A trade minister failed to dampen a Tory rebellion after admitting he had not read compromise proposals on stopping trade deals with countries committing genocide.
The Government is seeking to reverse amendments to the Trade Bill made by the House of Lords, including a cross-party change which would force ministers to withdraw from any free trade agreement with any country which the High Court rules is committing genocide.
Conservative former ministers Nus Ghani and Sir Iain Duncan Smith have tabled an amendment which they believe retains the thrust of proposals introduced by peers while easing Government concerns, including about the role of the courts in trade deals.
Speaking as MPs considered the Lords amendments, Ms Ghani asked: “We have tabled a compromise amendment which takes into account all the concerns the Government has presented on the Lord Alton amendment, and makes it very clear the separation of powers – Parliament opines, ministers decide.
“So what is the minister’s objection to the compromise amendment tabled by myself and my colleagues?”
But trade minister Greg Hands replied: “I’ll have to have a look at the amendment that she’s tabled.
“My role here is to speak about the amendment that is in front of us from the Lords in the name of Lord Alton.”
Sir Iain intervened: “Actually I gave that amendment to the Foreign Secretary and his team on Wednesday last week, it is on the order paper today. With respect, it’s not a case of will he have a look at it, he must have a view about it surely because it’s there.”
Mr Hands replied: “I listen to what he says, and I note what he says and what I will say is the Government is open for further discussions on these matters.”
He also insisted human rights “should not be traded away somehow” and earlier highlighted action the UK has taken against China, amid concerns over its treatment of its Uyghur minority.
Mr Hands went on to argue that giving the High Court the right to call for a trade agreement to be automatically revoked if genocide is found to be taking place in a country would “not be the right way forward”.
On Lord Alton’s genocide amendment, Mr Hands told the Commons: “To accept this specific amendment would allow the High Court to frustrate, even revoke trade agreements entered into by the Government and approved after parliamentary scrutiny. This is a completely unprecedented and unacceptable erosion of the royal prerogative and not something the Government could support.”
Conservative former leader Sir Iain used his speech to warn that the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China “has all the hallmarks of a genocide” but insisted a UK court should make that call.
Speaking to his amendment, he said: “It allows the UK courts to determine, given that there is a trade arrangement being negotiated or taking place, on a preliminary basis, whether genocide has occurred in the country that we are supposing to strike a trade arrangement with.”
Urging MPs to support the amendment, Sir Iain said: “We left the European Union because we didn’t want to accept judgments from a court that we say we didn’t have power over. But we didn’t come away because we disliked our courts. I think we have the best courts in the world, and I think they can make this judgment.
“And my question, therefore, is what is it about? Why are we leaving? Why did we leave?
“And the answer is so that we would stand tall and have a global vision about the morality of what we do.
“I simply say to my colleagues and to the front bench, tonight is more than just pettifogging, tonight is all about simply shining a light of hope to all those out there who have failed to get their day in court and failed to be treated properly.
“If this country doesn’t stand up for that then I want to know what would it ever stand up for again? I urge my colleagues to vote to keep the amendment that is from the Lords in this Bill.”
But Conservative former trade secretary Dr Liam Fox said he disagreed with the genocide amendment while also condemning the “violation of historical proportions” against the Uyghur people.
He said: “I, along with many members on this side of the House, voted to leave the European Union to take back control – I don’t want to take back control from unelected judges in Europe and give more power to judges in the United Kingdom, however high the esteem in which they’re held.”
Conservative Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, offered his support to the amendment and told the debate: “We’ve recently voted to take back control of our laws, our borders and our money – this is about taking back control of our laws and indeed our conscience.”
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