The Government has cancelled a contract that would have seen the Ministry of Justice provide prison services to Saudi Arabia, Downing Street has said.
The £5.9m deal, which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn recently called on David Cameron to scrap, was controversial because of the autocratic kingdom’s weak human rights record.
The commercial venture would have seen the trading arm of the National Offender Management Service, JSi, provide development programmes for the country’s prison service.
The Times newspaper this morning reported that recently appointed Justice Secretary Michael Gove has wanted to scrap the contract for some time, but was blocked from doing so by other ministers.
The Foreign Office in particular was said to be worried that cancelling such a contract would have wider diplomatic ramifications for Britain’s relationship with the country.
Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond is said to have accused Mr Gove of naivety for his opposition to the contract, leading to a “robust exchange of views” between the two ministers.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Gove played down his role, stressing that the contract had been dropped as part a cross-government review, adding that MoJ resources should be targeted at domestic prison reform.
“There is security cooperation between Britain and Saudi Arabia that has, as the prime minister and others have pointed out, saved British lives in the past,” he said.
“And while we would never compromise on our commitment to human rights we must also recognise that it’s in the interests of the most important human right of all, the right to live in safety and security, that we should continue with necessary security cooperation with the Saudi government and with other governments.”
However, he added the Government took questions of human rights “very seriously” and told the House that the Government had been interceding in the cases of Raif Badawi, Ali al-Nimr, and British grandfather Karl Andree “at the highest level”.
Announcing the decision to drop the bid, the Prime Minister’s official spokeswoman said: “This bid to provide the additional training to Saudi Arabia has been reviewed and the government has decided that it won’t be proceeding with the bid. The review has been on-going following the decision that was announced earlier in September to close down the Just Solutions International branch of the Ministry of Justice that was providing some of these services.
“We will continue to engage and work with the Saudis on human rights issues, political reform and will continue to raise concerns where we have them.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mr Cameron had been “shamed” into a U-turn.
“Why on earth was it set up in the first place? We should be sending a strong message to repressive regimes that the UK is a beacon for human rights and that this contract bid is unacceptable in the 21st century, and would damage Britain's standing in the world,” he said.
The Saudi Arabian justice system makes routine use of crucifixion, beheadings, and lashes.
Amnesty International says the country has executed 175 people over the last year. Crimes punishable by death under Saudi’s penal code include adultery.
The FCO will be keenly aware that previous stands taken against the Saudi Arabian regime have not gone the UK’s way.
High Court documents released in 2008 alleged that an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into Saudi Arabia was dropped because of threats by the kingdom to stop sharing intelligence on terror plots.
The files said the UK was told it faced “another 7/7” and the loss of “British lives on British streets” if intelligence was cut off.
Downing Street blocked the investigation from continuing, the Guardian newspaper reported at the time.
Despite the about-face on the prisons contract, the UK still sells billions of pounds worth of arms to Saudi Arabia.
Between May 2010 and May 2015 the Coalition government licenced almost £4bn in arms to the regime, according to figures obtained by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.
Saudi is currently involved in a military operation in Yemen, where a “humanitarian disaster” is unfolding, according to the United Nations.
Significant numbers of civilian casualties have been reported during the conflict, including those of 15 people at a Yemeni wedding last week.
62% of the public oppose arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with only 16% supporting them, according to a poll conducted by Opinium for the campaign group.
As Justice Secretary Michael Gove is spearheading the abolition of the Human Rights Act and its replacement with a British Bill of Rights.
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