UK still in talks with Saudi Arabia over justice issues
Britain is still in discussions with Saudi Arabia about co-operating on justice issues despite cancelling a highly controversial bid to run prison training services in the Gulf state, the Human Rights Minister has revealed.
Dominic Raab said the British Embassy in Riyadh was in "ongoing discussions" with the Saudi authorities on possible areas of judicial co-operation but that the Government has not yet carried out any work in the country.
The talks relate to a memorandum of understanding signed in September 2014 which is designed to foster "dialogue on human rights and an exchange of expertise on justice and legal matters", according to the Government.
The admission comes just weeks after Justice Secretary Michael Gove succeeded amid Cabinet opposition in cancelling the £5.9 million prison training bid in Saudi Arabia - a country notorious for public beheadings , floggings and torture.
In a series of written parliamentary answers to Labour's Andy Slaughter relating to the memorandum, Mr Raab said: "Initial exploratory discussions have taken place regarding possible areas for co-operation."
Asked when more discussions were scheduled to take place, Mr Raab said: "Discussions are ongoing and are being taken forward by the British Embassy in Riyadh.
"No work has yet been undertaken by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) as a result of the memorandum of understanding."
Shadow human rights minister Mr Slaughter said the admission showed British co-operation with the Saudi justice system was "alive and well" and described the cancellation of the prison training bid as "little more than a political gesture".
The Labour frontbencher also highlighted a training contract held by the College of Policing in Saudi Arabia and said the Government's refusal to publish details of the memorandum or the cancelled contract showed it was "confused".
Mr Slaughter told the Press Association: "It appears that co-operation with the Saudi justice system is alive and well with or without the prison contract.
"The Home Office confirms that the College of Policing contract will continue as will discussions on further co-operation with the MoJ.
"However, the Government is unwilling to publish any details of these discussions or the contract.
"This shows confusion within Government and the Ministry of Justice as to whether and how they wish to support Saudi justice and law enforcement.
"It also suggests Gove's cancellation of the prison contract was little more than a political gesture."
In a separate answer to Mr Slaughter, Justice Minister Shailesh Vara revealed that the cancelled bid, which was being carried out by MoJ commercial body Just Solutions international (JSi) which is due to be shut down, had nothing to do with the memorandum.
Asked by Mr Slaughter whether the cancellation broke any agreement in the memorandum, Mr Vara replied : "No. The memorandum of understanding and the bids submitted by JSi are entirely separate and there is no link between the two."
The series of revelations could re-intensify pressure on the Government over its dealings with Saudi Arabia, which is infamous for its dismal human rights record.
The cancelled prisons contract and the case of 74 year-old Briton Karl Andree, who was threatened with flogging for breaking Saudi Arabia's strict anti-alcohol laws, have strained relations between the two countries.
Mr Andree, who had been locked up since his arrest in Jeddah in August last year when he was caught with home-made wine, is now due to be released in the coming days and reunited with his family in Britain.
The news was announced by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond during a visit to Saudi Arabia that came just days after its ambassador to the UK warned of "potentially serious repercussions" of a breakdown in relations with Britain and a lack of "mutual respect".
Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz singled out the cancellation of the deal to train prison staff in the Gulf state as he railed against an "alarming change in the way Saudi Arabia is discussed in Britain".
Mr Hammond has said it was "no secret" that he opposed the cancellation of the prison training contract but insisted it was "business as usual" between the two countries.
In an interview with Saudi-owned Al Arabiya News published on Sunday, the Foreign Secretary said of the cancelled deal: "The new Justice Secretary wanted to concentrate on reforms of prisons in the UK, where we actually have a big problem including the one of radicalisation by extremists.
"It is no secret that I and others argued that even though this wasn't in accordance with his departmental agenda, we would have preferred for the contract with Saudi Arabia to have been entered into as a sign of good faith.
"We didn't win that argument and we pulled out of the contract. It is an irritation to our Saudi partners and I understand that."
Mr Hammond insisted the two countries were continuing to co-operate as normal.
He said: "It is business as usual, and the reason we do business together is because it's in our mutual best interest.
"We support each other in security, we work together on cyber, counter-terrorism, defence collaboration, we support each other's security, supported the Saudi-led coalition in its actions in defence of the Yemeni government."