Lords outvoted the government, once again. The battle to prevent National Health Service from purchasing Xinjiang-made PPE continues.
by Ruth Ingram
Rebellious ping pong played out in UK parliamentary ranks has overturned for the second time the government’s plan to softly tackle the taint of modern slavery in the NHS. This week, ministers were outvoted 177 to 135 by campaigning Lords who pushed for more robust measures to rid supply chains entirely from forced labour.
Outraged by the billions of pounds paid by the National Health Service (NHS) to China for PPE during the Covid pandemic, a considerable part of which had been proved to have been made by Uyghur forced labour, Lord Blencathra had already proposed an amendment to the Health Bill that would prevent purchases from countries that might be in contravention of the genocide convention. This was rejected on the rebound last week in the House of Commons by the government with its own substitute amendment simply guaranteeing a review to assess slavery or human trafficking in the supply chains. This process would involve wide consultation and could take up to eighteen months.
Lord Kamall, for the government, whilst decrying the “terrible crime” of modern slavery, urged the need for a more general assault on the issue that could not be adequately served by the health bill.
Countering the minister’s caution, Lord Blencathra castigated the “obfuscating waffle of the government amendment in lieu,” and did not mince his words when demanding action now. His proposal simply added a clause whereby all NHS procurement should “avoid modern slavery.” The right time is right now,” he said, “and the right legislation is this Bill.”
Lord David Alton, a vehement human rights campaigner particularly where Xinjiang and the Uyghurs are concerned, indicated the government’s reluctance to deal robustly with China, was systematic of a raft of negligence in other areas in its dealings with the superpower. Citing the behind-the-scenes sale of Newport Water Fab, the United Kingdom’s biggest producer of microchips and semiconductors to a Chinese company, he said the transaction, “potentially compromises national security.”
He added his further concern that no assessment either had been made of security issues arising by the NHS’ use of Hikvision, the same company that monitors Uyghurs in Xinjiang. He was mystified that a company banned in the United States would be allowed to continue to operate under the radar in the UK. “It is extraordinary that a Five Eyes ally would take the decision to ban a company and we blithely say, ‘We have made no assessment of it and we don’t have any intention to do so, either,’” he said.
Whilst welcoming the government’s proposed review, he complained that reviews had been offered on countless occasions. “The road to hell is paved with reviews and good intentions,” he said, and urged the Lords to accept Lord Blencathra’s amendment. “The National Health Service is of course about saving life and what is happening in Xinjiang has been about the deprivation and the taking of life,” he said.
Lord Rooker demanded to know why the Government had not yet contracted with Oritain, a company that could identify the origin of cotton products to test items from the PRC, and Baroness Brinton was blunt in criticizing the government’s plan to merely “mitigate” the risks of slavery. Pouring scorn on the wording of its amendment, she said, “mitigation does not hit even the halfway bar.”
“A very large quantity of NHS medical equipment is sourced, in whole or in part, from the People’s Republic of China. Despite the Government denying that any equipment is sourced from the Uyghur region, reports have found that the UK Government have bought more than £150 million-worth of PPE from Chinese firms directly linked to abuses of Uyghur rights abuses,” she pointed out. “As recently as this month, supply chain specialists revealed that the NHS continues to be supplied PPE from a company known to use Uyghur forced labour programs. Without legislation mandating transparency and due diligence, it seems very unlikely that the Government will be able to ensure that they are not sourcing goods from companies practicing modern slavery.”
The UK Government must face up to its obligations to prevent through the law any forced labour and people trafficking in UK health supply chains, she urged.