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Cotton Imports

Volume 815: debated on Thursday 21 October 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of employing elemental analysis to determine where cotton used in goods imported into the United Kingdom was cultivated.

My Lords, the Government recognise the role that technology can play in improving the traceability of goods in global supply chains and are working with businesses to build understanding and raise awareness of its potential use. We encourage business and industry to collaborate and share expertise on innovative solutions that will improve supply chain transparency.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but the United States has banned cotton from China’s Xinjiang due to the treatment of the Uighurs. Why cannot the UK follow? The techniques perfected by Oritain mean that a forensic fingerprint on garments containing cotton can show where it was grown. Cotton picked in Xinjiang ends up in garments made across Asia, from Bangladesh to Vietnam, but not in India. Does the Minister agree that fashion houses must do more in due diligence than they do now, as they are forced to do in the United States? Will the Government take a lead on this issue, or has the Chinese Communist Party reached too far inside the UK?

My Lords, the Government are fully committed to tackling the issue of Uighur forced labour in global supply chains. The measures we have taken do not currently include import bans, but we have announced a range of other measures, including a comprehensive review of export controls as they apply to Xinjiang. I assure noble Lords that we continue to keep our policy response under close review.

My Lords, can the Government update the House on any ongoing conversations that they are having with discount fashion retailers about sourcing of goods in relation to forced labour, modern slavery and child labour, which is causing such anxiety in our country?

My Lords, we continue deliberations with a whole range of businesses, including, of course, the fashion business. Ensuring a tough response to modern slavery remains a priority for this Government. We are committed to strengthening the landmark transparency provisions in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and these measures include the introduction of financial penalties on organisations which fail to publish modern slavery statements, and these will be enforced by our new single enforcement body once it comes into operation.

What are the Government doing about modern slavery in China, particularly Xinjiang, which can be identified—as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pointed out—by elemental analysis of cotton? What is their policy on British investment in relation to China?

For the first part of my noble friend’s question, I refer to the answer I gave previously. On investment generally, we continue to pursue a positive economic relationship with China and we think that it is in our interests to increase trade with China. As an open economy, we welcome trade and investment; however, as I have said on many occasions, we are not so stupid as to welcome harmful investment from China.

During the pandemic, the Government purchased PPE from companies facing modern slavery allegations. As Covid cases sadly begin to climb again, can the Minister say how Her Majesty’s Government will ensure that NHS contracts are not awarded to companies implicated in forced labour in the Chinese region of Xinjiang?

My Lords, the same rules and advice apply to PPE as to other goods that we import into the UK. As noble Lords know, we take a market-first approach to critical supply chain resilience and are committed to championing free trade in a rules-based system. However, we have learned many lessons from the pandemic about the importance of resilience in supply chains; we continue to apply those lessons in practice.

Will the Minister order a review of the modern slavery supply chain with regards to cotton and fibre imports from that particular region of China? He referenced PPE. He will have seen that, overnight, the United States has banned the import of rubber gloves from Supermax and all its subsidiaries because there is “ample evidence” of forced labour and modern slavery. Through NHS procurement, the UK Government have a contract with Supermax worth £316 million. Will the Minister instruct an urgent inquiry to ensure that we are not using these products, which are a result of modern slavery in Malaysia?

I thank the noble Lord for bringing that matter to my attention. He always has the most up-to-date news on these matters at his fingertips. I will ensure that that particular company is looked at by my officials.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uyghurs. Has the Minister noted the all-party amendment passed in your Lordships’ House on Tuesday night, urging more concerted action in dealing with companies and countries banned in the jurisdictions of our closest allies and tainted by everything from genocide to slave labour? As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, should we not stand in unity with our Five Eyes allies? Will we not stand with companies such as H&M, which has now been boycotted in China for refusing to use cotton from Xinjiang that is farmed by slaves, and make it clear whose side we are on—on the side of the slaves or on the side of the slave-drivers?

My Lords, we always bow to the noble Lord’s deep expertise in these matters, and we all very much appreciate the close attention that he pays to them. I like to think that the United Kingdom is one of the global leaders in bringing this issue to people’s attention. We have sponsored resolutions at the UN and elsewhere in relation to this, and will continue to do so.

My Lords, I noticed with some dismay this morning that the dress which I am wearing was made in China. The label does not elucidate which part of China, but there is a very serious question about labelling of products. Often it is very difficult to know where things are made. What work are the Government doing to ensure that imports are better labelled, and how does the Minister define harm? He said that the Government do not believe in investment that creates harm. Does he have a definition of that?

My Lords, probably the easiest place to find a definition is in the schedules to the National Security and Investment Act, which became law at the end of last year. It contains details of 17 subsectors with very strict mandatory controls for matters which clearly would otherwise cause harm. On the first part of the question, I will write to the noble Baroness.

My Lords, in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, the Minister talked about working with businesses regarding the supply chain. Later, he talked about rules associated with the Modern Slavery Act. Is he confident that there are adequate resources to enforce these rules and future rules, given that the businesses following them may be put at a competitive disadvantage compared with cowboys who fail to do so?

The noble Baroness makes a good point. Last year we debated the very important question of ensuring that our modern slavery laws and guidance are as effective as possible. We continue to work on that and will be introducing financial penalties. We are absolutely embarked on a road which will make possible the eradication of this egregious crime of modern slavery.