Forced Live Organ Extraction

Yesterday morning, Mark responded on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate called by Jim Shannon MP regarding forced live organ extraction. Mark's response to the debate is pasted below and you can find the debate in its entirety by clicking here.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered forced live organ extraction.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to open this debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have found time to attend this morning, and I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. This issue is very topical, and something that I, along with other hon. Members, have followed for some time, and we are pleased to participate. I thank members of the audience who have come to listen to our proceedings, in particular Becky James, who I thank for everything she did to provide me with important information. Many others also contributed, including Rob Gray, who is in the audience, and I thank him for his help in putting this speech together. I also thank Amro, who works for me on the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, because this issue is regularly brought to my attention.

Finally, I thank the Minister for being here—he is always responsive. He knows that we are fond of him as a Minister, but we are also fond of his responses, which are always excellent and sum up the points made. I thank him in advance for summing up the debate. He knows that I am impressed by his tireless efforts, and we very much looking forward to hearing his response.

Two days ago, the UN marked the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims. Its purpose was to honour the memory of victims of gross and systematic human rights violations, and to promote the importance of the right to truth and justice. How fitting that we should be gathered here today to seek the truth about one of the most concerning human rights violations imaginable—forced live organ extraction. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is also here. When preparing for this debate, we discussed these issues and decided that that would be the most appropriate title.

For years, human rights organisations have reported that the Chinese Government are complicit in forcibly removing the organs of religious prisoners of conscience to supply organs on demand for China’s vast and lucrative transplant industry. That horrifying practice is so terrible that it is hard to believe. A major world power—a permanent member of the UN Security Council no less—is treating human beings like commodities, like cattle, because they profess the wrong faith. Can any of us even begin to imagine living in a world where Government officials could stroll in, round up all the Christians in the Chamber—with respect, that probably includes most people here—and take their organs to supply to anyone who needs them? That is totally unacceptable.

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Mrs Madeleine Moon (in the Chair)

Before I call the Minister, I should acknowledge that I had prior advice from the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who has just arrived, of a domestic emergency that prevented her attendance earlier. She has had a member of staff making notes throughout and I am sure that if she has notes for the Minister or for those who have called the debate she will deal with that afterwards. I call the Minister.

The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I suggest, Mrs Moon, that if the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) wanted to speak I would be very happy to hear her and then I will sum up on that basis. As she has just rushed into the Chamber she may not feel it is appropriate to do so.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab)

I am very sorry that I was not here at the beginning of the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for raising this important issue about which we are all extremely concerned. It overlaps with a debate we had a few months ago about situation of the Uyghur people and the camps that they are in. That is where some of these activities are thought to be going on.

I have been concerned about the subject for some time. I think I first asked a parliamentary question about it in 2006, so it is a long-standing issue. As I was ​not able to be in the debate, I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford and we look forward to hearing from the Minister about what he is going to do.

The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

I thank the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) for giving me a mere 29 minutes to sum up on the debate. She was ably deputised by the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan).

This is a serious issue, so I do not want to be too light-hearted, but it is great to be able to congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for securing the debate and for his birthday yesterday. There is also a birthday girl in the Chamber today: my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). I am sure there was a misprint in The Times about the age.

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)

Sadly not.

Mark Field

There is clearly something in the water that gives these late March babies an interest in human rights. Both those hon. Members and others have raised major concerns about live organ extraction going back many years. I commend their characteristic dedication and welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position. The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) put on pressure when she said that we need to do more about the situation. We can work together with officials. I will set out the position, which I suspect may not be entirely satisfactory in the eyes of some of those who have contributed. As Minister, my commitment is to try and raise the profile of the issue internationally—not necessarily ramp up the pressure—because only when we work internationally can we make a genuine impact on the broader ethics of organ harvesting, as well as on the specifics about what we do with the WHO and other United Nations-related organisations.

In her brief contribution, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland referred to broader Government concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang province, in north west China, and about wider reports about restrictions on freedom of religion and belief. Many Members will be aware about the Government’s extensive concerns about the situation in Xinjiang, which I discussed and debated with Members in this Chamber as recently as 29 January. There are credible reports that over 1 million Uyghur have been held in extrajudicial camps in Xinjiang and have faced a plethora of restrictions on their cultural and religious freedoms.

We also have substantial evidence of incidences of persecution of other religious minorities, including Christians, a range of Muslims from different sects, Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners. They all face persecution and interference in their places of worship, their religious teaching and their customs. The UK Government are deeply concerned by the situation. In the last year no fewer than three different Ministers, including myself, have raised our concerns about human rights directly with our Chinese counterparts when visiting Beijing or at various international and public forums. At this month’s session of the UN Human Rights Council our Minister for Human Rights, Lord Ahmad, raised our concerns about Xinjiang in his opening address. ​The UK also raised the issue in our national statement and we co-sponsored a side event focusing on human rights in Xinjiang.

On the specific issue of Chinese state-sanctioned or state-sponsored organ harvesting, Members outlined concerns about the sheer number of transplants taking place in China, which far exceeds the publicly reported supply of organs available. Some have suggested that the reason for that must be Chinese state-sponsored and sanctioned organ harvesting. Others have alluded to reports that the supposed donors are held extrajudicially and murdered on demand to supply organs to wealthy Chinese and foreign patients. If true—we have to recognise that there has to be evidence—these practices would be truly horrifying. We need to properly and fully investigate such reports and allegations, and establish the facts.

It is certainly the case that China’s organ transplant policy and system is far from transparent, as we would understand it in this part of the world. We are also aware of the cultural sensitivities in China regarding voluntary organ donation, and that the number of registered donors is low.

Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for bringing the debate. Does the Minister agree that the UK has a duty to update legislation—specifically the Human Tissue Act 2004—so that we can prevent UK citizens from travelling to China and participating in forced live organ donation, whether knowingly or not? The Minister has raised the issue of the doubts over what is happening. While those doubts exist, surely we must be doing more here to prevent people travelling to China.

Mark Field

I will come to the hon. Lady’s points later in my speech—there is a specific passage about that. We recognise that there are international comparators, as referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton, which I would like to explore. I do not want to commit further than that, as I suspect it may be a Home Office or public health matter. My hon. Friend and the hon. Lady have made very serious point about ethics, and I will come to them.

It would appear that, in the past, a significant proportion of organs were routinely taken from executed prisoners without prior consent. China committed to stopping this practice from January 2015. While this was an important and positive step, there are still fundamental ethical questions about the ability of condemned prisoners in China to give free and valid consent. Indeed, China’s use of the death penalty is itself a subject of great concern, not least because there is no transparency about the number of executions it carries out. Many NGOs assess that China executes more people than the rest of the world combined, but no accurate figures are available. We advocate against the use of the death penalty worldwide in all circumstances, including in China and a number of other countries, including close allies. We do not just condemn the practice, but advocate against it.

Members today have outlined concerns that organs are not only being taken from executed death row prisoners, but also from prisoners of conscience, primarily Falun Gong practitioners, as well as other religious and ethnic minorities. Concerns have been raised that sometimes organs are removed while the victim is still alive, and without anaesthetic.​

There is a growing body of research, much of which is very worrying. As the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned in his speech, one key source is the written analysis by David Kilgour, David Matas and Ethan Gutmann. My officials have studied their latest report carefully and consider it to be an important source of new information about China’s organ transplant system. It points out that it is extremely difficult to verify the number of organ transplants conducted in China each year, and to verify the sources of those organs. The report rightly questions the lack of transparency in China’s organ transplant system, but acknowledges the lack of incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing. The authors make it clear that they have no smoking gun, or smoking scalpel, to prove their allegations, so they are forced to rely on assumptions and less-than-rigorous research techniques. Some of those assumptions, particularly the statistical assumptions, came up in hon. Members’ contributions, but they are still assumptions. We have to work on the basis of rigorous evidence—obviously, we are trying to develop as big a body of that as we can. Those research techniques include having to infer the scale of the organ transplant system from hospital promotional material and media reports, rather than properly corroborated data sources.

Jim Shannon

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. Along with that evidence, which many hon. Members referred to in their contributions, is he aware of the report of the United States Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which referred to a clear evidential base? That might help the Minister when it comes to gauging and bringing together all the information. It recognises the outcome of the China tribunal in the investigations it has carried out. That wealth of evidence across the world—at home, as the Minister has referred to, and in the United States—cannot be ignored.

Mark Field

I am now aware of that report and I will try to learn more in our future discussions.

The Kilgour, Matas and Gutmann report was used at the recent tribunal organised by the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, which was chaired by the eminent lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice, as has been said, and which my officials attended. Additional evidence considered by the tribunal was due to be published online earlier in the year. We are still waiting for it to be uploaded, but we are aware of the provisional findings, parts of which have been quoted extensively by hon. Members. We await with great interest the full publication.

From all the available credible evidence, it appears that China has not fully implemented its organ transplant commitments of January 2015. However, the World Health Organisation takes the view that, from its observations, China is putting in place a system of donation and transplantation that it regards as ethical and voluntary, and that allocates organs in a fair, transparent and traceable way in keeping with international norms and principles. The World Health Organisation shares that view with several of the world’s leading experts on organ donation and transplantation.

Several hon. Members raised the issue of the WHO, the UN and international pressure. The WHO does not have a mandate or role to act as an inspector of whether new policies are being adhered to in China or any other country, but we will make it aware of the debate, of the ​new evidence and of the sources to which I have referred, as well as providing a copy of Hansard to illustrate the concerns that have been expressed. We also note with interest the work done by the tribunal, and the information generated so far. We do not want to duplicate that work, so we are keen to utilise the evidence when it is finally published.

The hon. Member for Congleton asked whether we could call on the UN to undertake an inquiry or push for a rapporteur on the specific issue. We are working closely with international partners in the UN Human Rights Council, and will continue to do so, on a range of human rights issues in China. That work has previously included calling on China to implement the recommendations regarding Xinjiang from the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and to allow the UN unrestricted access to monitor that implementation. Xinjiang is obviously a priority, but I appreciate that this is a separate issue, for which an increasingly important body of evidence is being amassed. I hope that, by working closely with the international community within the UN again, we can make genuine progress.

Fiona Bruce

Will that include liaising with the American roving ambassador for religion or belief who, in the last week, has expressed concern about human rights issues in China in strong terms?

Mark Field

I shall be delighted. I suspect my colleague, Lord Ahmad, will do that, but it makes a lot of sense, not least given our relationship in the United Nations.

We shall continue to scrutinise the situation carefully, and we welcome all new evidence. At present, however, our assessment is that there is not a strong enough evidential base to substantiate the claim, which has come up today, that systematic state-sponsored or sanctioned organ harvesting is taking place in China.

Jim Shannon

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who was unfortunately unable to be present at the start of the debate, referred to the previous debate about the Uyghurs. I understand that there is an evidential base: some 15 million Uyghurs have had DNA blood tests for the compatibility of their tissue for organ transplant; nine crematoriums have been constructed in Xinjiang province, the first of which hired 50 security guards; and there is a dedicated organ transplant lane at a Uyghur airport. They are just some of the stories, but if they are not evidence of what is taking place, what would be?

Mark Field

There is evidence for deep concern, as has been demonstrated in the debate, but we believe that we are some way away from the notion of it being evidence that it is state sanctioned. However, I am well aware that the issue is now being looked at by a number of interested parties, to which I and the hon. Gentleman have referred. As I have said, we will work within the international community on the issue, which I think will raise the attention of many countries that have deep concerns about such matters.

The hon. Members for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) and for North Ayrshire and Arran raised the separate but related issue of British citizens travelling ​to China for medical treatment—so-called organ tourism. We do not collect data on that are not really able to do so, but we believe that relatively few people in the UK choose to travel to China for that purpose. As it stands, the British Government cannot prevent those individuals from travelling—I am sure hon. Members recognise that it would be difficult to police that and understand whether people had gone for that purpose—but it is important that we make them aware that other countries may have poorer medical and ethical safeguards than the UK, and that travelling abroad for treatments, including organ transplants, carries fundamental risks.

There is a broader issue about the sheer ethics of what we might call a free market in transplanted organs. This debate is an important staging post, although we have had debates in Parliament before. Health is one of the few attributes that some of the poorest people in the world have, and we find the notion that the rich world can take advantage of that an even bigger ethical concern. Travelling abroad, whether to China or elsewhere, is something that we want to work on with other countries. Where manageable legislation is in place that seems to be operating effectively, we should take it seriously.

I will come back to hon. Members with some thoughts about whether we feel legislation is practicable and can be introduced. I recognise hon. Members deep concerns, which reflect deeper ethical concerns about the notion of there being a free market for organs, and about the large-scale travel of British citizens to take advantage of that terrible harvest, although I do not think there is any evidence.

Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)

I understand the Minister’s point about the difficulty of preventing people from travelling. I ask him—in his remarks a moment ago, he hinted at this—to consider that we pass a law preventing people from travelling for this reason and from being organ tourists. That would put our moral position on the map and set a marker, which is very important.

As the Minister says, we can look at what countries such as Italy, Taiwan, Israel and others have done and what measures they have in place to prevent their citizens from becoming organ tourists. Ethically, it is very important that we introduce such measures and it cannot be beyond the wit of any UK Government to put them in place.

Mark Field

I do not want to make any great commitment on this—I recognise that it another Government Department may well have responsibility. We do not just want to put laws in place. We want to ensure they are effective. The worst of all worlds is to have legislation that is essentially bypassed in a straightforward way. Rather than making a commitment now that I end up having to backtrack on, I hope the hon. Lady will forgive me if I say that, given the depth of concern reflected by all Members, we will go back and try to look at things, particularly international comparators, to see how we can craft legislation that will be effective in the way that all of us would desire.

I conclude by taking this opportunity to reassure all hon. Members that, contrary to suggestions, our trading and economic relationship with China does not prevent us from having very frank discussions with the Chinese authorities, and nor does it affect our judgment on this increasingly important issue. We shall continue to engage ​with China on a full range of issues, including human rights. I outlined earlier the UK’s recent actions in the UN Human Rights Council and our vocal condemnation of the abuses perpetrated in Xinjiang. We shall continue to promote universal freedoms and human rights, and to raise serious and well-founded concerns with China at the highest levels.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions. I know that so much else that is going on crowds out interest elsewhere. It is great to see so many people in the Public Gallery, obviously recognising that these issues are close to the hearts of many representatives. Although it is perhaps understandable that much of the press coverage focuses on Brexit-related issues, a terrific amount of other work goes on. Many hon. Members—Back-Benchers and Front-Benchers alike—focus on that work.

As a Foreign Office Minister, I try to do my level best to keep working hard. I am afraid that a few conversations abroad obviously have a Brexit flavour to them, but there is also a sense that there is other important work to be done. Last week, I had two days away at the OECD in Paris, doing some very good work to stand up for the rules-based international order, and to work in relation to anti-corruption and integrity matters together with a number of other countries from across the world.

It is rather important that all of us utilise our energies in any way we can to address the important issues raised today, which I know we will come back to. I hope Members will work closely with the Government—with the Foreign Office and other Departments—to try to ensure that the terrible scourge of involuntary organ harvesting is, before too long, firmly in the past.