Judges could curb the Government’s ability to agree trade deals by ruling overseas nations have committed genocide, under a plan led by Tory rebels that will be put to a knife-edge vote on Tuesday.
The revolt – spearheaded by former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith, chairman of the Inter-parliamentary Alliance on China, and ex-minister Nus Ghani – focuses on a “genocide amendment” to the Trade Bill.
The rebels’ aim is to introduce a mechanism to allow English courts to rule on whether China’s persecution of its Uighur Muslim minority – which includes forced sterilisation and forced labour – amounts to genocide.
A ruling in the affirmative would force the Government to seek parliament's permission before pressing ahead with any trade deal with China. Sir Iain accused ministers' of trying to block the plan out of fear of upsetting Beijing.
Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary, last week branded Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs “torture” and unveiled a raft of new measures designed to prevent UK companies profitting from abuses in Chinese forced labour camps.
However, he has opposed the amendment and is understood to believe it would be ineffective and counterproductive.
Government sources have expressed sympathy with the rebels’ stance, but insisted the Trade Bill was the wrong vehicle to tackle the issue. “Trade deals are a matter for politicians, not judges,” a source said.
The amendment has already been passed by the House of Lords, which inflicted a defeat on ministers last month. Insiders in both the Government and the rebel camps expect the Commons division on Tuesday to be extremely close, prompting both sides to draw up contingency plans for their next move.
On the eve of the vote, Ms Ghani exhorted colleagues to join the revolt, declaring: “Over 50 years ago the UK signed the UN Genocide Convention, to ensure that atrocities like the Holocaust could ‘never again’ take place. Britain must not look the other way on the genocide that is happening today in China.”
She added: “As we form trade deals with new partners, we must honour our sacrosanct responsibility never to let economic concerns trump ethical ones by dealing with genocidal states. Britain must not be complicit and genocide cannot mean business as usual.”
Labour, the SNP and Lib Dems are understood to be whipping in support of the amendment, with 30 Tories expected to vote for it and at least 15 set to abstain.
Ministers have privately conceded that even if they win they face a battle again in the House of Lords, where a tweaked version of the amendment is set to be re-inserted in the Bill.
The Telegraph has seen official cross-departmental advice setting out a compromise option, understood to have been agreed by ministers, which will be deployed in a bid to see off another revolt in the upper chamber. The proposal involves the Government undertaking and publishing a broader human rights assessment, instead of a full legal determination on genocide, before negotiating trade deals with a country.
The Whitehall memo explains: “We would look to make a statutory obligation to undertake a Human Rights Impact Assessment [HRIA] prior to the launch of FT [free trade] negotiations with a new partner country.
"This would make a prospective assessment of potential impacts of the FTA [free trade agreement] on human rights in the partner country, seeking to identify human rights-related risks and benefits. It would not place the Government under an obligation to take any form of subsequent action.”
The private concession that ministers would not be bound from pressing ahead with trade deals if human rights abuses were identified sparked anger among campaigners.
Luke de Pulford, the Conservative human rights activist behind the campaign for the amendment, said: "We always suspected this, but never thought the Government would admit it. All the straw men arguments have been exposed, and we see the truth: the Government doesn’t want to be bound to act on genocide.”
Boris Johnson also faces calls to allow MPs a vote on all future trade deals. Another amendment to the trade deal has been backed publicly by 20 business groups and charities including John Lewis, Nestle, Breast Cancer UK.