Boris Johnson narrowly saw off a fresh Tory backbench rebellion over Britain’s trade approach to countries suspected of committing genocide.
MPs voted 318 to 303, majority 15, to remove two Lords amendments from the Trade Bill, including one which would have forced ministers to withdraw from any free trade agreement with any country which the High Court ruled is committing genocide.
It was replaced by a Government-backed compromise amendment aimed at giving Parliament a vote on whether to pursue agreements with such countries.
The government's attempts to deny MPs a vote on the #GenocideAmendment are cynical to the extreme. Now is not the time for parliamentary games. Members from across the @HouseofCommons have voiced their support for this amendment and they must be heard 👇 pic.twitter.com/Edz58DGCwm— Iain Duncan Smith MP (@MPIainDS) February 9, 2021
A total of 31 Conservative MPs rebelled to oppose the removal of the Lords amendment, which independent crossbencher peer Lord Alton of Liverpool is planning to re-table when the Bill returns to the Lords.
Conservative former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith and former minister Nus Ghani led the rebels, and accused the Government of using “arcane” procedural games to frustrate them.
The Government packaged the Lords amendments on genocide together, along with the compromise proposal, thereby denying MPs a straight up and down vote.
Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans ruled the move was in order when concerns were raised on the Tory benches.
The exchanges came amid renewed international scrutiny of Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur minority population in China’s Xinjiang province.
Trade minister Greg Hands argued the courts should not be involved in the trade deal process, and it should be for Parliament to “take a position on credible reports of genocide” relating to such deals.
Speaking during the debate, he told the Commons: “This Government firmly believes it is for Parliament to determine what Parliament debates, not the courts.”
The amendment in the name of Conservative Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Justice Select Committee, outlined that a select committee first publishes a report raising genocide concerns and the Government will respond in writing.
Mr Hands added: “If the committee is dissatisfied with this, the Government will make time for a debate and vote in the House of Commons on a substantive motion – the wording of which will be provided by that committee. A similar process in the Lords will also ensue to take note of the report.”
He also claimed countries committing genocide could enjoy a propaganda boost if a UK court could not prove the allegations.
Mr Hands said: “Genocide is notoriously hard to prove with a high legal threshold.
“If a judge was unable to make a preliminary determination on genocide, which is highly probable, it would be a huge propaganda win for the country in question – effectively allowing that state to claim it had been cleared by the UK courts.”
Instead of a beacon of light and hope, today what we have done is go into the dark corridors of procedural purdah and we need to emergeSir Iain Duncan Smith
But Sir Iain warned that Parliament had gone “into the dark corridors of procedural purdah”.
He told MPs: “When we need an impartial taking of evidence and a judgment, we turn not to select committees on this, let’s take for example Saville, Grenfell, Hillsborough, or any of the other cases, we turn to a judge.
“Why do we do that? One, because we assume they’re impartial. Two, because they are trained to take evidence and to deal with evidence, we are not here, we are partial, that’s why we’re here, we are select committees and we have prejudices.”
Sir Iain added: “Today should have been a chance to stand tall, to send a signal to those who are without hope all over the world, whether it’s the Uighurs or the Rohingya.
“Instead of a beacon of light and hope, today what we have done is go into the dark corridors of procedural purdah and we need to emerge.”
Ms Ghani also said she was “appalled at the parliamentary games played over such a grave issue”.
She added: “Let the record show that on this day men and women in this House were ready to vote on the genocide amendment, to lead the world in standing up to tyrannical regimes who commit genocide, to honour our vow of never again, to ensure we are never complicit in genocidal trade and to put Britain on the right side of history and today we were denied that vote and this House was denied its say.”
But Conservative former trade secretary Liam Fox said the Bill is “not the appropriate place” to deal with the matter of allegations of genocide.
He said: “If we want to take action, frankly, in response to the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of the Uighur people we should do so – we have given ourselves new powers.”