Ministers are “worried” about upsetting the Chinese over genocide allegations in Xinjiang, a former Tory leader claimed, ahead of a crunch Commons vote on the issue.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is seeking to avert a Tory revolt over the handling of genocide allegations by backing a compromise plan which would allow MPs to consider allegations of atrocities rather than the courts.
But former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said the compromise did not allow Parliament to do anything that MPs and peers could not already do, and claimed ministers were intent on blocking the courts from considering genocide claims.
The Government has been involved in a parliamentary battle over proposals to outlaw trade deals with countries that are committing genocide – a dispute taking place at a time when the Chinese authorities’ activities in Xinjiang are under intense international scrutiny.
Ministers have insisted that decisions on trade deals and international relations should not be matters for the courts.
But peers have refused to back down over amendments to the Trade Bill which would force ministers to withdraw from any free trade agreement with any country which the High Court rules is committing genocide, setting up a Commons clash on Tuesday.
The Government will back a compromise plan put forward by Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Commons Justice Select Committee, which would put the matter in the hands of parliamentarians rather than judges.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Government shares the grave concerns about human rights abuses in Xinjiang behind Lord Alton’s amendment and understands the strength of feeling on this issue.
“However, that amendment could embroil the courts in the formulation of trade policy and conduct of international relations and risks undermining the separation of powers.
“The amendment put forward by the chair of the select committee, which the Government will be supporting, addresses the concerns raised by the parliamentarians to take a stand on credible reports of genocide by a prospective trade partner while ensuring a specific duty on government to act.”
The UK Government is gravely concerned about the situation in Xinjiang and the growing evidence of human rights abuses there.— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) January 12, 2021
Weâve announced measures to send a message that these violations are unacceptable, & to safeguard UK businesses from any involvement or linkage with them pic.twitter.com/TYTmngaGvF
Sir Bob’s amendment would mean a debate and vote could be held in Parliament following a select committee report on credible allegations of genocide.
But Sir Iain told the PA news agency: “Sadly this amendment doesn’t do anything which can’t already be achieved today.
“The Government has constantly stated that only a court can decide on genocide and call it genocide and yet they are blocking any access to the UK courts.”
He has put forward an alternative proposal which would allow parliamentarians to refer genocide cases to the courts.
But he said ministers “clearly are trying desperately to stop the courts ever coming in on this one because they don’t want to upset the Chinese”.
“The Foreign Office particularly doesn’t want to do this because they are worried it will upset the Chinese,” he added.
The Government’s majority was cut to just 11 as Sir Iain and more than 30 Tory colleagues rebelled when the issue was considered in the Commons in January.
Tory backbenchers indicated the vote on Tuesday would be “tight” but the Government was in “overdrive” in an attempt to woo would-be rebels.
Meanwhile, Downing Street stressed the need for academics to comply with laws on international exports, following reports that almost 200 experts are being investigated on suspicion of unwittingly helping the Chinese government build weapons of mass destruction.
The Times reported they are suspected of violating strict export laws intended to prevent intellectual property in highly sensitive subjects being handed to hostile states.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “Exporters of military goods and those engaged in the transfer of military technology including universities and academics require a licence to export or transfer from the UK.
“It’s obviously vitally important that universities and academics comply with relevant export control but I don’t have anything further to add.”