In an otherwise disappointing round of voting on Lords’ Amendments (LAs) to the Trade Bill, during which Tory MPs yet again voted en masse to weaken parliamentary oversight of trade deals, there was one bright spot. Lords Amendment Number Three to force the UK to withdraw from bilateral trade agreements with any country the High Court deems to be carrying out genocide was championed by Wealden MP and former minister Nusrat Ghani. The first female Muslim Tory minister to speak from the House of Commons dispatch box, she has long been an eloquent advocate in our parliament for the plight and rights of Uyghur Muslims, who are the inspiration behind this amendment.
The United States had just declared the situation in China, where one million Uyghurs have been rounded up into camps and enslaved, to be genocide. This was after reports surfaced of enforced sterilisation of the women, causing an 85 per cent drop in the Uyghur birth rate. Voting for this amendment would be Britain’s chance to stand up for the persecuted people, and to put itself on the right side of history.
Ms Ghani almost pulled off a stunning victory. Or in other words, she almost inflicted a breath-taking defeat on Boris Johnson’s government, despite its 79-seat majority. (It can be done!) As well as strong support in the Lords, the amendment is backed by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Muslim Council of Britain, plus a cross-party coalition of MPs.
Government said it respected the spirit of the amendment, but would not back it. Now where have we heard weasel words like that before? We are committed to workers’ rights, but we’ve removed them from the binding part of the Withdrawal Agreement. We will not weaken workers’ rights in any way, but we’ll review them. Yeah, right. We weren’t born yesterday. We know our government is gagging to deprive us of yet more of our rights, having already stripped us of freedom of movement… It is hardly surprising that it won’t stand up for the rights of Uyghurs, when it is constantly looking for ways to dilute the rights of its own citizens.
Officially the reason government gives for its opposition is that it would be a worrying development for the courts to get involved in trade deals, even though the extent of the courts’ involvement foreseen by the amendment is limited to a declaration of genocide. This objection is completely spurious, given that it is already the courts’ responsibility today to reach a determination of genocide. “Parliament should decide these issues,” says government. Only because it knows it can (usually) whip its MPs to vote how it wants them to, even to the detriment of parliament’s power, rights and privileges. Ah, the tyranny of the Executive, which has near total control over the business of parliament, and is slowly choking the air out of British democracy…
There were only 11 votes in it — the result was 319 to 308 in the government’s favour. Every single opposition and independent MP voted for the LA, as well as 33 Tory MPs. These included three Tory MPs from the south-west: Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East), Simon Hoare (North Dorset) and David Warburton (Somerton and Frome). It was good to see them voting alongside the south-west’s other two fantastic MPs of conscience, Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) and Luke Pollard (Plymouth Sutton and Devonport).
With such a narrow margin, the House of Lords will be emboldened to indulge in another round of ping-pong. The good news is that as well as the 33 Tories who rebelled against the government, there were 8 Tory abstainers, including two other south-west MPs, Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) and John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare). If Ms Ghani could convert all the abstainers to voting against the government’s motion to disagree the LA, she would only need to flip two other Tory MPs to win.
Let’s help Nusrat Ghani find those few extra votes. Are you on social media? Then amplify her posts about Uyghur Muslims, and thank MPs who voted with her. Do our local MPs know how we feel about this issue? Let’s write to them (again…).
Looking county by county, I’m not optimistic about any of the Cornwall MPs flipping — but write to them anyway. In Devon, Newton Abbot MP Anne-Marie Morris recently voted to block the cut to universal credit and to provide free school meal vouchers for vulnerable children during the upcoming half-term holidays. She clearly has a heart, so an appeal for her to listen to her better angels on this issue too could bear fruit. In Somerset we must work on abstainer John Penrose, and we might also tackle Bridgwater and West Somerset MP Ian Liddell-Grainger, whose run-ins with local councillors show he’s not averse to rebellion. Abstainer Sir Christopher Chope is one to target in Dorset, and we could also approach Chris Loder, who is sponsoring a private member’s bill on stiffening sentences for animal cruelty. Loder obviously has humane qualities, so might be open to an appeal to vote for an amendment that helps the cause of human beings suffering cruelty.
It’s worth a try! A victory on this point, when so much else has been lost and ruined of late, could help to restore a little pride and a jot of faith that we Brits are still capable of standing in solidarity with those beyond our shores.