Civil servants rebuked for leak of Raab remarks on trade with rights abusers

Foreign secretary told staff UK intended to trade with countries with poor rights records

Civil servants have been scolded after the British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was revealed to have told staff the UK intended to trade with countries with poor human rights records.

Philip Barton, the permanent secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), said Raab had been speaking “openly and candidly” to Whitehall workers on a call with thousands of them on Tuesday.

In a message entitled “TRUST” sent to civil servants on Wednesday morning, Barton berated those who leaked Raab’s comments to HuffPost UK and Bloomberg, saying they had caused “significant breaches of the trust placed in us”.

“That was an unprofessional, unwarranted and self-defeating act,” he said, and added the staffers who brought Raab’s comments to light “should be ashamed of what they have done”.

Raab was recorded on the call saying: “I squarely believe we ought to be trading liberally around the world. If we restrict it to countries with European convention on human rights-level standards of human rights, we’re not going to do many trade deals with the growth markets of the future.”

The FCDO said it was a partial account of fuller remarks in which he also said: “We don’t junk whole relationships because we’ve got issues – we have a conversation because we want to change the behaviour. And I think we’re in a much better position to do that if we’re willing to engage.

“I can think of behaviour that would cross the line and render a country beyond the pale. But fundamentally I’m a big believer in engaging to try and exert positive influence, even if it’s only a moderating influence, and I hope that calibrated approach gives you a sense that it’s not just words – we back it up with action.”

An FCDO staffer said they thought Barton’s message showed that Raab did not regret that he had made the comments but that he had been caught making them – particularly given the issue has inflamed the tempers of Tory backbenchers who want the government to take a harder line against China.

They said: “I find it unconscionable that Raab can say the UK is a force for good in the world while at the same time being willing to trade with countries with atrocious human rights records.”

Raab is due to give a speech to a US audience by video link on Wednesday in which he will claim democracy worldwide is in retreat in the face of authoritarianism.

On Tuesday Boris Johnson was criticised by some Tory MPs for emphasising that the UK would seek to improve its trade and investment links with China while at the same time criticising its record on human rights.

The shadow foreign secretary, Lisa Nandy, said: “Secretly talking up the prospects of trade deals with countries with appalling human rights completely undermines this government’s public commitments. If the foreign secretary genuinely believes the UK should be a force for good in the world, he should start by ruling out trade deals with countries guilty of genocide or other severe human rights abuses.”

The trade bill returns to the Commons next week where it is expected ministers will for a third time overturn attempts to give judicial figures a right to declare if a genocide is under way in another country, leading to possible trade restrictions.

The UK has imposed no sanctions on any Chinese official even though it has said three times that China is in breach of the Sino-British declaration on Hong Kong by introducing repressive security laws. On Tuesday the US imposed sanctions on 24 more Chinese officials it deems to be in breach of the declaration, leaving the UK in the position of doing less in terms of sanctions to uphold its own agreement.

One argument is that the UK’s smaller economy makes British business much more vulnerable to Chinese reprisals than US firms.

The EU is said to be preparing sanctions over the treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province, although it takes longer for the EU to secure unanimity among its 27 states than it does for the UK to secure cross-Whitehall consensus.

On Monday the Chinese ambassador to the EU urged the bloc not to interfere in its national security affairs, saying any sanctions over human rights abuses – based on what it called “lies” – could fuel confrontation.


Patrick Wintour and Aubrey Allegretti

The GuardianTramp

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