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House of Commons Hansard

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

10 January 2017
Volume 619

    The Secretary of State was asked—

    Yemen

  • 1. What recent assessment he has made of the security and humanitarian situation in Yemen. [908030]

  • Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker.

    The humanitarian situation in Yemen is one of the most serious crises in the world. The UN estimates that 19 million people are in need of help. The UK is providing support, and we are spending more than £100 million to provide assistance. We all agree that a political solution is the best way to end this conflict. I met foreign Ministers from Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and the United States on 18 December in Riyadh, along with Ismail Ahmed, the UN envoy, to advance the UN road map, which I hope will bring all parties back to the table.

  • The humanitarian situation in Yemen is deteriorating, and the UN estimates that 80% of the population are in need of humanitarian aid—about 21.2 million Yemenis. According to the Government’s own figures, British aid, although welcome, has reached less than 5% of the people in Yemen who need it—obviously nowhere near enough for a major emergency that is affecting people not only in Yemen, but in my constituency. What plans does the Minister have to increase the number of people in Yemen who can directly benefit from British support?

  • The hon. Lady raises an important aspect of this very sad conflict: we are denied a political solution, but it is the people of Yemen who are suffering. The cause of the problem is the inability to get aid into the country. The port of Aden is used as a conduit, but the main access to the majority of the country is through the port of Hodeidah, which unfortunately is currently in Houthi hands. The cranes are out of action, but we must ensure that we can gain greater access through. I spoke with Ismail Ahmed about what we can do to repair the cranes so that bigger ships can get in with equipment and support, which can then be distributed across the country.

  • I wholly endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). The UN reports that there might be up to 370,000 starving children in Yemen, so in addition to our own aid what discussions has my hon. Friend had with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states about providing significant humanitarian aid themselves?

  • It is fair to say—this is an important question—that while the headlines are about the military campaign Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition are doing huge amounts to provide support and humanitarian aid for refugees in their countries. This is often done outside the auspices of the United Nations. During the United Nations General Assembly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development held a conference to bring further countries together to support Britain’s work to get aid into and across the country.

  • I thank the Minister and the Foreign Secretary for their personal efforts in trying to broker a ceasefire. That is the key: we need a ceasefire in the same way as Turkey and Russia managed to achieve one for Syria. Have there been any further discussions with the United States about getting this back on to the agenda of the Security Council? I know that the Foreign Secretary was in America at the end of last week, so was this issue raised? When can we get this back for discussion at the UN?

  • A later question on the Order Paper focuses on a UN Security Council resolution, but to touch on it now, yes, it is our ambition to gain a resolution along the lines of what the road map sets out. We met on 19 December and confirmed the direction of travel in which we want to go. The right hon. Gentleman will know from his understanding of the country that it is not so simple as suggesting this is all about the Houthis versus President Hadi and forces on his side. The complex tribal structures that are involved require the buy-in of many parts of the country to ensure that the ceasefire and cessation of hostilities can last.

  • 15. Can the Minister confirm media reports that Oman is now publicly backing the Saudi-led coalition’s attempts to bring security back to Yemen? [908044]

  • I can confirm that Yusuf bin Alawi, foreign Minister for Oman, was at the discussions on 19 December, along with Adel al-Jubeir, the Foreign Minister for Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah bin Zayed from the United Arab Emirates. These are the key nations providing support, and I pay tribute to the work that Oman has done through its discussions, bringing the Houthis to the table so that we can get something secure for the ceasefire that we are all searching for.

  • Inaccurate information has been provided to Parliament a number of times on Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Minister has said previously that he acted immediately. However, a new freedom of information request reveals that not only the Minister but the former Foreign Secretary knew as early as 28 June last year that Parliament had been misled, but this was not corrected until 21 July. Does the Minister believe that the ministerial code was complied with?

  • I can only guess that the hon. Gentleman’s question relates to the sale of cluster munitions, because he did not explain its context. Perhaps we can meet later so that he can ask me a fuller question. Alternatively, he can attend the debate on Thursday, when we shall doubtless discuss Yemen in more detail.

  • Last month the Defence Secretary informed the House that the Saudi Government had given assurances that they would no longer use UK-manufactured cluster bombs. Has the Minister received confirmation from the Saudis that they have now disposed of their stocks of those weapons?

  • They have confirmed that that is their intention, and I hope to be able to ensure that it has actually happened in time for Thursday’s debate. I can go further, and tell the House that, before the Prime Minister’s visit to Manama for the Gulf Cooperation Council conference, I invited all the GCC nations to sign the convention on cluster munitions so that they could join other countries around the world in condemning those horrific weapon systems.

  • 14. Forty million people in Yemen, more than half the population, are going hungry today. In the capital, Sana’a, residents have resorted to scavenging the rubbish dumps for scraps of food. What progress is the Minister making towards brokering a ceasefire so that the Yemeni people can get the help they need? [908043]

  • What the hon. Gentleman has said returns us to the original question. It is vital for us to gain full access to Sana’a, but again, unfortunately, that is in the hands of the Houthis. We are unable to utilise the airport, which would be the best way to get aid into the country, because of disagreements that are taking place. The sooner we can get all parties back around the table—including supporters of Saleh—the sooner we can bring about a cessation of hostilities and get that important aid back into the country, including the capital.

  • Let me begin by saying that I think it fitting for the House to welcome the fact that, whatever else 2016 brought, it was the first year in nearly four decades in which no member of our armed forces was killed in operations. Sadly, however, that is not because we live in a more peaceful world. In Yemen the conflict remains as fierce as ever, and the suffering of its children is worse than ever. As the Minister himself has said, it is the worst crisis in the world. One child is dying every 10 minutes from a lack of food.

    I have here a copy of the United Kingdom’s draft United Nations resolution, which could bring an end to that conflict and allow the delivery of humanitarian relief. There is not a single word in that draft resolution with which any reasonable party could possibly disagree. Let me ask the Minister a simple question. Three months after the resolution’s first appearance, why is the UK still sitting on it?

  • A UN resolution must be drafted in a way that makes it workable. That means that all parties must sign and agree to it, because otherwise it is just a piece of paper. If we are to ensure that the resolution can stand on the basis of what we are saying and can be enforced, the parties must get round the table and bring about a cessation of hostilities. The hon. Lady is right: we work towards the drafts, but we do not implement them until we are sure that the resolutions can work in practice.

  • I thank the Minister for his answer, but I must tell him that we have heard all this before. I know that the Ministers do not listen to their ambassadors any more nowadays, but this is what our UN ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, said back in November when he was asked what it would take to achieve a permanent ceasefire:

    “The UK will continue to support efforts…including through the use—if necessary—of our draft Security Council resolution.”

    That was 50 days ago—50 days of continuing fighting—and we are still seeing the same old delaying tactics on the Government’s part. Let me ask the Minister again: when will the Foreign Secretary pull his finger out, present the resolution, and end what even he has acknowledged is a terrible proxy war?

  • I am sorry to use these words, but the hon. Lady has just illustrated that she has no grasp of the United Nations process itself, or of what is taking place on the ground in Yemen; and to suggest that any member of the Government does not listen to our ambassadors is to disingenuously mislead the House. I invite—

  • Order. Of one thing we should be clear: that the Minister has a grasp of parliamentary protocol. He cannot accuse somebody of disingenuously misleading the House; both words are wrong, and both must be withdrawn.

  • I withdraw those remarks; if I add “inadvertently”, and say inadvertently disingenuously misleading the House, would that work with you, Sir?

  • If somebody is disingenuous there can be nothing inadvertent about it, which I would have thought the hon. Gentleman was well-educated enough to recognise; do try to get it right, man.

  • I think the point has been made, Mr Speaker, and I am sorry to test your patience, but it is important to understand that we take the words of, and work with, our ambassadors very seriously indeed. I spoke to Matthew Rycroft only a few days ago. We are the penholders on this matter at the UN Security Council, and I will make sure there is a phone call between him and the hon. Lady so he can explain the processes of the United Nations and becomes aware that we will not get a Security Council resolution passed until we get the cessation of hostilities in place.

  • Progress, apart from anything else, has been glacial—far, far too slow—so we need to speed up.

  • George Low

  • 2. What recent representations the Government have made to authorities in northern Cyprus on the killing of George Low in Ayia Napa in August 2016. [908031]

  • The Foreign Secretary raised this consular case in November last year, and our high commission in Nicosia is also raising this delicate matter, including in discussions with north Cyprus. We will continue to push to see those guilty of the murder of George Low brought to justice.

  • I thank the Foreign Office for its hard work in trying to secure justice for both George Low and Ben Barker. Natural justice demands that people should not be able simply to walk away from custody when accused of murder, yet northern Cyprus has allowed this to happen with one of the suspects and it is feared that the second will soon follow. Please can the Minister reassure the victim’s family that every possible effort will be made to persuade northern Cyprus to allow decency to prevail and for these men to face trial?

  • The House will not be aware of this, but I know my hon. Friend is. It has been a delicate and difficult case and I commend the work he has done, including in working with the families, and I can assure him that the Minister with responsibility for Europe and FCO officials are fully engaged to provide the necessary support to both families. My hon. Friend will realise that because this involves north Cyprus, we cannot speak too widely about what discussions have taken place, but we are working hard to ensure justice is seen to follow.

  • The Minister is right that this has been a complicated case, but there have been far too many complicated cases involving British nationals in the various different parts of Cyprus. Does he agree that the truth of the matter is that until we get a proper settlement of Cyprus so we no longer have a divided island and a divided city, there will be no long-term justice either for the people of this country in Cyprus or for that matter for the people of Cyprus?

  • I hope the former Minister for Europe will join me in congratulating the two leaders, who are coming together this week. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is going to Geneva to try to push forward what will be monumental discussions to finally provide that important solution. I hope that then cases such as this will be able to be resolved much faster.

  • Colombia: Political Prisoners

  • 3. What reports he has received on the conditions in which political prisoners are held in Colombia; and if he will make a statement. [908032]

  • 13. What reports he has received on the conditions in which political prisoners are held in Colombia; and if he will make a statement. [908042]

  • We are concerned by reports about the detention of human rights defenders and activists in Colombia, often held without trial or access to legal representation. Our embassy in Bogota closely follows specific cases. The Prime Minister raised our concerns about threats to human rights defenders with President Santos during the state visit in November.

  • I thank the Minister for his answer, but, following the amnesty law passed by the Colombian Congress on 28 December, will the Minister urge the Columbian Government to release all civil society prisoners, as agreed, as soon as possible?

  • We welcome the approval of the new amnesty Bill of course, and we believe it will lead to a benefit for all citizens and the wider region as part of the Columbian peace process. We look forward to all aspects of that law, particularly with regard to disarmament and reintegration.

  • Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

    The transition zones are an important, if not crucial, aspect of the peace agreement, yet we are hearing reports of work on living quarters not even having started, of food being so rotten that people are suffering from severe and possibly lethal food poisoning, and of the supply of water being very scarce. Given that the transition zones are where the FARC troops are supposed to be concentrated as an essential element of the peace agreement, will Her Majesty’s Government please put absolute pressure on the Colombian authorities to ensure that the zones are properly completed?

  • We do of course raise these matters with the Colombian authorities on a regular basis. I take the point that the hon. Gentleman has made, and we will of course relay it back.

  • The United Kingdom has supported the Colombian Government of Juan Manuel Santos throughout the difficult, recently concluded and very welcome peace process, and we have pledged our continuing support through the United Nations and the European Union. Will the Minister outline what specifically will be supported, and tell us whether the Colombian people and civil society will be included in the discussions on how the funds will be allocated?

  • My hon. Friend is right to suggest that 2016 was a historic year for Colombia. The peace deal with the FARC ended the longest conflict in the western hemisphere. He asks about the range of support that we are providing for the peace process. It includes a contribution of £7.5 million to the UN trust fund, with more than £2 million dedicated to de-mining.

  • According to a report from the Institute for Development and Peace Studies in 2016, there is now a paramilitary presence in 31 of the 32 Colombian departments. Will the Minister make urgent representations to the Colombian Government to ensure that the proliferation of paramilitaries and private armies is countered, and that the articles of the peace process are upheld?

  • I can confirm that we are concerned by reports of violence against human rights defenders, which has increased in 2016. Those attacks have increased in areas from which the FARC is withdrawing, which is disturbing. We will of course raise these matters with the Colombian Government, particularly the importance of security in conflict-affected areas.

  • Yemen

  • 4. If he will review the UK’s support for the Saudi-led coalition forces operating in Yemen. [908033]

  • Despite signing the partnership for peace agreement, the Houthis invaded the capital, Sana’a, placed Ministers under house arrest, took over ministerial buildings and committed extra-judicial killings. The Saudi-led military coalition was formed, following the legitimate request from President Hadi as set out in United Nations Security Council 2216. It is in this context that the UK supports the military intervention.

  • At a time when millions in Yemen are facing starvation, it beggars belief that the Saudi coalition is routinely targeting airstrikes at cattle markets, dairy farms, food factories and other agriculture infrastructure. Can the Minister explain why the coalition is doing that, and why we are supporting it?

  • We are not supporting them doing that, as the hon. Lady can no doubt imagine. We are working closely with the Saudi Arabians and the coalition to ensure that the protocols and standards that they are using in sustained warfare meet the international standards that we would expect, were we to be involved ourselves. Much of the information that comes from the battlefield is very unclear indeed, but we are enforcing transparency in a way that the Saudi Arabians and many other members of the coalition have never seen before.

  • Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the Saudi-led coalition intends to restore the legitimate Government in Yemen, it is clearly right and proper that we should support it?

  • My right hon. Friend knows the region well and he is absolutely right. I want to make it clear, however, that the coalition has made errors. It has made mistakes. It has not endured sustained warfare in this manner before, and it is having to meet international standards as never before. It is having to provide reports when it makes mistakes, and it has never done that before. It has no experience of even writing reports. It wants to meet those standards and to work with the international community. We need to ensure that when errors are made, the coalition puts its hand up in the same way that we do and that the Americans did in Afghanistan only a few months ago.

  • Given that Saudi Arabia has finally admitted to using illegal cluster bombs in Yemen, what consequence or sanction is being planned by the UK Government against Saudi Arabia for that clear breach of international humanitarian law?

  • If I may attempt to correct the hon. Gentleman, those cluster bombs are not illegal, because Saudi Arabia has not signed up to the convention on cluster munitions. Therefore it is in its right—indeed, any country’s right—to use cluster munitions should it wish. As I mentioned earlier, I have encouraged Saudi Arabia to make sure not only that it has destroyed all the cluster munitions that we sold it in the past, but that it gets rid of its entire arsenal of cluster munitions and signs the convention.

  • Has the Minister talked to the Saudi coalition about dealing with the long-standing threat from al-Qaeda and the growing threat from Daesh in Yemen, which threatens not just the Gulf but our security at home?

  • In all our discussions with the Saudi Arabians and other coalitions that are learning how to conduct necessary warfare to the standards that we expect, we sometimes gloss over the fact that the absence of a solution allows the incubation of extremism in the form of Daesh, which is now present in the peninsular, and al-Qaeda. Until very recently, the port of Mukalla was completely run by that extremist operation. From our security perspective, more terrorist attacks are plotted in the peninsular by al-Qaeda than by any of its wings. Yes, it is very important that we work with our coalition friends to ensure that we defeat extremism in Yemen.

  • May I endeavour to make a better case for Britain’s policy on the Yemen tragedy than the Minister made in his earlier replies? Will he now make clear the value to our security and to our dynamic aerospace industry of our relationship with the Saudis and the Gulf states? Will he also make clear the concern of the UK and the international community at the expansionist and subversive activities of the Iranian regime?

  • There is nothing in that question with which I would disagree. Saudi Arabia is an important ally in the region. Its security and the region’s security is our security, too, but as the right hon. Gentleman also articulated, Saudi Arabia is unused to conducting such sustained warfare and it needs to learn. We are standing with Saudi Arabia to make sure it is learning lessons and to make sure that we work towards peace in Yemen, for all the reasons that we have discussed in the Chamber today.

  • West Bank: Illegal Settlements

  • 5. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in Israel on illegal settlements in the west bank. [908034]

  • I spoke to the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Netanyahu—he is also the Israeli Foreign Minister—on 23 December and raised the subject of illegal settlements. I probably spoke for a large majority of Members when I said that I am a strong and passionate supporter of the state of Israel, but I also believe that the continued expansion of illegal settlements in the west bank is by no means conducive to peace.

  • I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Will he further advise us on what assessment his Government have made of the Israeli Government’s intent to comply with UN Security Council resolution 2334 on illegal Israeli settlements?

  • That is clearly a matter for the Israeli Government, but I repeat our position that we believe—this is a long-standing view of the UK Government—that settlements in the west bank are illegal, and that the 20% expansion we have seen in those settlements since 2009 is a threat to the peace process. That was why we resolved as we did. Of course, there has been a certain amount of argument about that and a certain amount of push back from the Israeli Government, but the hon. Lady will find that there is a wide measure of international support for that view, which in no way diminishes this Government’s strong support for a Jewish homeland in Israel.

  • Is there anything in the substantial analysis presented by Secretary Kerry on 28 December, following the adoption of Security Council resolution 2334, with which the Foreign Secretary does not agree?

  • Let me repeat my point: John Kerry was completely right to draw attention to the illegal settlements and to the substance of resolution 2334. I remind the House that the UK was closely involved in its drafting, although of course it was an Egyptian-generated resolution. We supported it only because it contained new language pointing out the infamy of terrorism that Israel suffers every day, not least on Sunday, when there was an attack in Jerusalem. I was glad that the resolution identified that aspect of the crisis in the middle east, and John Kerry was absolutely right to point out the rounded nature of the resolution. May I pay tribute to John Kerry, who is shortly to step down as Secretary of State, for his tireless work for peace not just in Israel-Palestine, but across the wider middle east?

  • I welcome the Government’s vote in favour of UN Security Council resolution 2334, not least because it stated that

    “the cessation of all Israeli settlement activities is essential for salvaging the two-State solution”.

    Following the Foreign Secretary’s discussions in the past couple of days with members of the incoming Administration in the United States, does he think that that view is shared by President-elect Trump?

  • I think it is a widespread view in Washington, and across the UN Security Council, that settlements are illegal, which was why the resolution went through as it did, without any opposition. To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question directly, I think it is too early to say exactly what the Administration will decide on this matter, but he can rest assured that the British Government will continue to make the points that we have, not because we are hostile to Israel—on the contrary—but because we wish to support the state of Israel.

  • Let me try to get this right: the British ambassador is summoned formally in Israel because of the way the UK voted at the UN Security Council; meanwhile, in the UK, an employee of the Israeli embassy is caught on film conspiring with a British civil servant to take down a senior Minister in the Foreign Secretary’s Department, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and other Members of this House; and the Israeli ambassador makes a couple of phone calls and all is forgiven and forgotten. Can the Foreign Secretary enlighten us on the thinking behind all this?

  • I certainly can enlighten the House, in the sense that, as my right hon. Friend points out, the Israeli ambassador made a very full apology for what had taken place and the diplomat in question no longer seems to be a functionary of the embassy in London. Whatever that person might exactly have been doing here, his cover can be said to have been well and truly blown, and I think we should consider the matter closed.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • Order. I am sorry, because these are very important matters, but I must say that progress is lamentably slow, so long questions will be cut off from now on, because there are people lower down the Order Paper who must be reached.

  • But if a UK embassy official had been caught on film in Tel Aviv talking about “taking down” an Israeli Government Minister, they would have been booted out of the country without any further ceremony, so why did that not happen to Mr Masot? If the Foreign Secretary showed even a teensy-weensy bit of resolve in such matters, perhaps Israeli diplomats would not talk about him in such disparaging terms.

  • The right hon. Gentleman seems, alas, to have been failing to pay attention to the salient point, which is that the Israeli diplomat in question is no longer doing his job in London—whatever his job is, he is no longer doing it in this city. The Israeli ambassador has made a full apology for the matter and I am happy to consider it closed.

  • Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and colleagues to discuss our grave concerns about resolution 2334, which my constituents believe will make peace in the middle east harder to achieve by imposing a complex set of preconditions that the Palestinians will use to avoid serious engagement in negotiation?

  • I am very grateful for that question, and I am happy to offer exactly such a consultation with colleagues. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), has already undertaken to do just that.

  • I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning the horrific attack on Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem on Sunday. We will never achieve a lasting peace in the middle east until the state of Israel, its soldiers and civilians are free from the threat of terror. Nor will we achieve that lasting peace until all sides accept a two-state solution and a viable Palestinian state can be built, free from illegal settlements. In his allegedly frank discussions with the incoming Trump Administration on Sunday, was the Foreign Secretary frank about those points, too? If so, what response did he receive?

  • The answer to the first question is yes, and the answer to the second is wait and see.

  • I call Virendra Sharma. Not here. Where is the feller? I am becoming accustomed to having to say this every day; it is very unsatisfactory.

  • Diplomatic Relations: UK/Germany

  • 7. What recent assessment he has made of the strength of diplomatic relations between Germany and the UK. [908036]

  • First, let me repeat the condolences that we have offered, and that I am sure that many Members will want to join me in offering, to the people of Germany for the terrible attack that they sustained on 19 December. We continue to work with our German counterparts to strengthen security. We have superb relations with Germany, and it is vital, both as we go through the Brexit process and beyond, that we deepen and intensify that friendship.

  • I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s expression of condolence to the people of Berlin. Given that Germany is a net exporter to the United Kingdom and would not want its economy to be affected through the imposition of tariffs, what extra work is being done to build diplomatic relations for the benefit of future reciprocal free trade between our two countries?

  • I am grateful for that question because, as my hon. Friend will know very well, a big operation is now going on. UK Trade & Investment and British diplomacy are pointing out the salient facts that German investment in this country is responsible for around 344,000 jobs here in the UK, and UK investment in Germany is responsible for 222,000 jobs. It would be the height of insanity to imperil either of those sets of investments.

  • The Foreign Secretary speaks of our relationship with Germany as being very good and special. Is it not a fact that many leading Germans are concerned about Britain leaving the European Union and the impact that that will have on Europe’s security, particularly in terms of our commitment to NATO, given the instability we see in Russia?

  • The hon. Gentleman asks an acute question. Of all the countries in the EU and the rest of Europe that care about our departure, I would say that it is certainly the Germans who have been most psychologically and emotionally affected by the 23 June referendum result. That is why the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) is so apposite and why engagement is vital.

    On NATO and our joint defence, the hon. Gentleman should not forget that we contribute 25% of the EU’s defence expenditure, and that will continue, because while we may be leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe, and our commitment to Europe’s defence is undiminished.

  • Gulf Co-operation Council

  • 8. What recent assessment he has made of the strength of diplomatic and economic relations between countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council and the UK. [908037]

  • Thanks to our historical connections and our shared economic and other interests, which include foreign policy, defence, security, trade and culture, we have exceptionally strong relationships with the Gulf Co-operation Council nations. That was reflected in the warm reception that the Prime Minister received when she attended the GCC summit in November and established a new UK-GCC strategic partnership.

  • So does the Minister agree that Britain has a unique competitive advantage in securing a free trade agreement with the GCC due to those desired sectors and our long-standing friendship, as well as the GCC’s desire for economic diversification?

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One reason why the Chancellor was visiting the region only a couple of weeks ago was to enforce those exact points. I am sure that once the Brexit discussions have moved forward, one of the first areas with which we will consolidate a trade agreement will be the GCC nations.

  • In December, the Foreign Secretary accused Saudi Arabia of “playing proxy wars” and destabilising the region. Soon afterwards, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said that that was not the Government’s view. Whose view was the Foreign Secretary expressing?

  • Let me expand that out further to our relationship with the GCC nations. As I said earlier, those countries are advancing, but they are still very new. Saudi Arabia became an independent country in modern terms only in 1932. It is because of our close relationship with those countries in a wide variety of sectors and the trust that we have in them that we are encouraging them to advance in their governance systems.

  • The diplomatic stature of the GCC has risen significantly in recent years, not least because of the wise guidance of the GCC Secretary-General, Abdullatif al-Zayani, who is a friend of the Minister and of mine. In view of the impasse in the middle east peace process and the GCC’s relationship with the Arab states and Israel, does he believe that the time is now right for the GCC and the Arab states to take some initiative to move the middle east peace process forward?

  • I know that that is close to my right hon. Friend’s heart, and that he worked very hard on it when he was Minister for the middle east. He is absolutely right that, as the GCC grows in its prowess, strength and authority, it has an important role to play in what is arguably one of the longest-running concerns, which started with the occupation of the occupied territories more than 50 years ago. In the year that we mark the Balfour declaration, I hope that we will also make progress in this area.

  • Is not one of the biggest challenges facing the GCC countries the conflict in Yemen, where they have in excess of 100,000 troops? They are up against a rebel group that has been involved in extra-judicial killings, that is trying to overthrow the country, and that is involved in torture. The Library briefing notes put the number of child soldiers in the rebel group at 30%. Is that not a disgrace? Is it not the biggest challenge facing the GCC countries, and should we not be supporting them?

  • I agree that it is one of the biggest challenges for the GCC. We forget that this is its neighbourhood—its backyard. Those countries want regional security in the same way that we do—we want it near where we live, work and want to raise families. Exactly the same applies to the GCC nations, and it is something that I will explore more in the debate on Thursday.

  • Exiting the EU: Diplomatic Relations

  • 9. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on diplomatic relations after the UK exits the EU. [908038]

  • We have regular consultations about the future shape of our diplomatic relations with the rest of the EU. The hon. Lady should understand that we may be leaving the EU treaties, but we are not leaving Europe. There will be plenty of ways in which we will continue to collaborate on all the issues that are vital to us, whether in the EU or out.

  • I welcome that answer. Free movement is a key issue in discussions with our EU counterparts. Have the Government therefore considered that in order to get the best possible access to the European single market, we should propose a managed migration system that still gives preference to EU workers, welcoming those with high skills, but limiting the numbers of low and semi-skilled workers coming here to work?

  • I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I say that that would come under the category of our giving a running commentary on our negotiating position. We cannot do that—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) says that Brexit means Brexit, and she is perfectly right.

  • I call a Kentish knight, Sir Julian Brazier.

  • Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

    Given the trade ties that my right hon. Friend has already mentioned and the fact that we are Europe’s largest defence contributor, does he agree that we should not have to make deals on immigration and free movement to secure a good trade agreement with our allies and friends in Europe?

  • May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend on his well-deserved knighthood in the new year’s honours list? He speaks very good sense. I think that I can agree with him completely without in any way being convicted of giving a running commentary on our negotiations, so I thank him very much.

  • Never mind a running commentary, has the Foreign Secretary given any commentary at all to his own officials, such as Sir Ivan Rogers, who left the service saying that he had not been given any sense of the Government’s negotiating objectives? Will the Secretary of State perhaps speak to Sir Tim Barrow and give him a clue about what the Government intend to do?

  • If the hon. Gentleman consults the speeches of the Prime Minister more closely, he will discover a wealth of information about our negotiating position, but since he has not bothered to do that, I do not propose to enlighten him now, except to say that Sir Ivan Rogers did an excellent job and always gave me very good advice. I think his reasons for stepping down early were persuasive. Sir Tim Barrow, as anybody who has worked with him will know—I think that people on both sides of the House will have done so—is an outstanding public servant with long-standing experience of UK representation in Brussels, and he will do a superb job in the forthcoming talks.

  • I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that not only are diplomatic relations important, but relationships between Members of this House and European partners have been important. Membership of the Council of Europe, of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and of all-party groups has never been more important, so can he give an assurance that his Department will assist in every way in making sure that bilateral relationships that exist between Members of this House and Europe will be encouraged?

  • Absolutely—I am very happy to give that assurance to my hon. Friend. As he will know, there are parliamentary bodies of one party or another that have links with sister parties across the continent, and we will do absolutely everything we can to promote that in the years ahead.

  • On behalf of Labour Members, may I pay tribute to the long and distinguished career of Sir Ivan Rogers? He served successive Governments with great distinction, and most of the Secretary of State’s predecessors had the good sense to appreciate it; it is a pity that he could not do so until just now when my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) managed to press him. In his resignation letter, Sir Ivan said:

    “Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen”.

    Can the Secretary of State explain who Sir Ivan had in mind?

  • I have given my views about Sir Ivan, but I am happy to repeat them: I think he is, as the hon. Gentleman said, an outstanding public servant, and he always gave me very frank advice. It is vital for officials to continue to give their round, unvarnished views of matters such as the ease of negotiating free trade deals. It is not necessarily going to be simple, but there is no reason to think it cannot be done speedily, and no reason to think we cannot have fantastic free trade deals, not least with the United States of America.

  • Middle East Peace Talks

  • 10. What steps he is taking to promote the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. [908039]

  • We are using every forum at our disposal to try to encourage both sides to get to the negotiating table. It is deeply frustrating. I join hon. Members on both sides of the House who have condemned the appalling attack on—the murder of—four Israeli soldiers at the weekend. All I can do is repeat what we have said: the only way forward has to be a two-state solution, and that is why it was important to restate the Government’s position in resolution 2334.

  • The General Secretary of the UN has warned about Iran’s activities in arming Hezbollah in Lebanon through its base in Syria. What can the Foreign Secretary do to combat this growing menace to the prospects of any peace in the region?

  • It is very important to recognise that Iran is a malign influence across the region, and we must be very vigilant about what it is doing. On the other hand, we have to engage with Iran. I think the JCPOA—joint comprehensive plan of action—does represent, still, a substantial and valid way forward, and it would be regrettable if we were to junk that process now.

  • 22. In looking at the steps to promote peace talks, what effect does the Foreign Secretary think the current level of Palestinian violence is going to have on that process? [908052]

  • As my hon. Friend will know, the level of violence, as we have discussed, has been down by comparison with 2015, but it is still too high. I think it was important, therefore, that the resolution, which has been so much discussed this morning, had that balance in it and that language in it pointing out the threat that Israel faces. It is important that we stress that, and that we encourage the Palestinians to understand that there can be no hope of peace unless they get their extremists under control.

  • I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary is using every forum to bring peace. Will he, therefore, be attending the Paris conference, and what new initiative will the UK Government be putting forward there?

  • I can certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman that the UK Government will be attending the Paris talks and we will be reinforcing our message, which is that we think that both sides must get round the table and negotiate. That is the only way forward. It would be folly now to abandon a two-state solution, because, in the end, a one-state solution is not in the interests of Israel.

  • Middle East (Persecution of Christians)

  • 11. What recent reports he has received on the persecution of Christians in the middle east. [908040]

  • The Government regularly receive reports of sectarian attacks on Christian and other religious communities in the middle east. We want to work with all Governments across the middle east and north Africa to ensure that freedom of religion or belief is respected.

  • Although the genocide of Christians in the areas ruled by Daesh has rightly taken the most attention, my hon. Friend will be only too aware that the persecution of Christians across the region is way too common. Will he join me, therefore, in welcoming the work done by Open Doors to highlight that, and what plans does he have to consider its latest report, which is due to be launched in the House tomorrow?

  • May I briefly say that I very much welcome the work that is done by organisations such as Open Doors, and the work that my hon. Friend has done to promote them? I look forward to reading the report, which I think is due out tomorrow. Open Doors makes a major contribution to that work and the Government’s thinking to try to support Christians and other religious communities in the middle east and north Africa.

  • Given all these crimes against Christians in the middle east, will the Government ensure that we do everything we can to make sure that this is recognised as genocide in the international courts?

  • I have said in this House that I personally believe that acts of genocide have taken place, but it is not my view that counts; it is whether we can legally prove that. As we have debated here before, it is important that we collect the evidence. I am sure that the House will be delighted to know—it has been confirmed already— that the Foreign Secretary joined other countries, including Iraq, at the United Nations General Assembly to launch the work to be done to collect the evidence to make sure that we can hold those who have conducted these horrific activities to account.

  • I could not be more grateful to the Minister.

  • Anglo-American Discussions

  • 12. What recent discussions the Government have had with the incoming US administration. [908041]

  • I have come back this morning from the United States, where I have been discussing these matters with the incoming Administration. It was clear that there is a wide measure of agreement between us over the challenges we face. I assure the House that our embassy in Washington and the Prime Minister’s office—No. 10—and officials at all levels are engaging with the incoming team to make sure that we work in lock step to build on those areas of agreement.

  • In addition to talks with the incoming US Administration, what talks, specifically with regard to security and trade, did my right hon. Friend have with congressional leaders?

  • I have to say to the House that there was a huge fund of goodwill for the United Kingdom on Capitol Hill, and a very large measure of understanding that now is the time to do a free trade deal. They want to do it, and they want to do it fast. That understanding was most vivid and most urgent on the part of the incoming Administration.

  • Topical Questions

  • I call Mr Virendra Sharma. Has the feller now manifested himself? No, sadly not. Never mind. He is not here, but Rebecca Pow is.

  • T2. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [908021]

  • My priorities for 2017 are to renew our efforts to address the crisis in the middle east; to work towards securing the best deal for Britain in the negotiations with our European partners that will be begun by the triggering of article 50; and to build an even stronger working relationship with the US Administration. As I have said, I have just returned from furthering that ambition in the US. As this is the last FCO questions before the end of the Obama Administration, let me repeat formally my thanks to John Kerry for his tireless dedication.

  • Illegal trading in wildlife is now the fourth most lucrative transnational crime, and it has a hugely destabilising effect on habitats and on many communities. On that note, will the Secretary of State tell me what his Department is doing to help to combat the poaching and illegal ivory trading in Africa?

  • This Government have made it clear that combating the illegal wildlife trade is one of our priorities. We have a dedicated illegal wildlife trade team in London, working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As my hon. Friend will know, the Secretary of State recently came back from a highly successful conference in Hanoi on the ivory trade. We are supporting—[Interruption.] With our funds, we are supporting—[Interruption.] Let me tell the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who mocks the elephants, that the number of elephants is diminishing by 8% every year. Thanks to the efforts of this Government, that issue is being raised up the international agenda again. We are spending considerable sums of money to support those who are combating the poachers.

  • All questions and answers from now on need to be extremely brief, irrespective of how distinguished those who put the questions are or judge themselves to be. I call Mr Alex Salmond.

  • When the right hon. Gentleman was a columnist, he was supportive of some aspects of President Putin’s policies. When he became Foreign Secretary, he became vehemently hostile to Russian policy. After his visit to New York, we are told he is pursuing a twin-track policy, which means that we will be supportive and hostile at the same time. At what time during his visit to Trump Tower did he decide that duplicity was the best policy?

  • I really must ask the right hon. Gentleman to go back and look at what I said previously. I have never been supportive of the policies of President Putin in Syria. Quite frankly, I do think it is important to understand that Russia is doing many bad things—if we look at what they have done on cyber-warfare and what they are doing in the western Balkans, there is no doubt that they are up to no good—but it is also important for us to recognise, and I think he will find that this is exactly what I said a few years ago, that there may be areas where we can work together, and that is what we should do.

  • T3. Does my right hon. Friend agree that until the divisions between the Sunnis and the Shi’as are reconciled, there will not be full regional peace, security and prosperity in the region? What role can Britain play in that process? [908022]

  • My hon. and learned Friend asks a very fundamental question, because in a sense there is a cold war feel to the relationship between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, yet the doctrinal difference is actually almost insignificant. Both agree on the absolute centrality of the Prophet Muhammad, but the big issue is about the succession—whether the successor was Ali, the cousin and son-in-law, or Abu Bakr, the father-in-law. She is absolutely right that if the two sides can be reconciled, prosperity and security will improve, and I hope Britain can have a role to play. [Interruption.]

  • As I have just been advised by our most esteemed procedural expert in the House, we do not need a lecture in each of these cases. We need a pithy question and a pithy reply.

  • On Sunday, the Foreign Secretary met Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, a man whose website is synonymous with anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, the hero worship of Vladimir Putin and the promotion of extremist far-right movements across the world. May I ask the Foreign Secretary how he and Mr Bannon got on?

  • I do not wish to embarrass any member of the incoming Administration by describing the friendliness or otherwise of our relations. What I can say is that the conversations were genuinely extremely productive. There is a wide measure of agreement between the UK and the incoming Administration about the way forward, and we intend to work to build on those areas of agreement.

  • T5. When the Russian air force skirts along British airspace, Royal Air Force pilots fly Typhoons from my constituency to see them off. Does my right hon. Friend believe that our economic sanctions against Russia are hitting the targets just as effectively as our RAF pilots are? [908024]

  • I am grateful for that question because it is important for the House to keep in mind the importance of the sanctions. The support for sanctions against Russia—for instance, over Ukraine—is not as strong as it should be in other parts of the European Union, and the UK is in the lead in keeping the pressure on.

  • T4. Following the Foreign Secretary’s trip to America, how confident is he that we might have a US-UK free trade agreement on the table within the next couple of years? Does he believe there is an appetite for it to be based on mutual standard recognition, rather than on single standard imposition? [908023]

  • The short answer is that my enthusiasm is nothing compared with the enthusiasm of our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. We will get a good deal, but it has to be a good deal for the UK as well.

  • T7. Will the Minister please tell me what Britain is doing to ensure that the lessons of the past are learnt, and that proper stabilisation and reconstruction planning is in place for Mosul once that city is liberated? [908026]

  • My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We did not learn the lessons, or the lessons were not learnt, in 2013 when there was a failure to listen to the moderate Sunni voices. That is what allowed Daesh to develop. Extremism is flourishing across north-east Africa and, indeed, the middle east, and will do so unless we engage with those moderates to ensure that they are brought to the table. That is why planning in places such as Mosul and Aleppo needs to be done at once, before the guns fall silent.

  • T6. When the Foreign Secretary met the President-elect’s team, did he make it clear to them that the United Kingdom will not share intelligence with his Administration if his Administration is then to use it in association with a revived US torture programme? [908025]

  • I am sure the House will forgive me if I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we do not discuss intelligence matters or their operational nature.

  • Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that the Palestinian authorities did not issue a prompt condemnation of the murder of Israeli soldiers over the weekend? Does he believe that the Palestinian Authority’s glorification of violence, refusal to recognise Israel and refusal to meet face to face is one of the major obstacles to a two-state solution?

  • I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that point because it is absolutely true. Yes, resolution 2334 has been characterised as a settlements resolution. As I have explained to the House, it also contains some valuable language about terrorism. But there can be no lasting solution for that part of the world unless there is better leadership of the Palestinians and unless they renounce terror.

  • T8. Next week a new President is due to be sworn in, but the current President is refusing, point blank, to budge. The people of Gambia have voted to end 22 years of civil liberties and human rights abuses at the hands of President Jammeh. Will the Minister join his counterparts across the world in condemning this and telling President Jammeh that he has eight days to get out of office? [908027]

  • Not in so many words, but I have had the opportunity to congratulate President-elect Barrow. I believe absolutely that the previous President, who has been there since 1994, should recognise the will of the Gambian people and step down.

  • May I ask the Foreign Secretary what agreement there will be on policy towards Russia between the British Government and the new US Administration, given the new Administration’s indebtedness to President Putin through the leaking and hacking of emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman?

  • I make no comment on the electoral efficacy of the hacking of the DNC emails, except to say that it is pretty clear that it did come from the Russians. The point that we have made to the incoming Administration, and indeed on Capitol Hill, is just this: as I said earlier, we do think that the Russian state—the Putin Kremlin—is up to all sorts of very dirty tricks, such as cyber-warfare, but it would be folly for us further to demonise Russia or to push Russia into a corner, so a twin-track strategy of engagement and vigilance is what is required.

  • The Foreign Secretary referred to the middle east process. Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry failed in their efforts to get a bilateral agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. Is it not now time to go to the international sphere, in the sense of the Arab initiative originally introduced by Saudi Arabia in 2002?

  • The only way forward is for both sides to get to the negotiating table and recognise that a two-state solution is the way forward.

  • Does the Foreign Secretary share the concern on both sides of the House at President Erdogan’s latest power grab, following the retrograde steps he has already taken to Islamise a formerly secular Turkish society?

  • It is very important to recognise that the Turkish state—the Turkish Government—was the victim of a violent attempted coup in which hundreds of people died. It was entirely wrong of many Governments in the EU instantly to condemn Turkey for its response rather than to see that, again, there is a balance to be struck. Turkey is vital for our collective security; the last thing we need to do is to push it away and push it into a corner.

  • Last month, a UK Government spokesperson told Sky News that the Government are

    “aware of reports of an alleged airstrike on a school”

    in Yemen

    “using UK-supplied weapons and are seeking further information regarding the incident.”

    Can the Minister update us today on progress on that?

  • I know the hon. Lady follows these events very closely. I do not know the details of that particular Sky report—I have not seen it. I am very happy to meet her outside the Chamber to discuss it. I can give her a reply in due course, or I can give her a public reply in the now much-vaunted and much-publicised debate we are having on Yemen on Thursday.

  • Since 1953, the Foreign Office has supported Marshall scholarships to help young Americans to study in the UK. Will my right hon. Friend continue to support this increasingly important aspect of the special relationship?

  • The Government, of course, support the Marshall scholarship programme. It is another example of Britain’s soft power, and I am delighted to say that we have made additional funding available to enable 40 scholars to study at UK universities from September this year.

  • The Foreign Secretary and Ministers will be aware of the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, economically and politically. What role can the British Government play over the next six months or so, which will be crucial to the people of Zimbabwe?

  • The hon. Lady knows the country very well indeed. Obviously, our relationship has been strained because of the current leadership. She speaks about six months, and who knows what will happen in those six months, but we are working closely with the neighbouring countries to provide the necessary support for the people, who are suffering more than ever before under the current President’s regime.

  • Does the Foreign Secretary agree that improving trust and intelligence sharing with Egypt is vital to our security efforts in Libya? Given that we have heard no security concerns over the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, does he agree that resuming flights there would be a good place to start and would have important security dividends for UK citizens here?

  • It is, of course, true that the loss of UK tourist business to Egypt has been very severe, and we are working hard with our Egyptian counterparts to get the reassurances that we need to restore those flights, which we all want to happen.

  • Earlier this morning, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said that the Government only support UN Security Council resolutions when they know they can be enforced. So, if the Israelis continue with the settlement programme, what steps will the Foreign Secretary take to enforce resolution 2334?

  • The hon. Lady will know very well that we are working with our international counterparts to persuade both sides to get to the table, to persuade the Palestinians to drop their violence and recognise the existence of the state of Israel and show some leadership, and to persuade both sides to understand that a two-state solution is the only way forward. I believe that that is the best thing for the Government to do.

  • Many of my constituents are concerned that the recent UN vote marks a change in the British Government’s stance towards Israel. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that that is not the case, and that we remain steadfast allies of that beacon of liberalism and democracy in the middle east?

  • As is well known, the state of Israel is just about the only democracy in that part of the world. It is a free and liberal society, unlike many others in the region. I passionately support the state of Israel. It was very important that, in resolution 2334, the UK Government not only stuck by 30-year-old UK policy in respect of settlements, but underscored our horror of violence against the people of Israel.

  • Just as a matter of interest—perhaps others are not so interested— does the Foreign Secretary find that his counterparts are somewhat surprised to find a genuine British eccentric holding the position he holds?

  • I honestly cannot speak for the response of my counterparts. The hon. Gentleman can take this in whichever way he chooses, but all I can say is that there was a wide measure of agreement on both sides of the table on some of the problems that our societies face in America and UK, on the need for some fresh thinking, and on the huge potential of the UK and the US to work together to solve those problems.

  • I very much doubt that the proposition that the Foreign Secretary is an exotic individual would be subject to a Division of the House.

  • The Foreign Secretary will be aware of my constituent Billy Irving, who is wrongly imprisoned in India. As we await yet another judgment, what are the Foreign Secretary’s plans to get Billy and his colleagues home whatever the outcome? Will the Foreign Secretary reassure us and them that that remains his priority, and that it will not be derailed by his Government’s Brexit bedlam?

  • Our heart goes out to Billy Irving’s family and all those involved. I raised this matter with the Minister of External Affairs and the Indian Foreign Secretary when I visited India in October. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also raised it with Prime Minister Modi. We are pressing for speedy due process to take place. As the hon. Lady knows, we await the outcome of the appeal process.

  • My right hon. Friend was an outstanding Mayor of London. During his time, he was the first to champion the City of London and a believer of the value of the single market. Will he assure us that, in his meetings with the incoming Trump Administration, he disabused Wilbur Ross, the incoming Commerce Secretary, of his view that Brexit is a God-given opportunity for London’s commercial rivals to take business from the City?

  • My right hon. Friend will find that the City of London has been through all sorts of vicissitudes that people prophesied would lead to its extinction. I remember people making exactly the same arguments about the creation of the single currency and about the economic crash in 2008, and the City of London has gone from strength to strength. Canary Wharf alone is now a bigger financial centre than the whole of Frankfurt. By the way, that opinion was shared completely by our friends and counterparts in Washington. I have no doubt that the commercial and financial dominance of the City of London in this hemisphere will continue.

  • Further to the question of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), my constituent Ray Tindall and the other men of the Chennai Six, who are in prison for a crime they did not commit, will be looking for a little bit more than thumb-twiddling and warm words. Does the Minister have any concrete proposals to get those innocent men home within the next six months?

  • As I have said, we take this matter incredibly seriously. We have raised it on a number of occasions and will continue to do so. We cannot seek to interfere in the legal process of another country, but let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing absolutely everything we can to urge a speedy process and to make sure the men get help in prison.

  • Finally, a cerebral and immensely patient Member of the House who is unfailingly courteous at all times, Jeremy Lefroy.

  • Thank you, Mr Speaker. What support are Her Majesty’s Government giving to the welcome moves towards a settlement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

  • I had the pleasure of visiting the country last year. I was very concerned about the delay to the elections, of which my hon. Friend will be aware, and President Kabila not recognising that his time was up. I am pleased that political dialogue has now been developed between the Government and the Opposition, and that we are now on a programme to ensure elections happen in 2017. I will return to the country very soon to make sure that is enforced, and to offer our support and assistance to this important country.

  • Several hon. Members rose—

  • I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues. This Question Time session probably enjoys a greater demand than any other, but I am afraid supply is finite.

  • Two hours, the Minister chunters from a sedentary position. I certainly would not object to that. He is a member of the Executive. If the Government want to table such a proposition, I think there might be very substantial support for it. I try to expand the envelope, but there are limits: if we do not have a longer session people will have to be briefer in questions and answers.

    We now come to the urgent question. I call John McDonnell.

  • I’d support the two hours, Mr Speaker.