The UK plans to ban the procurement of health goods linked to slavery and human trafficking, following pressure from a cross-party campaign over the purchase of personal protective equipment from Chinese companies suspected of using forced labour.
As part of an amendment to the Health and Care Bill, tabled on Thursday, NHS England will be barred from purchasing “goods or services that are tainted by human trafficking and slavery” with the aim of “eradicating” forced labour from supply chains.
The amendment, on which MPs are due to vote on Monday, will particularly affect contracts with manufacturers in China that human rights organisations have criticised for using forced labour from the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province.
The health department bought billions of pounds of medical supplies for the NHS from companies with China-linked supply chains during the coronavirus pandemic, as part of £33bn of contracts awarded during 2020 and 2021, according to Tussell, a contracts research agency.
Sajid Javid, health secretary, said the ban marked a “turning point” in the government’s efforts to end the use of forced labour in supply chains, adding that as the biggest public procurer in the country the NHS was “well placed to spearhead this work”.
A similar amendment, sponsored by the former Conservative Home Office minister Lord David Blencathra, passed in the House of Lords in March, receiving plaudits from across the political divide. The government announcement heads off a possible rebellion from backbench Conservative MPs over the issue.
Iain Duncan Smith, a former Tory leader who was leading the revolt, welcomed the ban and called on other government departments to “follow suit”. “The health department had massive purchases from China during the lockdown, including masks proven to have been made by slave labour. Thankfully, that jolted them into action.”
MPs voted last year to declare the Chinese treatment of Uyghurs genocide, but the government has come under fire for not officially doing so.
Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesperson, said the ban on healthcare supplies linked to forced labour was “long overdue”. “It should not have taken a pandemic to shine a light on the hugely concerning links between supply chains involving forced labour — including those in Xinjiang — and PPE and other items used in our healthcare sector,” she said.
Moran called on the government to go further by “following the lead” of the US Senate, which in December last year passed a bill banning all imports from China’s Xinjiang region unless they could be proven not to involve forced labour.
Luke de Pulford, co-founder of anti-slavery charity Arise, said it was “hard to overstate the importance of this change”, adding that the ban “could knock out huge swaths of our supply chain which depends on China where both forced labour and involuntary labour transfer schemes are well documented”.
Rahima Mahmut, UK director of the World Uyghur Congress, thanked the health secretary for the legislation and praised the UK government for “standing up to China”.
“For too long the UK has pretended that it’s possible to increase trade with China while denouncing their human rights atrocities. I hope this is the beginning of the end for China’s trade impunity,” she added.