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Volume 618: debated on Monday 12 December 2016

(Urgent Question): Will the Minister provide an answer to the urgent question of which I have given him notice?

As the Foreign Secretary made clear during his trip to the region this weekend, Britain supports the Saudi-led campaign to restore the legitimate Government in Yemen. Ultimately, a political solution is the best way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and end the conflict.

We continue to have deep concern for the suffering of the people of Yemen, which is why making progress on peace talks is the top priority. As with all negotiations of this kind, they will not be quick or indeed easy, and a lot of tough discussions will need to be had. The United Nations has drawn up a road map for ending the conflict, which outlines the security and political steps the parties must take. The UK is playing a central role in this process.

The Foreign Secretary hosted the last meeting of the Quad, comprising Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, the United States and the United Kingdom, which UN Special Envoy Ismail Ahmed attended, in London on 16 October. In addition, I travelled to Riyadh on 20 November to discuss the road map with President Hadi and to seek ways to find a political solution to the conflict. Most recently, the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary raised the issue of Yemen during their visits to the region, and I met Vice-President General Ali Mohsen on Saturday during the Manama dialogue.

As the House will be aware, Yemen is one of the most serious humanitarian crises in the world. So, in addition to our considerable diplomatic efforts to try and bring an end to the conflict, the UK is the fourth-largest donor to Yemen, committing £100 million to Yemen for 2016-17. UK aid is already making a difference there; last year we helped more than 1.3 million Yemenis with food, medical supplies, water and emergency shelter.

The situation in Yemen is indeed grave, which is why we are debating this matter today. There are now plans for the Quad to meet in the very near future, so that we can move this very important process forward.

I appreciate the great pithiness of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) in referring to the urgent question of which he had given the Minister advance notice, but in the name of transparency and for the benefit of those attending to our proceedings from outside the Chamber, I should advise that the question is “To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement to clarify the United Kingdom’s policy on the conflict in Yemen.”

I am grateful to you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and to the Minister for his answer.

Until now, our foreign policy objectives in Yemen have been crystal clear: pursuing a cessation of hostilities and backing a UN mandated intervention. Last week, the Foreign Secretary was absolutely right to speak of his profound concern for the Yemeni people and correct to say that this conflict could not be solved by force alone. However, his words also revealed an inconsistency in our foreign policy, which if not addressed immediately, threatens to wreck everything that we are trying to accomplish.

Will the Minister please confirm that we would never be involved in any puppeteering or proxy wars anywhere in the world, including in Yemen? Our influence and credibility as an honest broker is now being seriously questioned. We criticised Russia’s bombing of Aleppo; the Russians accuse us of supporting the same thing in Yemen.

Further to the Minister’s reply, can he clarify that our objective is an immediate ceasefire, and can he lay out the detail of how we will get to that position? As the Foreign Secretary has said, we hold the pens on Yemen at the United Nations. There is already a draft Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, resumption of peace talks and humanitarian access. Where is that resolution now? Will it be tabled before the Security Council before the end of the year? We must not fiddle as Yemen burns. On Saturday, Islamic State bombed a military camp in Aden, killing 35 soldiers. The UN humanitarian co-ordinator, Stephen O’Brien, calls Yemen a “man-made brutal humanitarian disaster”, with four fifths of the population in desperate need of emergency aid.

On Wednesday, the House, including the Minister, will show its support for the incredible work of the humanitarian agencies at “Yemen Day”. Today, the Disasters Emergency Committee announced a long overdue emergency appeal, but if the fighting does not stop that will not be enough. The Government must speak with one voice and with one aim for Yemen, and that should be an immediate ceasefire. Anything else only plays into the hands of terrorist organisations, damages our diplomacy and increases the suffering of the Yemeni people.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his continuing work and interest in Yemen and for bringing it to the attention of the House. I can confirm that we remain resolute in working toward a cessation of hostilities, developing confidence-building measures, working with the United Nations and supporting the UN envoy. I absolutely agree that we will not win by military means alone; we need a long-term political solution for a country that, as he knows, has been fragmented since its beginning.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that as well as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, we are the UN penholder and therefore take a lead on these matters. Humanitarian access is vital. I made it clear that we are investing more funds to support the UN agencies and others. The UN Security Council resolution is being discussed in New York as we speak, and as I mentioned, the Quad meeting that will take these matters further takes place in the very near future.

The right hon. Gentleman touched on a comparison between Yemen and Syria. President Hadi and the coalition that has been created to support him has the backing of the United Nations through resolution 2216, so there is a legitimate call to support President Hadi and the work he has done. Without that, the Houthi advance would have pushed much further, through the capital and down to the port of Aden, and we would have had a full-scale civil war. In contrast, there is no UN resolution to support Russia’s involvement in Syria. The Russians are supporting a brutal regime, which has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against its own people; they have compounded the situation. The two are not comparable in any way.

Britain remains resolute in its support for President Hadi and for the United Nations and its envoy in bringing the necessary stakeholders back to the table. I hope that we will see some developments in the very near future.

Given that I have only just come down from the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, I thank you for calling me, Mr Speaker.

May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister not only to work hard to get the macro-deal on a ceasefire between the competing parties at the top level, but to make sure that the work of all the international agencies is engaged with all the subsidiary interests in Yemen—a nation of enormous complexity? We must not just get a political track at the top level and ignore all the consequences that may flow regionally and more locally in Yemen.

My hon. Friend is right to point to the complexities of Yemen and what is going on there. On the face of it, the Houthis are against President Hadi, but as those who have visited or are familiar with the country will know, there is a complex network of tribal loyalties which are not necessarily supportive of any circumstance at the time, and those loyalties move depending on movements of funds, weapons, interests and so forth. It is a very complicated situation.

The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who raised the urgent question, spoke of the attack at the weekend. Reports suggest Daesh was responsible for it, although we still await confirmation. That shows how al-Qaeda, which is firmly based in the peninsula, and, indeed, Daesh, are taking advantage of the vacuum created by the absence of governance. That is all the more reason why we are encouraging the necessary stakeholders to come to the table.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) is right to say co-ordination of humanitarian aid is needed. The port of Hudaydah is currently under Houthi control, and until we can open it up, ships with humanitarian aid will continue to queue up and be unable to get in to provide that important aid for the rest of the country.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for calling me in the circumstances. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for securing the urgent question. The authority and passion he brings to the issue of Yemen is without equal in this House. For the last year and a half my right hon. Friend has been consistent and principled in his advice. Let us be clear that the difference between that and what we have heard this week from the Government could not be more stark. On Yemen, there is no consistency and no principle.

Last Thursday, we heard the Foreign Secretary say that Saudi Arabia was fighting proxy wars in countries like Yemen, and we know the consequences all too well: thousands of civilians killed, the country’s agricultural infrastructure destroyed, millions of Yemeni children facing starvation. Let us be clear: the Foreign Secretary was absolutely right on this, and we say, “Good for you, Boris.” Yet he has still been slapped down by Downing Street and forced to go to Riyadh to “clarify his remarks”—and he has sent his junior Minister here today to support Saudi Arabia’s actions to the hilt. It seems that he will not support our calls for an independent UN investigation into Saudi Arabia’s alleged war crimes, and he will continue selling it arms to prosecute its proxy wars. There is no consistency, there is no principle, there is just more shabby hypocrisy.

There are many questions I would like to ask the Minister today, but let me just ask one. It is the same question asked of him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East, and he has not had an answer, so I will ask it again. For two months now the UN Security Council has been waiting for the United Kingdom to present its proposed resolution to effect a ceasefire in Yemen to allow access for humanitarian relief. For two months, a draft resolution has been in circulation, so let me ask the Minister again: why has the resolution not been presented and who is holding it up, because the people of Yemen cannot afford any more delay?

I am not sure where to start. I will focus on the serious questions the hon. Lady poses rather than the political point-scoring she tries to involve in all these things, which I am afraid means I take on board less and less the points she actually made. Because she has obviously run out of questions to ask this week, she is regurgitating last week’s questions, instead of focusing on what is needed today.

If the hon. Lady holds on to her seat, I will answer all the questions—not just one question, but all the questions.

First, the Foreign Secretary made it clear—the hon. Lady should read the full passage of what he was saying—that there are concerns about the leadership needed in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, and that needs to be pushed forward; we need strong leadership in those places. As I said to the right hon. Member for Leicester East, the UN Security Council resolution is being discussed, but the hon. Lady should be aware of the details of how they are put together: we do not simply do it as a paper exercise; we do it by ensuring the work has been done to make sure it can stand. If the homework has not been done to make sure that the stakeholders are supportive of the resolution, what is the point of having the resolution anyway, other than to pat ourselves on the back and make ourselves look good? That may be good enough for the Labour party but it is certainly not good enough for the Government.

The hon. Lady did not mention the challenges we face with the Houthis themselves. I do not dispute that this has been a difficult campaign for the coalition. It has been new to conducting sustained warfare and has had to learn very difficult lessons in how to do that, governed by 21st-century rules. However, I make it clear that the Houthis are causing huge problems in that country. That needs to be acknowledged by this House as well. They have committed extrajudicial killings, unlawful arrests, detentions, abductions, enforced disappearances and the shelling of civilians in places such as Taiz. Landmines have also been used. Those are all things that have prolonged this conflict; the Houthis have not been brought to the table. What is required now is for all sides to work with the Quad and the UN to ensure that we can get the necessary ceasefire in place, which will lead us to the UN resolution that the hon. Lady is calling for.

The President is the legitimate leader of the country at the moment and we have to work with the stakeholders that he is representing to ensure that the road map is compatible with the needs and support of the people he represents. That is why we have had long discussions with him and the vice-president to ensure that we can bring them to the table. I take this opportunity to thank the Omanis, who have played such an important role in bringing the Houthis forward so that they can accept a long-term deal to take us away from military action to a political dialogue.

It is regrettable that the humanitarian situation has worsened to such an extent that the Disasters Emergency Committee has had to launch an appeal. We hope that it will be widely supported so that the people of Yemen do not, as has been predicted, literally run out of food in the coming months.

What more will the Government do to co-ordinate with the DEC and responders on the ground on the humanitarian response? What steps are the Government taking to ensure that that humanitarian response is not undermined by their continued laissez-faire attitude to the behaviour of Saudi Arabia? Calls for arms sales are only getting louder. Although we keep hearing that UK military officials are not carrying out strikes and are not directing operations, it begs the question, what are they doing on the ground to ensure that the coalition respects international humanitarian law? We hear so much about the Government’s positive relationship with Saudi Arabia, although it not clear whether that extends to the Foreign Secretary, but what good is that relationship if the Government cannot or will not use their influence to prevent the killing and starvation of innocent civilians?

Perhaps I can start with the hon. Gentleman’s last point. I would be happy to present to him the speeches that the Foreign Secretary made during the Manama dialogue, which confirmed not only our important working relationship with our close ally Saudi Arabia, but the frank conversations we have with that country and the work we do in stopping terrorist attacks from taking place. The hon. Gentleman could then become familiar with why that relationship is important. If we broke that relationship, the Gulf and, one could argue, the region and the UK could easily become a more dangerous place. That is not something he would advocate.

The hon. Gentleman speaks about the war itself. He has made the point in the Chamber before—he has been consistent on this—about concerns over the errors that have been made. I share those concerns. Forgive me; I did not respond to the point that was made earlier about the call for an independent investigation into the incidents that have taken place, but I have made it clear that I will support the call for a UN independent investigation if it is deemed that the reports—[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) let me finish the point? If it is deemed that the reports that are coming forward—that is the way any country conducting sustained warfare operates—are not worthy, we will call for an independent investigation, but that is the process that we follow, that the United States is following right now on incidents that have taken place in Afghanistan, and indeed that Saudi Arabia follows: they conduct their own investigations. If those investigations are found wanting, I will support a UN independent investigation.

May I ask my hon. Friend what chance he would give President Hadi if Saudi Arabia were to withdraw from its engagement—a proper engagement under UN resolutions—in Yemen?

My hon. Friend is right in implying that, were President Hadi not to receive the legitimate support through UN Security Council resolution 2216, the country would be in full-scale civil war. The complete breakdown in governance would provide incubation for organisations such as Daesh, al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. That would spill out way beyond the peninsula into the region. That is not something that we would want to contest. It is right that the coalition was formed and it is why we support the coalition. However, we absolutely share the concerns raised in the House that the conduct of that war needs to be scrutinised very carefully indeed.

On Saturday, Liverpool Friends of Yemen held our fourth monthly vigil in solidarity with the people of Yemen and for peace in that country. I have spoken to the Yemeni diaspora in Liverpool and their very clear message is that they fear for the lives of people back home. This is a country on the edge of famine. May I urge the Government—it is good to see the Minister of State, Department for International Development, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), present—to ensure that we do everything we can as a country to relieve the humanitarian crisis in Yemen? And when will we support an independent UN inquiry into alleged violations on both sides of the conflict?

On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, we will not support an independent report until we allow the Saudi Arabians to do their reports. That is the process that we face. They have never actually undertaken such publications and reports, so they are having to learn themselves. As we know, it is a conservative country that is unused to the limelight that is now being thrown on it. They must act responsibly, respectfully and transparently, as we would in the same situation.

On humanitarian aid, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This House and this country can be proud of the work that we are doing, not just here but right across the piece. He is right to say that the DFID Minister and, indeed, the Secretary of State for International Development are very much engaged with that. At the UN General Assembly in September, it was us who held a donors conference to encourage other countries to match our funding so that we can provide support to the people of Yemen. However, it is not a lack of funds or equipment that is the problem—

That is absolutely right: it is a lack of peace and a lack of access, particularly through the central port on the Red sea.

Charity agencies report that it is very difficult both to get into Yemen and, once there, to get aid out, because of all the bureaucratic challenges, arrests of charity workers, suspensions of programmes and difficulties in obtaining new programmes. Will my hon. Friend bring that up directly with all parties in the conflict, as it is the charity sector that is doing much of the delivery and it should be allowed to have rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access throughout the country?

I think that that is the point that everybody is most concerned about. Although it can take time for both parties to come to the table and work out the details, there is a sense of urgency in making sure that the humanitarian aid can get in as early as possible. That will be the focus of the next Quad meeting. Yes, we want parties to come together, but we immediately need access routes. We need the port to be opened fully so that container ships can go in and equipment can be distributed right across the country, not just through the port of Aden, which is how the material currently goes in.

Now that the Foreign Secretary is encouraging transparency and honesty in foreign affairs policy, does the Minister accept that, by signing up to the convention on cluster munitions, the UK is taking a stance that cluster munitions are always in violation of international humanitarian law owing to their indiscriminate and disproportionate nature? If so, arguing that the Saudi use of them is legitimate, as the Minister does, is completely contradictory and in violation of the convention, which states that the UK should always encourage Saudi Arabia not to use them. Why are the UK Government adopting that position?

To be clear, it is against international law only if the country has signed the convention, and there are countries across the world that have yet to do so. We have signed it and it is our policy to encourage others to do so. I had a meeting last Sunday with all the Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Co-operation Council nations, and I formally invited every single one of the Gulf countries to consider signing the convention. I hope that we will be able to move forward on this.

I welcome the fact that the UK has doubled its humanitarian commitment to Yemen to £85 million. Does my hon. Friend believe that the UN General Assembly can be of more help in actively resolving the situation?

If I understand my hon. Friend’s question correctly, she is asking about the General Assembly, as opposed to the UN Security Council, in which case there is no veto. In this arena, it is not so much about the challenge that we face from other permanent members in getting a UN resolution through. If we are going to draft a UN resolution, the important thing is that it needs to work; otherwise, it is simply a paper exercise. That is the homework that our head of mission is currently undertaking with other nations, to make sure that what we write on paper will lead to the cessation of hostilities, confidence-building measures and access to humanitarian aid, which are important; otherwise, it is not worth writing a UN Security Council resolution.

What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made to the Iranian Government about stopping the flow of arms to the Houthis? At the same time, what representations have been made to facilitate with the Iranians the opening of the ports so that much-needed aid can get through to the Yemenis who are suffering in this civil war?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point: what is Iran’s involvement in Yemen? Is it helpful or is it hindering events? The Prime Minister made it clear that Iran can play a more constructive role in ensuring that weapons systems are not entering the country, that the Houthis are encouraged to come to the table, that the Red sea remains free of ships that may want to arm the Houthis, and that the port is opened. Those are the messages that we are asking Iran to recognise.

There is no doubt that the conflict in Yemen is a war of proxies, and the Foreign Secretary was absolutely right to criticise Saudi Arabia in the way that he did. However, there had been no mention of Iran until the previous question. The United Kingdom must take some responsibility for the continuing and escalating violence in Yemen, because if we had not agreed to the nuclear deal, the billions of pounds of resources would not have been able to enter this conflict and others in Syria, Lebanon and other parts of the middle east.

The signing of the joint comprehensive plan of action represents an opportunity for Iran to take a more responsible role on the international stage. We know that it has an influence from Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut and, indeed, to Sana’a. We want Iran to step forward and recognise that it is in the region’s interests for it to be more secure and more prosperous. It should elevate itself and rejoin the international community, not continue to hinder the peace process right across the region.

What is particularly pernicious about the use of cluster munitions is that many of the bomblets lie around for a long time, effectively creating minefields where many thousands of innocent civilians, including children, are killed. I am therefore slightly confused by the Government’s position. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin), who is fortunately still here, said in Defence questions earlier that the matter had been raised with the Saudis, but this Minister seemed to indicate just now that he does not oppose the Saudis’ use of cluster munitions. Surely we are opposed to their using such munitions and surely the Minister will be happy to condemn it from the Dispatch Box.

I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to put words in my mouth. I made it very clear that our policy is to discourage the use of cluster munitions across the world and to encourage people to sign up to and support the convention. In fact, I think I said in my answer that I absolutely condemn the use of cluster munitions. As he said, they are a legacy that lie around on the battlefield long after it has turned back into a civilian arena, and that is why they cause damage. That is why we signed this important convention and why I have invited all Gulf Co-operation Council nations to support its signing.

My hon. Friend has already said that there are issues around tribal agreement with the framework, but what measures has he taken to engage all relevant parties in the region to test the framework’s robustness?

We need a collective approach to ensure that stakeholders are supported in coming to the table to discuss not only Yemen but stabilisation, which applies to Iraq, Yemen and Syria. That is where the Gulf nations have a responsibility not only to support legitimate governance, but to take an interest in and commit to stabilisation, post-conflict planning and peacekeeping resolutions after the guns fall silent.

The first 1,000 days of a child’s life are vital in their lifelong development. Not only are Yemeni children’s basic human rights not being met now in this awful conflict, but they will not have a chance even when the conflict ends. What are the Government doing to ensure that Yemeni children have access to vital nutritious food for the duration of the conflict?

The hon. Lady is right; the travesty is that the length of this conflict is denying a generation, in terms not only of health but education. This is the generation that needs to rebuild the country in the longer term, which is why, as the Minister of State, Department for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), has confirmed, we are working with UNICEF specifically to make sure that we can provide the necessary nutritional meals to support those infants in the important years in the first 1,000 days of their lives.

Let me congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who asked the urgent question, as I believe the whole House would recognise that he has almost single-handedly kept the issue of Yemen before this House. May I say to the shadow Minister that it was not right to make party political points on Yemen? May I ask our excellent Minister, who has a lot of knowledge of this issue, whether I am right in thinking that the humanitarian aid problem is not the amount—the money for it—but the fact that we cannot get it through? If that is the case, how can we try to open up the blockage?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments. He is right to point out the difficulties in getting access to these areas. There are a series of checkpoints on roads which mean that humanitarian aid is denied. There are non-governmental organisations and commercial organisations—we are not forgetting those—that do have access in some cases, but some of the aid is taken away as a punishment or penalty, or as the cost of getting into the country. The port is not running properly; the cranes are not working—not one of the old cranes is working there. If we get them working, we will be able suddenly to increase tenfold the aid that can get into the country.

A point of order on cluster musicians? Very well, I will take it now. [Interruption.] Not on musicians, no—I am sorry if I misspoke. It is on cluster munitions, which was what Jack Straw would have called the gravamen of the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. Let us hear it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. You will have heard, just a couple of minutes ago, the Minister say that the Government are against cluster munitions, but I have before me a letter from the Minister dated 3 November 2016, in which he states:

“The UK maintains the view that cluster munitions are not prima facie illegal, and can be used in compliance with international law by States that are not party to the Convention…provided that they are used in a manner that is compatible with international humanitarian law, including distinction, proportionality and the obligation to take all feasible precautions.”

I am confused, because the Minister says that the Government are completely opposed to cluster munitions and yet in this letter he sets out a view that in some circumstances they are perfectly legitimate and acceptable to use.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman is twofold. If what he wants is personal reassurance, I suggest that his appropriate recourse is to sidle up to the junior Minister and ask to have a cup of tea with him. Secondly, if he is concerned for the benefit of the House as a whole and he wants something formally on the record—as a former Deputy Leader of the House, I doubt he particularly needs my advice, but I will proffer it—he should table a written question on this substantive point upon which he requires clarification, and I think he will probably find his salvation coming pretty soon.

A helpful nod from a sedentary position from the Minister confirms that my expectation is correct. If there are no further points of order, I shall in a moment call—