FOREIGN office ministers including Bournemouth East MP Tobias Ellwood appear to be putting trade and security above human rights concerns, MPs have warned.

The Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee said there was “plainly a perception” that the issue of human rights had been downgraded in the Government’s dealings with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain.

Middle East minister Mr Ellwood was criticised for telling Parliament he couldn’t recall whether he raised human rights while leading a business delegation to Egypt and saying relations between London and Cairo were “in a very positive place”.

“We are disappointed by (his) choice of language on this occasion and others which raises questions about how energetically the Government is raising human rights issues”, the committee stated.

It said: “Perceptions and symbols matter, particularly in the context of the UK’s soft power and international influence.”

The report also criticised Mr Ellwood’s “tone” in a debate about the torture and murder of Cambridge University student Giulio Regeni in Egypt, saying it suggested the UK “has not been supporting the Italian authorities as forcefully as his murder deserved”.

Responding to the committee’s comments Mr Ellwood said: “I do not recognise this characterisation of my or the government’s human rights work.

“The UK is a global leader in promoting and protecting human rights around the world.

“Human rights is at the heart of both my work and that of the Foreign Office and I consistently raise it in my meetings in the UK and overseas.

“With regards to Egypt I have made the UK’s concerns very clear in public and private, we want to see political progress and better protection of human rights.”

"Strengthening bilateral ties"

Mr Ellwood has been in Uzbekistan since news of the report emerged.

The MP, who is in the former Soviet bloc country to strengthen "bilateral ties”, said on Twitter that he and Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulaziz Komilov had “discussed a range of issues” including “regional security”.

He also tweeted “Hope that the UK and #Uzbekistan can strengthen commercial ties” but did not say he had discussed human rights during the visit.

A Foreign Office spokesman confirmed human rights was on the agenda for the visit, adding Mr Ellwood had "already raised the issue at a senior level in meetings earlier today."

He said: "We have significant concerns about Uzbekistan’s human rights situation including in areas such as the lack of freedom of expression, poor criminal justice procedures, and allegations of the use of torture against detainees.

"Encouraging progress on human rights forms an important part the UK’s work in Uzbekistan."

In its latest report into Uzbekistan, human rights charity Amnesty International claims the country has a poor record, with the use of “torture and other ill-treatment to suppress dissent, combat actual or perceived security threats, repress political opponents, extract confessions and incriminating information, and intimidate or punish detainees and prisoners and their families”.

The Foreign Office website warns that homosexuality is illegal in the country.

Foreign Office should be "more mindful" of perceptions - report

Crispin Blunt, the Conservative MP who chairs the cross-party committee, said: “The actions and words of ministers in the Foreign Office have undermined the excellent human rights work carried out by the department.

"This needs to be remedied."

The omission of Egypt and Bahrain from a Foreign Office list of countries requiring special attention helped foster the idea it "has become more hesitant in promoting and defending international human rights openly and robustly", the report says.

Last year, the FCO's most senior civil servant made a frank admission to MPs that human rights "is not one of our top priorities" and that the "prosperity agenda is further up the list".

Ministers deny the issue has been downgraded but a string of trade-focused, red carpet visits to the UK by the leaders of countries with some of the worst records of rights abuses has reinforced the perception of a shift of diplomatic emphasis.

The Foreign Office, the report concluded, should be "more mindful of the perceptions it creates at ministerial level, especially when other interests are engaged such as prosperity and security, as is the case with China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia".

The MPs welcomed the doubling to £10.6 million of a dedicated human rights fund - renamed after Magna Carta - but criticised its restriction only to countries receiving overseas aid.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: "Improving human rights is a core function of the Foreign Office and is the responsibility of every British diplomat around the world.

"The UK supports over 75 human rights projects in more than 40 countries and this year we are doubling the funding available for human rights projects to £10 million - a true measure of the importance we attach to this agenda.

"By mainstreaming human rights within the Foreign Office, we have ensured it will always be a central part of our diplomacy, delivering tangible results."