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Government Averts Tory Rebellion After Complaints "Genocide Amendment" Is Blocked In Parliament

3 min read

The government held off a Tory rebellion over putting into law rules around trade with countries committing genocide by just 15 votes.

There were heated scenes in the Commons this afternoon after the government decided not to allow MPs to have a straight vote on a Lords amendment to the Trade Bill that would give powers to the High Court to block a trade deal with a country they determine is carrying out genocide. 

Instead the government put forward a replacement amendment by Conservative chair of the justice select committee Sir Bob Neill, that gives select committee chairs a say over trade deals with countries with poor human rights records.

The move to stop the Lords amendment being voted on was described by former Tory party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith as being “beneath" ministers.

MPs voted 318 to 303 to back the Neill amendment. 

A significant number of Conservatives - 31 in total - voted against their party this evening.

Sir Iain had said in the debate: “The government deliberately has blocked this. That is the reality.

“I think this is beneath them. I wish they had thought again, and they don’t try this one again.”

He said arguments that the courts should not impinge on Parliament were nonsense, because the government regularly says that any judgement on whether genocide has occurred is a matter for "competent courts", rather than governments.

Trade minister Greg Hands said the Lords’ amendment that would give the High Court more control to determine trade deals raised “serious constitutional issues” and blurs the separation of powers between the judiciary and parliament.

He added: “It is the government’s firm view that expanding the role of UK courts in the manner envisaged is inappropriate and would carry harmful, unintended consequences. First, it would be unlikely to work. Genocide is notoriously hard to prove, with a high legal threshold. If a judge were 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.”

Neill told the Commons he believed the Lords amendment was flawed becaue it brings the domestic courts of the UK into areas where "constitutionally they had never sought to go."

The backdrop to this debate has been China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjang, where thousands of people are said to be living in concentration camps with reports of sterilisation of women and the forced removal of children from their families. China denies there is abuse of the Uyghur people.

A Commons vote in January on whether the courts should be given the power to block trade deals with countries committing genocide was defeated 319 votes to 308.

It had the backing of 34 rebel Tory MPs.

The Bill now goes back to the Lords where it could be amdended again, in another round of Parliamentary ping-pong.

The rebels this evening included former Brexit secretary David Davis, chair of the defence select committee Tobias Ellwood, former minister Nusrat Ghani, vice-chair of the Tory 1922 committee, Charles Walker, as well as 2019 intake MPs Imran Ahmad Khan and Kieran Mullan.

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