With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement updating the House on the campaign against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, but I should like to begin by informing the House that I called the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mr Zarif, this morning to discuss the case of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I expressed my anxiety about her suffering and the ordeal of her family, and I repeated my hope for a swift solution. I also voiced my concern at the suggestion emanating from one branch of the Iranian judiciary that my remarks to the Foreign Affairs Committee last week had some bearing on Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case.
The UK Government have no doubt that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was on holiday in Iran when she was arrested last year, and that was the sole purpose of her visit. My point was that I disagreed with the Iranian view that training journalists is a crime, not that I wanted to lend any credence to Iranian allegations that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been engaged in such activity. I accept that my remarks could have been clearer in that respect, and I am glad to provide this clarification.
I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to the tireless campaigning of Mr Ratcliffe on behalf of his wife. We will not relent in our efforts to help all our consular cases in Iran. Mr Zarif told me that any recent developments in the case had no link to my testimony last week and that he would continue to seek a solution on humanitarian grounds. I will visit Iran in the coming weeks, when I will discuss all our consular cases.
I turn now to the campaign against Daesh. In the summer of 2014, Daesh swept down the Tigris and Euphrates valleys, occupying thousands of square miles of Iraqi territory, pillaging cities, massacring and enslaving minorities, and seeking to impose by pitiless violence a demented vision of an Islamist utopia. Daesh had gathered strength in eastern Syria, using the opportunity created by that country’s civil war to seize oilfields and to carve out a base from which to launch its assault on Iraq.
Today, Daesh has been rolled back on every battlefront. Thanks to the courage and resolve of Iraq’s security forces, our partners in Syria, and the steadfast action of the 73 members of the global coalition, including this country, Daesh has lost 90% of the territory it once held in Iraq and Syria—including Raqqa, its erstwhile capital—and 6 million people have been freed from its rule.
When my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir Michael Fallon), the former Defence Secretary, last updated the House in July, the biggest city in northern Iraq, Mosul, had just been liberated. Since then, Iraqi forces have broken Daesh’s grip on the towns of Tal Afar and Hawija, and cleared the terrorists from all but a relatively small area near the Syrian border, demonstrating how the false and failed caliphate is crumbling before our eyes.
The House will join me in paying tribute to the men and women of the British armed forces who have been vital to every step of the advance. More than 600 British soldiers are in Iraq, where they have helped to train 50,000 members of the Iraqi security forces. The RAF has delivered 1,352 air strikes against Daesh in Iraq and 263 in Syria, which is more than any other air force apart from that of the United States.
I turn now to Syria. On 20 October, the global coalition confirmed the fall of Raqqa after three years of brutal occupation. The struggle was long and hard, and I acknowledge the price that has been paid by the coalition’s partner forces on the ground and, most especially, by the civilian population of Raqqa. Throughout the military operation, the Department for International Development has been working with partners in Raqqa province to supply food, water, healthcare and shelter wherever possible. On 22 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced another £10 million of aid to clear the landmines sown by Daesh, to restock hospitals and mobile surgical units with essential medicines, and to provide clean water for 15,000 people.
The permanent defeat of Daesh in Syria, by which I mean removing the conditions that allowed it to seize large areas in the first place, will require a political settlement, which must include a transition away from the Assad regime that did so much to create the conditions for the rise of Daesh. How such a settlement is reached is, of course, a matter for the Syrians themselves, and we will continue to support the work of the United Nations special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, and the Geneva process.
I am encouraged by how America and Russia have stayed in close contact on the future of Syria. We must continue to emphasise to the Kremlin that, instead of blindly supporting a murderous regime—even after UN investigators have found the regime’s forces guilty of using sarin nerve gas, most recently at Khan Sheikhoun in April—Russia should join the international community and support a negotiated settlement in Syria under the auspices of the UN.
Turning to Iraq, more than 2 million people have returned to their homes in areas liberated from Daesh, including 265,000 who have gone back to Mosul. Britain is providing over £200 million of practical life-saving assistance for Iraqi civilians. We are helping to clear the explosives that were laid by Daesh, to restore water supplies that the terrorists sabotaged, and to give clean water to 200,000 people and healthcare to 115,000. Now that Daesh is close to defeat in Iraq, the country’s leaders must resolve the political tensions that, in part, paved the way for its advance in 2014. The Kurdistan region held a unilateral referendum on independence on 25 September, a decision we did not support. Since then, Masoud Barzani has stepped down as President of the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraqi forces have reasserted federal control over disputed territory, including the city of Kirkuk. We are working alongside our allies to reduce tensions in northern Iraq. Rather than reopening old conflicts, the priority must be to restore the stability, prosperity and national unity that is the right of every Iraqi.
A general election will take place in Iraq next May, creating an opportunity for parties to set out their respective visions of a country that overcomes sectarianism and serves every citizen, including Kurds. But national reconciliation will require justice, and justice demands that Daesh is held accountable for its atrocities in Iraq and elsewhere. That was why I acted over a year ago, in concert with the Government of Iraq, to launch the global campaign to bring Daesh to justice. In September, the Security Council unanimously adopted UN resolution 2379, a British-drafted text, co-sponsored by 46 countries, that will establish a UN investigation to help to gather and preserve the evidence of Daesh crimes in Iraq.
Every square mile of territory that Daesh has lost is one square mile less for it to exploit, tax and plunder. The impending destruction of the so-called caliphate will reduce its ability to fund terrorism abroad and attract new recruits. Yet Daesh will still try to inspire attacks by spreading its hateful ideology in cyber-space even after it has lost every inch of its physical domain. That is why Britain leads the global coalition’s efforts to counter Daesh propaganda, through a communications cell based here in London, and Daesh’s total propaganda output has fallen by half since 2015. But social media companies can and must do more, particularly to speed up the detection and removal of dangerous material, and to prevent it from being uploaded in the first place, hence my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister co-hosted an event at the UN General Assembly in September on how to stop terrorists from using the internet.
The Government have always made it clear that any British nationals who join Daesh have chosen to make themselves legitimate targets for the coalition. We expect that most foreign fighters will die in the terrorist domain where they opted to serve, but some may surrender or try to come home, including to the UK. As the Government have previously said, anyone who returns to this country after taking part in the conflict in Syria or Iraq must expect to be investigated for reasons of national security.
While foreign fighters face the consequences of their decisions, the valour and sacrifice of the armed forces of many nations, including our own, has prevented a terrorist entity from taking root in the heart of the middle east. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement. I will come to his remarks regarding Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in a moment, but let me first address the formal purpose of this statement: the Government’s quarterly update on the fight against Daesh. We are all agreed in this House that Daesh is nothing but an evil death cult and that it must be wiped off the face of the earth. We therefore warmly welcome the recent, hard-fought successes against it in both Syria and Iraq, with its vision of a caliphate stretching across both countries now lying in absolute ruins. But while that specific danger evaporates before our eyes, we know all too well that the wider threat that Daesh poses remains, as it ceases to operate as a conventional military force, seeking to occupy territory and towns, and retreats to the role of a well-armed, well-trained and fanatical network of terrorist cells that seeks to indoctrinate others, and to inflict indiscriminate, mass casualties in Iraq, Syria and far, far beyond. We therefore must not let our guard down. The fight against Daesh has not been won; it is simply switching to a new phase.
I therefore have a number of questions that I hope the Foreign Secretary will address. First, will he correct his junior colleague, the Minister for Africa, who said recently that the only way to deal with British citizens who have gone to fight for Daesh is
“in almost every case, to kill them”?
That, of course, sends a very unfortunate signal to groups in Syria and beyond who are currently holding in detention British citizens captured on the battlefield. Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear today that it remains the Government’s policy that those individuals should be returned to this country to face trial for their crimes, rather than simply being executed by their captors? He might also advise the Minister for Africa that in positions of responsibility in the Foreign Office, you have to engage your brain and think about the consequences of your words before opening your mouth.
Secondly, the Foreign Secretary will have noted last week the first US drone strikes targeting Daesh, rather than al-Shabaab, inside Somalia. Will he guarantee the House that if the UK is asked to participate in the opening of that new front against Daesh, authorising such action will be the subject of a proper parliamentary debate and vote?
Thirdly, as Daesh increasingly ceases to be a military player in the Syrian civil war, will the Foreign Secretary tell us the Government’s current strategy in Syria? What are we now seeking to achieve, in both a military and diplomatic sense, from our engagement there? Specifically, will he tell us whether the Government intend to continue channelling funds to Syrian opposition groups? Will he give us a cast-iron guarantee that none of the £200 million that has already been channelled to those groups over the past three years has ended up in the hands of the al-Nusra Front or other jihadist groups?
Finally, as attention turns to Daesh’s last remaining stronghold, in Bukamal, the Foreign Secretary will be aware of the risks as Russian and Iranian-backed forces approach the town from one side, and the Syrian democratic forces approach it from the other. Will he tell the House what steps Britain is taking to ensure the battle to liberate Bukamal from Daesh, both from the air and on the ground, does not inadvertently lead to clashes between the two liberating armies?
Turning now to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, we appreciate the Foreign Secretary’s clarification, we welcome the phone call he made this morning to his Iranian counterpart and we all hope that no lasting damage is done to Nazanin as a result of his blunder. However, I hope that he will now take the opportunity to apologise to this woman’s family, to her friends, to her employers, to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), and to all those others in this House and beyond who have been working so hard to obtain this young mother’s release, for the distress and anguish that his foolish words have caused to them and to this woman in recent days. We are all bound to ask: how many more times does this need to happen? How many more times does the Foreign Secretary have to insult our international partners and damage our diplomatic relations, and now imperil the interests of British nationals abroad? What will it take before the Prime Minister says, “Enough is enough”? If the truth is that she cannot, because she does not have the strength or authority to sack him, how about the Foreign Secretary himself shows a bit of personal responsibility and admits that a job like this, where your words hold gravity and your actions have consequences, is simply not the job for him?
I shall take the right hon. Lady’s points in turn. Our view about UK nationals fighting for Daesh in Iraq or Syria is, of course, that they must think of themselves as legitimate targets while they are doing that. If they seek to come back here, they will of course be subject to investigation and the full force of the law. On her second question, we have had no request for air strikes of the type she mentions or a military operation in Somalia of the kind that she describes.
On the right hon. Lady’s third point, in respect of the policy on Syria, we are working to bring together the Astana and Geneva processes. We believe that the great political leverage that we in the UK and more broadly in the west have over the Russians and, indeed, over all those involved in the future of Syria, is that it is the west—the UK, the EU and the US—that has the budgets for rebuilding Syria. It is only if the Assad regime, the Russians and the Iranians accept the need for a political process that we can begin the process of rebuilding. As for Bukamal, communications are of course going on to de-conflict and to make sure that the factions concerned do not come into conflict.
In the right hon. Lady’s final point, she came back to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Let me repeat that what everybody in this House wants to see is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. That is exactly what the Foreign Office is working for. That is what we have been working for solidly over the past 18 months. It is simply untrue for the right hon. Lady to say, as she has said today, that there is any connection whatever between my remarks last week and the legal proceedings under way against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Tehran today. I say to her that she has a choice—she always has a choice in these matters. She can choose to heap blame on to the British Foreign Office, which is trying to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but in so doing she deflects blame and accountability from those who are truly responsible for holding that mother in jail, and that is the Iranian regime. [Interruption.]
Order. The Foreign Secretary is dealing with a very important matter of some delicacy. Nobody anywhere in this House ought to be shouting while he is doing so. [Interruption.] And they certainly should not be shouting while I am speaking from the Chair. The Foreign Secretary might wish to finish his point.
I had completed my point, but I shall make it again. It is a great shame that in seeking to score political points, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is deflecting blame, accountability and responsibility from where it truly lies, which is with the Iranian regime. It is towards releasing Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, not blaming the UK Foreign Office, that we should direct our efforts.
May I appeal to the Foreign Secretary, even at this late stage, to adopt a more realistic policy on the outcome in Syria? It was always the case that if Daesh was going to lose, the Iraqi Government were going to win in their territory and the Syrian Government were going to win in their territory. We have not seen any sign of a third force of 70,000 moderate fighters. Will he accept the fact that, unpleasant though it is, it is better to recognise that the regime is going to persevere in Syria? That is a price that we have to pay for the elimination of Daesh.
My right hon. Friend speaks on this matter with great wisdom. We must accept that the Assad regime does now possess itself of most of what we might call operational Syria. That is a reality, but it has not won. It does not possess all of Syria. If it wants the country to be rebuilt, it knows that that can be done only with the support of us in the UK and those in the European Union and the United States. That is the leverage that we hold, and that is how we hope to get the Assad regime and the Russians to engage in a proper political process.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for early sight of his statement. First, on Syria, Scottish National party Members obviously welcome any reversals of Daesh, and we welcome the short-term humanitarian help that is being provided to the people of Syria. The Foreign Secretary will be aware that there must be long-term consolidation, so what long-term funds have been set aside for restructuring in Syria after the conflict? He mentioned accountability; will he support the referral of Daesh fighters’ cases to the International Criminal Court?
On Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, the Foreign Secretary told the Foreign Affairs Committee that she was “simply teaching people journalism”. He must be aware of the impact of his words. Will he be crystal clear about what he said? Has he met Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family, who are bearing a heavy human cost at the moment? What guidance is he taking from her and her family about her case?
I can confirm that the UK is the second biggest donor to the humanitarian relief effort in Syria at the moment, and we will of course be a major contributor to the reconstruction of the country when the Geneva talks get back under way. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we already contribute around £2.46 billion.
On bringing Daesh to justice, I will not hide it from the House: there is a question still about exactly which forum we are going to find to bring these people to justice. But be in no doubt about our determination to do that. We are assembling the evidence therefore.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, I repeat that these are allegations made against her by the Iranians, to which we think there is absolutely no substance whatever, as I said in my statement. Before I go to Iran in the next few weeks, I will of course seek a meeting with Mr Ratcliffe, who has been in regular contact with our Ministers and with the Foreign Office.
In his oral statement, I thought I heard the Foreign Secretary refer to the coalition’s Kurdish partner forces, with regard to the fight in Raqqa, but the word “Kurdish” does not appear in the written version of the statement that has just been handed out. He also talked about the consequences for Kurds in Iraq of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s referendum. As matters now unfold, with the effective end of Islamic State control of territory in both Syria and Iraq, will he bear in mind the fact that the Kurds have been let down by history over the course of the past century? They think they have friends in the United Kingdom and the United States. Will he try to ensure that, when it comes to the protection of Kurdish cultural interests and freedoms in all the countries of the region, it is not just the mountains that are their friends?
I thank my hon. Friend for the eloquent way he expressed himself on that point. This country and this House are indeed great friends of Kurdistan. They well remember the role played by the Conservative Government in 1991 in that mountainous region with the setting up of safe havens for the Kurds, which were the origin of the Kurdish Regional Government of today. I see doughty campaigners on the Opposition Benches who have also played a major role.
The Kurds can be in no doubt about our lasting friendship, but we did say to them that the referendum was not the right way forward. The best course now for our Kurdish friends is surely to take advantage of Mr Abadi, who is their best possible hope, and to enter into a solid and substantial negotiation with him.
The Foreign Secretary had a week to correct the record and to apologise over Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and he has not done so. This is not the first time that the Foreign Secretary has said things that are inaccurate or damaging, and he cannot simply shrug them off as a lack of clarity or a careless choice of words.
In this case, there are fears that this could mean the extended incarceration of a British-Iranian woman. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the lives and safety of British citizens across the globe depend on having a Foreign Secretary who does not bluster and who is not too careless or too lazy to consider his words. Will he now apologise? Does he accept that he cannot be trusted to do this job and that he should resign?
I really think that I have already made my position clear. Indeed, the Iranians have also made their position clear. There was absolutely no connection with anything that was said in the Foreign Affairs Committee last week. By the way, I see assorted members of the Committee here today, and they passed no comment on it. Those remarks had no impact on the judicial process in Tehran.
Rather than posturing and engaging in party political point-scoring, we need to recognise the extreme sensitivity of these negotiations and get on with securing the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. That is why I am going to Tehran in the course of the next few weeks. I agree that it will not be easy at all because it is a very difficult negotiation, but that is the effort to which the Foreign Office is devoted and dedicated, and it deserves the right hon. Lady’s full support.
Does the Foreign Secretary share my concerns that while we recognise the destruction of Daesh at its base, it will regroup in other areas? In particular, it could merge with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Is there anything that can be done about that?
My hon. Friend is right that Daesh and the phenomenon of Islamist terrorism is widespread and ubiquitous, but we can defeat it. Look at what we have done just in Iraq and Syria—removing Daesh from 90% of the territory it held. As I said, 2 million people are back in their homes. Daesh can be defeated in the ungoverned spaces where its fighters have made their homes and set up their headquarters, and it will ultimately be defeated in Afghanistan as well. I am not saying that this is for tomorrow or, indeed, for the day after, but we, and moderate Muslims everywhere, will win this struggle.
The casual disregard for the truth shown by the Foreign Secretary in his campaign bus last year was bad enough, but his carelessness in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe last week is unforgiveable. Does he realise that his words have a serious impact in this role? This is not a game. If he will not take his job seriously enough even to read his brief, he should step down and make way for one of his colleagues who will.
With great respect, I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave a moment ago.
I commend the Foreign Secretary on his statement. Will he now give us an undertaking that he will concentrate in future on the very important matters within his brief as Foreign Secretary? To that end, will he give an undertaking to support the Prime Minister in her efforts—in relation to the Florence speech, for example—and ensure that his own ambitions are put secondary to the wellbeing of all my constituents and everybody else in this country? That is his job.
I assure my right hon. Friend that she and I are united—as I am sure the whole House is—in support of every jot and tittle of the Florence speech.
My constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has been in prison in Iran for 18 months now. She is separated from her daughter, often in solitary confinement and denied access to medical treatment—all because she was a British citizen having a holiday in Iran. The Foreign Secretary, his Ministers and even the Prime Minister will be aware of this, because I have raised the case countless times in the House. It is not enough for the Foreign Secretary not to know the basic details of the case. It is unforgiveable to repeat the lies of the Iranian revolutionary guard, and to say, “I should be clearer”, does not cut it when it is a matter of life and death.
I have four questions for the Foreign Secretary. Is it the official position of the British Government that they are calling for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? Will the Foreign Secretary apologise for and retract the damaging comments he made about my constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? Will the Foreign Secretary finally—after a year of failed attempts—meet Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? Finally, will the Foreign Secretary reiterate that he will have a face-to-face meeting with my constituent, Nazanin, when he goes to Tehran?
I can certainly say that the Government are, of course, calling for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on humanitarian grounds, and we will continue to do so. I can confirm that several Ministers, including the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), have met Mr Ratcliffe several times. I have just had a note from Mr Ratcliffe saying that he welcomes the clarification that we made earlier today and would like to meet, so I look forward to doing that. The hon. Lady wants to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Indeed, we all want to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. If it is possible in the course of my trip to Tehran to meet the hon. Lady’s constituent, of course I will seek to do that. I cannot stand before the House today and guarantee that it will be possible, but I will certainly do my best to ensure that it is so.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary to the House today, and I welcome some of the clarification that he has made of his comments at the Foreign Affairs Committee last week. His errors in his choice of words—however unfortunate they may seem—are, to be fair, entirely secondary and perhaps even tertiary compared with the crimes committed by the Iranian regime over nearly four decades of Khomeinite authoritarianism.
Will the Foreign Secretary now take this opportunity to address the threat that Iran poses to UK interests in the region and to address whether, after 40 years of instability and tyranny, we need a wider review of Iran policy? From holding British citizens hostage to failing to allow embassy staff to bring in secure communications: will the Foreign Secretary please explain to the House why he believes in maintaining normal diplomatic relations with the country that sponsors Hezbollah, arms Hamas, sends weapons to rain down on Riyadh and props up the murderous Assad dictatorship? How can that qualify as a nation with which we should have friendly, diplomatic relations?
My hon. Friend is right in the sense that Iran certainly poses a threat to the region and is a cause of instability. As he says, we can see that in Yemen, in its influence with Hezbollah, in Lebanon and in Syria. There is no question but that Iran needs to be constrained. But to throw out all diplomatic relations and abandon all engagement with Iran would be a profound mistake; I must tell the House my honest view about that. It slightly surprises me that my hon. Friend should take that line because the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the Iran nuclear deal—was an important diplomatic accomplishment, and it is still extant. It is still alive, and it is in part an achievement of British diplomacy over the past few months that it remains, in its essence, intact. We intend to preserve it because it is the best method that we have of preventing Iran from securing a nuclear weapon.
As for severing diplomatic relations entirely, that takes us to the question that so many Opposition Members have asked today. How can we secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe unless we are willing to get out there and engage with the Iranians diplomatically in order to make an effort to secure her release? That is what we are doing.
Some years ago, the right hon. Gentleman and I shared an accommodation pod in Baghdad, and I think he is experienced enough to know that Daesh, while I welcome its defeat on the ground, is still active on social media platforms—indeed, he referred to that. Will he therefore press for us to be much more nimble at stifling the activities it is involved in?
On the question of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the right hon. Gentleman, more than most, is in a position to know that words matter, and they matter because they confer meaning. Whether he spoke clumsily or was misinformed last week about that case, will he not accept—I mean this in a good spirit—that the very least that is required is an apology?
With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I have answered the second point in some detail already. However, on his first point, about countering Daesh online, that is, as he knows, a subject in which the Prime Minister herself takes a keen interest. Working with the internet providers, we have taken 295,000 separate pieces of Daesh propaganda down from the web, but much more needs to be done, particularly by the social media giants.
Our words do matter in here, and the members of the Iranian revolutionary guard court, who will be watching our proceedings today, are the ones to blame for the incarceration of this wife and mother of a three-year-old—of a British citizen who has been spuriously charged with falsehoods. If our words really do matter, it is only right that we do not play party politics, and I am looking at the shadow Front-Bench team, who were giggling a minute ago about the discomfort the Foreign Secretary may be feeling. I ask him to redouble his efforts to get Nazanin released as soon as possible.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks with huge authority about the region. I can certainly say that we are redoubling our efforts to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. He is entirely right that the focus of the House should not be on any failings or the responsibilities of the UK Government for the incarceration of this mother—[Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is going to continue to blame the British Government for the incarceration of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, she is living in cloud cuckoo land—the world is absolutely upside down in the Labour party. It is the Iranian authorities against whom she should be directing her attention and her anger.
While the Secretary of State is correcting inaccurate statements he made to the Foreign Affairs Committee last week, would he care to correct the answer he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) when he said he had seen no evidence of Russian meddling in the EU referendum?
The answer to that is no.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his comments clarifying the case of Mrs Ratcliffe, and I convey the concerns of my constituents. I, too, urge him to seek an urgent solution to this terrible case, if only because there is a very small child involved, and minutes and hours away from their mother really do matter. As my right hon. Friend travels to Iran, I hope he will have that in mind.
I also ask my right hon. Friend to commend all the service personnel who are working so hard against the scourge of Daesh, as all of us in our constituencies this weekend remember all our servicemen and women and the exceptional sacrifices they make.
I warmly applaud the sentiments my hon. Friend has expressed about our serving men and women. We should all take the opportunity of this statement to recognise their towering achievement in clearing Daesh out of 90% of the territory it previously occupied in Iraq and Syria.
May I suggest that the Foreign Secretary is unwise to talk about deflection, when he himself is diluting scrutiny of an appalling case by wrapping it up in a hugely important counter-Daesh update to the House, which he refused, despite repeated questions, to come to the House to give after Raqqa had fallen? So, as I am forced to choose, let me ask a question about Daesh’s communications. The Foreign Secretary is right to talk about restricting the number of Daesh’s posts, but what about the counter-narrative, which is at least equally important? What new approaches will the Government take now? UK fighters will be coming back home and potentially spreading this pernicious material.
That is an extremely important and very good question. It is all very well trying to divert people away from the path of radicalisation, and we do what we can there, but one of the most difficult things is to reverse radicalisation once it has taken place, as I think the hon. Gentleman understands very well. However, we have a communications cell, as he knows, and we are working on it. We have all sorts of means to try to do these things, but the most important thing is to prevent people from being radicalised in the first place.
We have the Foreign Secretary in front of us today, and he has chosen his words very carefully, so I think we should reserve our ire for the evil of this regime. However, may I ask him about what this statement is really about, which is why Islamic State grew in the first place? Has the Foreign Office learned the lesson—here, I follow my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)—of our catastrophic invasions of Iraq and Libya? Our deliberate destabilisation of Syria has unleashed untold misery. Has the Foreign Office really cottoned on to the fact that, if we undermine deeply unpleasant authoritarian leaders, we simply unleash totalitarian movements such as Daesh? And who suffers? The minorities in the middle east.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. If we look back at 2003, we see that, in the words of the Chilcot report, no one could say that our strategic objectives were entirely attained—I think that is putting it mildly. But there are signs of hope, and there are people across the region who are willing to take up the baton of leadership. There are national institutions being born. We must support them, we must encourage them and we must not disengage. It would be absolutely fatal for this country to turn its back on the region and to think that we can thereby somehow insulate ourselves from the problems that are germinating there. We must engage, we must support the political process and we must be prepared to defend freedom and democracy where we can.
Given the mistakes of the past, the world owes it to the Government of Iraq to help them now win the peace, and that requires justice and prosecutions for genocide. Because Iraq is not a signatory to the treaty of Rome, those prosecutions will be difficult in Iraq, but we can prosecute the 400-plus foreign fighters who have returned to Britain. Yet, we have not sent a single one of them to The Hague. In fact, in answers to me in this House, the Attorney General said the Government are not even keeping figures on which foreign fighters have been prosecuted for what. That is, at best, slipshod. Can the Foreign Secretary give us an assurance this afternoon that he will give us a timetable for when we, like Germany, will send people to the International Criminal Court and throw against them the full weight of international law?
Again, that is an excellent point. It is a subject of recurrent anxiety to me that people are coming back and that, although we want to bring the full force of the law upon them, it is proving difficult to do so. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, we have not yet been able to do that in a sufficient number of cases. What we are trying to do, therefore, and this is why we passed resolution 2379, is to ensure that we have the evidence and that, where we can get a locus and find a court—he mentioned the international court in The Hague—we will have the facts and the testimony needed to send these people down.
On the last occasion that the House was updated on the counter-Daesh campaign, it was confirmed from the Dispatch Box that there were zero reported civilian casualties as a result of the United Kingdom’s actions in Syria and Iraq. Will the Secretary of State update the House on whether that figure is still as low? In doing so, will he join me in commending the RAF for carrying out so many campaigns against Daesh—I think second only to the United States?
I thank my hon. Friend very much. It is absolutely true that, as far as we know, and as the figures that I have seen suggest, we have no reports of civilian casualties as a result of RAF action. Obviously we cannot be sure, but we do not have any evidence to the contrary. I therefore really do pay tribute to the skill and the effort of the RAF crews—and very, very brave people they are too.
May I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the fact that 46 countries co-sponsored his UN resolution on bringing Daesh to justice, which was then unanimously supported in the Security Council? Does not this show that Britain is both leading diplomatic efforts against Daesh and rallying the international community around this important cause?
It is a vital cause, and we will continue the pressure. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s support.
The Foreign Office says that it has three strategic objectives, the first of which is protecting our people. I fear, from the bluster that the Foreign Secretary has shown today, that he has learned absolutely nothing about what has happened in the past week. He said in his statement: “My point was that I disagreed with the Iranian view that training journalists is a crime, not that I wanted to lend any credence to Iranian allegations that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been engaged in such activity.” But what he said to us as a Committee last week was this:
“When we look at what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing, she was simply teaching people journalism”.
There is not a single eight-year-old in the country who could not say to the Foreign Secretary, “This does not match what you said last week.” Not a single eight-year-old would not be able to tell the Foreign Secretary how to do his job better. I fear that, if he cannot show some contrition today, then the honest truth is that he should not be in his job, because our people are not safe.
With great respect, I think that I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s point. I was giving the Foreign Affairs Committee an account of the allegations made that I had personally heard, in the course of my intercessions, from the Iranians. I do not for one minute believe that they are true, but that is what they say. Our job now as diplomats—and I hope that we have the support of the entire House of Commons—is to get Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe released. The best way to do that is not to score party political points but to concentrate our energies and our criticism on those who are actually responsible for her incarceration.
Taking the fight to Daesh in Syria was a difficult but right thing to do, eroding its territorial base and resources, but in some ways that was the easy bit, because the warped ideology endures. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must continue to support the security services, including those in my constituency, who are skilfully and conscientiously taking the fight to the extremists online?
I completely agree. The fight online can be every bit as valuable in saving lives as the struggle in Iraq and Syria.
Instead of misrepresenting what he said to the Foreign Affairs Committee last week, would it not better if the Foreign Secretary were to write to the Committee withdrawing and correcting his remarks so that they are no longer on the record?
I have dealt with that point abundantly.
May I welcome the UK Government’s leadership in the fight against Daesh and thank the Foreign Secretary for updating the House? Just as we show leadership in this area, is it not right therefore that we bring forward more leadership in the areas of cyber-security and online radicalisation? Will he update the House with more detail of the measures that are being taken to tackle this scourge that affects our young people’s minds?
I thank my hon. Friend for her questions. As I said earlier, we are stepping up our activity with the communications cell that we have, but also trying to work with our international friends and partners to get internet companies to take down pre-emptively much of the pollution that appears online. That is where our activities are directed at the moment. We need more co-operation from the social media companies.
I speak as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the only conclusion that many in the country can come to after the right hon. Gentleman’s performance at the Committee last week is not only that he is ill-equipped to be Foreign Secretary but that he is, indeed, an international embarrassment. He has been forced to come to this House today and include a statement on Mrs Ratcliffe as part of his statement on countering Daesh, and he has not corrected the record. What he said in his statement is completely contrary to what he said at the Committee last week. So, in response to my hon. Friends the Members for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), I give him one last opportunity to correct the record, do himself a favour, do the Foreign Office a favour, and do the family a favour.
Perhaps for the sake of brevity I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Richard Ratcliffe himself has welcomed the clarification that I have offered today, and I think I am content with that. We will push on on that basis. I may say to the hon. Gentleman that he sat through that Committee in a state of glassy indifference and made no remark at all about anything that I had said, either then or two days afterwards.
Our armed forces can be proud of the work they have done in countering Daesh, as we are proud of them, but there is no way that this House can be proud of the conduct of our Foreign Secretary. He is quite right, as others have been right to argue, that the responsibility for the detainment of a British citizen is solely the responsibility of the Iranian regime, but with the ill-judged and inaccurate remarks he made to the Foreign Affairs Committee last week, the only person in this House who did the bidding of the Iranian regime was the Foreign Secretary. What is so egregious about this whole affair is that he did not take ownership of his mistake and did not seek to quickly rectify it; indeed, he has come here this afternoon and cannot even bring himself to show an ounce of contrition or even make an apology. This is not a criticism of the Conservative party, and certainly not a criticism of the finest diplomatic service in the world; it is a criticism firmly of the Foreign Secretary, who does not have the care and attention necessary to do one of the most important jobs in Government—so why is he still in the job?
I must respectfully repeat the point I have made several times now, which is that I have clarified the remarks I made to the Foreign Affairs Committee. I have also pointed out the most important conclusion of today, which is that nothing I said has had any impact whatever—contrary to the assertions that have been made repeatedly by the Opposition—on the judicial proceedings taking place in Tehran. I think that we should be working together to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and that is certainly what we are doing.
My constituents, Colin and Rosemary Gay, are family members of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The fact is that the family have been worried sick by the Foreign Secretary’s irresponsible comments. On a human level, is he at all sorry for the rollercoaster of emotions he has caused Nazanin and her family this week, and could he at least apologise to them today?
Of course I am sorry if any words of mine have been so taken out of context and so misconstrued as to cause any kind of anxiety for the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe—of course I am. But the most important thing is that I do not believe—and I have this from the Iranians themselves—that those words had any impact on the judicial process. We are going to work flat out to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I am very happy to have been able to make that clarification to the House today, and I am delighted that, as I say, Richard Ratcliffe welcomes the clarification that I have made. If the hon. Lady would pass on my thoughts to her constituents who are the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, I would be very grateful.
It is precisely because many of us have, for many months, been working to try to secure Nazanin’s release that we are so upset about the mistake that has been made. I accept that, perhaps inadvertently, we are aware of the impact of her detention on her and her family, and that that is occasioning the extent of our dismay. This is not an attempt at politicisation; it is genuine upset.
I hope that the Foreign Secretary will now go to look at the website of the Iranian judicial authorities, where his remarks are repeated for all to see. I think it is difficult, therefore, for him to absolve himself of responsibility. We know, and I hope that the Foreign Secretary is aware, that the Iranian authorities do not deal with ambiguity. They need clarity—clear words. Anyone who has engaged with them, as I and many others have done over many months to try to secure Nazanin’s release—we have been critical of them—will be aware of their approach and know that they need clarity. We need six words from the Foreign Secretary: “I’m sorry; I made a mistake.” Please give us those six words now.
I say respectfully to the hon. Lady that I think the mistake, the error and the fault lie with the Iranian authorities. It is to them that she should direct her anger.