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Uighur Forced Labour: Xinjiang

Volume 808: debated on Thursday 17 December 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 16 December.

“Evidence of forced Uighur labour within Xinjiang and in other parts of China is credible; it is growing and it is deeply troubling to the UK Government. Yesterday’s media reporting, based in part on Chinese Government documents, suggests that forced labour is occurring on a significant scale. The reports raise particular concerns regarding the cotton industry, with serious implications for international and UK supply chains. We have consistently made clear our view that all businesses involved in investing in Xinjiang or with parts of their supply chains in Xinjiang should conduct appropriate due diligence to satisfy themselves that their activities do not support, or risk being seen to support, any human rights violations or abuses.

In our national action plan, implementing the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, we set out our expectation that UK businesses should respect human rights across their operations and their international supply relationships. While there is an important role for government, businesses have a clear responsibility to ensure that their supply chains are free from forced labour. We have issued clear guidance and held regular meetings with businesses and industry stakeholders to underline our concerns and the importance of thorough due diligence. We have also financed projects to build the evidence base and increase awareness of the risks. This includes the high-profile report Uyghurs for Sale, which has led several companies to take action in respect of their supply chains.

I have updated the House on a number of occasions on the UK’s international leadership and extensive diplomatic activity to hold China to account. Most recently, alongside Germany, we brought together a total of 39 countries in a joint statement at the UN General Assembly Third Committee in October. That sent a powerful message to China on the breadth of international concern, including on the issue of forced labour. In September, we devoted our entire national statement at the UN Human Rights Council to China, again raising forced labour.

In summary, the UK has taken the lead internationally. We have shone a light on the evidence of what is going on, to raise awareness and urge action, and we have provided clear guidance to business. However, the Government acknowledge that, in light of the gross human rights abuses being committed, there is more to be done. That is why, in September, the Home Secretary announced plans to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and why the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is co-ordinating extensive work right across government to address this deeply concerning issue.

I will conclude by reassuring the House that we recognise and share the depth of cross-party concern on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. We have made that concern abundantly clear to the Chinese Government, and we expect China to live up to its responsibilities under international law and to the commitments it has made as a leading member of the international community. Continuing to stand up for those whose human rights are oppressed remains a top priority for this Government.”

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for bringing this Statement to the House. Does he agree that the BBC has done an outstanding job here? Does he also agree with Chief Rabbi Mirvis that there must be

“an urgent, independent and unfettered investigation into what is happening”,

and therefore welcome just such an investigation by Sir Geoffrey Nice, former Bosnian war crimes prosecutor and chair of the China Tribunal?

My Lords, we do agree with the comments by the Chief Rabbi. The Foreign Secretary has repeatedly made it clear that the UN human rights commissioner, or another independent fact-finding body, should be given unfettered access to Xinjiang to check the facts. We have called for that repeatedly in joint statements at the UN, but I say again that it is vital that China allows such access without delay.

My Lords, during Report on the Trade Bill, we agreed new clauses on human rights in future free trade agreements. The shocking thing about the BBC revelations is that we are tied to the Uighur people now, importing cotton born of forced labour. The review of the Modern Slavery Act showed non-compliance by 40% of companies, recommending enforcement and stronger processes. The latest designations under the human rights sanctions regime did not include anyone associated with these crimes. When will the Government act on these issues?

My Lords, the noble Lord is also right about the shocking BBC reports. I saw them this week and they give us very serious concern. Through intensive diplomatic engagement, including the personal engagement of my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, we have been raising this internationally and with business. In respect of the risk of business complicity in potential human rights violations, including forced labour, we have urged UK businesses to conduct due diligence on their supply chains and are taking steps to strengthen the transparency provisions under the Modern Slavery Act. As the noble Lord will know, the FCDO is carefully considering further designations under the global human rights regime which was introduced in July. We will keep all evidence and potential listings under close review.

My Lords, in the aftermath of the BBC reports, does the noble Lord agree that the Uighurs deserve to have their claim of genocide heard in a court of law, in line with the vote in your Lordships’ House only last week, on 7 December, and in line with the letter sent yesterday by the World Uyghur Congress to all Members of the House of Commons? Will he confirm, and put on record, that it is the view of the Government, and the Department of Trade, that we should not trade with a state if a court has established that a genocide is under way, and that the genocide amendment, passed by your Lordships, would not impede our ability to trade with any other state?

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made very clear that what needs to happen, and happen now, is that the UN human rights commissioner, or another independent fact-finding body, must be given unfettered access to Xinjiang to check the facts. We have called for that consistently. If, as the Chinese Government claim, these allegations are fabricated, they should have no objection to granting that access. As the noble Lord is aware, not least because of his considerable work and interest in this area, it is the long-standing policy of Her Majesty’s Government that any judgment as to whether war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide have occurred is a matter for judicial decision.

My Lords, while the Modern Slavery Act requires all large companies to report on whether they have modern slavery in their supply chains, some modern slavery statements are notably better than others. Do the Government continue to work with businesses to improve the information they provide, so giving consumers more faith that they will not be inadvertently buying this year’s presents, or any products, containing cotton from Xinjiang?

My noble friend makes an important point, particularly as people are buying their Christmas presents, as she says; perhaps, like me, they are thinking of doing that tomorrow. As she will be aware—not least as someone who has worked on this very area in government—in September, the Home Office published its report into the consultation on the Modern Slavery Act and announced plans to strengthen it and increase transparency in thousands of business and in the public supply chain. The Government have also financed projects to increase awareness of how international supply chains may be contributing to human rights violations. That includes the high-profile report Uyghurs for Sale, which I am pleased to say has led several companies to take action in respect of their own supply chains.

My Lords, the news that forced labour was active in cotton supply chains is not the first example of business connections to Uighur repression. Previous concerns have also been expressed in relation to Hikvision and its role in the Xinjiang surveillance apparatus. Will the Government commit to a comprehensive review of supply chains in local and national public contracts to ascertain whether public funds have helped to finance this ongoing tragedy?

In March this year, the Government published their own modern slavery statement, which assesses the risk of modern slavery across the £50 billion or thereabouts of their annual expenditure. That statement set out the Government’s efforts to eradicate modern slavery from their supply chains, including direct engagement with around 400 suppliers and delivering training to more than 250 government commercial stuff. In addition, as I said to my noble friend Lady Sanderson, the Home Office has announced plans to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act. That will include extending reporting requirements to all public bodies with a budget of £36 million or more.

My Lords, have the senior Chinese government officials responsible for human rights abuses being identified? Are Magnitsky sanctions going to be applied to them? If not, why not?

As I say, my Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has consistently raised that there should be independent fact-checking through the UN Human Rights Commission or some such body to go in and establish the facts. That is something that we want to see happening quickly. On sanctions and designations, we keep all evidence and potential listings under close review.

The noble Baroness, Lady Helic, is not there so I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws.

I want to reinforce what the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, just said. The Magnitsky Act and the Magnitsky lists are intended to deal with this kind of exigency. There is clear evidence of serious crimes being committed against the Uighur people; the Magnitsky law that we introduced is to deal with this kind of emergency. We heard yesterday in the Commons about fears of asset flight. We really have to address this and, as the Chief Rabbi said, not allow silence to be complicity. Inaction becomes complicity.

Yesterday, I heard evidence from a number of Uighur on a webinar. Noble Lords would have wept if they had heard their accounts. There is no shortage of evidence that there is terrible persecution taking place against the Uighur; one of the things that is happening is forced labour. We should be acting now in relation to our companies that are doing business with the Chinese, including buying cotton and goods that are the product of forced labour.

My Lords, we are speaking directly to trade bodies and individual companies on the final point that the noble Baroness raised. As I said, my right honourable the Foreign Secretary has been pressing for unfettered access for an independent fact-finding body to go into Xinjiang to look at this. We keep all evidence and potential listings under close review.

My Lords, I offer my good wishes to the Deputy Speaker and all the staff in the House, and wish them a very happy Christmas.

Our Government have consistently been too deliberative on human rights and international law infringement and violations in Iraq and Burma, the protection of the Rohingya and, in particular, the brutal occupation of Palestine and the murder of women and children there. I ask the Government and the Minister’s colleagues at the FCDO: what they are doing? Are they taking every opportunity to raise with their friends—our friends—and their bilateral partners the plight of the Uighur people in China, particularly the Uighur Muslim population, and particularly to address the horrifying accounts, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said, of internment camps, a programme of indoctrination and the forced labour of women who are forced into sterilisation and abortion?

I wish the noble Baroness and all noble Lords a very merry Christmas.

The UK has played a leading international role in holding China to account for these violations, leading joint statements at the UN’s human rights bodies and underlining our concerns directly to the Chinese authorities at senior levels. We raised this latest deeply concerning new evidence with the Chinese embassy in London this week, and we have raised concerns about forced birth control, including sterilisation, alongside 38 other countries in a joint statement at the UN General Assembly’s third committee in October.