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Procurement Bill [HL]

Volume 833: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2023

Commons Reason

Scottish Legislative Consent granted, Welsh Legislative Consent granted in part

Motion A

Moved by

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 102B in lieu of Commons Amendment 102, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 102C.

102C: Because it is unnecessary to have a specific discretionary exclusion ground for involvement in forced organ harvesting in light of the ground for professional misconduct and the lack of evidence that any supplier to the UK public sector has been involved in forced organ harvesting.

My Lords, the other place has now been clear, for the second time, that it is firm in its position on this amendment. Noble Lords asked the Commons to reconsider, and it has reached the same decision.

The Bill creates new rules for suppliers and contracting authorities that will stay on the statute book for the foreseeable future. We therefore need to be measured and prudent in our approach and avoid imposing further unnecessary bureaucracy on UK businesses that duplicates both the existing provisions in the Bill and the steps being taken outside the legislation.

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for the debates he has led on organ harvesting. We share a unanimous view that organ harvesting is an abhorrent practice that has no place in our supply chains. Accordingly, if a supplier or one of its connected persons fails to comply with the established ethical or professional standards within its respective industry, including relating to the removal, storage and use of human tissue, the supplier could face exclusion on the grounds of professional misconduct. However, as far as I am aware, no supplier to the UK public sector has been involved in forced organ harvesting. Given that the exclusion grounds in the Bill have been selected based on the areas of greatest risk to public procurement, it is not necessary to single out organ harvesting in this Bill.

The Government are already actively addressing this awful practice. For example, it is an offence to travel outside the UK to purchase an organ, by virtue of new offences introduced by the Health and Care Act 2022. In addition, the Government continue to monitor and review evidence relating to reports of forced organ harvesting and maintain a dialogue with leading non-governmental organisations and international partners on this very important issue.

I make one further remark concerning an issue which, while out of scope of today’s debate, is of significant importance to this Bill and the country’s security. It relates to concerns raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, following recent press coverage regarding surveillance equipment, which I look forward to discussing with him in person tomorrow. On 24 November 2022, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made a Statement in the other place instructing government departments to cease deployment on their sensitive sites of surveillance equipment produced by companies subject to the National Intelligence Law of the People’s Republic of China.

During our last debate in this House, I set out the definition of “sensitive sites” to which our commitment would apply and which I am happy to reiterate today. As I said on 11 September, our commitment will apply to government departments and cover their sensitive sites, which are any building or complex that routinely holds secret material or above, any location that hosts a significant proportion of officials holding developed vetting clearance, any location routinely used by Ministers, and any government location covered under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. I went on to reiterate that our commitment does not extend to the wider public sector. However, in no way is this an endorsement of the use of such surveillance equipment by these organisations or by organisations in the private sector. Indeed, these organisations may instead choose to mirror our action. I believe that some of them already have, including the police.

I beg to move.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for the explanation behind the Motion. She kindly referred to the amendments I tabled on Report following our debate in Committee, which focused on the appalling practice of forced organ harvesting, principally in China, which involves the removal of organs from living prisoners of conscience for the purpose of transplantation, killing the victim in the process. It is state sanctioned, widespread throughout China and has become a multi-billion-pound commercial operation.

We know that the victims are mainly Falun Gong practitioners, but more recently, evidence has indicated that Uighur Muslims are also being targeted on a massive scale. Further to that, there are several pieces of evidence suggesting that Tibetans and house Christians are as likely to be the victims of forced organ harvesting. As the noble Baroness said, my amendment was passed by your Lordships’ House on Report and went to the Commons, where it was rejected. We had another go in September and again, I am afraid, the Commons has reinserted the original provisions in the Bill.

I regret that this has happened for three reasons, the first being the scale of the atrocities being carried out in China and specifically in Xinjiang province. Secondly, Ministers are wrong to dismiss the need for the amendment. Above all else, its passage would have been a powerful signal in the UK and globally of our abhorrence of these awful practices. Thirdly, you cannot consider my amendment on forced organ harvesting without setting it in the context of the Government’s approach to China more generally. The Prime Minister has talked quite tough in recent weeks on the Government’s approach to China. However, the overall approach, to put it at its kindest, is clouded in inconsistency, ambiguity and sometimes downright confusion. That has been reflected in any number of Select Committee reports over the last year or two.

However, I recognise that this has gone as far as I could expect it to go. I am grateful to all those who supported me, particularly my Front Bench, the Lib Dems and many noble Lords around the House. I particularly pay tribute to Lord Bernie Ribeiro, who retired from the House on Monday. He has been a tower of support to me on this very worrying issue over many years. I wish him all the best in his retirement.

My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for bringing this issue back on a number of occasions. We share the great disappointment that the Government have not seen fit to use their majority to include this in the Bill. As the Minister herself said: at this point there is no such practice going on, so there is no jeopardy, but it puts down a marker and it makes a very important point about ethical procurement and this particularly horrifying issue. I hope the comments that Ministers have made in this place, and in the other place, are used to emphasise the need for ethical process during procurement; this is perhaps the starkest example, but there are many others. It is with regret that it leaves your Lordships’ House without the noble Lord’s amendment, which we supported.

I thank the Minister for her comment on sensitive sites and Hikvision. It is somewhat intriguing because I suspect that the reason this has come up is because Hikvision is circulating material to its potential clients—and I imagine these are the non-sensitive clients—which seeks to use the Government’s language as an implicit endorsement of its continued operation in this country. I suspect that is why the Minister has stood up and made that comment. I hope that the Government can explain to Hikvision that this is an inappropriate use of their language, to try to sell its product in the face of a very particular problem, which has been highlighted, and one that is also a problem in non-sensitive sites across the country. I am interested to understand—either offline or online from the Minister—how they are taking this up with Hikvision.

This Bill has been on a journey since it started in your Lordships’ House. The next Bill is the exception, but rarely has a Bill received so many amendments. In the main, we have substantially improved the quality of this Bill through co-operation; through the hard work of the Minister, the Minister’s team and, of course, your Lordships. The normal character of these things is that we leave matters in a jovial and hearty way, but I am afraid I am not going to because I will return to an issue.

This is not in reference to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, but the fact is this Procurement Bill was constructed to guide procurement across the whole country. It is supposed to be the way in which all procurement proceeds, with one exception: the largest single area of procurement in the country, the National Health Service. That would be allowable if there was a gold standard procurement process in place in the NHS. Quite clearly there is not. The Health and Care Act 2022 has not set out a gold standard procurement process, and there have been no processes that we can see which deliver that.

Since the last time we discussed this Bill—since the last time the Minister was standing at the Dispatch Box telling us that we do not need proper procurement processes for the National Health Service—there has been further evidence of huge abuses of procurement in the NHS. We do need this, and in the absence of an actual system that sits in the NHS, this system should apply. By not applying it the Government will preside over the waste of hundreds of millions of pounds that could have been spent on necessary services, due to very poor procurement practice. In that vein we are extremely disappointed that the Government have not seen fit to take the advice of your Lordships and include the NHS in this Bill.

We look forward to seeing how this Bill is applied across the country and, I hope, to seeing some benefit from its practices.

My Lords, I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath for continuing to press the issue of the terrible practice of organ harvesting and to raise awareness of it. I do not think that there was sufficient awareness of what was happening in China until my noble friend tabled his amendments, and I hope that he continues to work on this in the future. So we are also very disappointed that the Government chose not to accept his amendment, but we are where we are.

As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said, ethical procurement has to be right at the centre of how we continue to do business. Hikvision was debated during the progress of the Bill and there is more work to do on some of these issues.

Having said that, I thank very much the Minister and her team for her comments today and for her constructive approach to improving the Bill, following a fairly sticky start in Committee. It has been a pleasure to work with a Minister, department and noble Lords across the House who genuinely wanted to make a better Bill. I know that there were an enormous number of government amendments—perhaps the Bill should have been better drafted in the first place—but they were very important. We are in a much better place than where we started, so I thank the Minister and all noble Lords who helped to bring us here.

My Lords, I express my gratitude to the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Fox, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, for their insightful contributions in this brief debate—not least on the threat from China and on ethical procurement. It has been a pleasure to work with them all and to set the slightly troublesome record of tabling a very large amendments in this House.

I of course acknowledge the importance of tackling the abhorrent practice of organ harvesting, but this amendment is duplicative, unduly burdensome and not appropriately suited to its intended purpose, which is why the Bill has been returned to our House in this form. For these reasons, I do not think that the amendment is necessary and I reiterate the many commitments we have made in this House and in the other place.

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, mentioned the NHS. The Bill applies to NHS bodies and their procurement of goods and services, which are not classed as healthcare services under the provider selection regime. I am pleased to tell the noble Lord, as I hope he knows, that the underpinning regulations were laid by the Department of Health and Social Care on 19 October, which puts a line under that and ensures a consistent approach.

The noble Lord, Lord Fox, remarked on the definition of sensitive sites. Both our Written Ministerial Statement from November last year, which was trailblazing to some extent, and the definition of sensitive sites that I set out only last month make our position on the issue clear to all concerned. We will be sharing annual reports on the removal of surveillance equipment, as I promised the House when we last debated this on 11 September.

I thank the Minister for that comment, but that was not my point. It was actually that the language that the Government have used about non-sensitive sites is being used by Hikvision as a marketing tool to placate potential customers and say that it is okay. If the Minister has not seen that wording, I expect that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will provide it; otherwise, I would be happy to. The Government need to reflect to Hikvision that they are not endorsing its technology for non-sensitive sites, which is what the company seeks to communicate.

I thank the noble Lord for his clarification. That is why I chose to reiterate what I have said. I will talk to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, tomorrow, but I reiterate that we are keeping an eye on this. The reports on the withdrawal of the surveillance equipment will be important. Public bodies outside government and some private bodies have already decided to withdraw these cameras, so I think the message is clear.

I thanked noble Lords across the House for their valuable contributions to the scrutiny of the Bill when it left for the other place on 13 December. I reiterate everything I said then. I add my thanks to our Whip, my noble friend Lord Mott, and my noble friends Lady Noakes, Lord Moylan, Lord Lansley and Lord Maude, who I did not mention last time. I much look forward to Royal Assent and the legacy that I believe will stem from the collective efforts of both Houses, which are all represented here this evening.

Motion A agreed.