NHS PPE Supply Chains: Forced Labour

Scottish Affairs Committee – in Westminster Hall at 1:50 pm on 14th July 2022.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 1:50 pm, 14th July 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered forced labour and NHS PPE supply chains.

Thank you, Ms Rees, for the opportunity to lead this debate. I applied for it some time ago—long before the Health and Care Act 2022 was brought to the House—so I want to take the opportunity today to do a follow-up with the Minister. I know she is incredibly assiduous on this issue and is, like me, keen to ensure that the progress continues to be made.

I thank Fiona Bruce, who is a special envoy for international freedom of religion or belief, for co-sponsoring this debate. She told me earlier in the week that, unfortunately, she has another engagement: I understand she is a guest speaker at Chester cathedral. An apology has been sent to the Minister and the shadow Minister. I hope they have both received it, because it is disappointing that the hon. Lady cannot be here. She sends her best wishes, and I know that we would have been greatly encouraged by her presence and her contribution.

Without the hon. Lady’s tireless work on international freedom of religious belief, the world would be a much more unjust place. The international conference, which she was instrumental in bringing about, took place last week and the week before. I want to put on the record my thanks to the Minister and the Government, and also to the Prime Minister, who is still there, for his commitment to ensuring the conference took place. There were 1,000 delegates from all over the world—from probably more than 60 countries. It was a marvellous opportunity to highlight issues across the world.

I declare an interest: I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary groups for international freedom of religion or belief and for Pakistani minorities. Both issues are very close to my heart, as they are for the hon. Member for Congleton.

I thank everyone in Parliament who has faithfully championed the rights of the Uyghurs since we first learned of the horrific reports of what is happening in Xinjiang province and the atrocious scale of systematic persecution that they face. There is not one of us who is not pained in our hearts at what is taking place. We feel for those people who, like everyone else, were just trying to make a living. The Chinese Government—the Chinese Communist party—took it upon themselves to persecute them and force their religious beliefs out of their minds. I will speak about that as I work my way through my speech.

This debate is about forced labour and the NHS personal protective equipment supply chains, and it is no secret that the Uyghurs are the main group being horrifically exploited. The obscene violations of human rights that have occurred in China warrant endless debates—not just this debate, but many more. As a nation, as human beings and as beneficiaries of the many supply chains with ties to China, we must not rest while China continues its despicable practices across the world.

The House will be aware of the amendment to the Health and Care Act tabled by Sir Iain Duncan Smith, which obliged the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to make provisions to ensure that the procurement of all goods and services for the NHS avoids modern slavery. I welcomed the amendment very much; I spoke about it in the Chamber and I welcomed the Government’s commitment. It is important that we do not forget why it was needed. The covid-19 pandemic was a national emergency and a time of special need—a time when the Government, the Prime Minister and the Ministers responsible had to respond urgently to the national and global emergency. There was suddenly an unprecedented need for the procurement of personal protective equipment and intense national pressure to provide it.

Reports show that shortcuts around standard procurement procedures were taken. I understand why. During that time, Her Majesty’s Government gave out PPE contracts worth £150 million to Chinese firms with links to forced labour abuses in Xinjiang. That included £122 million to Winner Medical, which uses cotton produced by forced labour, with links to the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the state-backed paramilitary organisation—the very organisation responsible for running the region’s so-called re-education camps. I know the Minister understands why we feel angered and annoyed that such a thing should ever happen.

An additional £19 million was provided to China Meheco, and another £16.5 million to Sinopharm. Both companies have strong links to the Chinese Communist party’s Xinjiang labour transform programme, which relocates Uyghurs from Xinjiang as slave labourers across China. We do not see as much about that now, or perhaps there is not so much focus on it as there should be, but that is what is happening—people are being moved to other parts of China, so slave labour continues not just in Xinjiang but elsewhere.

I understand that there was a pressing need for PPE, but it is disgraceful that NHS staff had to use protective equipment made in the slave labour camps of Xinjiang, let alone that taxpayers’ money was used to purchase that equipment and therefore fund abhorrent abuse. It is even more disgraceful as the abuses were well-known during the pandemic. A report from the British Medical Association notes serious concerns about the role of Uyghur forced labour in the production of PPE. An investigation by The New York Times came to the same conclusion, as did multiple reports and briefings from the United Nations dating as far back as 2010.

This is not just something that happened in the last couple of years, during covid. It has been happening for several years. It was exacerbated during covid, and has been exacerbated even more so now. I am thankful that the Health and Care Act has made NHS procurement policy more consistent with the United Kingdom’s obligations to prevent and punish acts of genocide, and more in line with the Modern Slavery Act 2015. PPE is just the tip of the iceberg.

Since 2003, nearly 20 years ago, China has sought to eradicate Uyghur culture from China. It has been happening for more than 20 years and has been exacerbated in the last two to three years. For 20 years, a systematic approach to Uyghurs has led to mass forced labour, driven Uyghurs from their homes to abuse camps, forced detention of up to 2 million people and enacted arbitrary torture, as well as forced sterilisation, executions and even organ harvesting. There have also been reports of sexual abuse, murder and torture.

China widely denies the mass incarceration and forced labour and cites terrorism as the cause of security measures in the region. I think most of us can agree, however, that that is ridiculous and entirely insincere and untrue. There is overwhelming evidence that shows a systematic approach to destroying Uyghur culture, language, and faith.

Most recently the “Xinjiang Police Files”, released in May 2022, highlighted the internal view of China’s Communist party that Uyghur culture was incompatible with Chinese culture. Those documents include memos and speeches from President Xi Jinping and other senior leaders of the CCP, describing an active objective to rewire the thinking of the Uyghur Muslims. My goodness —to change the whole way in which people think. People have a right to express their religious view, and it is for that reason that I sought to secure this debate through the Backbench Business Committee—I thank it very much for giving me this opportunity. The Chinese Communist party’s objective was to be achieved through indoctrination and interrogation, transforming the Uyghurs into secular and loyal supporters of the party. The party takes away their right to think and believe, and make them something else.

Uyghurs and other minorities in China face intense monitoring and severe persecution, which have led to credible accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity. As China commits those crimes, it also seeks to profit from the detention of the Uyghur Muslims. As the arrests have increased, so has the economic output of the region. The Chinese Government have a group of people they detain and work long hours—to use terminology from back home, they work them to the bone. Goods produced by the forced labour of Uyghurs are not confined to PPE; they also include fashion, sugar, cosmetics and 40% of China’s coal, and organs are forcibly harvested for use in China’s organ tourism industry.

The Xinjiang region also produces 20% of global cotton production and 45% of the world supply of polysilicon—an essential material in solar panel construction. Today, it is deeply tied to global supply chains, from fashion to renewable energy, and that builds on the profits of ongoing crimes against humanity and, as this House has often claimed, genocide.

To put that in context, one in five items of clothing made with cotton has its origins in Xinjiang province. One in five suits, pairs of trousers and dresses is made with cotton hand-picked by Uyghurs detained in Xinjiang province. If we are to distance ourselves from the horrific abuse of Uyghurs, we must do more to distance ourselves from supply chains involving China.

I am always pleased to see the Minister in her place, because I know she has a deep interest in these issues, and that she will come back with the answers we are seeking. I look forward to what she and the shadow Minister will say. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what must be done next to address the issue of supply chains, which goes far beyond the NHS and into society.

Some have argued that legislation is already in place to prevent such goods from entering UK supply chains. It includes the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which encourages businesses to take action to eradicate modern slavery from their operations and supply chains. I believe that the Act is a nudge strategy; it does not have any teeth. It asks businesses with a turnover of more than £36 million to make statements describing the steps they are taking to address modern slavery. We need a lot more than statements; we need action.

The Act has been championed as providing measures that could help restrict imports from Xinjiang province. However, in February 2021, a review from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre concluded that it had failed to eradicate modern slavery from UK supply chains. What is being done to ensure that words become action that makes a difference?

Companies can choose what to include in their statement. They can adopt a tick-box approach and provide only general information. They can also state that they have taken no steps at all to eradicate forced labour and still be compliant with the Act. It is not a verbal commitment that we need; it is action on the ground.

Despite that minimal approach, there has been persistent non-compliance by 40% of companies. We really need to turn the screws on them and ensure that they do more than give verbal commitments, and we also need to act upon the ones that do not. After six years of non-compliance, there has not been one injunction or penalty for any company that has failed to report, so it seems that the Act is toothless.

Clearly, more legislation or more pressure is needed to make the change. In the Queen’s Speech, Her Majesty’s Government outlined plans to increase companies’ and other organisations’ accountability for driving out modern slavery from their supply chains through a new modern slavery Bill. I hope that that Bill will strengthen existing legislation, but the Government need to lead by example. Will the Minister give us some idea of how the new legislation will make a difference?

If we are asking British companies and the NHS to take steps to ensure that procurement is free from modern slavery, we must lead and not be complacent with legislation that does not achieve what it sets out to do.

It is right to pay tribute to the many parliamentarians who have advocated and worked physically and emotionally in both Westminster Hall and the main Chamber for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. A great deal of parliamentary time has been given to the topic, and rightly so. I want to recognise that because I believe that the efforts of both Back and Front Benchers has made a difference. In the last few years, there have been no fewer than 16 debates and 446 written questions across both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. That gives an idea of the magnitude and significance of this issue and the strength of commitment and interest from Members. There have been multiple urgent questions on the matter, and Parliament has stated that it believes there is overwhelming evidence of genocide in Xinjiang province by the Chinese Communist party. The Foreign Affairs Committee has published two reports recommending that the Government

“accept Parliament’s view that Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang are suffering genocide and crimes against humanity, and take action to bring these crimes to an end.”

We know that Christians have suffered in China. They are persecuted, their churches are knocked down, and they are continually spied upon. Those of other faiths and ethnic groups, such as Falun Gong, are also subject to this incredible persecution by the Chinese Communist party. In short, there can be no doubt of the extent of support for more to be done to combat the practices of the Chinese Communist party.

It is worth noting that the efforts of this Parliament, our Government and our Ministers, as well as others in the international community, have borne fruit. Let us recognise some of the things that have happened and the good things that have been done. We often lament the dire situation in China and human rights violations more broadly, but we should take encouragement that not all efforts are in vain. Next week, at about this time, there will be a debate in the main Chamber on human rights across the world. I may have an opportunity to highlight this matter in a different way, along with many others.

China is changing its narrative on Xinjiang—at least outwardly. It has now acknowledged the existence of the re-education camps and claimed that students at those camps have graduated, focusing significant propaganda efforts to try to justify its policies. Those are only for the world and the media; the reality is very different. China is aware that there is growing awareness of its corruption, but further international action is essential. I am mindful that the Minister present is responsible for the NHS, not the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. However, I ask her what discussions she has had with the FCDO on other steps that we can take outside her Department.

In January 2021, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office announced its intention to introduce measures to ensure that

“British organisations…are not complicit in, nor profiting from, the human rights violations in Xinjiang.”

The then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, stated that compliance with those measures will be mandatory for central Government and that:

“This package will help make sure that no British organisations, Government or private sector, deliberately or inadvertently, profit from or contribute to the human rights violations against the Uyghurs or other minorities in Xinjiang.”

It is now 550 days—more than a year and a half—since that announcement, and those measures have yet to be implemented in their totality. I therefore seek an assurance that that action will be taken and, if possible, a timescale for when that will happen.

The will of this Parliament is clear: action is needed, and action works. The Health and Care Act 2022 highlighted the scale of the problem of forced labour in the NHS, but that legislation impacts on just one Department. The import ban for the NHS is an encouraging step, but I am sure we all agree that no Government Department should procure goods produced by slave labour, whether that be in Xinjiang province in China, which is living off the backs of the Uyghurs, or in any other part of the world. No Government Department should allow China the opportunity to profit from the genocide, brutality and violence that it is carrying out against good, decent, ordinary people.

I am very proud of this country’s commitment to upholding human rights internationally. I am also proud to be a member of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to be MP for Strangford. I am proud and happy to support our Minister and her Department. During the UK presidency of the G7, one focus area was addressing forced labour in global supply chains and making commitments to uphold human rights and international labour standards, but we are in danger of losing that reputation.

Since the Brexit referendum, human rights standards and obligations have been removed from negotiations and the texts of trade deals. That does not fall within the remit of the Minister’s Department, and I do not expect an answer from her—I cannot ask her to answer for Departments where she has no responsibility—but will she do me the kindness of asking that question of the correct Minister? It is important that we have an idea of what has been done to address that issue, because these standards are the norm around the world. Global Britain has much to offer the world, but that cannot be at the expense of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province or of other religious or belief minority groups around the world, whether they are in China or further afield.

Her Majesty’s Government have refused to accept Parliament’s view that it is highly likely that genocide is happening in Xinjiang province, despite reams of evidence from many people, including video evidence and personal evidence from within China. That evidence has been provided by the Uyghur tribunal, United Nations monitoring trips, the Xinjiang police files, the Foreign Affairs Committee and many more. It is time to change that and to follow the example of the United States of America in recognising what is happening to the Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang province as genocide. I wish we had done the same, and I hope it can still happen.

Just this week, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act came into force in the United States of America. The Act introduced a ban on imports from Xinjiang province following the overwhelming evidence of forced labour abuses. They had the evidence and we have access to that same evidence; we need to take the same action that they have taken. All companies have to prove they have taken due diligence of all possible steps to ensure their supply chain does not contain goods made through Uyghur forced labour.

The Act introduces penalties for companies, the ability to seize goods that originate in Xinjiang province and a testing requirement, which can include genetic testing of cotton and other goods to find out where they have come from. I hope that the Minister will ask other Departments to urgently endorse the strategy of the United States and do the same here. I am proud that the Act was drafted as a result of the G7 summit in Cornwall, in our own United Kingdom, which shows the influence we have. It is now time to follow the example of the United States. A similar ban on imports from Xinjiang province should apply not only to the NHS but to all Government Departments and further afield.

In drawing my remarks to an end, I want to highlight the next steps. First, we must ensure that the measures announced by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on 12 January 2022 are enacted swiftly. The Government have set down some policies and some ways forward, and I would like to see them happening, and happening soon. I also seek a timescale for those policies. We must ensure that these measures, existing legislation and the new modern slavery Bill are robust enough to address reports that Uyghurs are being moved out of Xinjiang province and into other parts of China. They are dispersing them throughout China and it is going to be hard to find out what is happening in other parts of China. It is wonderful how information seems to leak out. The Chinese Communist party is trying to hide the abuse across all parts of China. It is doing something absolutely despicable and dastardly.

Secondly, Her Majesty’s Government must lead by example. The Health and Care Act sets a precedent. Each Government Department should conduct an urgent review to ensure that its supply chains do not source products from Xinjiang or have links with companies that support detention camps in the region. No Government Department should allow China the opportunity to profit from a genocide that the rest of the world has recognised and that I believe we must recognise as well.

Thirdly, the Government should introduce a central list of goods and resources that have a high risk of being produced by slave labour in Xinjiang province and implement testing requirements for Government procurement contracts that involve items on that list. At a minimum, the list should include cotton and polysilicon.

Fourthly, we need to reintroduce basic human rights standards into the negotiations and the wording of post-Brexit trade deals. That is a norm in international trade deals and, if Britain is to maintain its leading role in championing democracy and human rights, as I hope it will, we cannot sever the link between trade and human rights. The central theme that came through the international conference held last week was the connection between freedom of religious belief and human rights. The two are closely linked, and cannot be severed. Nor can we sever the link between trade and human rights, especially as younger generations put greater emphasis on corporate responsibility. The parallels are evident and should be heeded. The conference made that point.

Finally, Her Majesty’s Government should revisit the outcome of the parliamentary debate that decided that it is highly likely that genocide is happening in Xinjiang province. I know that the Minister will respond by stating that it is the long-standing policy of the British Government not to make determinations in relation to genocide and that that is instead down to a competent court or tribunal. As such, I gently remind the Minister—although I am also trying to be persuasive—that the UK’s duty under the 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide is to prevent genocide, not just to punish the perpetrators after the event. What is being done to prevent the genocide that is most likely going to occur, if it is not already happening?

There was a debate in the main Chamber earlier on Srebrenica. That offers a reminder of the many places across the world where massacres and genocide have been carried out. We always hope that each one will be the last, but unfortunately that is not the case. I am very pleased that this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a leading voice on the international stage, well known for its advancement of human rights, particularly that of freedom of religion or belief. Let us not damage that reputation by failing to act.

At last week’s international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief, a quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer was repeated, over and over again, in different seminars and fringe events. Many will know it:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Those words are as relevant today as they were many years ago.

Parliament has spoken. Her Majesty’s Government must lead by example. Will the Minister address the need that all Government Departments—she can speak for her Department and the discussions she has had with others—should not procure any goods whatsoever made in Xinjiang? What steps will Her Majesty’s Government take to reach that goal? What discussions have taken place with other countries to do the same?

I look forward to hearing from Steven Bonnar. I think we are a tag team, as he is always here in Westminster Hall, as is the Labour party’s shadow Minister, Catherine West.

I am pleased to see the Minister in her place, and I look forward to her response. I also look forward to the remarks of others, because they, like me, believe that what happens in Xinjiang province is unacceptable and that we have role to play in that. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to come along and make my comments.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member) 2:20 pm, 14th July 2022

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I applaud Jim Shannon for securing this vital debate and, more importantly, for informing us all so well about the subject. It really is abhorrent to think that, in the 21st century, we are still discussing the plight of slave workers and forced labour practices. This can and will only change when the Government change and their outlook on human rights changes too—becoming one of sympathy and compassion, not of collusion and indifference.

From the very start of the covid-19 pandemic, the UK Government’s remaining morals were unfortunately diminished. With the desire to sustain a harsh Brexiteer stance, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, refused to take part in an EU-wide scheme to obtain necessary PPE and ventilators in a legitimate manner, choosing instead to favour companies responsible for committing some of the greatest humanitarian rights offences of recent times. Various pieces of evidence have emerged over the past two years, and I would like to share a few of them with the House.

In November 2020, The Guardian reported that the Government had sourced PPE from factories in China where hundreds of North Korean women had been working in modern slavery conditions. In December 2020, the BBC revealed that a charity set up by the Daily Mail to buy protective equipment for NHS staff donated 100,000 face masks that were suspected of being made via forced Uyghur labour in Xinjiang province. In February 2022, it was revealed that the UK had bought around £5.8 billion-worth of lateral flow tests from China, where the use of forced labour in re-education camps is a known UN human rights concern.

Even the British Medical Association report of July 2021 confirmed:

“Many of the masks and aprons distributed in the first six months of the pandemic were sourced from China and the majority of the 1.9 billion examination gloves were sourced from Malaysia”, and that there are

“serious labour rights concerns in the production of PPE.”

No matter the circumstances and the dire need for equipment, purchases of any form cannot and should not occur when unethical practices are at play. Surely that is the very least that a compassionate Government should be ensuring.

I welcome the steps taken in recent months to combat this issue. The UK Government recently announced that NHS England would be barred from using goods and services linked to slavery or human trafficking. Although we in the Scottish National party agree with such action, the question remains as to why more concrete action was not taken sooner. To fully rectify the issue of unethical supply chains, the UK Government could insert a “duty to protect” clause within the parameters of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, meaning that all procurement agencies would be legally obliged to ensure that all products imported into or sold in the UK were not obtained through unethical supply chains.

On top of that, the UK Government still have a questionable track record on their efforts to deter forced labour products. In 2021, the Government opposed the so-called genocide amendment to the Trade Act 2021, which would have seen the High Courts of England and Wales establishing preliminary rulings on the occurrence of genocide in states, and then requiring the UK Government to revoke any trade agreements with countries where potential genocide was found by domestic courts. The UK Government have still never given an adequate answer to why they opposed the genocide amendment, so perhaps the Minister will enlighten us. From a human rights perspective, I believe there is no clear justification for the Government’s position.

The Scottish Government have worked hard to ensure that PPE supply chains in Scotland are safeguarded from forced labour products. From the outset of the pandemic, the Scottish Government have worked with the NHS and Scottish suppliers, and on a four-nation basis, to ensure that Scotland has adequate stocks of PPE. In Scotland, 88% of PPE is produced locally, and overall costs of pandemic procurement were a third less than those in the rest of the UK. That proves that the Scottish Government have worked to significantly enhance domestic production of PPE to mitigate global supply chain problems that emerged during the pandemic.

The SNP is committed to retaining powerful safeguards on the use of public money in healthcare through strong procurement rules. We are fully committed to the safety and wellbeing of medical staff and healthcare professionals, while also ensuring ethical supply chains for all medical and protective equipment. I cannot urge the UK Government enough to follow suit and replicate this truly ethical model. More importantly, the Scottish Government did not engage in the cronyism and corruption of this Government in the acquisition of PPE. While the Conservative party flogged PPE contracts to party donors and friends of Ministers in their unlawful VIP PPE lane, the Scottish Government kept robust processes in place to ensure value for money, meaning that the Scottish Government paid a third less for PPE than the UK Government did.

Where possible, all PPE acquired will be used in Scotland's hospitals, care homes and other healthcare settings. Our stockpile of unused PPE is therefore vastly smaller than that of England. Instead of selling off unused PPE to Government contacts for pennies—as the Tories are doing—the much smaller amount of unused PPE in Scotland is being either maintained for use or donated to charities and shared with nations, such as Malawi and Zambia, which desperately need it.

I will end by saying that the fight against the covid-19 pandemic is a global one, and it is right that the Scottish Government support international partners and less well-off nations in their tackling of the pandemic. Donating excess PPE is one way of achieving that, and it is a model example that I hope the UK Government will also take forward.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 2:26 pm, 14th July 2022

It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate under you chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank Jim Shannon for securing it. He is, of course, well known in the House for his commitment to the defence of human rights and the freedom of religion or belief. Given the ongoing Conservative party leadership election, and the comments made by some candidates in recent days regarding policies and views relating to China and human rights, this debate is particularly timely.

Having a new Prime Minister and a fresh ministerial team this autumn will give us a real opportunity to do the right thing, not only in purchasing PPE but in applying pressure on Governments and in legislating to ensure that private sector organisations do their bit to promote human rights. The number of human rights staff in overseas posts has been cut back severely since 2010. I sincerely hope that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will replace them, because that is how we know exactly what conditions are like in manufacturing and overseas supply chains.

We know that there are many concerns about supply chains that arise from the Xinjiang province of China, with the Chinese Government being routinely accused of using the Uyghur minority population as slave labour. As the hon. Member for Strangford has said, at least 20% of all global cotton and 80% of Chinese domestic production, has its provenance on the Xinjiang region. The scale of the problem is why this issue is so important.

It is vital that the NHS, as one of our proudest national achievements and a large purchasing unit, is not implicated, either directly or indirectly, in forced labour or questionable supply chains. But we know, sadly, that that is often the case. Pre-pandemic, PPE global supply chains were already known to be riddled with trade union and human rights violations, but it has worsened in the past 28 months. However, many of the companies supplying PPE have vastly increased their profits.

Forced labour has increased but this is not just a story about forced labour. Authoritarian Governments have used the pandemic to further restrict workers from organising into trade unions. All over the world, in all sectors, collective bargaining agreements have been ripped up and thrown away. In a number of countries in the Asia-Pacific area, wage theft is sadly a feature of the production of PPE basics such as rubber gloves, gowns and surgical masks.

I acknowledge the ongoing work of the trade union movement, not least Unison, which has been campaigning on this issue for some time. Labour’s position has always been clear and consistent—that we must remove any suggestion of forced labour from the NHS’s PPE supply chain.

My hon. Friend Wes Streeting, the shadow Health Secretary, has spoken clearly about Labour’s support for legislative measures during the passage of the Health and Care Act 2022, particularly given the significant amount of public money that has been wasted through crony contracting. The Government should resource adequately the checks on procurement and bring to book any companies that fail to follow guidelines on supply chains. We cannot allow public money for our NHS to pay for questionable contracts, to enable forced labour, or to be part of our entering trade deals that contradict the spirit of the UK’s obligations under the genocide convention.

The issue is not new and today is not the first time that it has been raised. As we are aware, there is a requirement on Governments that are signatories to the genocide convention to act even when there is only a suspicion that genocide might have occurred, and not to turn a blind eye to human rights infringements.

As the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned in his opening remarks, the House has voted that the evidence that has been brought to light about slave labour in the People’s Republic of China amounts to evidence of a genocide. There is some debate in wider terms around that issue, but the genocide convention bypasses that point and that debate about definition by saying that even when there is just a suspicion that there could be some form of genocide, Governments who are signatories to that convention ought to take action. Consequently, I am pleased that following the passage of the Health and Care Act 2022, there has been some movement by the Government.

I urge the Minister to respond to the points that have been made in this debate, to clarify the position today; the 2022 Act completed its passage only a short time ago. What cross-departmental work is being undertaken to apply the guidelines that we have discussed across other Government procurement practices? What guidelines have been issued to local government, for example? The average local authority in inner London has a £1 billion turnover. Other large purchasing units at Government level also ought to be aware of the duty to prevent potential human slavery or potential genocide. What discussions has she had with the trade union movement to ensure that its views, expertise and research are integral to the formation of any strategy to clean up our supply chains?

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 2:32 pm, 14th July 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.

I start by congratulating Jim Shannon on securing this debate and on all his hard work, alongside Members such as my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, on this significant issue. It is important to debate the supply chain for NHS PPE, to learn lessons from the past and to ensure that robust systems are in place for the future. I reassure him, and all hon. Members, that this matter is a priority for the Department and we continue to take steps to ensure that there are robust systems to safeguard against the coming into the system of supplies that may be linked to slavery or forced labour. I am pleased that this issue was debated during the passage of the Health and Care Act 2022, and further legislation will be introduced to address it.

However, I must put it on the record that our priority during the pandemic, as Members will understand, was to protect our frontline staff. This was a global crisis, in which we were competing against many countries to secure PPE for our frontline workers. Nevertheless, we had and still have a responsibility to those across the PPE supply chain to make sure that when PPE is procured, it is done responsibly and does not put people in any part of that chain at risk. It is absolutely important that we do that both globally and domestically, because although the hon. Member for Strangford rightly mentioned the Uyghurs in China, we have heard only too well this week from Mo Farah that slave labour and slavery exist in this country as well.

I take the point that Steven Bonnar raised about his concerns about the Government’s approach, but I will gently say that the Herald on Sunday stated that during the pandemic, half a billion pounds-worth of procurement in Scotland did not go through the usual scrutiny process, either—and that was just one report. That reflects the fact that all countries during the pandemic had to make tough decisions to get supplies through, safeguard frontline services and ensure that those pieces of equipment were in place. Where lessons need to be learned, we absolutely will do so. Since the pandemic, almost 40 billion items of PPE have been ordered and almost 20 billion were distributed by March 2022. We are still distributing over 600 million items a month. That shows the scale of the amount of PPE that we have had to distribute. Hon. Members will be aware that covid rates are still high at the moment, so PPE is still very much needed by our frontline staff.

Global chains were used to procure many supplies, whether aprons, gloves or masks, but where possible we have tried to escalate domestic supply, because while it is not 100% failsafe against slavery, it is more likely that there are robust systems in place. To effectively distribute the supply across health and social care settings, we have built a distribution network from scratch and adopted a sophisticated sales and operations planning system to regulate supply and distribution. We have a clear understanding of where the stock has come from and the processes in place to ensure that slavery or forced labour was not used in any part of that chain. Part of the network is using technology to track and trace where that supply comes from, and if there are queries or concerns in the future, we are able to look back and see where those supplies came from. Since April 2020, over 6.9 billion PPE items have been ordered through that e-portal system.

As we move to living with covid, the decision has been made to step down some of the Department’s work on the PPE programme, and we are handing that over to the NHS supply chain more generally. Safeguards in the Act ensure that some of that work will continue to happen. Modern slavery encompasses the offences of slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour and human trafficking. The NHS has a significant role to play in combating modern slavery, including by taking steps to ensure that the NHS supply chains and business activities are free from labour abuses. The Government rely on their suppliers for the delivery of many important public services, and we expect high standards of business ethics from our suppliers—and their agents. They will be routinely checked for that.

The Department follows a procurement approach, as set out in the UK Government modern slavery statement, that includes a zero-tolerance approach to modern slavery and a commitment to ensure that respect for human rights is built into all our contracts, self-assessments, audits, training and capacity building. I reassure the hon. Member for Strangford that if there is a complaint or a suggestion of any supply being involved in slavery or forced labour, we can lock down that stock until an investigation is concluded. We can then unlock it if no evidence is found, but we can stop some of those contracts if there is evidence of forced labour. We look at what happens in other countries—he touched on the US—and if other countries are finding evidence of slave labour used in any part of the supply chain, investigations will start on UK stock as well.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for her positive response. Clearly, the United States has taken a line of legislative action. Has the Minister had a chance to discuss or get ideas from what the States are doing and what drove them to do that? I posed that question and both hon. Members who spoke asked the same question. If they can do it in the States, we can do it here.

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

Absolutely. We have secondary legislation coming forward that will enact what was agreed in the Health and Care Act 2022, which will look at some of this issue. The Procurement Bill is also passing through the House of Lords and will come to our Chamber. It will look at procurement more generally, not just NHS procurement. If he and other hon. Members with a keen interest in the subject, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, have specific questions on NHS procurement, I am happy for them to write to me and we shall see whether we can look at them as part of scrutiny of the Bill as it progresses. He is right that we want to ensure that we are learning lessons and sharing best practice across the board. I cannot speak for other Departments, but we are keen to get that right for the NHS where possible.

We are taking steps to achieve greater supply chain visibility, particularly where risks are highest, with the recognition that workers in the lower tiers of supply chains are often the most vulnerable. In line with that, we ensure that all contracts placed by the Department adhere to standard terms and conditions that include clauses requiring good industry practice to ensure that there is no slavery or human trafficking in supply chains.

Suppliers appointed to NHS supply chain frameworks must also comply with those standards or they can be removed from consideration for future opportunities. All the suppliers of PPE frameworks let in conjunction with the Department were registered and required to complete a modern slavery assessment and a labour standards assessment. Our purchase process includes safeguards to strengthen due diligence and to terminate a contract should there be substantiated allegations against a provider.

We are not content to rest on the status quo, which is why the Health and Care Act contained a regulation-making power that will come into force, designed to eradicate the use in the NHS of goods or services tainted by slavery or human trafficking. The regulations will set out the steps that the NHS should be taking to assess the level of risk associated with individual suppliers and the basis on which it should exclude them from a tendering process. Those regulations will help to ensure that the NHS, the biggest public procurer in the country, is not buying or using any goods or services produced by or involving any kind of slave labour. It represents a significant step forward in our mission to crack down on the evils of modern slavery wherever they are found. We are grateful to the work of modern slavery campaigners, who hailed the regulations as

“the most significant development in supply chain regulation since the Modern Slavery Act 2015”.

Alongside those regulations, the Health and Care Act also requires the Secretary of State to carry out a review into the risk of slavery and human trafficking taking place in NHS supply chains and to lay before Parliament a report on its outcomes. That review will focus on NHS supply chain activity, as well as supporting the NHS to identify and mitigate risks with a view to resolving issues. The review and the regulations will send a clear signal to suppliers that the NHS will not tolerate human rights abuses in its supply chain; they will create significant incentives for suppliers to review their practices; and they will block, if necessary, any suppliers that are found to be using human trafficking or slave labour.

I was moved to hear the cases of the Uyghurs that the hon. Member for Strangford raised. He is right that that goes far beyond the NHS, which is why the Procurement Bill, currently passing through the other place, is an important piece of legislation. I am sure that he and other hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Ms Ghani) and for Congleton, and my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who are assiduous campaigners on the issue, will take a keen interest in that.

I conclude by thanking all hon. Members for their contributions. Modern day slavery is a deplorable practice that causes irreversible harm to those affected. We all have a responsibility to call it out. As a Department, we take it extremely seriously. I hope that, by sharing what is happening, I have given hon. Members confidence that we will do all we can to root it out and take out of our supply chains any affected pieces of equipment.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The Minister is being generous; I recognise that she is speaking from a health perspective. Will she undertake to write to hon. Members present about the Government’s progress on cross-departmental best practice sharing from her Department?

Photo of Maria Caulfield Maria Caulfield Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am very happy to do that. While I have been able to highlight what the NHS is doing, some good cross-departmental work is also being done on procurement and on identifying where slavery is happening both globally and domestically. I highlighted the evidence from Mo Farah this week. We must not take it for granted that slavery is not happening in this country. I am happy to write to the shadow Minister and those who have taken part in the debate to highlight the work that is happening across the Government. It has to be a cross-Government initiative to make sure that we are all working together to root this out. Much remains to be done to ensure that we deliver the message that modern day slavery is completely unacceptable. I look forward to working with MPs across the House to make sure that we all do our bit.

Photo of Christina Rees Christina Rees Labour/Co-operative, Neath

Jim Shannon, would you like a couple of minutes to wind up?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:45 pm, 14th July 2022

I would. I shall be only two minutes. I thank the two shadow spokespeople. I thank Steven Bonnar for his always helpful contributions. He and I seem to be in all the debates together. It does not lessen our interest in these issues, because pursuing them is what brings us together. He referred to the serious labour rights concerns that a compassionate Government need to respond to. We all agreed on genocide, including the shadow Minister, Catherine West. She referred to the scale of the problem. It almost takes our breath away sometimes when we realise how massive the problem is. She also mentioned the trade unions, which have worked throughout the world; I recognise that. Trade unions play a critical role around the world; we thank them for all that they do.

In trade deals, human rights must be protected. I think the Government are already doing that, but it is good to call for it again. Hon. Members also mentioned cross-departmental work and the roles that must be fulfilled. In a late intervention, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green made an important point. When the Minister gets feedback from the other Departments, perhaps those who have participated today, and my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and I, will take the opportunity to express our views and have a chat with the Minister.

The Minister was helpful, as she always is. I wrote down some of the things she said. The Procurement Bill is coming through and we will all be able to feed into that process. The Government have made a commitment to use the modern slavery Bill to take significant steps against human trafficking and to block activities if necessary. I like the idea that if there is an accusation, there is a block right away until the matter is checked out evidentially. If it is proven to be true, it is stopped. That is positive stuff, and I welcome that.

I also mentioned the importance of following best practice when evidence is found. I understand—I think we all do—that the Government responded to covid-19 in the way that they had to. It is not a criticism: perhaps corners were cut—but that had to be done because otherwise we would never have got things in place. Now that we have got past that stage, it is time to get procurement right. This debate has been about getting it right.

I thank everyone who participated—the hon. Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and for Hornsey and Wood Green, and the Minister. I also thank you, Ms Rees. You are always very gentle but firm, and I thank you for your chairmanship of all the debates. I also thank the civil servants, who make sure that the debates go smoothly and get Ministers the answers, and I thank all the staff. Thank you so much, everyone.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered forced labour and NHS PPE supply chains.

Sitting adjourned.