HL Deb 03 April 1996 vol 571 cc421-32

9.28 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This morning we read that the G7 summit had a slight argument about the best methods of detecting the use of slave labour in developing countries, with Britain and Germany on one side of the argument and America and France on the other. However, I think that there was universal agreement that we had to find better means of detecting the use of slave labour in developing countries and, from there, to move to the kind of steps that we need to take to prevent the import into our own countries of goods made by slave labour or child labour.

The Foreign Prison-made Goods Act has been on the statute book for 99 years and in all that time not a single case has been successfully brought in the courts under it. For most of that time it may not have been very important whether the goods made in foreign prisons were excluded from the British market because they represented no significant threat to our industries, and there was no evidence of human rights violations associated with large scale production in foreign prisons for export.

However, in the past few years there has been a flow of information from China about the Laogai, a prison system in which forced labour is used as a punishment.

The noble Lord, Lord Howe, referred to this matter in his report on a visit to China in 1993. He urged the Chinese authorities, to adopt and enforce safeguards in regard to compulsory labour of prisoners. These safeguards should include maximum hours of labour, minimum periods of rest, and safeguards with respect to the health and safety of places of compulsory labour". The noble Lord said that compulsory labour should not be used as a means of coercing prisoners or imposing additional punishment upon them. He recommended that, in line with international norms, political prisoners, including those sentenced for so-called counter-revolutionary offences, should not be required to engage in compulsory labour.

In Harry Wu's most remarkable and moving book, he describes the reality of life in the Laogai. He and other prisoners endured the most appalling cruelty. He was lucky to survive at all when so many of his companions died. At the Qinghe Farm prisoners were roused at 5.30 in the morning. After a ladleful of porridge, a salted turnip and small dumpling they were sent off to the fields where they laboured for four hours without a break. They had a half-hour lunch consisting of two dumplings and a bowl of thin soup, and that was followed by another stint until the work quota had been fulfilled. When they returned to the compound there were two more dumplings and another ladleful of soup, followed by two hours of communist indoctrination.

At the Wangzhuang coal mine, conditions were little better. Torture and beatings were common. Occasionally, prisoners were executed. During the Cultural Revolution prisoners were made verbally to lynch suspected deviants, and sometimes to attack them violently. Harry Wu described a scene where he was tortured at one such meeting and his arm broken by the study leader, who hit him with a spade. Amnesty International, in its latest report on China published last month says that torture and ill-treatment of prisoners in China's penal institutions largely result from official penal policy. It targets particularly any prisoners who refuse to admit their guilt, such as 11 political prisoners who arrived in the Lingyuan No. 2 labour reform detachment in Liaoning Province in May 1991. These inmates were severely beaten, and four who were sent to the correction unit were stripped naked and given high-voltage shocks. Prisoners at a labour camp in Nuomuhong, Qinghai Province, said they were treated like slaves, working up to 12 hours a day and getting beaten if they complained. Chen Pokong, a pro-democracy activist who was in the Guangzhou No. 1 re-education through labour centre in Guangdong Province, said he worked for up to 14 hours in a stone quarry during the day and made artificial flowers at night. He said that inmates who did not work hard enough were often beaten until they were bloodstained all over. Nigel Rodley, the UN Rapporteur on Torture, singles out this establishment for special mention in his current report to the UN Human Rights Commission, but he says that, more generally, he continued frequently to receive information concerning torture and ill-treatment of detainees, including those in labour camps.

In the Human Rights Watch World report 1996, China is accused of continuing to round up, imprison and physically abuse peaceful dissenters. The cases of Wei Jingsheng, Chen Ziming and other well-known prisoners are highlighted. The report says that Chinese courts impose sentences of up to 20 years on those who oppose the one-party system, and that where the evidence is weak they substitute bogus criminal charges or impose administrative labour re-education terms, a form of punishment which is condemned by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Harry Wu now works from the United States, where he highlights the abuses of the Laogai, and is concerned about the West's indirect support for the system, through the purchase of goods made by prison labour. He has published abundant details of the places where forced labour of prisoners is used to produce or grow things for sale, and has also identified products which are exported. He is not alone in the campaign. Glenn Calderwood, the current Clerk to the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, says in a report he wrote for the International Society for Human Rights: Products of every description go to make up China's huge export surplus, from tea to tools, batteries to bikes, shoes to soap, fabrics to fine arts, or toys to trucks. Purchase any one of these items and you could be adding unwittingly to the profits of the Laogai—the network of labour camps in which prisoners are tortured and starved to ensure that they keep on producing for the state". The ISHR put the number of inmates in the Laogai at anything from 10 million upwards. The Laogai Research Foundation says 10 million to 14 million. Harry Wu says that he has collected information on about 1,000 "labour reform camps", and estimates the total number at between 3,000 and 4,000. In evidence to the Congressional Subcommittee on Human Rights in 1991, he said that the current population of the camps was between 12 million and 16 million, including many political prisoners. The so-called "counter-revolutionaries" were estimated at 10 per cent. of the total in a 1980 internal document of the Public Security Ministry.

According to the US State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 1995, some prisons contract with regular industries to perform light manufacturing and assembly work, so disguising the use of slave labour. Another device is to use names appearing to be ordinary companies, and to resell goods through the state-run import export organisations. An example was the Shanghai Laodong Machinery Plant, which made hand tools, including monkey wrenches, under the name "Laodong Brand Monkey Wrench" and "Elephant Brand Monkey Wrench". At one point in 1991, the US Customs withheld release of these products, as being in suspected violation of US laws which prohibit the entry of all, goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labor or/and forced labor or/and indentured labor under penal sanctions". So the US legislation is a good deal wider than ours, as can be seen. The US Customs have the power to make a temporary order against any shipments of goods where they have, reason to believe, but not conclusive evidence", that the specified goods fall into the category which is prohibited from entry.

So far as I can ascertain, the "withhold release" orders have never been followed by court decisions, because, in the US as in Britain, the standard of proof required is too high. The Americans realised that, although there were grounds for suspicion that goods produced under inhuman conditions were slipping through the net, they were unlikely to stop this trade by legislation alone, so in 1992 they signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese, prohibiting trade in prison labour products. Then in March 1994 they agreed on a "statement of co-operation" detailing specific working procedures for implementation of the memorandum. That was supposed to allow inspection of prison facilities where it was suspected that goods were being produced for export, but the State Department, in the last report that I mentioned, states: co-operation has stalled since mid-1995. As of the end of 1995, the authorities had not granted access to a prison labor facility since April 30. Repeated delays in arranging prison labor site visits called into question Chinese intentions regarding the implementation of the MOU and SOC. For example, authorities refused repeated requests (the first was made on May 30) to visit the Wuyi plant in Zhejiang Province, despite the terms of the SOC requiring a visit within 60 days of a request". The State Department also reports that the so-called "re-education through labor camps", to which victims are sent by administrative decision, are not defined as prisons by the Chinese, who therefore deny access to them under the MOU.

In Britain, there was an attempt by the Laogai Research Foundation and Sue Lloyd-Roberts, the TV journalist, to mobilise the Customs against the importation of chain hoists made by the Wulin prison factory. The cost of manufacturing these products in the UK was about £100 per item, whereas they were being imported from China by a firm in Coventry, boxed and ready for sale, for £6.50. The Customs looked into the matter, but decided not to proceed, I believe on the grounds that the factory in question employed both free and prison labour and it was not possible to say with any certainty that prison labour had been used in manufacturing the chain hoists.

This illustrates two problems with the present legislation. The first is that, where production or manufacture occurs in establishments of this kind, the only sure way of establishing a case would be unscheduled on-site visits by teams of inspectors. Since the Chinese are not for the time being prepared to allow any visits at all, let alone unscheduled ones, there is no way of proving a case. If, therefore, we relaxed the burden of proof so that the Customs can act when they have reasonable grounds to believe that the goods do come into the prohibited category, then it would be up to the Chinese authorities to satisfy us by allowing unrestricted inspection.

The second problem is that the Customs are not under an obligation to look for evidence themselves, but only to consider evidence presented to them by individuals or NGOs. Obviously, there is no organisation with the resources to do this job, or with the clout to gain access to the 3,000 locations in China where these goods are produced, when even the State Department cannot do so.

At least with the American system there is a government to government mechanism which, however imperfect, allows the question to be raised in the Congress, and it becomes clear when the Chinese are not acting in good faith. If they had nothing to hide they would have no reason to block the visits by inspectors to their prisons.

Neither the onus of responsibility for taking the initiative to stop goods entering nor the question of inspection at the point of origin, is dealt with in the present Bill. It was intended, rather, as a peg on which to hang a much wider discussion about what we mean to do about the Laogai. If we are serious about the matter, we would have to deal with it at the level of the European Union, since goods in free circulation within any member state can pass into Britain immune from the provisions in the parent Act. A Customs official described it to me by saying that for the purpose of Customs moving from Holland to Britain is no different from moving from Liverpool to Manchester. Are the Government prepared to enter into discussions with other EU states to see what measures could be taken by Europe as a whole to stop goods made by forced labour in the prisons of China entering the Union? Would they consider asking the Chinese to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding and agreeing a Statement of Co-operation on the US model and, if so, could we also talk to the Americans about joint teams of inspection and put that to the Chinese as a way forward?

It may be said that if Beijing can stop co-operating with the US, they could follow that unfortunate precedent with the EU. A mechanism as loose as the SOC, which did not have the status of a treaty, was not likely to be effective when, at the same time, as Human Rights Watch put it, Governments actively pursued trade and investment with China unhindered by any linkage to human rights". If there had been economic penalties for any breach of the SOC, and these had been applied in April 1995 when the Chinese first stopped the inspection visits, the deal might have worked.

The European Union, in examining the model, would have to consider what the fall-back position would be if we were no more successful than the Americans in gaining access to the sites. Best of all would be for the EU and the US to agree on a joint approach, and, if it proved impossible to get China's agreement, to consider what leverage we might have consistent with our obligations under the GATT against the flow into all our countries of goods produced at very little cost in money but a great deal of blood and suffering. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Avebury.)

9.45 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, this evening we are discussing a wretched, miserable and despicable situation. It does not exist in this country and we tend to think that it is not our responsibility. But I listen with incredulity at times to what we are told. In this country we have a humane system which is a million times better. And what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury has said makes one despair as a member of the human race.

The great difficulty which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury has, which other people share, is being able to bring forward incontrovertible proof of what he alleges. It is also difficult to know what action is open to us and how much can be achieved. I shall listen, as I am sure will the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, with care to what the Minister has to say; but I am certain that he will be sympathetic to the aims of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury.

I wish to express my appreciation, and, indeed, that of the whole House, to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. It is not the first time that we are indebted to him for doing the spade work on the kind of issues about which we all feel guilty when they are exposed but which, in our busy lives, we do not have time to delve into. This Bill raises an issue which is well worth the time of the House, even on a very busy day such as today.

I have listened with horror to the details of the situation. But there are other horrors of which we have heard this week and of which we are conscious. One thinks of the horror in Rwanda. That is not as a result of inhumane treatment of prisoners but rather the inhumanity of one race or sect against another in the same country. In this House, we discuss regularly the problems of Bosnia, and we have all seen the television pictures of the terrible events there. It is a miserable situation which we cannot duck.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, has painted a picture of the fears, fantasies and facts which surround this situation. I am very grateful to him for doing that. At one time, I had the privilege of representing the Prison Officers' Association and I visited about 30-odd prisons. I was always critical of our prison estate, not least when the industrial work which was available seemed to be diminished. But one cannot compare the situation which exists here with that which exists elsewhere, not just in China but in other countries of the world—and not always in prisons. I saw a recent television programme about Indian serfs, peasants, those of a lower class. They were not political prisoners, and I know that it is political prisoners to whom the noble Lord, Lord Avebury refers this evening. But there are people in this world whose lot in life is very miserable because they are suborned and subjected to terrible treatment.

When my wife visited Srinagar a few years ago, she returned proudly with a small marble table which had been made by children. That was fine. We thought we were assisting the poor people to have a better life. But we realised also that they were being dreadfully exploited.

The size of the problem is enormous. I certainly hope that the Minister will be helpful and respond to the suggestions made. The core of this Bill is Clause 1(2). That seeks to help Customs and British civil servants. I am not sure that even if the Bill were passed, that would solve the problem. The noble Lord put forward a number of ways of doing so. For example, consultation with the TUC. It must have a say in the matter because it is very concerned about working conditions.

Moreover, it is an international organisation so it is not just concerned about products made by British workers in this country in good conditions. I believe that the British would be repelled if the kind of things drawn to our attention by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, could be proved. The dimension of the European Community which was mentioned is certainly something which we ought to consider.

We are discussing a tiny issue in the totality of what we have dealt with in this House today; but such issues mark out the spirit and humanity of the society in which we live. Anything that we can do or say which exposes or gives courage and hope should be said; and, indeed, it has been very well said by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. We should all be grateful to him for reminding us of how fortunate we are to live in this country in comparison with the unfortunate lot of so many millions of people who live in other parts of the world and who suffer under regimes which are light years away from what the British people seek to achieve. I thank the noble Lord for doing what he has done, and like him I look forward to hearing the Minister's response in the hope that he can say something helpful.

9.51 p.m.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, we have had a short but important debate. I share the horror that has been expressed as regards any inhumane practices; indeed, we heard considerable evidence. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, eloquently and thoughtfully argued his case for the prevention of inhumane treatment and the exploitation of prisoners overseas. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, had his own concerns and I hope that I shall be able to comment on those as well as those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. It goes without saying that the Government are also deeply concerned about the violations of fundamental human rights wherever they occur.

However, neither the proposed amendment nor the Foreign Prison-made Goods Act are really effective vehicles with which to tackle the issue. Perhaps I may explain the various points which are fundamental to those arguments. As a starting point, it is very important to recognise that not all prison-made goods are the product of oppressive or cruel practices. Of course, that fact has already been acknowledged. If conditions are right and satisfactory, on the whole prisoners welcome being given the opportunity to work. Indeed, the UN standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners recommend that, sufficient work of a useful nature shall be provided to keep prisoners actively employed for a normal working day". Our own prison system is fully committed to a regime of rehabilitation. Prisoners are encouraged to gain work skills, attitudes and habits. However, I am not so naïve as to believe that good regimes of rehabilitation apply in all areas of the world. Indeed, we have heard some bad stories this evening of desperate and inhumane practices.

Our approach fits within one of the corner-stones of the Government's foreign policy. That policy is to work for a stable and peaceful international order characterised by good government which is democratic, accountable and competent. We attach particular importance to respect for the rule of law and the protection of the rights of individual citizens regardless of social class—a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Graham—or, indeed, ethnic group. However, measures to restrict trade are seldom the right tool for achieving these goals, especially when they are not universally applied by all countries. Rather, we need to work through positive action such as development and technical assistance programmes promoting international standards.

I believe it is broadly recognised that linking trade and human rights rarely achieves much in terms of persuading other governments to treat their people properly. Any action that we might take on imports could have no effect at all on the production of goods and services which are consumed domestically in the country concerned or exported to other countries apart from ourselves. Generally the effect of trade restrictions would merely be to impoverish developing countries and to depress their social standards. In other words, free trade is not inconsistent with helping to improve human rights.

That, I understand, is basically the background to the Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, brings before us this evening to amend the 1897 Act. I shall say a few words about the original Act. History shows that it was originally introduced for the purposes of trade protection and not to benefit the rights of workers in overseas prisons. I would in no way suggest that the reasons of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for bringing his amendment Bill to the House are not entirely humanitarian. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Graham, also spoke this evening because of his strength of feeling on these issues.

There are problems with the Act. I have to tell the House that it may not sit happily with our international trading obligations under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. While there is an exception to the rules which allows measures to be taken by a contracting party in relation to the products of prison labour, any such measures must observe the overriding rules of non-discrimination and equivalence of treatment between domestic and imported goods.

In particular, since the 1897 Act does not apply to all foreign prison-made goods—only to those of a kind manufactured in the UK, and when they are not imported from or through other EU countries as a result of an amendment—and since UK prison-made goods are made and sold without corresponding restrictions, the Act might be held to be discriminatory and so open to challenge. This last problem would remain even if the EU acted on a collective basis.

We are committed to the success of the multilateral trading system and to encouraging others to implement and to observe their WTO obligations. We certainly would not wish to do anything which might result in the UK being challenged under the rules which we firmly believe must be fully upheld by all those countries concerned. However, these arguments are to some extent beside the point. The simple fact is that the 1897 Act is one that has proved impracticable to apply although it might have had some deterrent effect, but that is obviously difficult to measure.

The Act provides that goods may only be seized by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise on the basis of evidence proving that they have been made in a foreign prison. In practice, that evidence would have to be specific to the consignment concerned. There are two good reasons for that: first, to ensure that any proceedings are viable, and, secondly, because of the potential disruption to perfectly legitimate trade in non-prison made goods that could otherwise arise. Because they are generally indistinguishable from other goods and because of the complex routes of production and delivery, there are severe practical difficulties in identifying goods, especially at the port of entry, which have allegedly been produced using prison labour. That was a point emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in his opening remarks. Of course it is important to note that the likelihood of receiving any co-operation from an oppressive regime would be slim indeed. Against the backcloth of the difficulties I have highlighted I am sure that it comes as no surprise to the House to learn that there is no record of any goods having ever been seized or prosecutions made under the 1897 Act. The proposed amendment, besides doing nothing to render the Act consistent with our international trading obligations, would not address these fundamental enforcement problems. That, I understand, is also very much the view of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise. In reality it would not make easier the basic requirement that Her Majesty's Customs must be able, if required to do so, to satisfy a court of law as to the grounds for seizure.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked me about European action. All the practical difficulties that I have highlighted would apply just as much to European-wide action as to UK action.

I am sure the House might wonder, if the Act was unenforceable and ineffective, as I have detailed, why it is still on the statute book. The answer is simply that we have not before now regarded the possible repeal of the Act as a priority issue with which to take up parliamentary time. However, this debate today has been extremely helpful in examining the issues. As a result, the Government may well give further consideration to the case for retaining the 1897 Act, or indeed otherwise.

As we have heard this evening, the plain fact is that the Act, with or without the proposed amendment, is anything but comprehensive; it is probably not consistent with our international trading obligations; it does not make the distinction between, on the one hand, exploited prison labour and, on the other, voluntary prison labour; it does not help to protect prisoners whose rights are not being respected; and, last but by no means least, it is in practice unenforceable.

Perhaps I may address the wider points that the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, so passionately made about the issues of slave labour and of sub-standard social standards. We in the UK are, of course, fully committed to the elimination of slavery and such equivalent practices. We believe that this is best achieved through a combination of promoting international standards, such as through the ILO and the UN, and positive action such as technical assistance programmes. Nonetheless, I believe that this Second Reading debate on the Bill has given us the opportunity to discuss these very important issues of humanitarian difficulties across the world. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for giving us that opportunity and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Graham, for his participation.

10.3 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham, for his encouraging words. I accept from him the doubts which he voiced about whether the Bill before your Lordships would solve the problem.

The Minister explained in detail not only why the Bill would not solve the problem but that the parent Act on which it is based may not be consistent with our international obligations. I had rather foreseen that. That is the reason that I venture to propose some alternative ways forward which I hope the noble Viscount will take back to the department for further consideration.

We should look at the American methods and consider whether in the European Union we should have a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese providing that they will not attempt to export goods from the Laogai into the European Union; and accompanying the memorandum of understanding we should have some system of inspection which allows us to go into the Chinese prisons and make sure that the goods are not identical with those being exported by their export/import companies.

It is common ground from the statement that emerged from the G7 meeting this morning that we want to do something about slave labour. The only difference between the members of the G7 was whether that should be accomplished through the World Trade Organisation or, as Britain would prefer, through the ILO or the OECD. However, the principle seemed to be agreed by all members of the G7: that we should attempt to tackle the wicked practice of using slave labour to produce goods, whether for home consumption or for export. I accept what the Minister said about the 10 million or 12 million people in the Laogai continuing to be used as slave labour for the domestic markets, even if we were able to stop the goods from entering this country. We might be able to salve our consciences but we would not have cured the problem.

I ask the Minister whether he will consider the proposal I made that we discuss the matter with our European partners and preferably go on from that to look at the American experience. We could then see whether it would be consonant with the European approach to matters and with the obligations of both the United States and Europe under GATT. I believe it must be because the American discussions with China have been conducted fully within the framework of US obligations under GATT. That is why it would be a useful model for us in Europe to consider. It might save us a great deal in trying to work out the problem from scratch when others have already been through it carefully, even though the Americans have hit a barrier for the past year or so. The inspections that were part of a corollary to the memorandum of understanding have not been carried through.

I suggest that if the European Union and the United States could get together and have a common approach to Beijing, then the combined forces of two big trading blocs might persuade the Chinese that it was in their interests to allow whatever limited amount of inspection was consistent with their ideas of sovereignty. Having made that point and in the hope that the Minister will take it away and consider it, I fully accept all—

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for permitting me to intervene. I attempted to go over the difficulties that I foresaw with European action and that it would face the same difficulties as national action. As regards the EU/US approach, there was a feeling that it was difficult to see how it would not run into the difficulties that the approach of the US memorandum of understanding has met. Nevertheless, the noble Lord made a number of suggestions and I shall ensure that they are considered.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance. Perhaps he will bear with me on one further point. If those approaches do not seem to work, we may come to the conclusion after discussing them with the Americans that an impasse has been reached so that it would be pointless for us to copy it in Europe, even with the combined force of the two great trading blocs. It would then be useful for us to know what action the Government intend to take either with the ILO or the OECD to combat the use of slave labour. At the G7 meeting this morning the Government said that they did not believe that the World Trade Organisation was the right place for that but they would consider the two other forums. I believe that there is that element of common ground between us: we all want to see slave labour eradicated or combated. We are not quite sure of the right way to do it and we must work within the framework of our obligations under GATT.

Having said that, I am grateful to the Minister for the kind way in which he has received my proposals and for undertaking to consider them. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for second reading, by leave, withdrawn.