my tireless officials, without whose expertise I would not know what to do. I thank Committee members on both sides of the divide. It is only fair to record in Hansard that the Committee has been good-natured, intelligent and at times almost enjoyable. I thank His Majesty’s loyal Opposition for supporting the overall thrust of the Bill, although they do not agree with every detail. We left it in better shape than when it arrived, and I look forward to working with everyone to take it through Report and to Royal Assent.

Photo of Florence Eshalomi Florence Eshalomi Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I echo the Minister’s comments. I formally thank the Clerks—Sarah, Chris and Huw—for their endless emails and helping me to understand the groupings and procedure. I will be honest and let hon. Members know that this is my first time leading on a Bill Committee. Many years ago, trying to tell a girl from a council estate in Brixton that she would be leading for the Opposition on such a technical Bill would have been out of the question.

The issues that we have discussed are so important. I hope the Minister will see from some of the points that we have made and the amendments that we have tabled that we have an opportunity to ensure that procurement works for everybody, including those from council estates, who may not understand it but will see the impact on their everyday lives. I look forward to discussing the Bill robustly with the Minister again as it goes through its next phases.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

Thank you. Of course, Ms Blackman put her thanks on the record on Thursday 9th. The great disappointment for me is that I am debarred from taking part in any future proceedings on the Bill. I, too, thank Committee members for the way in which they have engaged. I am sure we would also like to convey our thanks to Mr Efford for his chairing. I know that he will be deeply disappointed that there will not be a sitting this afternoon.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill, as amended, accordingly to be reported.

Committee rose.

Written evidence reported to the House

PB 27 Burges Salmon LLP

PB 28 Duncan Jones

PB 29 Aspire Community Works

PB 30 Raoul Robinson

PB 31 Places for People Group Limited

PB 32 Refuge

PB 33 King’s College London

PB 34 Shoosmiths

PB 35 Open Contracting Partnership (further written submission)

PB 36 Dr Aris Christidis, Lecturer in Law at Newcastle University