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Child Labour and Artisanal Cobalt Mining in the DRC

Volume 834: debated on Thursday 30 November 2023

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to support international efforts to end the use of child labour from artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and to exclude cobalt from this source from the global supply chain.

My Lords, the use of child labour in the Democratic Republic of the Congo remains concerning. We regularly raise the issue of child labour in DRC’s artisanal cobalt mining sector both with the DRC Government and through multilateral fora such as the Human Rights Council.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he initiate an urgent investigation into reports of children standing knee-deep with their bare skin in toxic pools mining for cobalt, study the research of Professor Siddharth Kara published in Cobalt Red and challenge the absurdity of companies relying on assurances from state-run Chinese companies in the Congo that human rights norms are met? Under the terms of the Modern Slavery Act, will he consider, for offences committed within supply chains, making offending companies subject to company disqualification, as with GDPR violations, and meet me and other noble Lords who are concerned about these issues to discuss kite-marking and how products can be labelled in a way that demonstrates they come from places where slave labour and child labour is being used, so consumers can make up their own mind about whether they want to be complicit in buying such products?

I would be happy to meet the noble Lord, and perhaps he could bring with him people who could help us to move forward. We are a world leader in this. We passed the Modern Slavery Act. We now have requirements on companies with a turnover greater than £36 million to define their supply chains very accurately to make sure that the awful images the noble Lord describes have no part in the supply of cobalt. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has 70% of the world’s cobalt. We want to make sure that it comes to the world market in a way that is complicit with the standards we require.

My Lords, can I just pick up on the last point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and by the Minister? The fact is that the Modern Slavery Act provides for those companies to make a statement, but that is it. There is no other requirement—no mechanism for enforcement where there is a breach. This is a really serious matter, not only in the DRC but in other countries where we are importing goods made by slaves and children. Will the Government act? There has been criticism of this for many years, since the first debate on the Act, so will we act to make sure compliance is compulsory?

Following a public consultation, the Government committed to taking forward an ambitious package of measures to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act’s transparency legislation, including extending reporting requirements to public bodies with a budget of £36 million or more, mandating the specific reporting of topic statements and what they must cover, requiring organisations to publish a modern slavery statement on the online registry and introducing financial penalties for organisations that fail to publish annual statements. This requires primary legislation, but in time we want to see it on the statute book.

My Lords, is not one means of reducing our cobalt reliance on dangerous and thoroughly undesirable resources to work on the Washington agreement we have made on critical minerals, which has been agreed between the two Governments, whereby, if we dig out more cobalt in this country—apparently we have some—and use it in our motor cars or use American cobalt, we will get a 15% subsidy on all cars sold into the American market? Can the Minister tell us how that is getting on?

I am grateful to my noble friend. He will understand that my relative newness in this role means that my learning curve is steep. I will do some research and discuss it with him when we next meet.

My Lords, when I was in Lubumbashi in September, I saw for myself the extent of the Chinese concessions for cobalt mining. With regard to east DRC, in June I raised in the Chamber a report from the US State Department that singled out Rwanda’s human rights record with its support of the M23 group, which, as it said, has committed multiple violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. There is concern that the FCDO has been silent while it is discussing a migration agreement with Rwanda. Can the Minister allay those concerns at the Dispatch Box today and condemn Rwanda’s human rights record in this regard?

I can absolutely reassure the noble Lord. We regularly raise the conflict in eastern DRC with the Governments of DRC, Rwanda and elsewhere in the region. We judge doing this privately to have more impact. In these conversations, we urge all parties to deliver on their commitments agreed through the Nairobi and Luanda processes. This includes the withdrawal of armed groups, including M23, and the ceasing of all external support to armed groups operating in the DRC.

My Lords, I declare my interest as co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on modern slavery and the vice-chairman of the Human Trafficking Foundation. Have the Government looked at the way in which the Americans deal with supply chains, by having hot goods that are not entitled to enter the country? If they have not looked at that, would they do so?

I will certainly take that back. I thank the noble and learned Baroness for her work in this area. It is vital that we are able to define accurately and have complete transparency through supply chains. As a previous questioner identified, cobalt is vital for technologies that we want to see that will help lower emissions, and it is used in a whole variety of daily products. We must make sure that it is not mined using child labour or slavery and that we are requiring companies to be transparent in their supply chains.

My Lords, may I press the Minister further on that point regarding the specific steps that the Government are now taking to identify whether cobalt-containing products imported into the UK are produced by child labour in the DRC?

Through our modern slavery legislation and through the work we are doing in a variety of multilateral fora, we are trying to make sure that, with international companies mining not just cobalt but a whole range of other things—for diamonds, for example, using the Kimberley process, or for conflict minerals—we are doing work in-country, leading on partnerships that have seen great benefit, with children going into school as opposed to working in mines. UK taxpayers’ money is doing that, and we are working really hard on this. We want to make sure that companies are playing their part, too, and that their supply chains are transparent.

The Minister has asserted that we are a world leader in modern slavery work. That may have been the case, but can he explain, then, why there was such a hiatus between the departure of the previous modern slavery commissioner and the appointment of a new one? I believe that the new one has not yet taken up her post. Secondly, if we are to lead on these issues, what are we doing to make sure that we are more resilient in terms of minerals such as cobalt?

On the first point, I will write to the noble Lord about the appointment of the new commissioner. On the second point, there is a market imperative to use less of certain products because they are expensive to obtain and transport across the world, so there is a market mechanism. But there is also a driver for the Government through innovation, particularly in areas such as battery manufacture, to reduce both the weight of batteries and, therefore, the quantity of minerals such as cobalt that are used. The Government are providing funding for innovation in a whole range of ways.

My Lords, further to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, I have also had the chance to visit most parts of the DRC and have seen for myself the scourge of child labour. The Minister mentioned that we must get these children out of mines, where they are being persecuted and exploited, and into schools and education. Can he tell us what we are doing to tilt our aid in that direction? Does he have any figures on these children going into school?

The UK’s Partnership Against Child Exploitation programme, which ended in September, was a consortium of six partners that worked to combat the worst forms of child labour in the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; the United Kingdom was a key supporter of that partnership. The programme delivered key achievements: 8,430 children are going back to school following a consortium intervention, while 2,583 children have completed training in rights and skills because of PACE support. The point from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, is absolutely right—there is still a serious problem—but we are having some success and we want to see more of it.

My Lords, this Question highlights an important part of a much wider issue. Can the Minister say what progress the Government have made towards developing a strategic plan to ensure the supply of crucial resources in the round in order to enhance national security and resilience while, at the same time, supporting the values that we rightly espouse?

This is a massive issue, and I thank the noble and gallant Lord for raising it. The integrated review refresh looked at this. We must make sure that our economy can get what it needs in order to provide for our own needs and so that we can benefit the rest of the world. We cannot look at the security of this nation without looking at supply chains. With a country such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as I said, having 70% of the world’s cobalt, which is a mineral that we need, we want to be at the forefront of making sure both that we have high-integrity supply chains for such minerals and that they are integrated into our whole security policy.