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Volume 591: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2015

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will provide an answer to an urgent question of which he has been given notice.

I have been asked to reply.

As the House will be aware, violence in Sana’a has escalated. Heavy clashes broke out yesterday between the Houthis and Yemeni security forces, and the situation is evolving rapidly. Although a fragile ceasefire was negotiated, its implementation has been, at best, partial. The presidential office and President Hadi’s home are now under Houthi control.

I am deeply concerned about the situation in Yemen. I urge all parties to step back from conflict in Sana’a, Ma’rib and other parts of the country, and to ensure that the ceasefire holds. Those who use violence, the threat of violence and abductions to dictate Yemen’s future are undermining the security of all its citizens and eroding the political progress that has been made since 2011.

The UK is playing an active role in encouraging all parties to work peacefully together to implement and enforce a ceasefire and return to dialogue within the framework of the Gulf Co-operation Council initiative, the outcomes of the national dialogue conference, and the peace and national partnership agreement reached between President Hadi and the Houthi leadership last September. The PNPA is a framework for peaceful political transition, and I call on all parties to work through the cross-party National Authority—which is effectively a national assembly—to implement the agreement, which should include the establishment of a new constitution.

I spoke to our ambassador in Yemen yesterday. The British embassy in Sana’a remains open and all our staff are safe, but we are obviously keeping the situation under close and active review. Since March 2011, we have advised against all travel to Yemen.

I thank the Minister for his answer, and thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.

As the Minister has said, Yemen is on the brink of an implosion that threatens to shatter the entire region. The Shi’a Houthi rebel group has encircled, bombed and stormed the presidential palace. When the House debated the death of UK-born hostage Luke Somers in December last year, all the warning signs of an impending crisis were there. No one doubts the Government’s commitment to providing aid for Yemen—last week I met the Department for International Development Minister, the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), to hear what they were doing—but that aid is not enough. There are troops in the streets, and thousands have already died in sectarian violence during this and last year. The country is of such strategic significance that we cannot afford to allow it to fail.

As the House knows, I was born in Yemen. I left with my mother and sisters in 1965, but I have returned repeatedly in my capacity as chair of the all-party group on Yemen, and I personally cannot say nothing while Sana’a burns.

This is now the time for urgent action. It is an important moment in Yemen’s history. What additional support are we prepared to provide to the Government of Yemen? Yemen is a key ally in the region against extremism and terrorist groups, including those responsible for the attacks in Paris. There is an immediate and extreme danger for British citizens in Yemen, who are estimated to number 2,200. That includes our embassy staff. The US has deployed naval warships to evacuate the US embassy, so what measures are we taking? Will we evacuate our personnel?

Although the UK Government have a good record of providing assistance to Yemen, I fear that our friends and allies do not recognise the importance of the region. What steps is the Minister taking to try to encourage the Friends of Yemen to do much more, specifically Saudi Arabia and Oman? We can all appreciate the work done by the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), the Prime Minister and others in assisting Yemen during and after the Arab spring. I also applaud the appointment by the Prime Minister of the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who I know cares about the country, as his envoy. We need to act. Our focus is on Syria and Iraq, but we cannot allow Yemen to collapse.

Finally, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the group that trained and directed the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, has already exploited the political instability in Yemen. This is where some international terrorists are trained. If Yemen falls, the front line of the conflict will be the streets of London, Birmingham and Leicester. We simply cannot allow this beautiful country to become a haven for terrorism and violence. To fail to act would be a betrayal not just of the Yemeni people but of the bonds of history that bind our two countries together.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, with his personal connections to the country, for the expertise he brings to the House and for his leadership as chair of the all-party parliamentary group. I appreciate the urgency of the question, but we were not going to make a statement because the situation continues to be fluid. What we say today could well be outdated by tomorrow. The Prime Minister is under house arrest, the President has moved to the south and the leader of the Houthis made a 75-minute statement on television yesterday but did not declare that he was now the leader of Yemen. The situation remains extremely fluid.

The right hon. Gentleman sums up the situation accurately and I agree with him. Strategically, Yemen is an important country for Britain. We have historical connections with it and we have devoted much work to it. I am pleased that he has had the opportunity to speak to my counterpart in DFID about the work we are doing to provide political stability and economic direction as well as improvements to security. He mentions the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and that is a reminder to all countries—not just those in the region but those further off, including Britain—of how terrorism and extremism can leave a region and move much closer to home. We heed his words very carefully.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the United States embassy. It is located in a different part of the city from ours and has its own evacuation programme. Each embassy must make its own judgment on what is necessary. The number of Britons operating in Yemen is extremely low and there are good connections between the embassy and those who choose to go against the travel advice I mentioned earlier.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Friends of Yemen. Let me elaborate on that. That is the organisation run through the United Nations that is co-chaired by Saudi Arabia and Britain. It comprises more than 40 countries and the past couple of years up to $8 billion has been granted to Yemen to help with political, economic and security reform. We must obviously assess the changes that have taken place, but the peace and national partnership agreement is critical. That is a document that has been signed by the President and agreed by the Houthis and given the sentiment expressed in the 75-minute speech I mentioned, we hope that all parties can come around the table and work towards a peaceful solution.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is a spoiler and an example of extremism. The worry about the Ma’rib region, which the Houthis are now pushing into, is that there are pockets of al-Qaeda and there will be a conflict of extremism there unless there is an agreement. That is what we are now working towards.

I welcome the question of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and agree with the sentiment contained in it, as well as with the Minister’s response. I welcome his tone. The Minister says that our embassy remains open, but can he assure me that if the situation deteriorates measures will be taken to get our staff out and to protect them? Finally, there are media reports about a connection between the Charlie Hebdo attack and the situation in Yemen. Is the Minister in a position to comment further on that?

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for his question and the manner in which he asks it. He asks at what point we should evacuate the embassy. I will speak to the ambassador later today and evacuation plan is already in place, but it has not yet been activated. I will speak to the ambassador and ensure that the House is updated if the situation changes. He asked about the connections between al-Qaeda and the Charlie Hebdo attacks. It has been reported that there is a link and that the individuals were trained in Yemen. The French authorities are working on that and we are working closely with them to provide support in their endeavours.

I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question. Will he say something about the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia’s military operations and any possible incursions into Yemen? Will he assure us that there is no possibility of any British armed forces being sent to the area, either?

Saudi Arabia and many of the countries that neighbour Yemen have an interest in the country, particularly Saudi Arabia, which, as I have said, is co-chair of the Friends of Yemen. I will speak to the embassy in the next couple of days to take stock of the changes that are taking place. I will ask about any military engagement that might take place, but as I have said we call for all parties, whether they are in the country or not, to come together and return to the peace and national partnership agreement, to which the Saudi Arabians have also signed up.

I cannot praise too highly the bravery and work of our ambassador, her embassy personnel and DFID staff. I spoke last night to the Yemeni Prime Minister, who was trapped and besieged, and the danger is that Yemen will end up without a legitimate Government and will become ungoverned anarchic space, leading to unchecked terrorist training, civil war, proxy conflict and humanitarian disaster. The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) is absolutely right to highlight the importance of this country. Will the Minister confirm that the United Kingdom will, as a matter of urgency and as a top diplomatic priority, work with all our Gulf allies, the United States and the United Nations to try to haul Yemen back from the brink of the cliff edge on which it rests?

I thank the Prime Minister’s envoy to Oman and Yemen, particularly as he has kept me up to date over the past few days with his contacts and his thoughts and advice. He is absolutely correct that we do not want ungoverned space to develop in Yemen and with all the activities and challenges going on in the middle east, this area does not have the same profile as others. It has now moved up the agenda by virtue of this urgent question and it is important that we give assistance to the country to ensure that all parties come together, not only those in the country but those in the United Nations and the United States, to work towards a peaceful solution.

As we have already seen, the situation in Yemen is a matter of considerable concern for Members on both sides of the House and for many of our citizens of Yemeni heritage in long-established Yemeni communities, including in the borough of Sandwell. As the security system in Sana’a has worsened, there have been reports of Houthi rebels shelling the President’s home in Sana’a and seizing control of the presidential palace.

The UN Security Council has rightly condemned these latest attacks, and clearly the priority must be to resolve this situation peacefully and quickly. In the wake of this sustained violence, may I first ask the Minister what emergency provisions have been put in place to help ensure the safety and security of British citizens still based in Yemen? We know there are many brave and committed NGO workers in Yemen, as well as a dedicated team of UK Government officials. Their work continues to be vital and their commitment to the country is long standing, so can the Minister give the House an assessment of the number of British citizens potentially affected by the recent violence? Will he also set out, as far as he can, what contingency arrangements are in place, should there be an urgent need to evacuate British citizens and personnel from the affected areas?

A statement adopted by all 15 members of the UN Security Council made it clear that President Hadi was “the legitimate authority” of the country. He was reported to be inside his house when it was shelled. The Minister said that the President is now under house arrest. Can the Minister offer any further assurances about the President’s safety and whereabouts?

Clearly, as well as restoring calm to the country, the implications of renewed violence in Yemen are far-reaching given al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has established it as their base, especially in its efforts to destabilise Saudi Arabia. In light of this, can the Government set out what long-term support is being offered to the Yemeni authorities to help counter the threat of AQAP, and how is this support being affected by the recent attacks? An end to the violence is the urgent priority, and we know that all sides have agreed to ceasefires in the past, but given that today’s attacks followed the breakdown of a ceasefire that had been in place less than 24 hours before, what can international partners do to try and encourage a return to ceasefire talks, and also to secure more lasting agreements?

Yemen faces not only a worsening security situation, but continuing political and economic challenges. Recent progress towards a political transition, including drafting a new constitution and holding a referendum as well as general elections, were welcome, but even this limited progress is now at risk of being undermined by these latest attacks. As the Minister said, the UK is chair of the Friends of Yemen group, so what steps will the UK Government be advocating to focus all parties’ efforts on the need to secure an effective political transition? UN Security Council resolution 2140 was unanimously adopted in February last year and included a sanctions committee responsible for implementing the restrictive measures under that resolution. Can the Minister confirm whether the committee has published any new recommendations or guidance in the light of the recent attacks?

The international community must remain determined to help achieve the transition that is needed within the country, while the UK Government will also have our support in doing what is necessary to ensure the protection of British citizens in the affected areas.

First, may I thank the right hon. Gentleman, the Opposition spokesman, for the cross-party support on this? He speaks about the UK diaspora. It is important that it is informed and kept up to date with what is happening in the country. He also spoke about the role of the UN, and I wish to put on record my thanks to the UN special representative to the Secretary-General, Jamal Benomar, who I have met a number of times, including at the UN General Assembly in September, when UN resolution 2140, which the Opposition spokesman referred to, was agreed.

There is, as I have mentioned, a well-rehearsed evacuation plan. The number of Britons based in Yemen is minimal, and the embassy assures me that plan is ready to be activated if required, but that is not currently the case.

My understanding is that the Yemeni Prime Minister is under house arrest. I have no further information on that at present. The right hon. Gentleman is right to underline the spoiling activities of AQAP, and that has already been underlined in the House. AQAP continues to undermine and harass the Government and to undertake targeted assassinations and mass bombings. This makes the situation ever more complex, with the Houthis moving in from the north-west.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the constitution and the referendum. They are the building blocks that lead us to a better political space, and they are part of the national partnership for peace agreement, which I mentioned in my opening remarks.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for bringing this important matter before the House and to the Minister for his thoughtful and informative replies. Does the Minister agree that in supporting the legitimacy of President Hadi, we must be wary of imposing a simplistic anti-terrorist narrative on the reported coup, given that it is likely that the coup’s origins are in more localised tribal, factional or sectarian sources?

I should make it clear that, historically, Yemen is a country that has never been broken down along sectarian lines and we hope that is not gong to be the case here. We remain firmly committed to supporting both the integrity of the Yemeni state and President Hadi’s elected Government to implement this peace agreement, along with all parties, including the Houthis.

First, may I associate myself very much with the comments of my right hon. Friends the Members for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and for Warley (Mr Spellar) and the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan)? The situation in Yemen is of great concern to many constituents of mine in Cardiff, particularly in Butetown and Cardiff bay, many of whom are of Yemeni heritage. What advice does the Minister have for those who may be worried about friends, family and relatives who are British citizens but who may not have followed the travel advice and may be in Yemen at the moment? Can he suggest what specifically they should do, and can he also give an assurance that the UK Government will give this issue a much higher priority, not only because of the current situation, but because of the poverty and insecurity that there have been in Yemen for far too many years?

The hon. Gentleman raises two very important points. First, while this subject may not have had a high profile in the media, that does not mean it has been a low priority for the Foreign Office, the United States and the Friends of Yemen—including in our work with Saudi Arabia. It is of huge concern, but it has not been on the front pages.

Secondly, I agree that many of our constituents will be concerned about what is going on and for loved ones and friends. I advise the hon. Gentleman to encourage his constituents to look at the FCO website, where there will be updates and information on ways to get in touch with the Foreign Office desk. If there are any complications, I would ask him to get in touch with me personally and I will make sure that that communication link is established.

Mr Speaker, there is a considerable irony in the fact that this debate on the crisis in Yemen comes immediately after your welcome statement on the British experience of the rule of law and democracy. What financial assistance are the Government providing to help stabilise Yemen?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the British assistance being provided. We are working not only with the Friends of Yemen, but with the Deauville partnership of nations—a group that came together to support the countries that went through the Arab spring. We also have conflict pool money going into the country, and we are providing security assistance to the Yemeni armed forces. We provided over £173 million from 2011 to 2014, and then we committed a further £78 million for this year—2014-15. That funding comes from the development stabilisation programme.

It has been alleged that the Houthi rebels are receiving support and backing from Iran. If that is true, will the Foreign Office consider whether it is in our interests to reopen an embassy and diplomatic relations with that country while it continues to meddle in such a malign way in this part of the world?

There is no doubt that Iran has influence in this area, and it can choose to be part of the solution or part of the problem. I very much hope it wants to be part of the solution and to play a helpful and productive role. It is no country’s interests to see Yemen descend into civil war.

On the embassy, we can either shout from afar and complain about behaviour, or we can have a far closer relationship and put these things directly to the country and the Government. That is the objective of reopening the embassy, when the agreement is finally signed.

Further to that question on Iran, will the Minister update the House on what influence Iran can have over the Houthis to make sure they act in a positive way, so that we get a solution in Yemen that recognises democracy and the broad range of people who live within that state, and we ensure this coup comes to an end and people can live in peace?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that all neighbouring countries that have any influence over the various parties involved in Yemen should exert that influence to encourage the warring factions to come back to the table. I hope that Iran will heed that advice, so that we can move towards getting the partnership agreement back in place.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) showed considerable personal courage in visiting Yemen, as do our ambassador and her diplomatic staff and the other UK nationals there. Will the Minister visit Yemen if the security situation allows?

It is certainly important to show support for our embassy personnel, and the more we can go to these places and engage with people, the better. Given the security situation, however, and the travel advice telling all Britons not to go there, it would be inappropriate for me to turn up there myself.

I thank the Minister for his statement, and the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. This affects us all in the United Kingdom, whether or not we have people from Yemen living in our constituencies. Will the Minister tell us what help the United Kingdom Government have given in the form of practical assistance, including additional intelligence surveillance equipment, extra technical and military aid for the army and, in particular, security scanning devices to prevent suicide bombings? Those three items would give practical help to reduce the level of warfare in Yemen.

The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the security situation in Yemen matters to people in Britain. From a strategic perspective, what happens in Yemen can have a consequential impact much further afield. We have a security relationship with the country, and if I may, I will write to the hon. Gentleman with more details of the areas in which we are working with the Yemeni armed forces.

Bill presented

Fracking (Measurement and regulation of Impacts) (Air, Water and Greenhouse Gas Emissions) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Geraint Davies, supported by Kelvin Hopkins, Mr David Winnick, Jim Sheridan and Jim Shannon, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to measure and regulate the impact of unconventional gas extraction on air and water quality and on greenhouse gas emissions; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 February, and to be printed (Bill 158).