The Lords told the government that anti-slavery laws did not work, and the UK by buying COVID protection equipment from Xinjiang financed a genocide.
by Ruth Ingram
The unaccountable gravy train of billions of China-sourced COVID paraphernalia must be stopped and serious questions asked, agreed the UK House of Lords in a seminal vote last week.
After passionate speeches, and a London Underground strike that almost derailed the result by preventing dozens of Lords from attending, a narrow but decisive vote carried the motion by 110 to 91. Despite a solid column of Conservative opposition, the combined supporting force rallied to its defense and the motion was carried.
The amendment to the Health Bill, proposed by Lord Blencathra, Baroness Kennedy QC, Baroness Smith and Lord David Alton, stalwarts of amendments to thwart trade with genocidal states, would ensure the UK’s National Health Service would no longer live off the proceeds of forced labour and genocide, said David Alton. The “unconscionable” procurement of goods of dubious origin, and at “huge public expense” must be blocked, he stressed.
Over the course of the pandemic, UK Health Department bought 36.9 billion items of personal protective equipment (PPE) 24.1 billion items of which originated from China, and specifically from Xinjiang, including 10.7 billion gloves, and one billion lateral flow tests.
The cost of all this, deemed a “commercially sensitive” secret by the government, was exposed by the Daily Telegraph to have been £150 million for face masks alone, which were deemed “substandard, defective, past its use-by date or dramatically overpriced,” according to a Guardian exposé.
Scandal after scandal has dogged the COVID procurement debacle with billions of pounds poured into Beijing’s coffers, but the expense did not trouble the Lords as much as the source of the products.
“The UK boasts that it champions the 1948 Convention on the Crime of Genocide and that we are leading the world in the fight against modern slavery. But hundreds of millions of pounds of public money is poured into the pockets of companies profiting from Uyghur forced labour in Xinjiang,” wrote the proposers of the bill in an in-house government publication.
Justifying the narrow parameters of the amendment, Lord Alton stressed that it would be put into effect only where a “serious risk of genocide is said to occur.” Admitting their sights were set particularly on China, whilst not excluding other acts of genocide in other states, he added weight to the action citing the support of the British Medical Association, The Accountability Unit, and atrocity prevention organizations such as the World Uyghur Congress.
“How can we justify spending billions of pounds on billions of items made by slave labour in a state that the Secretary of State has accused of genocide?” he asked.
Countering ministerial objections against the appropriateness of a genocide clause in a health bill, he asked “why anyone would object to it?” and that procurement of health equipment from regions suspected of genocide was “very much a health department issue.”
Despite government minister Earl Howe’s defense of the UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act of 2015 as being the best tool to root out business complicity and violations of export controls, it was condemned as toothless and unaccountable by Baroness Brinton and by Baroness Smith who pointed out its lack of rigor, “It is not good enough to say that we have the Modern Slavery Act if that will not lead to a change in practices. It is absolutely essential that our supply chains do not include anything that comes from forced labour.”
Baroness Walmsley stressed that more needed to be done. “We must not fail to do it because it is more convenient to buy products to keep us safe without investigating how they are produced. Our safety must not be on the backs of people whose rights, and even their lives, are being taken from them.”
Atrocities meted out on the Turkic peoples in Xinjiang were well within the remit of the 1948 Genocide Convention, pointed out Lord Eatwell and as such should not be taken lightly.
Unconvinced by government pledges to “bear down hard on modern slavery and the abuse of human rights” and Lord Howe’s urging Lord Alton to withdraw his amendment, the vote went ahead.
“Our duty is to combat, and not to collaborate in, genocide, and our duty is also to protect the NHS from exploitation and profiteering. We know that around one in five cotton garments sold globally contain cotton or yarn from Xinjiang, and the region also manufactures a significant amount of the world’s polysilicon to make solar panels and smartphones,” urged the proposers of the measures.
“For many reasons the COVID pandemic has been a sorry period but making the UK taxpayer complicit in the persecution of Uyghurs through PPE procurement must be one of the sorriest. Lifesaving must not be dependent on life-taking.”
The success of the amendment ensures the proposal to be taken to the next stage and be debated in the House of Commons.