House of Commons
Tuesday 24 May 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
business before questions
Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That the Address of 25th April, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Ruth Evans to the Office of Chair of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for a period of 5 years with effect from 1 June 2016, was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with the request.
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
EU Sanctions: Russia
1. What assessment he has made of the likelihood of EU sanctions against Russia being renewed as a result of that country’s recent actions in Crimea and the Donbas. 
15. What assessment he has made of the likelihood of EU sanctions against Russia being renewed as a result of that country’s recent actions in Crimea and the Donbas. 
Russia is failing to fulfil its commitments under the Minsk agreements. Ceasefire violations in the Donbas continue, and these must end. Russia must stop supporting and directing the separatists. Last year, the European Council decided sanctions should be clearly linked to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. We strongly support the continued application of this robust approach, and we expect that the European Union will extend tier 3 sanctions for a further six months this summer. There are separate sanctions in place relating specifically to Crimea, and our strong view is that they must remain in place while Russia’s illegal annexation continues.
More than 9,000 people have died as a result of hostilities in Ukraine. Given the recent tensions, including over the supply of electricity to Crimea, will the Foreign Secretary tell the House what more can be done to reach peace in the region?
I regret that I have to say to my hon. Friend that it is a long haul of maintaining pressure on Russia—through isolation from the international community and through maintaining the EU sanctions that are in place. At the moment, we have no other tools that are likely to prove effective.
I very much understand the need for sanctions because of Russia’s aggression towards the Ukraine, but one problem is that milk and other dairy products are very much involved in those sanctions, and that is having a dramatic effect in terms of the downward price of dairy products. Is there any way that the food and dairy side of these sanctions can be taken away?
The sanctions my hon. Friend refers to are in fact Russian counter-sanctions that have been imposed against EU producers. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, despite the sanctions measures Russia has taken in retaliation against EU agricultural producers, agricultural exports from the European Union in 2015 were up by 6%, showing that our producers—Europe-wide producers—are able to address the challenge of Russian sanctions and to find alternative markets elsewhere.
On the Ukraine, does the Secretary of State accept that Russian bombing of Syrian civilians to provoke refugees and possibly to tilt the balance in favour of Brexit is part of a strategy to fragment European resolve on Ukraine? He is frowning—obviously he has not thought about that.
There is definitely a Russian strategy to try to fragment European resolve. It is probably a step too far to suggest that Russia’s engagement in Syria is designed only to apply pressure over Ukraine. Russia has important and historical equities in Syria and is seeking to defend its interests there. But, overall, Russia’s behaviour in Syria and Ukraine gives us deep cause for concern about the established security settlement that we have been used to living with for the last 25 years.
Did the Secretary of State read the Max Hastings article in The Sunday Times this Sunday, in which he expresses deep concern about the threat from Russia and about the way Russia is now preparing to use cyber-methods against Europe and our allies? Will he take action to make sure that this country of ours is prepared to match up to those threats, and will he seek succour from the European Union in doing that?
I did not read the article in The Sunday Times that the hon. Gentleman refers to, but I am very familiar with that author’s views on this subject and very familiar with the problem. We are taking action to strengthen our cyber-defence and, as I announced three years ago when I was Defence Secretary, to create an avowed UK offensive cyber-capability. We are still the only nation that has publicly declared the fact that we are developing an offensive cyber-capability for retaliatory purposes if we are attacked.
The Foreign Affairs Committee was in Russia last week and would certainly agree with the assessment that our relations with Russia are in the deep freeze, as reflected by my right hon. Friend’s rhetoric. Russia appears to be strategically stuck in its position in the global naughty corner of international relations. Do we not need to be thinking about ways in which we might get Russia out of this position, even if it is only a substantial investment in people-to-people links, Chevening scholarships, cultural relations and everything else?
I am pleased to be able to tell my hon. Friend that although our relationships with Russia are in a very difficult phase at the moment and we have suspended most business-as-usual relations, we have maintained our cultural links with Russia and cultural exchanges do continue, including at ministerial level. Russia has its own agenda, and from the point of view of the Kremlin it is not so obvious to me that it will regard its current strategy as failing and in need of revision. Russia is ensuring that the countries that it regards as its near abroad are unable to make free choices about their futures, and I judge that to be the No. 1 priority for the Kremlin.
Does the Foreign Secretary believe that there is any scope for expanding the EU sanctions to include the Russians involved in the murder of Magnitsky and also the Russians involved in the expropriation of $100 billion dollars-worth of shareholders’ money in relation to Yukos?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Yukos issue is a matter that is currently before the courts, and there has been a recent decision in this case. We have looked at the options for expanding sanctions to cover other areas, but we found that the individuals who could be targeted are already either, in effect, covered by other measures or would not be affected by the kind of sanctions that we could impose. So, as a Government, we do not see any prospect of expanded sanctions.
Returning to the original question by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), does my right hon. Friend agree that there can be no question of EU sanctions or Council of Europe sanctions being lifted until Nadiya Savchenko is unconditionally released, until intervention in Donbas has ceased, and until the future of Crimea is properly and freely determined?
That is our position. Of course, we need to maintain a consensus within the European Union on renewal of sanctions, and that is work that we are continuously engaged in. I am confident that sanctions will be rolled over this summer, but we have to make the case again every six months for continuing those sanctions.
2. What recent discussions he has had with his Bangladeshi counterpart on the protection of human rights in that country. 
7. What representations he has made to the Government of Bangladesh on violence towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in that country. 
I would like to start by expressing my condolences to the families of those who lost loved ones and homes to Cyclone Roanu over the weekend. I welcome the strong leadership shown by the Government of Bangladesh.
I raised my concerns about human rights and violence against LGBT people again this morning with the Bangladeshi high commissioner. The Minister of State, Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Mr Swayne), raised this with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh during his visit there in August 2015.
With extra-judicial killings, disappearances of political opponents and fraudulent elections, Bangladesh is quickly becoming a failed state. Does the Minister not think that it is time to start applying some form of sanctions to try to get Sheikh Hasina to hold a proper general election as soon as possible?
Like all those in this House, I was absolutely appalled by the senseless murders of the LGBT activists Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tonoy, and we call on the Bangladeshi Government to bring those responsible for the killings to justice. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Extremist-related murders of members of minority religious groups and those whose views and lifestyles are contrary to Islam have increased in Bangladesh since February 2015, and we are discussing this regularly with the Government of that country.
The Minister has said that he has talked to the Bangladeshi Government, but does he really think that that Government are taking sufficient steps to tackle the issue of violence against LGBT people?
Clearly I do not. We have a certain amount of leverage in Bangladesh—we are the largest grant aid donor, giving £162 million in 2015-16—so our voice has some influence there. In the past year our human rights and democracy programme has provided safety training for bloggers, and we have also funded a project promoting the rights of LGBT groups in Bangladesh, but there is a huge amount more to do. We are not shy of pushing the Government of Bangladesh in the right direction, but sometimes it takes a little bit of time and persuasion.[Official Report, 26 May 2016, Vol. 611, c. 1MC.]
The human rights of secularists in Bangladesh are threatened. Last month, Nazimuddin Samad, a law student in Dhaka, was killed for blogging, “I have no religion.” Will my right hon. Friend raise this with his Bangladeshi counterparts and ensure that secularists’ rights are also protected in Bangladesh?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There was not only the Daesh-claimed killing on 9 April in Dhaka of Nazimuddin Samad, but the murder on 23 April of Rezaul Karim Siddique in Rajshahi, in the east of the country. This is becoming an all too familiar occurrence in Bangladesh. There is a disagreement: Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina blames the opposition parties for trying to destabilise the country and the victims for insulting Islam; we think the problem goes beyond that.
Do not the Government of Bangladesh’s inability to protect human rights and the absence of effective opposition to that Government require the UK Government, which continues to provide substantial aid to Bangladesh, to have a timetable for intervention to ensure that democracy and human rights continue in that country and do not fall under a single-party state?
I do not think my hon. Friend is suggesting that we should tie our aid, which helps some of the worst-off people in the world, with political progress, but I take on board his point. There is much more we can do in Bangladesh and we are trying, not least through the role of the new Commonwealth Secretary-General. Bangladesh is of course a member of the Commonwealth and we want the Commonwealth to take more action in that country, which at the moment is not heading in the right direction.
Around 70 to 80 women and children are trafficked from Bangladesh abroad each day. Law enforcement is failing to prevent forced prostitution. What discussions is the Foreign Secretary having to press that legal systems prevail for women and girls in Bangladesh?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, although of course it is not just Bangladesh that is affected. We have done a lot on human trafficking through legislation; we have also done a lot on the supply chain, where I know there are concerns. We continue to raise the matter, not just in Bangladesh but in countries around the world. It is something we want to erase. It is unfortunately all too common and we take it seriously.
I am delighted to hear that the Minister is so concerned about the recent killings of liberal activists in Bangladesh. He mentioned the brutal murder on 25 April of Xulhaz Mannan, editor of the country’s first and only LGBT magazine, and the appalling fatal machete attack on blogger Nazimuddin Samad on 6 April. Surely the Government of Bangladesh have been far too slow to act. What additional pressure are he and the Government prepared to put on the Government of Bangladesh to ensure that these murders are dealt with properly?
The Government of Bangladesh would argue, as the high commissioner did to me this morning, that one of the victims of these crimes was a cousin of a former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, so this is something they are taking extremely seriously. I do believe that Bangladesh has a problem, and we will continue to talk to our Bangladeshi counterparts on a range of issues, some of which are of very great concern.
Yazidi Population: Syria and Iraq
3. What assessment he has made of the extent of threats to the Yazidi population in Syria and Iraq. 
Britain and other countries have been appalled by Daesh’s actions against Yazidis and other minorities in northern Iraq. It has prompted us to join other countries in taking action through the formation of the international coalition against Daesh, which now includes more than 60 countries.
As the Minister will know, many Yazidi women and girls who suffered sexual slavery at the hands of Daesh experienced severe trauma, but they struggle to access the support they need. What steps have the UK Government taken under their preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative to promote access to mental health care for all those victims?
The hon. Lady is right to point to the importance of the support that we need to provide not just to the Yazidis, but to other minorities that have been affected by Daesh. We are the largest donor to Iraq’s humanitarian pooled fund and there are a number of programmes, including those of the Department for International Development and the human rights and democracy fund, to provide exactly the sort of assistance that is required immediately.
As the Minister and the questioner have made clear, the key threat to the Yazidi population and other religious minorities is the control of territory by Daesh. Does my hon. Friend therefore welcome the news this morning that a major assault has been launched to retake Falluja, and does he agree that the liberation of towns and cities is the way that such threats will finally be put to an end?
My hon. Friend is right. Little by little, we are able to remove from Daesh the territory that it has held. Falluja was one of the first cities to fall to Daesh. Along with Mosul, these will be important changes that show that Daesh is finally being removed from the territory. But as the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) pointed out, once we have defeated Daesh militarily, there is a huge amount of work to do on stabilisation and humanitarian support for the people who have suffered so much as a result of the atrocities.
The Yazidi people of Iraq were given two choices by Daesh in 2014—convert or die. Will the UK Government accept that what happened in Sinjar was genocide, and urge the Iraqi Government to work with the International Criminal Court to bring murderers and rapists to justice?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. Britain stepped forward, along with other countries, to make sure that we were able to provide airdrops and safe passage on Mount Sinjar, which were critical to support for the Yazidis. Her question has been debated at length in this Chamber and I very much support her views, together with John Kerry and the European Parliament, and this Parliament voted on the matter. However, it is not for us to make those judgments; it is for the International Criminal Court. We are helping to collect the evidence to make sure that when the time is appropriate, we can bring those people to justice.
Does the Minister agree that the money that this country spends supporting refugees in Iraq and Syria can support a far greater number of people far better than attempting to relocate refugees to the UK, and that it is right that the focus of our efforts is to support people in the region?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Yazidis as a group are endogamous and have not grown as much as other groupings in Iraq. They want to stay together and they want to stay in the area. For every one person that we are able to support in the UK, we can support more than 20 people in location—clearly, on a different standard, but it means that our money can go a lot further and we can pride ourselves on being one of the largest supporters in Syria and Iraq.
The Minister has just repeated the arguments he made to the House on 20 April against referring the genocide of the Yazidi people to the UN Security Council, which this House unanimously rejected. The Minister’s arguments have been challenged in the other place, where the noble Lord Pannick QC pointed out that article VIII of the convention on the prevention of genocide explicitly gives the UK Government the power to make such a referral. May I press the Minister to respect the will of this House and refer the matter to the UN Security Council without further delay?
I very much join in the spirit of the hon. Lady’s remarks, but we have to work within the mechanics of such a referral. We took the initiative to bring the situation to the awareness of the International Criminal Court in 2014. Our efforts were vetoed by two permanent members of the Security Council. That will happen again unless we are able to provide the necessary evidence, which is exactly what we are doing. We will hold those people to account, but there is an order and a process that we must honour. I entirely agree with the spirit of what the hon. Lady wants to do.
Middle East: Press Freedom
4. What recent representations he has made to his counterparts in the middle east on press freedom in that region. 
We encourage all countries to respect freedom of the media. On concerns about freedom of expression in the middle east, we clearly set out these concerns in our annual human rights report, which was most recently published in April.
It is now four years since the Saudi writer Raif Badawi was arrested. Earlier this month his wife was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for promoting her husband’s cause around the world. Given that it was British engineers who have extracted Saudi oil and built their roads, and given our massive co-operation on matters of defence and foreign policy, are not people around the world and in this country right to have expected a bit more progress than the Government have obtained so far?
The hon. Gentleman and I have debated these matters, both publicly and privately, for a long time. We have a right, duty and determination to raise those matters both in public and in private, and we make no distinction between the two. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has done that on a number of occasions, as have I. It is for the court in Saudi Arabia to follow its processes, as I have explained to the hon. Gentleman in the past. We must encourage advancement in society in Saudi Arabia, but that will not happen overnight.
While encouraging press freedom, what more can the Foreign Office do to tackle Daesh’s misuse of the internet, to ensure that free speech is not twisted and abused?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, which we have raised in this House on a number of occasions. The tool used by Daesh to exploit others and to reach every home in every corner of the globe—it will also be used by future extremists—is the internet. We need to make sure that we are able to counter those messages. Daesh is sending a false message of hope, promising a fast track to paradise. We have formed the strategic communications cell in the Foreign Office, which is bringing together expertise from around the country and, indeed, the world to make sure that we can counter the Daesh messages, whether they be on Twitter, Facebook or other websites.
What representations has the Minister made to President Erdogan’s Government in Turkey about their action against press freedom and their suspension of parliamentary immunities, which may open opposition MPs to accusations of offences such as insulting the President? Will the Minister confirm that there are no plans to introduce an offence of insulting the Prime Minister and that a country engaged in such anti-democratic activities would not be eligible for European Union membership?
I concur with the right hon. Gentleman’s view that a free and fair media environment makes for a healthier society. We encourage constructive debate, which is a vital component of a fair and functioning society, no matter where it happens. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has raised the right hon. Gentleman’s specific point with the Turkish Government.
On the importance of setting an example, can the Minister conceive of circumstances where, on finding that a Scottish newspaper was to publish some inconvenient information about Libya, a Minister in the last coalition Government would have tried to suppress that edition?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman is wandering down a particular rabbit hole. We never intervene in the media in that manner, unless it is a matter of state security.
Press freedoms are being withdrawn in Turkey. Will the Minister outline the Government’s current position on Turkey’s accession to the EU?
Turkey is covered by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe. If I may, I will ask him to write to my hon. Friend.
Very prudent, especially as the question related to press freedom. It was rather naughty of the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) to seek to divert the Minister from the path of virtue, but he was not so tempted.
Does the Minister agree that press freedom in Turkey has been in decline for many years? Despite the fact that he is not directly responsible for the issue, he must know that President Erdogan has been cracking down on his opponents when they make even the mildest of criticisms of him in the press, and now that the immunity of MPs is being lifted in Turkey, human rights will decline even further.
We do not want to see journalists being intimidated, the internet being blocked or people’s ability to speak freely being interfered with, wherever they are in the world. We will continue to make that case from this place and in our direct communications with those Governments.
Does my hon. Friend share my view that the notable journalist and writer T. E. Lawrence—better known as Lawrence of Arabia—was an exponent of freedom in the middle east? Now that the Government have prevented the export of his robes and dagger, where will the public be able to see them as an inspiration for greater understanding of the middle east and to encourage greater freedom in that part of the world?
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on weaving in an important aspect of our history and making it relevant to this question. He is absolutely right about the importance of saving not only the robe but the dagger for the nation. They will not be leaving the country. The dagger was given to Lawrence of Arabia by Sherif Nasir after Lawrence’s fantastic attack on Aqaba. On his way there—this was glossed over by the media at the time—he accidentally shot his camel, but he continued on another camel and was able to take Aqaba. He later moved to work in the Foreign Office, and I would like the garment—the gown or the robe—and indeed the dagger to be on display in the Foreign Office. I am not sure that we will be successful in that, but I am glad to say that the dagger will stay in the United Kingdom.
We are very glad that the Minister is spending his time in the Foreign Office so profitably and is becoming so learned.
European Migration: Western Balkans
5. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of recent steps to reduce migration to Europe through the western Balkans. 
Since agreement was reached between the EU and Turkey on additional measures to control migration to Europe, we have seen a very significant reduction in the number of migrants arriving in Greece and transiting through the western Balkans.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the root cause of the migration pushing people through the Balkans has been the civil war in Syria? Does he agree that this country must certainly never be part of the Schengen area, which could allow people to be pushed to the UK?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s point. Of course we must not be part of the Schengen area. We will not be part of the Schengen area, and thanks to the special arrangements we have negotiated with the European Union, we are able to enjoy the benefits of membership without being forced to take part in the passport-free area.
I would say to my hon. Friend that although the Syrian civil war was clearly the immediate cause of the flow of refugees that Europe faced, primarily last year, statistics show that about 50% of those arriving in Greece are actually not from Syria or the surrounding area but come from further afield. What started as an exodus from the Syrian civil war and the Daesh occupation has become a wider movement of people.
The measures introduced by our European partners—working with other countries, particularly in the former Yugoslavia —such as the civil protection mechanism are starting to have an impact in the region. What further work can be done to share information through Europol to make sure that we really tackle the scourge of smuggling across eastern and central Europe?
The hon. Gentleman is right: sharing information between European security agencies, intelligence agencies and border police is key to breaking the business model of the smugglers. That is one of the key elements to solving this problem. Such people are being exploited by the organised criminal gangs that are taking their money, often for very little in return, and we need to nail them.
On migration to Europe, there has been a great deal of discussion recently about potential new EU member states. Article 49 of the treaty, which deals with countries applying to join the EU, says:
“The applicant State shall address its application to the Council, which shall act unanimously”.
It is therefore clear that each existing member state has a veto. However, this weekend a serving member of the Government went on national television and denied this. One of the seven principles of public life is:
“Holders of public office should be truthful.”
Will the Foreign Secretary therefore take this opportunity to confirm the correct position, as the Prime Minister has already done on Sunday?
Yes, I am very happy to do so. As we have said ad nauseam, everyone single member state has a veto on the accession of any new member state. In our case, any proposal to expand the European Union would require the approval of this House. I can assure the House that those safeguards remain in place and are undiluted, and all my colleagues in the Government should be fully aware of that situation.
Palestinian Territories: Radicalisation
6. What recent assessment he has made of the extent of radicalisation in the Palestinian Territories. 
I condemn all violence and all efforts to incite or radicalise people to commit violence in the middle east. During my most recent visit to the Occupied Palestinian Territories in February, I raised this issue with the Palestinian Authority and urged them to do more to tackle this issue and make clear their opposition to violence.
Last week, the Fatah party in Palestine described the terrorist who killed 26 people and wounded more than 80 in a shooting attack at a Israel’s main airport in 1972 as a “hero” and said it was
“proud of every fighter who has joined our mighty revolution”
against Israel. Does the Minister agree that the success of the two-state solution that we all want rests upon the Palestinian Authority starting to teach its young people about peaceful coexistence?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about peaceful coexistence. It is important that President Abbas condemn statements such as that when they are made. I have noticed a disjunct between the elderly leadership and the youth, who feel disfranchised and so are taking matters into their own hands. I looked into the particular claim that my hon. Friend has raised; I understand that it was placed on Facebook and so was not attributed to a particular Minister, as has been the case in the past. Nevertheless, it should be condemned and removed, as my hon. Friend indicated.
Does the Minister agree that people’s expectation that they will be able to carry on living in their own homes would not normally be regarded as a sign of radicalisation? He will know that in the past week he has received a number of parliamentary questions from me and others about the fact that more than 90 Palestinian Bedouins, mostly children, have lost their homes in the village of Jabal al-Baba. He has said in his written answers that the Foreign Office condemns that but also that it has not raised that specific case with the Israeli authorities. Is it not time to do so, not least because the demolished structures are EU funded?
I fully concur with the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman has said. I have visited one of the Bedouin camps. I should make it clear that that situation is different from the situation for those based in the occupied Palestinian territories; some are being removed in green line Israel, as well. These people are reliant on farming and so need space, so there is the internal issue of making sure that they are given the same amount of space if there is a requirement for them to be moved.
8. What recent reports he has received on the case of Sombath Somphone in Laos. 
I raised Sombath’s disappearance with Laos’s then Foreign Minister, now Prime Minister, Dr Thongloun Sisoulith, when we opened the new Lao embassy in London in November 2014. Sombath’s disappearance was raised at the annual EU-Laos human rights dialogue in October. We will continue to highlight our interest in this particular case.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. In addition to the disappearance of Sombath, the whereabouts of three students arrested in 1999 and another nine arrested in 2009 are still unknown. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on what the UK is doing more generally about discussions with Laos on human rights?
Indeed I can. We have an annual EU-Laos human rights dialogue; the last one was held in October 2015, and the next is scheduled for the final quarter of 2016. The Laos Government agreed to establish a thorough, transparent and impartial investigation into Sombath’s disappearance following a British recommendation in Laos’s universal periodic review of human rights last year. We will not cease in pursuing this particular case and the others to which my hon. Friend alludes.
9. What recent assessment he has made of progress in the peace process in Yemen. 
The past couple of years have been long and difficult for Yemen, so I very much welcome the cessation of hostilities that began on 10 April and the UN-led talks that began in Kuwait on 21 April.
Yesterday, a suicide bomb in Aden killed 45 people who were trying to join the Yemeni army. What steps can we take to stop that beautiful city in Yemen, where I and other Members of this House were born, being destroyed by the civil war going on between the various forces?
First, I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for raising these matters regularly. He has huge expertise on Yemen, and I am pleased that he is able to hold the Government to account on what we are doing in this important area of the middle east. He is right that events are taking place because hardliners want to throw the talks and the cessation of hostilities off track. We encourage both sides to stay firm in their commitment to a political solution, not least because of the humanitarian catastrophe taking place.
A series of serious allegations were made yesterday by Amnesty International about the alleged use of UK-manufactured cluster munitions against civilians in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition. Did the Minister, or any UK personnel operating in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, have any knowledge that those cluster munitions were being used? If so, what action has been taken?
That is probably more a question for the Ministry of Defence, but from my understanding—my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just confirmed this—we are not at all aware of this. Let me make it clear that the munitions that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned are almost three decades old. They are probably past their sell-by date, and it would be dangerous for anybody to go anywhere near them.
Iran: Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
10. What progress has been made on implementation of the joint comprehensive plan of action with Iran. 
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s most recent report on Iran’s nuclear activities concluded that Iran is complying with its obligations under the JCPOA. We have been working to help British businesses take advantage of new commercial opportunities, and to ensure that Iran benefits from sanctions relief, including seeking to address barriers within the international banking system to both objectives.
Since the signing of the nuclear deal, a religious minority still suffers from systematic persecution. Baha’is and Christians are routinely harassed, arrested and detained, and have received sentences totalling 193 years for simply manifesting their faith. What will the Government do to ensure that the new dawn in relations shines a light on Iran’s human rights abuse of religious freedom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Iran’s human rights record remains shocking, as does its record of interfering in the affairs of its neighbours in the Gulf. The JCPOA, to which he referred, is a narrowly targeted agreement designed to shut down Iran’s capability to produce a nuclear weapon, and it has been effective in delivering that outcome. We will continue to make representations—I spoke with the Iranian Foreign Minister in Vienna only last week on some specific human rights cases that affect dual nationality British citizens, and we will continue to make such representations.
The Foreign Secretary referred to Iran’s interference in the affairs of neighbouring countries, and he mentioned the Gulf. Will he say something about our Government’s attitude to Iran’s interference in other countries in the region, particularly its role in Iraq and in helping Assad in Syria?
The hon. Gentleman is right. Iran is a significant player in the politics of Iraq, although generally not in a way that is helpful, and it is a significant backer of the Assad regime in Syria, with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ground forces taking part in action in defence of the regime. Iran is also a member of the International Syria Support Group, and as such it is incumbent on it, as well as on Russia, to apply pressure on Assad to deliver on the commitments made in the Vienna forum..
11. What assessment he has made of the effect of the recent activities of Hamas in Gaza on the middle east peace process. 
The recent activities of Hamas in Gaza, including attempts to rearm and rebuild tunnel infrastructure, undermine efforts to improve the situation in Gaza and harm prospects for the middle east peace process. Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza must permanently end rocket fire and other attacks against Israel.
In April, two new terror tunnels built by Hamas to launch attacks on Israeli civilians were discovered. Does the Minister believe that Hamas is planning new attacks on Israel?
As I said earlier, I believe that is a worrying development, and we seek to place pressure on Hamas, and all those close to it, to recognise that it will take us back to where we were two years ago, unless there is a direction of travel.
Does the Minister place any significance on the founding charter of Hamas, which is clearly, or to a large extent, a stream of the most visceral anti-Semitism, and even includes approving references to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”?
I have many conversations about that situation and the challenges we face in the middle east, not least in Gaza and the west bank. A number of commentators have said, “You need to speak to Hamas; you need to get them to the table”, but until Hamas changes its constitution, in which it clearly does not recognise the state of Israel, it will be impossible for us to move forward.
Departmental Estate: Rodent Eradication
12. What steps he is taking to eradicate rodents and other vermin in his Department’s Whitehall estate. 
The FCO facilities management contract covers pest control activities. However, the continued presence of mice in the FCO main building has given my officials “paws” for thought. After careful consideration, we appointed Palmerston the cat last month as chief mouser to the FCO to complement the work of our contractor. I am pleased to report to the House that he has settled in “purr-fectly” and is performing his duties more than satisfactorily.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on following my excellent example in Speaker’s House, where for five years we have had a first-class cat who has done the necessary. Its name, of course, is Order. [Laughter.]
I am sure the whole House will welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, and also the arrival of Palmerston, the FCO’s rodent killer, but there is a serious point here. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether Palmerston has been security cleared or not? He may recall that the Chancellor’s cat, Freya, had access to the Foreign Office and No. 10 Downing Street, and it was thought that she might have been “got at” by a foreign power. May I ask him: has Palmerston been positively vetted by the security service and scanned for bugs by GCHQ? Can my right hon. Friend assure the House, and the more paranoid element of the Brexiters, of Palmerston’s British provenance and that he is not a long-term mole working for the EU Commission?
He is definitely not a mole and I can “cat-egorically” assure my right hon. Friend that Palmerston has been regularly vetted. As for being a sleeper, he is definitely a sleeper—I am told very often in my office. But unlike Freya, who went missing for two years, his attendance record has been 100%. My experts tell me that that pretty much rules out the possibility of him being a Commission employee. I should also tell the House that while Palmerston has so far caught only three mice, his Twitter account, “Diplomog” has attracted 8,158 followers, with a rate of growth that implies he will overtake me by the summer recess.
Egypt: Human Rights
13. What discussions he has had with his Egyptian counterpart on the human rights situation in that country. 
Ministers and senior officials regularly raise human rights concerns with our Egyptian counterparts. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister discussed these issues with President Sisi during his visit to the UK in November. I regularly raise our concerns with the Egyptian ambassador, most recently on 17 May.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish national who has been in custody now for 1,000 days, faces a possible death penalty for being caught up in a pro-democracy demonstration. He is just one person in a concerted crackdown by Egyptian authorities against those who defend human rights. Will the Minister make every effort, when speaking to the Egyptian Government, to impress on them the view that we hold, which is that this is unacceptable?
If I may, Mr Speaker, I would like to pay my condolences on the loss of aircraft EgyptAir MS804, yet another disaster for Egypt. The whole House will want to share their thoughts and prayers.
Tourism is very important for Egypt. The right hon. Gentleman touches on freedom of expression, and people will be watching Egypt carefully. I raised the matter of Ahmed Abdullah when I met the ambassador on 17 May. I will continue to press for greater freedom of expression in Egypt.
I share the condolences expressed by the Minister.
Human rights in Egypt are deteriorating rapidly. Giulio Regeni, a Cambridge University student, was tortured and killed in Egypt while conducting academic research. This happened during the British-Egyptian year of academic co-operation. Does the Minister accept that killing an academic marks a fundamental attack on academic freedom? Will the Minister explain why the murder of a British-based academic was not raised by the Prime Minister’s special envoy on a visit to specifically discuss academic co-operation?
We debated these matters in detail in a very productive Westminster Hall debate. The hon. Lady will be aware, as will the House, that Giulio Regeni was an Italian citizen and that therefore it is appropriate and right that the Italians take the lead. We have worked closely with, and provided support to, the Italians as they have pursued the matter, however, and have raised it with Egyptian officials as well.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
My priorities for 2016 are the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, managing our relations with Russia and seeking to protect the rules-based international system, as well as, of course, ensuring Britain’s continued membership of, and leadership in, the EU.
Last year, after the Prime Minister’s historic visit to Jaffna, the UN Human Rights Council passed a consensual resolution on accountability and reconciliation, following the atrocities at the end of the Sir Lankan civil war. When the resolution comes back before the UN in June, will our Government do whatever they can to ensure that Sri Lanka lives up to its promises? Progress to date has been slow to non-existent.
I start by offering my heartfelt condolences to the people of Sri Lanka affected by the terrible floods and landslides that have hit so much of the country. I expressed that message personally to Foreign Minister Samaraweera last week.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will give his assessment of progress at the next meeting of the UNHRC in Geneva in June. Before then, I myself will visit Geneva to discuss with him how we can encourage and support the Government to deliver fully against their commitments. We recognise that there is still much more to be done, and the UK will continue to support and encourage the Sri Lankan Government to deliver fully against their commitments.
Amnesty International reported this week that unexploded British-made BL-755 cluster submunitions have been found in Hayran, Yemen. We know what these weapons can do, especially to children, who mistake them for toys. Amnesty also reports that on 1 March two children near the village of Fard were herding goats when they found some other cluster bomblets. They played with them until one went off, killing the eight-year-old and severely injuring the 11-year-old. Does the Foreign Secretary regard the use of cluster bombs in civilian areas as a breach of international humanitarian law?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the UK has long since given up the use of cluster munitions. Their use or supply is illegal under British law. As the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said earlier, the weapons described were manufactured decades ago, but the Ministry of Defence is urgently investigating the allegations, and I believe there will be an urgent question on this subject shortly.
I am grateful for that reply. As the House knows, we are a signatory to the convention banning the use of cluster munitions, but sadly Saudi Arabia is not. It is alleged that this particular type of BL-755 was designed to be dropped from one specific jet—the UK-manufactured Tornado used by the Saudi air force. Under the cluster munitions convention, member states should
“make…best efforts to discourage States not party to this Convention from using cluster munitions.”
What steps has the right hon. Gentleman taken to discourage the use of British-made cluster munitions mounted on British-made jets by Saudi Arabia—an ally with which we have extensive military co-operation—and will he now commit to suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia and to making the strongest possible representations that it must cease the use of cluster munitions in this conflict?
We need to be careful. There is no evidence yet that Saudi Arabia has used cluster munitions. The right hon. Gentleman is right that Saudi Arabia is not a signatory to the convention banning cluster munitions, but nor is the United States. We have always made it clear to the Saudi Arabians that we cannot support the use of cluster munitions in any circumstances, as to do so would be unlawful for Ministers and officials in this country. We believe we have an assurance from Saudi Arabia that cluster munitions have not been used in the conflict, but as I said earlier, the MOD is urgently investigating the allegations. I am sure that my ministerial colleague will have more to say in response to the UQ.
T3. What specific commitments can the Government make to support Burundian civil society organisations in their peace-building efforts in light of the need to foster and strengthen social cohesion among Burundian communities from conflicting political, ethnic and social groups? 
Through the conflict, stability and security fund, we are seeking to reduce the impunity and address the causes of conflict. We are working with the Burundians in general and with the international community, the country’s human rights commission, the truth and reconciliation commission and the court system. I met human rights organisations in private in Bujumbura in December to hear their detailed concerns, and I addressed the UN Security Council in March. I am pleased to report that the Arusha talks have now started under the chairmanship of former Tanzanian President Mkapa. I look forward to hearing reports about how they are going.
T2. Last year, Nepal suffered a major earthquake, which badly injured the country’s spirit. In the meantime, the world has contributed hugely to rebuild the nation. At the same time, Nepal has adopted a new constitution. What support have the Government given to Nepal to help with the implementation of its new constitution? 
The February amendments to the constitution were a significant moment for Nepal, as I think the hon. Gentleman would agree, and a step towards resolving long-standing differences. We continue to encourage peaceful dialogue and compromise to reach a political situation that meets the concerns of all Nepali citizens. I discussed this most recently with Nepal’s deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kamal Thapa, in London on 27 April.
T6. What assessment has the Minister for Africa made of the International Monetary Fund’s regional economic outlook and the opportunity of the result to tackle extremism in the region? 
As a region, sub-Saharan Africa has seen uninterrupted economic growth over the last 20 years. The IMF regional economic outlook for sub-Saharan Africa projects a growth rate of 3% on average across the continent. Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Senegal are all expecting to grow well in excess of double that figure, with the Ivory Coast growing from 8% to a potentially staggering 10% growth annually. Africa clearly continues to offer some great investment opportunities for UK business.
T4. What recent representations has the Minister made to his counterparts in the Nigerian Government on the continued detention of the British citizen Nnamdi Kanu of the indigenous people of Biafra? Is the Minister confident that Nnamdi is receiving all his rights under international law? 
I have continued representations with the Nigerian Government on Biafran and other issues and I will continue to do so. I have met a series of Members of Parliament who have constituency interests in Biafra, and I am happy to continue to do so. The British Government recognise Nigeria as a geographic area that holds together as one country, not as separate countries.
T7. The 26th of June will mark one year since the attack on holiday makers on the beach at Sousse, resulting in the loss of 38 lives, with 39 people wounded. What is the Minister doing to assist families in marking this anniversary in peace? What are the Government doing to assist the Tunisian Government in promoting security and the country’s economy? 
My hon. Friend is right to raise the devastating impact of this attack on the Tunisian economy. We are working very closely to provide support to the country’s policing in order to secure its borders. We are doing all we can to support the Britons affected by the bombs—whether it be the families of the bereaved, those who were injured in the attack or even those who saw what happened and need psychological support. We held a commemoration service in April.
As “Project Fear” reaches dizzy new heights, the Prime Minister and certain members of this Government are making clear on a daily basis the potentially disastrous consequences of Scotland and the UK leaving the EU. Given that, will the Secretary of State confirm why this Government have taken our country into such a precarious position?
If the hon. Lady is asking why we are holding a referendum, it is because the British people are entitled to have their say on this important issue. For 40 years, their voice has been ignored, and because we have a Conservative Government, they will now have their say on 23 June. I hope that we politicians will listen to what they say and will accept their verdict.
T8. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the Philippines, may I ask my right hon. Friend to join me in congratulating President Rodrigo Duterte on his victory, wishing him well, and finding a mutually convenient time to meet him? 
I congratulate the Filipinos on their vibrant show of democracy. Mayor Duterte has received a strong mandate from the electorate, who want greater prosperity and security in the years ahead. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited the Philippines in January, and plans for further ministerial visits will be made after the new Government take office on 30 June.
Can the Secretary of State tell us how remaining in the European Union gives us stronger control in finding solutions to issues such as population migration, which are often caused by conflict and the results of climate change?
Working with our partners in the European Union on such complex and long-term issues clearly reinforces our ability to have effect. In my nearly two years as Foreign Secretary, I have visited more than 70 countries in six continents, and in none of those countries has anyone ever suggested to me that Britain’s voice would be more influential if we were outside the European Union. Quite the opposite: being in the European Union means that our influence is augmented, not diminished.
T9. In 2010, the Prime Minister said: “I am here to make the case for Turkey’s membership of the European Union and to fight for it.” In 2014, he said: “In terms of Turkish membership of the EU, I very much support that.”Is the Foreign Secretary really claiming that we should take it from those words that the Government intend to veto Turkey’s accession to the EU—and, if there is no remote prospect of its joining the EU, why is so much taxpayers’ money being spent on preparing it for accession? 
Turkey applied to join the European Union in 1987, and, as the Prime Minister observed—I think—yesterday, given the current rate of progress it will be decades, if not longer, before it gets anywhere near EU membership. However, there is a benefit for us in seeing Turkey on a European-facing path, and thus under pressure to improve human rights and compliance with the rule of law. If we do not keep that path open, we shall not have that leverage.
Ultimately, though, we have a veto. [Interruption.] We have a veto over the terms and conditions on which any applicant country is able to join the European Union, and we have made it absolutely clear that there can be no question of further accessions and access to free movement within the European Union until an applicant country has reached the average level of GDP per capita across the European Union. That means no more poverty gradient in the EU. [Interruption.]
I think we all know that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) cannot be vetoed. He never has been, and he never will be.
Earlier questions have referred to the middle east, and to deploring extremism wherever it may be found. Is it not a matter of grave concern that the new Israeli Defence Minister is extremely right-wing and ultra-nationalist? He said last year that what he described as “disloyal” Israeli Arabs should be beheaded. Does that not illustrate how far the Israeli Government have gone in their extremism and their rejection of any idea of a two-state solution, and should that not be condemned?
It is a matter of grave concern. The polarisation of views in Israel/Palestine makes it less likely that we shall be able to achieve the two-state solution that the House and most of the world so ardently crave, and harder for us to do so.
In answer to a written parliamentary question from me, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury reported that on 16 January £657 million of frozen Iranian assets had been unfrozen, and therefore returned to Iran or Iranian citizens. What are the Government doing to monitor those funds and ensure that they are spent correctly, rather than being handed over to terrorists or funding action against British troops?
My hon. Friend asks two separate questions. First, we are committed to the unfreezing of Iranian assets. Some who were opposed to the joint comprehensive plan of action—JCPOA—agreement with Iran suggested that up to $150 billion would flow back to Iran in short order, but to date we think that the process has managed to achieve about $11 billion. Secondly, there are of course international agreements in place to monitor and prevent money laundering and the financing of terrorist organisations, and those apply to Iran as much as to any other country.
What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the growing violations of press freedom in Tunisia?
As I said earlier, Tunisia is going through a difficult period at the moment. It has been subjected to a number of terrorist attacks and attempted attacks. We have almost doubled the size of our embassy there, and we are doing our best to ensure that we provide support during this difficult period. I would be happy to discuss in more detail some of the challenges relating to freedom of the press with the hon. Lady outside the Chamber.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but we must now move on.
Yemen: Cluster Munitions
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on reports of new evidence that UK-manufactured cluster bombs may have killed and injured civilians, including children, in the conflict in Yemen.
The United Kingdom last provided BL755 cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia nearly 30 years ago; the final delivery was in 1989. We ratified the convention on cluster munitions on 4 May 2010 and we no longer supply, maintain or support these weapons. We have not done so since we signed the convention in 2008. Based on all the information available to us, including sensitive coalition operational reporting, we assess that no UK-supplied cluster weapons have been used, and that no UK-supplied aircraft have been involved in the use of UK cluster weapons, in the current conflict in Yemen.
We are aware of reports of the alleged use of cluster munitions by the coalition in Yemen. We have raised their use during the current conflict in Yemen several times with the Saudi Arabian authorities and, in line with our obligations under the convention on cluster munitions, we continue to encourage Saudi Arabia, as a non-party to the convention, to accede to it. The Saudis have previously denied using UK cluster munitions during the conflict in Yemen, but we are seeking fresh assurances in the light of this serious new allegation.
Amnesty International yesterday sent a letter to the Prime Minister calling for an urgent investigation into the scandal of UK-supplied BL-755 cluster bombs being used in villages in northern Yemen. Amnesty stated:
“During recent field research in Sa’da, Hajjah, and Sanaa governorates near the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border, Amnesty found a partially-exploded UK-manufactured “BL-755” cluster bomb, as well as other evidence of US and Brazilian cluster munitions which had been used by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces.”
I note the Minister’s remarks, but the discovery of the cluster bomb—originally manufactured in the UK in the 1970s—is clear evidence that, as has long been suspected, members of the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition have used British cluster munitions in their highly controversial attacks in Yemen.
The European Parliament voted in February by a large majority for an EU-wide ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, citing the “disastrous humanitarian situation” as a result of the
“Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen”.
Further to this, under a 2008 code of conduct, EU member states promised not to sell weapons to countries where they might be used to
“commit serious violations of international humanitarian law and to undermine regional peace, security and stability”.
With that in mind, will the UK Government now finally suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and properly investigate the issues raised by Amnesty International? Will the Secretary of State now confirm that the Government will keep their commitment to the EU not to export in these tragic circumstances? Finally, will he now apologise to the House for this Government’s continued inaction on this vital matter, given that the continued use of British bombs has resulted in the deaths of Yemeni men, women and children?
The Government recognise the seriousness of the allegation and have therefore requested that the Saudi authorities reconfirm any evidence suggesting that UK munitions have been involved in the way alleged. We have no evidence of that at present. As I have said already, we have not supplied any such munitions for a long time. There have been seven conflicts in the border area between Saudi Arabia and northern Yemen over the past decade, and it is unclear from the evidence provided thus far that the munitions came from the current conflict.
As for the other issues mentioned by the hon. Lady, we have been clear that the role of the United Kingdom’s advisors to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s armed forces in this conflict is not operational. We welcome the ceasefire and the negotiations that are under way and have been for the past six weeks or so. We want them to be successful so that the cessation of hostilities continues to result in no further conflict in Yemen.
I am the Government’s special envoy to Yemen and have been there many times over a period of 30 years. I have more recently been to Saudi Arabia, where the Yemeni Government are based. I have also been to the operational targeting headquarters of the Saudi-led coalition and have seen for myself the high professional standards being set by that operation. Notwithstanding the passion of the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), which I think it is fair to say is driven much more by non-governmental organisation briefing than by any kind of personal experience—
It is not at all insulting to suggest that experience of the country matters. I make a plea to the hon. Lady: would it not be wise for the House to appreciate that the current cessation of hostilities and the peace talks in Kuwait are in an absolutely critical phase? The future of the country entirely depends on the talks, so it would also be wise not to inflame any kind of opinion that could jeopardise those talks, empowering those who would rather them fail than succeed.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who speaks with considerable experience on matters Yemeni as the Prime Minister’s envoy to the country, which he visits, along with its neighbours, more often than most other Members. I gently remind Opposition Members who are rightly concerned about the impact of certain munitions in this conflict that, were it not for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia establishing the coalition following UN resolution 2216, it is highly likely that Yemen would have been entirely overrun and would be in a state of continuous chaos.
We have all read the reports from Yemen in recent days of cluster bombs in such volumes in civilian areas that they are hanging off the trees, and of young children herding goats and picking up the bombs, thinking they are toys, with all-too-familiar results. Anyone who read those reports will be asking questions today and will be rightly concerned about the Minister’s lack of answers.
We need to know whether the Saudi military has used British planes to drop cluster bombs. What is the extent of British involvement in the conflict, and what precisely is it designed to achieve? Today’s Los Angeles Times reports a US State Department official as having said that the United States has reminded Saudi Arabia of its obligations regarding the use of cluster bombs and encouraged it
“to do its utmost to avoid civilian casualties”.
Will the Minister confirm whether he has also raised such concerns with his Saudi counterparts? What response has he received? In the face of all the mounting evidence, we have the absurd spectacle of the Saudi spokesman, Brigadier General Ahmed Asseri, insisting that the coalition is not using cluster bombs. Does the Minister believe the brigadier general? If not, what is he going to do about it, and when?
We regard the reports as serious. We are seeking to investigate, through our discussions with the Saudis, any further evidence to substantiate the allegations that have been made. I can categorically reassure the hon. Lady and this House that no British planes have been involved in this coalition effort at all, let alone in dropping cluster munitions—that is the potential allegation. There is no British involvement in the coalition in targeting or weaponising aircraft to undertake missions.
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who deals with the middle east, was in Doha yesterday, where he met the United Nations envoy for Yemen. He has impressed upon him the need to continue with the delicate negotiations under way in Yemen.
The Secretary of State and Ministers will be aware of the inquiry being held by the Committees on Arms Export Controls, on the conflict in Yemen. Will the Minister commit to submitting further evidence, not least evidence on cluster bombs and evidence from Saudi Arabia, to the Committees as soon as it becomes available?
I joined other Ministers in appearing before my hon. Friend’s Committee recently—a novel experience that I hope was satisfactory to its members. I am happy to undertake that, should we receive further evidence as a result of our inquiries into the use of cluster munitions, we will provide it to the Committees.
This Government have truly got their head stuck in the sand. Yemen faces one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, yet through their continuing sale of arms to Saudi Arabia the UK Government are exacerbating the plight of the Yemeni people. The Scottish National party’s alternative Queen’s Speech called for a regulation of weapons trading Bill, which would seek to regulate the arms treaties that the UK Government might sign. That is the right and transparent approach to such deals, which the UK Government must follow. Does the Minister agree that it is a disgrace that since this Prime Minister took office in 2010 the UK Government have licensed £6.7 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia, including £2.8 billion since the bombing of Yemen began in March last year? Is our arms trade with Saudi Arabia worth so much more than the thousands of men, women and children involved in and dying in this terrible conflict? This Government have questions to answer, with evidence mounting that they have breached international law. When will a full inquiry get under way?
I ask the hon. Lady to consider her last remarks. There is no suggestion—none whatsoever—that the United Kingdom or our forces are involved in breaches of humanitarian law in this conflict. The humanitarian aid provided by this country to refugees as a result of the crisis in Yemen is second in the ranking of countries around the world. We have a proud record of supporting the humanitarian cause of people disturbed by this crisis. As she will probably be aware, the UN estimates that some one fifth of people in need around the world as a result of conflict are in Yemen. We are committed to supporting a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
Arms exports to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in recent years have primarily been about providing capability to cope with incursion by foreign powers. These exports support the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the anti-Daesh coalition, in which they play a vital role. The hon. Lady has to look at the challenges in the round in the region and at the role that Saudi Arabia plays in providing continued security to the region.
I am sure the Minister would agree that when looking at the Arabian peninsula we sometimes have to be careful what we wish for, as even more conservative forces could replace some of the Governments and some of the organisations there. Without intervention, we would have seen a collapse in Yemen that would have endangered our entire security. Does he agree that this latest incident and the latest allegations show the importance of all nations signing up to the cluster munitions legislation, as the UK already has?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out that this is a very volatile country that has played host to a number of international terrorist organisations, including al-Qaeda. I agree that it is desirable for more countries to sign up to the convention on cluster munitions. We have encouraged our friends in Saudi Arabia to do so on several occasions.
Doubts have been cast on the validity of the evidence produced by Amnesty and others, but I and other hon. Members have seen a series of photographs and evidence that suggest that cluster munitions are being used in Yemen. Amnesty has told us that it was impossible to obtain more information because three of the de-miners were killed in a cluster munitions incident while carrying out their work, which itself suggests that cluster munitions are being used. Will the Minister explain whether he has seen all the evidence from Amnesty? Will he commit to reviewing it independently, and not just relying on Saudi assurances?
Has the Minister had any answers to the series of other serious allegations that have been made not just by Amnesty, but by Oxfam, Médecins sans Frontières, Human Rights Watch and other organisations about attacks on civilians and humanitarian facilities, which the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), admitted he had not had satisfactory answers to when he appeared before the Committees on Arms Export Controls?
I am not casting doubt on the photographic evidence. The challenge is to determine where and when the munitions were laid, and by whom. There is very little evidence at this point. We are taking this matter up with the Saudi authorities. We are particularly concerned about the potential evidence of any UK munitions that might have been used in this way. As I have indicated, if we find any evidence, we will pass it on to the Committees on Arms Export Controls, on which the hon. Gentleman sits. In relation to the questions that he posed to me and the other people who appeared before the Committees the other day about the extent of the investigations into other matters that we are reviewing and on which we are seeking information from the Saudi authorities, I am not aware that any further information has been forthcoming since we met the Committees a couple of weeks ago.
May I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh)? This is a very serious matter and I am glad that there will be an investigation of the serious allegations that have been made by Amnesty International.
We are involved in Yemen because we are peacemakers: we want to see peace restored to a country that is bleeding to death because of the involvement of so many countries. Of course, we needed the support of the Saudi Arabians to restore the legitimate Government of President Hadi because of the actions of the Iranians. However, it is important that they now stop and support the ceasefire. These kinds of allegations undermine the work that has been done by the coalition. Will the Minister ensure that the Saudi Arabian ambassador is called to see the Foreign Office Minister so that we can reinforce the message that these kinds of allegations undermine the peace process, which we need to make sure is maintained?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who has taken a consistent interest in Yemen for many years, for pointing out that the coalition effort in Yemen began at the invitation of President Saleh—
Sorry, President Hadi. It is therefore a fully legitimised operation. The right hon. Gentleman is right that the primary aim of the efforts of the United Kingdom Government is to ensure that peace is restored to the country. To that end, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), meets the Saudi ambassador routinely. He last saw him last week and continually impresses upon him the importance of the negotiations in Kuwait. We are seeking to assist those negotiations to the extent that we can.
In his earlier reply, the Minister mentioned that we have not supplied munitions for a long time. Will he clarify the date when we last supplied munitions?
In my response to the urgent question, I made it clear that 1989 was the last time we supplied any BL-755 munitions.
The Government are digging a very deep hole for themselves. I have exchanged many letters with Ministers on this subject and have been informed that the UK Government have concluded that the
“Saudi-led Coalition are not targeting civilians”
in Yemen. How can the Government draw that conclusion when the Saudis have stated that whole cities—Sa’dah, where UN Security Council experts identified that hospitals, schools and mosques had been attacked, and Marran—are military targets; when the Saudis are apparently using UK-made cluster munitions; and when 93% of the casualties from air-launched explosives are civilians, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs? Will the Government finally acquire a backbone, accept that Saudi Arabia is in flagrant breach of international humanitarian law and halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia until it cleans up its act?
This is a civil war and in civil wars, difficult things happen. This is a very complex environment. Actors use whatever is available to them, in respect of the terrain that is there, to adopt positions. It is not a nice, straightforward, clinical exercise like a training event. Therefore, accidents do happen. As a result of our relationship with the Saudi Arabian armed forces, we are in a position to exert some influence on the coalition and, in particular, its leadership in respect of investigating accidents when they occur and allegations of incidents such as those that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned. We are putting that pressure on the Saudis and they have given us undertakings that they are undertaking those investigations, and we are awaiting the outcome.
Thanks to a Labour Government, we have the Export Control Act 2002, which provides this country with a robust mechanism for arms exports not just to Saudi Arabia, but to other nations around the world. Will the Minister tell the House what pressure is being put on the Iranians to stop not only exporting weapons to rebels, but using them as a direct threat to Saudi Arabia?
The hon. Gentleman, who is experienced in these matters, will be aware of the coalition’s efforts to intercept matériel that foreign Governments, in particular Iran, are seeking to supply to rebels through the waters surrounding Yemen. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs met the Iranian chargé d’affaires last week to raise that specific issue. We will continue to put diplomatic pressure on the Iranians to cease their support for the rebels.
I, too, thank the Minister for his response. Along with the Chair of the Defence Committee, I attended the Committees on Arms Export Controls, where there was a robust exchange of views, as the Minister will recall. The use of British-produced cluster bombs was mentioned in that evidence session, and he has referred to that. In his response to the Committees, the Minister stated that if evidence was produced of British-produced cluster bombs being used, there would be sanctions and the Government would stop arms exports to Saudi Arabia. More evidence has been produced today and I ask the Minister the same thing. Will we take action today to ensure that the exports to Saudi Arabia stop, because the evidence clearly shows the use of British-produced cluster bombs?
Again, the hon. Gentleman has taken a consistent interest in this subject and plays an important role on the Committees. I repeat what I said to the Committees, which is that we at the Ministry of Defence provide advice to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is the entity within the UK Government that provides arms export licences. Our advice will be shaped by the circumstances at the time. At present, we have an allegation of the use of a UK munition. Until such time as we have established whether that munition has been used by a member of the coalition as part of the current conflict, we will not be in a position to speculate on what might happen to future licence applications.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to have a detailed investigation of exactly what was dropped and when, because we all know that munitions can come to light many years after conflicts? For example, we are still finding bombs from the second world war in Britain. Does he agree that such an investigation is also important because this is a close ally acting in self-defence of a Government that are entitled to run the country? It is therefore not a straight matter of condemnation.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for pointing out that munitions have quite a long shelf life. As I indicated, it is quite possible that the munitions that are the subject of this allegation are a relic of previous conflicts in the area, of which there have been seven over the past 10 years.
Britain was right to join other countries in banning cluster bombs. It is clear that, in this matter, Saudi Arabia has questions to answer, and the Minister has mentioned several times the representations the Government have made to the Saudi Arabians. Will he help me by explaining what work he is doing alongside other countries in multilateral institutions to bring the Saudi Arabians into the consensus against cluster bombs?
As a signatory to the convention, we encourage non-signatories with which we have close military relations to consider acceding to the terms of the convention or joining it themselves. Through our offices at the UN, there are periodic dialogues with countries that are not, as yet, signatories to the convention, and we will continue to support those discussions.
My hon. Friend mentioned the investigations the Saudi Government have agreed to undertake into strikes in civilian areas. Could he give us a timetable for when he expects to hear the result of those investigations?
We are looking at all the allegations made by the various bodies mentioned in the Chamber, and we have the opportunity to indicate to the Saudi military that these incidents are worthy of investigation. This is an ongoing process, and we have had opportunities to encourage the Saudis to speed up their investigations. However, at this point, I am afraid that I cannot put a timetable on it.
It is clear that these munitions are old, but they are falling now, and they are affecting families and others living in Yemen. Does the Minister not agree that the Government have a responsibility—certainly a moral responsibility—to provide training and resources to the services on the ground in Yemen that are trying to de-mine these areas so that people can live in safety without having to fear for their children’s lives?
The hon. Lady referred to munitions falling. We do not know at this point when, where or how the munitions referred to in the allegations were delivered. It is that kind of information that will help to inform the investigation and what is then done about it. In relation to clearing up the munitions that clearly do exist in northern Yemen, we are supporting a number of non-governmental organisations by providing resource and training to encourage them to undertake this very important work.
I earnestly hope that the hon. Lady was here at the start of the statement.
That is good enough for me.
Following on from the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), will the Minister tell me what happened to the existing UK-manufactured cluster bombs when the UK signed the convention on cluster munitions?
I can help my hon. Friend. The last munitions were supplied to Saudi Arabia in 1989. The convention was signed in 2008; at that point, although it did not come into effect until May 2010, we ceased supplying or supporting those weapons any further.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) on bringing the Minister to the Dispatch Box to answer this urgent question. The fact that these cluster munitions seem to have been modelled and designed in the 1970s underlines the historical defence relationship between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Over that time, possibly thousands of UK personnel have found themselves advising the Saudi Arabian armed forces or leaving the United Kingdom services to take up a role in the Saudi Arabian armed services. How confident, therefore, are the Government that no UK citizen has been involved in targeting, firing or maintaining these illegal weapons while in the service of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?
Once again, we have Ministers prepared to present the Saudi wolf in a sheepdog’s clothing. Today, we have been given a pub crawl of excusery. We have been told that the weapons were old or that there was no evidence of any cluster munitions having been used by the Saudi-led coalition. Then we were told that there was no evidence they were British manufactured. Then the Minister told us that he was concerned and that he would try to get evidence. Rather than just asking the Saudis what they have done, will the Government contact the Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre, which actually recovered the matériel we are talking about and has it in a de-mining depot, and look at the same evidence that Amnesty International has examined?
I would gently remind the hon. Gentleman that we are not members of this coalition. We do not have locus in Yemen to undertake direct investigations ourselves. What we are talking about are alleged violations of international humanitarian law. The correct procedure when an incident has been brought to the attention of members of the coalition is for them to undertake the investigation itself. We are able to encourage and stimulate them to undertake that investigation, because there is a long-standing relationship between our respective armed forces. That is what we are doing, and that is the right way to proceed.
If these reports are not enough, under what circumstances would the Government actually suspend sales of arms to Saudi Arabia?
This is an allegation. There are a number of allegations of potential violations of international humanitarian law. If investigations lead to clear evidence, that evidence will have to be taken into account whenever an arms export licence is presented and where that information is relevant.
The shocking statistics referred to a few moments ago make it clear that the deaths of civilians in Yemen are not an isolated, unfortunate accident. The Saudis are, at best, being recklessly indiscriminate; at worst, they are deliberately setting out to kill civilians. Does the Minister agree that we should not hide behind the assertion that we cannot prove that British weapons have been used in this act of mass murder? Does he agree that the only way to ensure that they are not used in this way is to call an immediate halt to all arms sales to Saudi Arabia until the allegations have been proven unfounded, rather than to wait for the allegations to be proven correct?
Such a call would, of course, have no impact on the use of weapons that have already been supplied, so it would not achieve what the hon. Gentleman looks to do. The answer is that we are using our influence on the Saudi Arabians to encourage them to undertake investigations in circumstances where there has been conflict on the ground. This has been a war environment; difficult things happen in wars, and it is not possible to be absolutely certain about everything that takes place in such an environment. That is why it is important to investigate these allegations of actions that appear to be in breach of international humanitarian law.
The Minister said that no UK-made planes had dropped UK-made cluster bombs. [Hon. Members: “UK planes.”] Sorry, UK planes. Just to be clear, will he confirm whether UK planes have dropped any cluster bombs at all?
There are no UK Royal Air Force planes involved in the coalition, and there are no cluster munitions in the arsenal of the British armed forces.
Given the grave concerns raised, will the UK Government now heed the recommendation of the International Development Committee and back the establishment of an independent investigation into alleged breaches of humanitarian law in Yemen?
There is a clear process under which the Saudis, as leaders of the coalition, undertake the investigation. That is a novel aspect of this conflict. The Saudis have not done that before in previous conflicts in which they have been engaged. We think that that is appropriate, as do all other nations.
Counter-Daesh Quarterly Update
With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to update the House on the counter-Daesh campaign following the December and February statements by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the International Development Secretary. Since then, the attacks in Brussels in March have reminded us of the importance of defeating this terror. Since the decisive vote to extend air strikes to Syria, we have stepped up our air campaign, and today I want to set out the United Kingdom’s contribution to military operations and our wider efforts to defeat Daesh.
We now have 1,100 military personnel in the region on this campaign. I know the House will want to join me in paying tribute to them and to their families who are not with them. The RAF has conducted over 760 airstrikes in Iraq and, since December, 43 in Syria—more than any nation except the United States. As well as providing close air support, we have been targeting Daesh’s communications, command and control, and infrastructure, and also providing crucial intelligence and surveillance. In Iraq, we have over 250 troops who have trained more than 13,000 members of the Iraqi security forces, mainly in countering improvised explosive devices. The extra troops I announced in March have now started to deploy—22 Engineer Regiment from Wiltshire is providing bridge building training, while the MOD hospital unit from Northallerton is providing medical expertise.
The military campaign is making progress. In Iraq, Daesh is on the back foot: it has lost territory, its finances have been targeted, and its leadership has been struck. About 40% of the territory that Daesh once held has been retaken, including Ramadi; last month, Hit; and, more recently, Rutbah. Preparatory operations for the encirclement of Mosul are under way and, at the weekend, Prime Minister Abadi announced the beginning of the operation to retake Fallujah.
In Syria, the civil war, the persistence of Daesh, and Russia’s intervention have created a more complex situation. Despite the so-called cessation of hostilities, the regime has continued to hammer the moderate opposition. In Aleppo, hospitals and schools have been repeatedly shelled. On 4 May, the United Kingdom called an urgent session of the UN Security Council to highlight the regime’s atrocities. Russia, the Assad regime’s protector, must apply pressure to end this violence. None the less, even in Syria, Daesh has lost ground and has been driven from al-Shaddadi—a major supply route from Mosul to Raqqa. Coalition airstrikes have destroyed an estimated $800 million-worth of Daesh cash stockpiles, while the RAF has struck oilfields in eastern Syria—a major source of revenue. We need to build on this progress. Earlier this month, I and other coalition Defence Ministers reviewed what further support we can offer, and we are looking at what more the UK can do.
Daesh cannot be defeated by military means alone. That brings me to the wider strategy. First, on counter-ideology, the UK has led the creation of a coalition communications cell to undermine Daesh’s failing proposition that it is winning militarily, that it is building a viable state, and that it represents the only true form of Islam. Some in the media have criticised our proactive efforts to discredit Daesh’s perverted ideology. I say to the House that we make no apology for seeking to stop people being radicalised and stop them becoming Daesh suicide bombers or foot soldiers.
Secondly, we are supporting political reform and reconciliation in Iraq, and the ending of the civil war in Syria and the transition of Assad from power. We are helping to stabilise areas liberated from Daesh so that people can return to a safe environment. We have contributed to UN-led efforts to remove IEDs, to increase water availability to above pre-conflict levels in Tikrit, and to rebuild schools, police stations and electricity generators across Anbar and Nineveh provinces.
In Syria, long-term success means a political settlement which delivers a Government who can represent all Syrians and with whom we can work to tackle Daesh. Last week, the International Syria Support Group reaffirmed its determination to strengthen the cessation of hostilities, and set a deadline of 1 June for full humanitarian access to besieged areas. It is concerning that despite this agreement, attacks have continued, and that armed groups are on the brink of withdrawal from the cessation. We support the UN special envoy in his efforts to resume Syrian peace negotiations, the success of which depends on respect for the cessation of hostilities, humanitarian access, and discussion of transition by both sides.
Thirdly, the UK is playing a full role, alongside our partners, in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Syria. At the London conference, we doubled our commitment to Syria and the region to £2.3 billion, which has already delivered over 20 million food rations and relief items for over 4.5 million people—but there remain 13.5 million people in need inside Syria. The regime continues to remove vital medical supplies from aid convoys, in violation of international law. It is outrageous that aid itself has become a weapon of war.
Fourthly, we are stemming the flow of foreign fighters through better international co-ordination. At least 50 countries now pass fighter profiles to Interpol—a 400% increase over two years. We estimate that the number of foreign fighters joining Daesh has now fallen to about 200 a month from its peak of about 2,000 a month.
As Daesh is squeezed in Iraq and Syria, we have seen new branches appear, most concerningly in Libya. The Foreign Secretary visited Tripoli last month to reiterate our support for Prime Minister al-Sarraj. Yesterday I spoke to the new Libyan Defence Minister to repeat our offer of assistance to the new Government of national accord. Last Monday, the international community reaffirmed its support for that new Government and underlined the need for enhanced co-ordination between legitimate Libyan security forces to fight Daesh and UN-designated terrorist groups. Britain would provide training or other support only at the invitation of the Libyan Government or by other authority. Let me reiterate to the House that there are no plans to deploy troops in a combat role.
Since this House supported extending military operations, we have intensified our efforts to defeat Daesh. There is a long way to go, and political progress needs to match military progress on the ground, but we can be encouraged. This may be a long campaign, but it is one we have to win and one we will win. I commend this statement to the House.
May I start by joining the Secretary of State in recognising the extraordinary bravery and commitment of the men and women of our armed forces? I welcome much of what he has said. Daesh and those who fight alongside it are barbaric and hateful terrorists, and they must be stopped. I was surprised, however, that there was not recognition from the Secretary of State of the terrible news of the suicide bombings in Syrian strongholds that caused so many fatalities yesterday. That obviously serves as a reminder that progress cannot be measured only in terms of the size of Daesh-held territory. On behalf of the House, may I express all our condolences to the victims of this senseless violence, and their families?
A particularly significant development in Iraq was seen at the weekend with the launch of the ground offensive against the Daesh stronghold of Fallujah. It is often forgotten that about 250 British troops have been deployed on the ground in Iraq, providing vital training and military advice to the Iraqi security forces. We therefore have an important stake in the success of the Iraqi military, and we will continue to monitor their progress very carefully.
As the Secretary of State acknowledges, the situation in Syria is much more complex. Last year, he said that we were going to
“tighten the noose around the head of the snake”
that was Raqqa, but taking the fight to the de facto capital of Daesh in Syria will present many challenges compared with the previous stages of the campaign.
In terms of ground forces, coalition airstrikes to date have been complemented by a number of armed opposition groups on the ground, particularly in northern Syria, but the YPG is unlikely to have a role in Raqqa, I would suggest, given its distance from the majority Kurdish regions. There are questions too about both the numbers and the composition of other armed opposition groups. The House was told last year that the Free Syrian Army, comprising the majority of the 70,000 moderate fighters the Government identified, was going to fight in Syria, but as the Secretary of State said again today, Russian airstrikes have systematically targeted the Free Syrian Army, among other rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime but not thought to be affiliated to Daesh. In fact, there have been reports in the past 24 hours that indicate that the Free Syrian Army may be excluded from the US-led plan to liberate Raqqa. Is that correct? If it is, how are the Government expecting to contribute to the next phase of the campaign without troops of our own on the ground? Do the Government plan to increase co-ordination between coalition efforts and the Assad regime and its Russian allies?
Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that further airstrikes will avoid inflicting civilian casualties, particularly if urban areas such as Raqqa are to be targeted? The statements so far on the latter point have not provided sufficient reassurance. We are told that a review is carried out after each strike to assess the damage, but there are few details of the process involved. The MOD, we are told, considers all credible reports of civilian casualties, but it is not clear how credibility is defined in that context; nor is it clear how many reports of civilian casualties have been received but not found to be credible, or even how the difficult distinction between combatant and civilian is being made in the first place.
I welcome the progress that has been made in the fight against Daesh in recent weeks. I hope to hear in more detail from the Secretary of State what strategy the Government have for taking the campaign forward.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the tone of her response. She raised three or four specific points.
The hon. Lady is right to draw the attention of the House to suicide bombings. In Iraq, they may to some extent indicate a switch in tactics by Daesh. As it is increasingly pushed west along the Euphrates and north up the Tigris, we have seen suicide explosions in Baghdad and in Syria.
The hon. Lady is also right to draw attention to the operations likely to be needed to liberate both Raqqa and Mosul, which are the main centres currently occupied by Daesh. That will require quite sustained and formidable operations by the local forces on the ground, and nobody should underestimate the difficulty or the timescales involved. However, as I indicated, some progress is being made in north-east and northern Syria, with operations ongoing to try to seal the remaining unsealed pockets of the border and to begin slowly to tighten the noose around Raqqa. Operations have begun to begin to plan how the city of Mosul may be recovered and troops are being moved forward up the Tigris to be ready for that.
The hon. Lady asks about the estimate of 70,000. Our view is that that estimate has stood up. Numbers of that size are still involved in fighting the regime, and the Syrian democratic forces are part of that struggle.
Finally, the hon. Lady asks about civilian casualties. I made it clear to her and the House that we carry out a battle damage assessment after every RAF strike: we look back at the evidence of what the strike actually achieved to satisfy ourselves that that there have been no civilian casualties. We will of course look especially closely at any allegation made and any piece of evidence that comes to light that there may have been civilian casualties, but at the moment, after a year and a half of operations in Iraq and Syria, our view remains that we have seen no evidence yet of civilian casualties being caused by our strikes. That, I suggest, is a tribute to the professionalism of the RAF pilots and crews and to the choice of precision munitions.
Russian media are reporting a Russian statement that a force of 6,000 Jabhat al-Nusra fighters are preparing for an assault on Aleppo. Plainly there is scope for confusion and misinformation about identifying al-Nusra and other opposition forces. Has any work been done by the members of the ISSG to create a joint intelligence picture, so that the capacity for misinformation in that area can be reduced?
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is responsible for middle east affairs, is already involved in work to build up a better picture. The Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right: the picture in and around Aleppo is the most complex of all in terms of the different groups fighting there. He makes a good point about sharing intelligence more widely.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
During the debate in December, we were told that the UK’s unique contribution to defeating Daesh was the Brimstone missile and that our coalition partners were pressing the UK to bring it to the conflict. Incidentally, this unique contribution argument continued even after it was shown that the Royal Saudi Air Force had been using Brimstone in Syria since February 2015. Despite that, it remained a central plank of the Government’s case for extending UK military action into Syria. Indeed, according to information obtained by The Huffington Post under the Freedom of Information Act, until as late as February this year not a single Daesh fighter had been killed by a UK-fired Brimstone missile. The Brimstone missile and its capacity to minimise civilian casualties work best when there is human intelligence on the ground to supply precise information. That explains the other great plank of the Government’s case: the 70,000 moderate ground troops who were, we were assured, ready to cut off the head of the Daesh snake in Raqqa.
Today, we are told that the coalition is airdropping leaflets into Raqqa urging the civilian population to flee the city ahead of an imminent attack—the problem of course being that the civilian population of that city are being used as human shields by Daesh, which has threatened to murder anyone attempting to leave the city. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with our coalition partners to decide whether the RAF will take part in the imminent bombing of Raqqa, with its large civilian population?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his questions. They are largely about operational matters, but I will do my best to respond.
The RAF uses a number of precision weapons—Paveway bombs, Hellfire and Brimstone missiles—for different tasks. The Brimstone is particularly suited to striking moving vehicles, for example; the Paveway deals with more static targets, such as command posts. I can tell the House that yesterday the RAF used all three—Paveway, Brimstone and Hellfire. There will be more details of that in due course.
We have never suggested that the RAF would start bombing Raqqa or Mosul indiscriminately. The coalition will have to be extremely careful in its use of close air support as operations begin first to encircle, then eventually to liberate the suburbs and the city centre. Obviously, we want to ensure that as many civilian lives as possible are saved. As we have in the liberation of other cities, the coalition has of course been encouraging citizens to leave, to make sure those lives are spared. We discuss such matters regularly inside the coalition.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. A further 29 hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye and I am keen to accommodate all of them on this important statement, the timing of which was flagged up last week by the Government, but there are also about 30 people seeking to contribute to the subsequent debate, so pithiness personified is what we require.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that those who say that we must find some accommodation with Assad because we need to work with him to beat Daesh are missing the point? They need look no further than Darayya on 12 May, where a humanitarian convoy was prevented from entering the town to save the lives of starving children. The brutality of that regime means that we have no chance of working with Assad successfully in the future.
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. The brutality of the Assad regime means that he can play no part in the future of Syria. He and his forces have been using barrel bombs and chlorine, dropping munitions indiscriminately and robbing humanitarian aid convoys of exactly the medicines that the local communities need.
What progress has been made in cutting off finances to Daesh, apart from the sale of oil, such as that obtained from looted antiquities and the terrible sale of slaves, who are the Yazidi women?
We have made progress in reducing the dependence of Daesh on illegally traded oil across its borders and also internally in Syria. We have made progress in cutting down the sale of antiques and artefacts in international markets. We have had the strike that I referred to on the cash stockpiles that Daesh has been using to finance itself. Of course, it draws other revenues from the areas it controls, but one illustration of the progress has been consecutive reports that Daesh has begun to cut the pay rates to its own troops.
Nevertheless, Daesh remains the best funded terrorist group in history, despite the fall in the oil price. How confident, therefore, is the Secretary of State that Daesh can no longer access the financial infrastructure and resources of the Iraqi state, given that the Foreign Affairs Committee is still waiting for answers from the Iraqi banking authorities as to Daesh’s ability to make a turn on the state’s currency markets?
That is one of the areas that we are working on. When Daesh originally established its caliphate so rapidly, it was able to access finance from the central bank in Mosul and other areas in Iraq, and it levies taxes on the towns and cities that it controls, but I want to assure my hon. Friend that the work is in hand and we are making progress in restricting Daesh’s financial support.
Is it not now clear that the success of the international coalition against ISIS will be limited so long as civilians in Syria continue to be subject to starvation tactics, besiegement and attacks with impunity? Is it not time for a rethink on the UK strategy so that it focuses much more on civilian protection? To that end, has operational planning begun by the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development on supporting the World Food Programme in its deadline of 1 June on airdrops to besieged communities?
We continue to look at that. The difficulty with airdrops is that they are very difficult to target on the precise population that we want to help. It is difficult to drop water in very large quantities, and at present the United Nations wants, where it can, to get food in through humanitarian convoys, but we will keep that under review.
Towards the end of last year when I was in Iraq, I was honoured to meet some displaced people in a number of camps. The Secretary of State is right to say that in addition to military action, we need to win the peace. May I therefore have an assurance that when we liberate cities such as Falluja, a key part of the strategy is ensuring that the utilities, water and other things to support civic society will be very much part of our plan?
Absolutely. We are providing some £80 million in lifesaving humanitarian aid for those who have been forced to flee their homes. The Chancellor announced at the G7 last week that we are contributing some £300 million in loan guarantees to the World Bank’s facility to help rebuild and strengthen the economy of Iraq, and we are also contributing to the Iraq humanitarian pooled fund that will help tackle poverty and ensure stability, precisely to get back the essential services on which people depend, to encourage them to return rapidly to the areas that have been liberated.
The Secretary of State has spoken about the battle damage assessment that takes place after a raid. Can he explain to the House, for those who are not familiar with the process, not only about selecting targets and the legal basis, but the fact that some targets are avoided at the last minute because of awareness of the risk of civilian casualties?
When selecting and approving targets for deliberate strikes, we take very great care to make sure that they respect the rules of engagement that I set at the beginning of the campaign. A target that is selected may be studied for several days or even weeks to make sure that we understand the pattern of life around it— that it is a building, for example, that civilians are not using and only the military are using. We continue that surveillance right up until the last moment. If civilians are found to be in that area, the strike can be aborted right at the end. We take very good care to minimise civilian casualties. In long campaigns, however, in the messiness of war it is not impossible that there may be civilian casualties at some point. All I can tell the House is that from the evidence so far, we think we have avoided them.
I thank the Secretary of State for the quarterly update. What progress has been made in supplying the arms and ammunition that the brave Kurdish peshmerga forces have been requesting so that they can continue to take the fight to Daesh on the ground?
Yes, we are planning to provide the Kurdish regional government with more than £1 million worth of further ammunition to equip the peshmerga. We have already supplied ammunition and arms to start with and we have done a lot of training. We have trained some 3,000 of the peshmerga to fight, but we have a further shipment in hand and, subject to the approval of Parliament—there is a special procedure by which Parliament must signify its approval—I hope that that ammunition will be with the Kurdish peshmerga in the next few weeks.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made in relation to the number of Daesh terrorists operating in Europe, as opposed to Syria? How effective has our work been in preventing conscription to Daesh, both here and abroad?
That is a very good question, if I may say so. As Daesh is squeezed in Iraq and Syria, we may well see some backlash from Daesh in its external attack planning against west European or British targets, so we are vigilant, working with our partners across Europe to make sure that we understand how that attack planning is being carried out and so that we can track down those who are likely to be responsible for future attacks.
I thank the Secretary of State for the quarterly update. I understand that there are some reports that the Russians have asked the Americans to join them in joint strikes. Have they also made such a request to the United Kingdom and, if so, does the Secretary of State share the concern of many people that such a move might undermine the political process because many in the Syrian Opposition see the Russians as the aggressors?
It is in Russia’s gift to help push the political process on and to use its influence with the Assad regime much more constructively than it has done so far. Our own strike aircraft are covered by the existing memorandum between the United States and Russia, and so far are deconflicting the airspace around particular missions, but we are not otherwise co-operating.
First, I welcome the quarterly report. We need to be in a cycle of delivering such reports with a focus on Daesh. Secondly, I thank the Secretary of State and the MOD for the very helpful briefing that was given yesterday in relation to Daesh. I asked two questions yesterday. One was about no-fly zones. The Secretary of State has been very clear in saying that there is no scope for no-fly zones at present. However, I hope he will keep that under review so that if at any point Assad and the Russians agree to it, we can implement that rapidly. The second question, which was not answered, was in relation to Raqqa and Mosul. If those two cities are turned into Stalingrad, what support can we give to civilians within them?
On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point, we are adhering to the quarterly rhythm: the first statement was made in December, the next in February and it is now the end of May. It is useful for the House to be updated according to that timescale.
On no-fly zones, it is simply the practical application of a no-fly zone that I need persuading about; I am not clear at the moment how a no-fly zone could be properly policed. The worst thing of all would be to offer a no-fly zone that is not actually safe.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s final point, Raqqa and Mosul are very large cities with, at the moment, large civilian populations who have not fled. That is why the operations are going to take a very long time. Ramadi took eight months. It is going to take a long time to persuade those civilians that Daesh is not their future and that it would be best for them to leave while the fighting is going on.
I pay tribute to the men and women of our armed services who are working day in, day out to liberate people from Daesh. What preparations are being made for post-conflict reconstruction when areas are liberated from Daesh, and what part is the United Kingdom playing in that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said and will make sure that it is passed back not just to the Royal Air Force, but to all those involved in this huge effort—our biggest single military undertaking at the moment. Stabilisation is the key: after liberating a town or city, it is essential to offer the local population the security and stability they need to be able to return. We are co-operating with our partners, and a huge amount of work is being done on the stabilisation effort, which will be offered to each city and town as it is liberated.
Thank you for calling me so early, Mr Speaker, so that I can get out of the Chamber and spare everybody my germs.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Given that large areas of north-eastern Syria would not have been secured but for the Syrian Kurds, what practical support are we giving them and what efforts are being made to include them in diplomatic negotiations? Does he agree that it is incredibly problematic for a key actor in the Syrian Kurds to be excluded from Geneva I and II and from future peace talks, given their strategic importance as interlocutors in any future peace settlement?
The Kurds are represented in the Syrian talks. It is not the object of the talks to start excluding every single Kurdish group. The Syrian Kurds have to be part of the solution. Many of them have come forward in the fight against Daesh, as well as in the fight against the regime, and they have to be part of the future.
I also thank my right hon. Friend for his update, and add my thanks to the British military personnel who are serving in the region on our behalf. As the military campaign progresses, what assurance can he give that we are doing all we can to ensure that we also make progress on the political track?
Talks are under way on the future of Syria and they need to make more progress. My hon. Friend is right. In Iraq we have not seen the political progress needed to match the military progress, which is getting ahead of the reforms, securitisation and stabilisation that we need to see following on, particularly in Anbar province. We urge the Abadi Government to crack on with the reforms needed to create a national guard in which people can have confidence, to give the governors the powers they need to get essential services up and running, and to ensure that the areas that are liberated are then properly policed.
The Secretary of State’s statement did not refer to the Syrian Kurds—the Democratic Union party—or the Iraqi Kurds, the Kurdish Regional Government. In answer to an earlier question, he said that the long-delayed supply of ammunition to the peshmerga would take place at some point in the future. Why is it taking so long?
The peshmerga are able to access ammunition from a number of sources. They now have the funding to purchase it—some more funding has gone in from the United States recently—but we are not able to supply the Kurdish peshmerga directly. The Kurdish area is part of the unitary state of Iraq, so supplies have to be routed through Iraq and we also have to consider the needs of the Iraqi forces—the Iraqi army itself— vis-à-vis the peshmerga. I have, however, agreed a new shipment of ammunition, and I hope it will be going out there shortly.
I thank the Secretary of State for the interesting update. It is clear from experience that when areas are liberated, a system of government, law and order and justice in which everyone can have confidence needs to be put in place quickly. Does he agree that while there may be some need for transitional arrangements, in the long term Assad cannot be the solution in Syria?
Absolutely. We have been very clear throughout that there is no future for Assad in the future Government of Syria and he needs to depart. We want to see in Syria what we have in Iraq—a Government who are genuinely representative of all groups in Syria and who are prepared to work towards a democratic and representative Administration.
The Secretary of State said: “It is outrageous that aid itself has become a weapon of war.” Those outrages have grievous consequences for civilians and children. What preparations are the UK Government making to make sure that such crimes are investigated and that someone is held accountable for them at some point in the future?
I can give the hon. Lady that reassurance. That will be an important part of the work that will be needed when the conflict finally, I hope, ends. We are already working with non-governmental organisations to see what resources and funding they need in order to collect the evidence required to nail those responsible.
On a recent visit to Moscow, it was often said that any lasting, peaceful and democratic solution in Syria would only happen in partnership with Russia. That view has also been expressed here at home, too. I have two questions. When did the Defence Secretary and the Foreign Secretary last meet their respective counterparts in the Russian Government? On timelines, will the Secretary of State give a commitment to the House that the lasting, peaceful and democratic solution will be delivered within the three-year target period that he suggested at yesterday’s MOD briefing? Are we even close to that?
On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, Russia has legitimate interests and influence in Syria, and we want it to bring that to bear constructively. The Foreign Secretary regularly meets his counterpart; I believe he met Mr Lavrov early last week. On the hon. Gentleman’s third and final question, the original timescale was set not by me, but by Secretary Kerry. When we asked the House to support action in Iraq in summer 2014, Secretary Kerry’s estimate was that it would take at least three years. We are not yet into the second year. This is, as I said in my statement, going to be a long campaign.
Turkey is a key NATO ally and a partner in our fight against Daesh. It has also taken in and provided a safe haven to millions of people fleeing the terror in Syria and Iraq. What support is the UK Government offering Turkey with regard to its own internal fight against Daesh, the terrorist attacks it has experienced and the other terrorist groups identified as operating there?
I visited Ankara for discussions just after one of the first attacks in Turkey. We have offered Turkey counter-terrorism assistance, and we should applaud the role it is playing in looking after so many refugees—more than 2 million of them—and the efforts it is making to close the border, stem the flow of foreign fighters and restrict Daesh’s ability to trade in oil. Turkey deserves enormous credit for that. On the second part of the hon. Lady’s question, I hope she will allow me to write to her.
In his statement, the Secretary of State mentioned that the number of foreign fighters has been reduced to 200. Has he made any assessment of the number of UK citizens—both male and female—who have travelled out to support Daesh and of how many have returned to the UK?
Again, I will try to get that specific information to the hon. Lady; I do not have it to hand. I want to make it clear that the estimate is of 200 foreign fighters joining Daesh a month, vis-à-vis the figure of 2,000 joining a month when Daesh was at its peak a couple of years ago. They have more than 200 foreign fighters, but the flow of new foreign fighters has been quite considerably reduced.
At the time of the Syria debate back in October, there were guarded suggestions that Russia, through the Vienna process, would work towards a stable transition in Syria within a six-month period. Clearly, that has not happened. Will the Secretary of State say whether there is any hope of Russia playing a constructive role?
Well, we are hoping for that, and it is depressing that it has not happened. Russia has huge influence in Syria and it could have played a much more constructive role, but we have seen what has happened since the so-called cessation of hostilities was agreed in February. We still see Russia playing a very malevolent role—claiming to have withdrawn some of its forces, but bringing in new helicopters and not directing its fire against Daesh. The hon. Gentleman asked what hope there is. I think we should always be hopeful. We will continue to engage with Russia and urge it to bring its influence to bear at the conference table.
What progress has been made in securing a safe corridor for civilians and in providing support for marginalised groups, such as the disabled?
It is extremely difficult to establish any kind of safe corridor in Syria, particularly in northern Syria where such groups are under most threat. If I may, I will look at that very specific point and write to the hon. Lady.
The point about civilian deaths is really important because the assurances we were given last year, when we were asked to extend precise, limited and targeted air strikes from Iraq to Syria, were central to persuading me to support the Government’s proposals. I welcome—I really welcome—what the Secretary of State has said today, but what additional reassurance can he provide about the steps the RAF is taking to protect civilians in Syria and ensure that they do not become victims of the RAF’s work?
We have set rules of engagement that apply to our operations in Syria as well as in Iraq. They are different from the rules of engagement of other countries; each country has its own rules of engagement. Any deliberate targets have to be approved, which covers the choice of munition involved, and an absolute assurance that civilians are not using, near using or likely to use the particular building or area to be bombed. As I said, that is checked over a period of days or perhaps weeks while the target is watched. Our commanders in the operations centre in the Gulf as well as the pilots themselves can, right until the last moment, pull back from a strike if they have any concern at all that civilians may be in the area. Obviously, in some of the areas of very intense fighting where there is close air support, it will be more and more difficult to ensure that we avoid civilian casualties. All I can say is that our policy is absolutely to avoid the risk of civilian casualties, and so far we believe that the RAF has been successful in doing that.
If the Government’s predictions in the debate on 2 December had proved correct, Syria would have had a transitional Government next week, and free and fair elections by this time next year. What are the Secretary of State’s most up-to-date predictions of when those two vital milestones will actually be delivered?
To be honest, I would not have predicted the progress that has been made in Iraq during the past few weeks and months. It has actually been more rapid than I would have said had the hon. Gentleman asked me about that during the debate in December. In Syria, yes, progress has been far slower than we wanted and far slower than I thought would be the case when the cessation was agreed in Munich in February. However, this is war, and a lot of the people involved have an interest in sustaining this war, especially the Assad regime, supported by Russia, and we have to keep working at it.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He will be aware that Daesh’s attacks on the city of Aleppo have been very brutal, very violent, very bloody and very destructive, and that many thousands of people have died or been injured. Some 225,000 Christians lived in Aleppo; now, there are only 25,000. There used to be 80,000 Armenian Christians in Aleppo; now there are only 10,000. What steps will the Government take to ensure that any support for opposition groups does not indirectly benefit extremists targeting minority communities, such as the Christians in Aleppo?
The hon. Gentleman is right: what is happening in Aleppo is nothing short of a tragedy. It is a beautiful and tolerant city—I have visited it myself in the past—which contains all kinds of groups from different faiths living and working happily alongside each other. It is important that all those groups are represented in the drive for a political settlement, and that is our aim.
I join other Members in condemning the attacks and raids on aid convoys. What support or protection can the UK provide for such convoys?
That is very difficult given the complexity of the situation in Syria, where multiple strikes are being carried out by the regime against its opponents and where we need to keep up the pressure on the infrastructure that supports Daesh. However, these attacks could stop: it is within the gift of the regime to stop them. It within the gift of the Russians to bring their influence to bear, and I still hope that they will do so.
The Defence Secretary talked about people returning to a safe environment, which we all support. What more can be done by the international community to secure the freedom of the Yazidi women who were captured and taken into slavery?
We have had some success in populations returning, particularly in Tikrit, to which the vast majority of the population has now returned. That is more difficult in Ramadi, simply because so many improvised explosive devices have been seeded right across the city. There are different circumstances in each of the particular areas. In relation to the Yazidi women, about whom the hon. Gentleman is concerned, we are working with NGOs to see what we can do to identify where they are being held and what more can be done to help them to return to Sinjar.
To return to what the Secretary of State said in his statement about the number of foreign fighters joining Daesh being reduced to 200 a month from up to 2,000 a month, that is extremely welcome. It would build on that if we could work with our international partners to drive that down to zero and completely isolate this organisation.
I hope that we can do so. We are working very closely with our partners—over 40 countries are now reporting, through Interpol and other international organisations, on foreign fighters—so that we can share information about these fighters as they travel towards Iraq or Syria. Of course, we must play our part by ensuring that more people are not radicalised in this country and by keeping tabs on those who are likely to go out there.
Will the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that the RAF will not take part in air strikes against Daesh in Libya without a further vote in this House?
Yes. We have made it clear that we are not planning any kind of combat role either for our troops or for the RAF in Libya. That is not part of our planning. If we were considering further military action against Daesh wherever they are—whether in Libya or anywhere else—we would of course come to this House to discuss it first.
A recent report, “Why Young Syrians Choose to Fight”, argues that money acts as a key recruiter for Daesh, claiming that while the Syrian army pays around $100 a month, often late, Daesh can pay three times that amount on time. What alternative economic options for young Syrians are therefore being used to undermine Daesh’s recruitment?
The first thing is to undermine Daesh’s own access to revenue and finance. There is some evidence that we are beginning to do that and to reduce its earnings from oil and other trades. There is also some evidence—anecdotal, perhaps, but an accumulating body of evidence—that its pay rates to fighters are being reduced. Beyond that, we have to get the Syrian economy going again. The sooner we get a political settlement, the sooner we can get in the money that we and a lot of other countries pledged during the London conference. The money is ready and waiting to rebuild the Syrian economy and, most importantly, to give the young people of Syria a reason to stay in Syria and build a new society that is safe and secure for their future.
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 18 May).
Question again proposed,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Europe, Human Rights and Keeping People Safe at Home and Abroad
I am delighted to open this debate, and congratulate the Opposition on selecting this subject. The security of Britain and the British people, our relations with Europe and the promotion of Britain’s values, including human rights, around the world are at the heart of our foreign policy. One year into this Parliament, the challenges we face to our security, prosperity and values have not diminished—if anything, they are growing.
The threat posed by Daesh and its affiliates continues and has now manifested itself in attacks in European cities. The wider instability in the middle east persists, and the Israel-Palestine question is no nearer to a solution. North Korea has demonstrated its determination to flout international law by developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them. Russia demonstrates the same determination through its continued destabilisation of Ukraine and its illegal occupation of Crimea. Tensions are rising in the South China sea. The migration crisis in the eastern and central Mediterranean is presenting new challenges to our near neighbours in Europe. As we approach the referendum in just over four weeks’ time, even the theoretical possibility that Britain might vote to leave the European Union is having a chilling effect on economic growth, and on business and consumer confidence. Wherever we look, our world is becoming more dangerous and uncertain.
Against that hazardous global backdrop, some have argued for retrenchment and withdrawal from a global role as the safest option. But we cannot turn our backs. As a trading nation, with one of the largest and most open economies in the world, our security and prosperity depend upon global stability and order. Some 5 million British nationals live overseas, and millions more travel every year. Our trade depends on the sea lanes and airways that are the arteries of global commerce. International engagement and influence are therefore fundamental to maintaining Britain’s security and prosperity.
My right hon. Friend paints a picture of those of us who want to leave the European Union as wanting to retrench. That could not be further from the truth, and I suggest that “Project Fear” is once again going down a very negative path. In leaving, we would have greater freedom to trade and form trade deals with the rest of the world. At the moment we are barred from doing that; as a member of the EU, we cannot form individual international trading agreements.
Never mind “Project Fear”, what about project paranoia? I was not in any way referring to the exit campaigners, but simply observing that some people have suggested retrenchment. As my hon. Friend has taken me in that direction, I will answer his question. We enjoy free trade with 53 nations by virtue of free trade agreements negotiated by the European Union. Those campaigning for exit tell me that if we were to leave the EU we would rapidly negotiate new free trade agreements, with the EU itself and then with the 53 countries with which that Union has free trade agreements. Our experience in the real world is that these agreements take a lot of time to negotiate—the EU-Canada free trade agreement has been seven years in the negotiating and is still not ratified.
Another small problem that my hon. Friend should think about is that we do not actually have any trade negotiators. We would be seeking to negotiate those 53 plus one trade agreements from scratch, because for the past 40 years, for better or worse, the European Union has negotiated all our trade agreements on our behalf. We do not have civil servants experienced in this field of activity.
Has the Foreign Secretary made any assessment of how many additional members of staff would be needed by either his Department or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to deal with this problem, or of how many years it would take to train them?
The latter point is more important than the former, if I may say so. It is not simply a question of nipping out and calling up the jobcentre to say, “Could you send us some experienced trade negotiators to hire?” We would literally be starting from scratch. I look across the Atlantic to the world’s largest economy and its trade negotiation team, under Michael Froman; that is an extremely good team, but it is very small and has struggled to carry out two trade negotiations in parallel. I am afraid that the idea that in a matter of months, or even years, we would have negotiated a massive deal with the European Union and 53 separate trade agreements with other countries around the world—before starting on the ambitious expansion programme referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)—is, to quote the Prime Minister, “for the birds”.
Is the situation not actually worse than the Foreign Secretary has set out? Many of those countries have signed trade deals with the EU in order to access the single market. Was he as dismayed as I was to hear major proponents of Vote Leave call for us not to rejoin the single market should we leave?
I was indeed astonished to hear leading exit campaigners suggest that we do not want to be part of the single market. Until relatively recently, their position was that we could have it all—be outside but somehow get free and privileged access to the single market. That was never likely to be possible, but it was at least an ambition. Now we are told that we do not want to be part of the single market. I can read that only as a manifesto for the impoverishment of the British people. We know from the Treasury’s own model that we would be looking at a reduction in our standard of living of £4,300 per annum per household by the end of the next decade. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, sometimes we have to deal with recessions and economic pressure from outside, but we should not have to deal with a made-at-home, DIY recession that is entirely self-inflicted. We should avoid that at all costs.
In the spending review and the strategic defence and security review published at the end of last year, we took clear decisions to invest in our security and safeguard our prosperity, to maintain our world class armed forces, to grow our unique security and intelligence agencies—and, through the Investigatory Powers Bill, give them the powers they need to track down terrorists and others who seek to do us harm—and to protect our global diplomatic network by maintaining the budget of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in real terms. All that is underpinned by our decision to meet the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence, and the UN target of spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid, making Britain the only major country in the world that meets both those commitments.
My right hon. Friend mentions diplomatic posts overseas. Will he remind the House how many new diplomatic posts have been opened under this Government and their coalition predecessor in places where we did not previously have diplomatic representation?
My hon. Friend tests me on the exact number. I think that a dozen or more new posts have been opened, but I will write to him with the exact figure. The important point is that we have opened new posts in secondary cities in China—when we talk about secondary cities in China, we mean those with populations of between 5 million and 10 million—and India, as well as reopening posts in countries in Latin America from which we had withdrawn.
The Secretary of State mentioned our commitment to 2% of GDP on defence spending. Will he confirm that had we not transferred £820 million from the pensions budget in another Department, and funds from other Departments, Britain would have fallen below that 2% figure? By that sleight of hand, we have committed to the 2%, but we have not added a single penny to the defence budget, when, as my right hon. Friend said, we face a very dangerous world.
My hon. Friend and I were Defence Ministers in a past life, and there is no sleight of hand. The 2% NATO target is based on NATO definitions, according to which Britain will spend 2% of its GDP on defence. As I am sure he has already found from talking to people in the defence community, the important thing is not the amount spent today, but the long-term commitment to maintain defence spending at 2% of our GDP so that our defence spending rises in line with our prosperity as a nation. That is the right thing for us to do.
I will be tempted by my right hon. Friend and take one more intervention.
My right hon. Friend is right. No NATO rules have been broken—we can argue about whether there was any new money, or whether it was money that we could have counted in the past but did not. Surely the important point is that the 2% is not a target for us: it is a minimum. The last time we faced threats of the sort we face now was in the 1980s, when we spent between 4% and 5% of GDP on defence. We are not talking about ringing church bells over 2%; we need to raise our sights to a higher figure altogether.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that 2% is a minimum commitment. The reassurance that that level of spend gives to our armed forces and the military, and the fact that it is linked to our rising GDP, is important. Equally, this is not just about the amount of money spent, although that it is important; it is about how we spend it to ensure the maximum defence effect.
I will come to the hon. Lady in just a moment.
The first duty of any British Government is to keep our homeland and people safe and secure. Today, threats to that security take two principal forms: the immediate risk of terrorism that is associated with violent extremist Islamism, and Daesh in particular; and the longer term threat from a breakdown of the rules-based international system that has underpinned our safety and prosperity since the end of the cold war.
We are engaged in what the Prime Minister has described as a “generational struggle” against Islamist extremism. It is struggle not against a particular country or organisation but against a poisonous ideology that seeks to corrupt one of the world’s great religions. Terrorist attacks in the last year in Paris, Brussels, the skies over Egypt, on the beaches of Sousse, in Baghdad, Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan, Nigeria and many other places have demonstrated that the threat from Islamist extremism is global. That threat seeks to undermine our values, democracy and freedom, and it is targeting British citizens and those of our allies.
In spite of the tragic loss of life, we should not overlook the progress we have made in pushing Daesh back in Iraq and Syria, and in undermining its core narrative of the caliphate. The Defence Secretary set out in his statement to the House the leading role that the UK is playing, and the military success that we are achieving in Iraq and Syria. As the tide turns against Daesh, we are turning its own weapons against it and harnessing the power of the internet to expose its lies, challenge its ideology and undermine its claim to be a viable state.
On the humanitarian front, Britain continues to be at the forefront of the international response. We have committed more than £2.3 billion, and at the London conference in February we raised more than $12 billion—the largest amount ever raised in a single day for a humanitarian crisis. At the International Syria Support Group meeting in Vienna last Tuesday, a British proposal to begin UN airdrops to besieged communities in Syria if Assad blocks access was agreed by all parties, including the Russians and Iranians.
Through its leading role in the ISSG, Britain is also at the forefront of the international effort to end the Syrian civil war—a precondition to defeating Daesh and dealing with the migration crisis in Europe. We are clear that we need an inclusive political solution to that conflict, and to get that we need all ISSG members to use their influence to deliver the transitional Government to which they have all signed up—a Government who can provide stability, represent all Syrians, and with whom the international community can work to defeat Daesh.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that for the threat of the 1 June deadline to be credible, World Food Programme planes need to be protected by member states, or we will need to do the airdrops ourselves? Have the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence begun operational planning to enable those airdrops to proceed?
The plan is for the airdrops to be made by the World Food Programme using contracted civilian aircraft. The World Food Programme is already making food airdrops into Deir ez-Zor, the isolated city in the east of Syria, and it has done so successfully without loss to those aircraft. Clearly there are operational aspects that members of the ISSG—particularly the Americans and Russians—are now working through, and we will seek undertakings from the regime. We also know that the Russians have, let us say, significant influence over the operation of the regime’s air defence system, and we expect all members of the ISSG to do everything in their power to ensure that those airdrops are successful and carried out without undue risk to the aircrew.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the Idomeni camp has just been closed, and he referred to the refugee crisis. Is he aware of where those refugees will be placed as an alternative, and are UK officials on the ground to assist with that?
I cannot answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but I can tell him that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is heavily engaged in that action and is trying to ensure that those affected are properly cared for and relocated in accommodation that is at least as secure and adequate as their current accommodation.
My right hon. Friend has rightly said many times from the Dispatch Box that President Putin is one of the few people in the world who can do a lot in this situation. With the attacks yesterday on some of the Assad stronghold areas that have not been touched before, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of Russia’s involvement moving forward and whether we are looking at a new dimension? That area is quite close to some Russian bases.
My hon. Friend is right, and the Russians will be making a constant calculation about how they can extract maximum leverage from their involvement in Syria while minimising their exposure. I suspect that some in the Russian high command and the Kremlin will have been deeply uncomfortable about the fact that yesterday those Daesh attacks were launched in areas that were previously thought to be under rock-solid regime control and close to Russian military facilities. That changes the calculus, but I hope it will add weight to our argument with the Russians that we need to work together to get a successful transition in Syria to a Government who are supported by all Syrians. We must then work together with that Government to defeat the evil that is Daesh.
Progress in our objective of defeating Daesh will only be possible if the barrel bombings end, if the cessation of hostilities is respected, if humanitarian access to besieged communities is granted and if all sides are prepared to negotiate seriously to achieve political transition.
So much for Syria. In Iraq, we will continue to support the efforts of Prime Minister Abadi to steer his country through the dangers it currently faces, and to deliver the political and economic reform the Iraqi people desperately need: national reconciliation, security, stabilisation of areas liberated from Daesh, and the provision of jobs and basic services.
We have always said that winning the fight against Daesh would take time, but we have no doubt of our ultimate success in Iraq, Syria and Libya. However, winning the hearts and minds of tens of millions of young, potentially vulnerable Muslims who see extremism as a credible response to the lack of opportunity many of them face will be a longer-term challenge for us.
Of course, I think everyone agrees that one has to defeat violent and non-violent extremism. On the extremism Bill in the Queen’s Speech, will the Foreign Secretary clarify how it will define when an individual has crossed the threshold of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, so that communities and enforcement agencies know when to take action? Will there be full consultation with all faith communities?
My hon. Friend hits on a crucial point. The boundary line between acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour is fine and fraught with dangers. It is a minefield. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to put forward some of the Government’s thoughts on this and consult extensively before legislation is introduced. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.
I agree with much of what the Foreign Secretary says about the complexity of the situation in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Clearly, when there is a complex set of humanitarian, terrorist and other circumstances, we have to act in concert across all areas of our international operation. Let me turn briefly to Yemen, which has been discussed in the House today.
The situation in Yemen is also extremely complex, with huge humanitarian needs and different participants. Whether we like it or not, we are involved in a humanitarian, military and diplomatic capacity, either directly or through our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is absolutely crucial that we act in concert across all areas of international policy? Will he therefore agree to an independent assessment of the very serious allegations made about the use of cluster munitions and other attacks on civilians, which might undermine our place in that region and that conflict?
I agree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman says. The specific allegation is that British-made cluster munitions, which will have been made and delivered probably 30 years ago, may have been used. We do not believe that that is the case, but the Ministry of Defence—he will have heard a Defence Minister say this from the Dispatch Box today—is carrying out an urgent investigation. It will look at the evidence and then decide how to move forward. We have a high level of confidence that British-made cluster munitions have not been used in this conflict, but we must of course look at the allegation that has been made, and any evidence presented in support of it, and respond appropriately.
My right hon. Friend mentions Libya. With hindsight, it is clear that after the fall of Gaddafi we did not really give enough support to the Government we then recognised. The place collapsed into anarchy and is a possible base for ISIS. About half an hour ago, the Secretary of State for Defence said we were offering security assistance to the Government we now recognise, if and when they request it. Will the Foreign Secretary tell me whether his Department and other Departments are giving every other possible diplomatic and political support to that Government? Until they can establish themselves as a real Administration capable of delivering services to their public and of winning public support, we run the danger again of having a slightly fictional Government in Tripoli, while the rest of the country falls prey to anarchy or even ISIS.
As I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend would readily agree, hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), reminds me that elections were held in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi. It is since then that things have gone wrong.
On support to Prime Minister Sarraj and the Government of national accord, yes, we are providing technical, diplomatic and political assistance. My right hon. and learned Friend will recall that I visited Tripoli a few weeks ago. We are working very closely with Prime Minister Sarraj, both bilaterally and through the European Union. Prime Minister Sarraj was at the meeting in Vienna last Monday in which 20-odd countries got together to discuss how we can best support what that Government are doing.
The situation in Libya is complex, but I think Prime Minister Sarraj is approaching it in the right way— a bottom-up approach. He is not trying to create a Government who can rule Libya in some monolithic fashion, because that is not practical. He is trying to create an umbrella Government within which municipalities are empowered to deliver the services and run the structures that people need. We have considerable experience of that approach—including, indeed, in Syria—working with devolved levels of government in small areas to try to establish good governance from the bottom up. I suspect that that will be a more realistic approach than a top-down approach.
On Libya, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether he has had any consultations with the neighbouring country of Algeria? It has great experience of dealing with terrorism and has had huge problems as a result of the instability in Libya. It can be a huge asset and support in stabilising its neighbouring country. Are those consultations taking place?
Yes, I can confirm that to the hon. Lady. I visited Algeria and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East has visited Algeria. The Algerians are playing a role. That in itself is significant, because for many, many years Algeria took a rather isolationist, non-interventionist approach. As a neighbouring country, it is at risk from what is going on in Libya. It has recognised that and is engaging with the challenge. We are extremely grateful for the support that Algeria—with, as the hon. Lady says, its considerable experience of dealing with a major scale insurgency—is able to deliver.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I am just going to make a little progress, if my hon. Friend will allow me, as he has had one bite of the cherry already.
While we step up the fight against Daesh and Islamist extremism, the old challenge of state-based aggression has not gone away. To our east, Russia’s disregard for international norms, its illegal annexation of Crimea and its continuing destabilisation of eastern Ukraine are echoes of an era that, frankly, most of us thought had passed with the fall of the Berlin wall. They represent a clear threat to the stability of the post-cold war European security order, and, more widely, to the rules-based international system on which an open, free-trading liberal democracy such as ours depends.
As well as violating the sovereign territory of another country and undermining the rules-based system, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have led to the loss of more than 9,000 lives and the displacement of up to 1 million people from their homes. Responsibility for this human misery lies squarely at the door of the Kremlin. It is a direct result of a deliberate policy that seeks to deny the right of independent former Soviet republics to determine their own economic and political destiny. This Government remain clear that Russia must be held to account for its actions. We will work through the EU to keep up the economic pressure with hard-hitting and carefully calibrated sanctions. Those sanctions must remain in place until such time as Russia delivers on the pledges it made at Minsk. In the meantime, we will continue to provide non-lethal support and training to the Ukrainian armed forces. Building on the British military units already rotating through Poland and the Baltic states, we will announce at the NATO summit in Warsaw in June further measures to reassure our eastern allies in the face of this continuing aggression.
At the same time, we will engage with Russia where it is clearly in our national interests to do so. Russia, along with Iran, is one of the two countries that have real influence on the Syrian regime.
As members of the ISSG, they have the principal responsibility for telling Assad that it is time to go. We will continue to work with Russia on Syria and at the UN and to collaborate with it on counter-terrorism, where British lives are potentially at risk, but it will not be business as usual. All nations must know that we cannot and will not look the other way while the rules-based system is repeatedly violated. We look forward to the time when Russia rejoins the community of nations as a partner in upholding international rules, but our eyes are wide open and we know that it might be a long time coming.
As we said in the 2010 strategic defence and security review and again in 2015, Britain’s national security is indivisible from its economic security. We cannot keep people safe if we do not have a strong economy, and vice versa. As we have continued to deal with the economic legacy we inherited—bringing down the deficit and restoring sustainable growth to our economy—we have also been strengthening our diplomatic muscle in emerging economies in order to grow our trade and support jobs here at home. And those efforts are paying off. The state visit by China’s President Xi last year generated £40 billion of commercial deals, helping to create more than 5,000 permanent jobs in this country and more than 20,000 construction-phase jobs. During Prime Minister Modi’s visit in November, UK and Indian businesses agreed deals worth £9 billion. Inward investment from India in 2014-15 created more than 7,000 jobs and safeguarded more than 1,500 others. Since the UK’s free trade deal with the Republic of Korea in 2011, the value of UK exports to Korea has more than doubled.
While we seek to grow our links with the world’s emerging economies, however, our trade and investment relationship with the EU will always be central to our economic success story. As the House knows, the Government’s clear view is that Britain’s continuing prosperity is best served by our remaining a leading member of a reformed EU. Our membership puts us, the No. 2 economic power in the EU, inside the world’s largest single market, with a seat at the decision-making table. It is a market with 500 million consumers and a quarter of the world’s GDP and a market that buys 44% of Britain’s exports.
There is a world of difference between being inside such a market, with tariff-free access as of right, and being outside it, scrabbling around for a deal; between making the rules of the market to protect our interests and being governed by rules designed for the benefit and advantage of others. Our membership safeguards the pound and the Bank of England, and with the deal that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister negotiated in February, our membership keeps us out of Schengen, exempts us from ever-closer union and limits EU migrants’ access to our welfare system. It is the best of both worlds.
The Foreign Secretary and I are good friends but we disagree on this matter. Will he confirm that under this much-vaunted reform deal that the Prime Minister has negotiated, which does not add up to a row of beans, if the UK were to introduce financial measures that we believed to be in the interests of the City of London but which the eurozone deemed to conflict with theirs, we would be obliged either to change our measures or to go to the European Court of Justice for arbitration—and we know that the Court always finds in favour of the acquis communautaire?
We do not know by any means that the ECJ always finds in favour of the Community. Indeed, we have done rather well when challenged in the ECJ. For example, when the European Central Bank disgracefully tried to prevent euro-denominated financial instruments from being cleared in the City of London, we went to the ECJ and won the case, with a clear declaration that the ECB’s proposal was illegal. So I simply do not accept the premise of my Friend’s question.
Further to that point, is not the very essence of the Prime Minister’s deal in Brussels, to which I suggest too little attention has been paid, that it provides a firm guarantee that the UK’s position outside the eurozone will not be used to jeopardise its position within the single market? Is that not a very important safeguard and one that, in the context of the ECJ and any arbitration it has to carry out, will have to be taken into account and has binding force in international law?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Those on the other side of the argument spent a lot of time trying to argue that the agreement did not have binding force in international law, only—eventually—to have to concede that it did. He is absolutely right. The deal that the Prime Minister negotiated is substantive, and if we vote to remain in the EU on 23 June, we will move ahead with the implementation of those measures, which will give Britain not only the advantages, which we already have, that come with membership of a 500-million consumer-strong marketplace but all the additional advantages and assurances that the deal brings.
I know from my meetings with colleagues from across the EU that, whatever people in the House or the country think, our colleagues in Europe cannot believe the deal that we have negotiated. They cannot believe we managed to negotiate the best of both worlds—being in the EU but able to opt out of all the measures we find do not suit our political purposes.
The Foreign Secretary talked about the benefits for our exporters, and that includes the steel industry, which has a huge presence in my constituency and across south Wales. Tomorrow, thousands of steelworkers will march through London, to Parliament, to raise their concerns about what the Government will do to support the steel industry. Does he agree that the very worst thing we can do for the steel industry is to pull out and lose the possibility of our steel industry exporting tariff-free to the rest of Europe?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, but it goes further than that. Let us be honest: the steel industry worldwide is facing a crisis. We cannot wish it away, create more demand or just make the excess capacity disappear, but we are always better and more effective at addressing these problems if we do so collectively, and working across the EU is the best way to tackle this very difficult problem.
Britain, in particular, will reap further and disproportionate benefits—some of my colleagues in Europe would say quite unfair benefits—as the EU develops the single markets in services, digital, energy and capital, because all these relatively immature EU single markets are areas in which the UK is the leading economy in Europe. The commitments we have obtained to moving forward rapidly with the further development of those single markets will disproportionately benefit this country and disproportionately create jobs and growth in the UK after our decision on 23 June.
We can only reap those benefits, however, with a renewed democratic mandate from the British people. For four decades, they have been denied their say—and frankly, but for the election of a Conservative Government, they would not be getting a say now. So I welcome the debate and the focus it has brought. It has forced all of us to think hard about the issues and the consequences, now that there is a real decision to be made. I hope that the House can agree on two things—that on 23 June the British people must have their say and that we politicians must respect their decision, whatever it is.
We cannot separate our security and prosperity from the values system in which they are grounded. Countless examples around the world have demonstrated through history that where political competition, the rule of law, respect for human rights, freedom of speech and tolerance of difference are lacking, social, political and economic stability will be vulnerable at best and absent at worst. Conversely, where societies respond to the demand for greater rule of law, respect for human rights and individual freedoms, innovation and entrepreneurialism flourish—the so-called golden thread of mutually reinforcing values.
Of course, we cannot expect in the 21st century to be able simply to impose a one-size-fits-all system across the world. Those days are well and truly over. As our own example has shown, ideas of freedom, democracy and the rule of law need time to take root, and the form they take will depend on where a nation is on its development pathway and on its individual culture and traditions. We can, however, seek to nurture, to encourage and to support countries as they move towards respect for these essential values.
It is the direction of travel that matters. My view is clear: where a nation’s political, social, economic and judicial development is taking it in the right direction towards better governance, stronger rule of law and respect for human rights, we should work with it and support it. Where it is taking it away from those goals, we will call it out, as we have done recently in South Sudan and Burundi.
Most importantly, where countries fall short, we are committed to a pragmatic response that seeks to make a difference rather than disengagement, posturing and empty rhetoric. We have doubled FCO funding for human rights projects to £10 million, putting our money where our mouth is, but more important than that, by mainstreaming our human rights work, we have hard-wired it into everything we do. We have made it an integral part of day-to-day diplomacy—not a bolt-on optional extra. I firmly believe that our approach is yielding real, practical dividends.
Will the Foreign Secretary therefore take the opportunity to disavow the comment made by his permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald, who said that human rights were
“no longer a priority for the UK government”?
Sir Simon has explained that what he was trying to convey was that we are mainstreaming, so we do not have a separate category any longer. We have mainstreamed human rights into our consular, political and mainstream diplomatic work. By doing so, we embed that in a way that is delivering results throughout our agenda.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is a bit rich for British diplomats and politicians to travel the globe lecturing others about human rights when we are about to repeal our own Human Rights Act and some members of the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman is a part wish to withdraw from the European convention on human rights?
No, I do not. Throughout the world, Britain is recognised as an important champion of human rights and a country in which many of the rights taken for granted today across the world originated. I hope we can have a constructive debate about these issues.
Before I conclude, I want to confront head on the notion, which have heard, that the Government are putting economic and trade interests before human rights. Yes, we are serious about increasing our global trade to secure more jobs and greater economic security for the British people, but that does not come at the expense of our values. The deeper and broader our relationships with other countries become, the greater our influence and the easier it is to have frank conversations about issues on which we disagree. Building economic and political relationships helps to build influence and leverage. It is not always visible—progress often takes place behind the scenes—but we should be ruthlessly focused on what works. On the occasions where private influence fails, we can and do speak out publicly. Ultimately, I believe the best way to achieve the positive changes we all want to see on human rights is to engage constructively as part of a comprehensive relationship.
Is the Foreign Secretary seriously telling us that right now our relationship with Saudi Arabia is a case of not putting human rights secondary to economic interest?