Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Foreign Secretary has spoken to Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu about the operation in Afrin. We have called for de-escalation for the protection of civilians, while recognising Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders. It remains in our shared interests to focus on achieving a political settlement in Syria.
Does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the Kurdish-led Administration in Afrin has built a secular, democratic system that has worked collaboratively with the international community to defeat Daesh, most recently in Raqqa? Does he accept that the international community owes a debt of honour to the Kurds? Will he step up efforts to stop the bloodshed in and around Afrin?
I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but we must also recognise the legitimate security interests of Syria. They consider that, having launched Operation Olive Branch in January, it is in response to attacks from the Afrin area, and they believe that they are in compliance with proper UN standards.[Official Report, 21 February 2018, Vol. 636, c. 4MC.]
When we make representations to our Turkish NATO allies, can we also make representations on behalf of the tens of thousands of journalists and others who have been locked up by the Turkish Government?
I can assure my right hon. Friend that we do, and we do so in all our meetings at all levels with our Turkish counterparts.
Do the Government agree that the Democratic Union party—the PYD—and the People’s Protection Units—the YPG—should be included in the Geneva process to end Syria’s war and discuss the country’s future?
That is primarily a question on Syria, rather than Turkey. However, I would point out to the right hon. Lady that the PKK is a proscribed organisation in the UK, whereas the organisations to which she principally refers are not and so can be spoken to.
Will the Minister make representations to the Turkish Foreign Minister to ask the Turkish navy to cease obstructing vessels seeking to extract hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean?
I understand the issue to which my right hon. Friend refers, which is the drilling for oil and gas on the edge of Cyprus. We are assessing what has been reported over the past day or so about what exactly is happening in that area.
We on this side of the House unequivocally condemn Turkey for its disgraceful assault on Afrin. We are especially appalled that it has enlisted in its army the very jihadist militias that the Kurdish forces have worked so hard to drive out of northern Syria. If the Foreign Secretary is unable to join me today in condemning Turkey, will the Minister of State at least explain why he believes that “Turkey’s legitimate interest in the security of its borders” gives it the right to brutally attack the innocent Kurdish community in Afrin?
I do not think it is exactly as the right hon. Lady says. We need to recognise Turkey’s legitimate interests. Of course we condemn any kind of attacks on civilians and we wish to see a de-escalation of that, but the legitimate rights of Turkey should be recognised.
The truth is that the Turkish assault is part of a broader pattern, where too many foreign parties engaged in the Syrian civil war are now acting just like the Assad regime itself—without any regard for international law. When the Government obtained a military mandate for joining the coalition action in Syria, David Cameron guaranteed in this House that it was “exclusively” to combat the threat from Daesh. Given that that threat is now almost totally gone, will the Minister of State please spell out the coalition’s current military objectives in Syria? When will he seek a mandate for them from this House?
I find the right hon. Lady’s analysis extremely bizarre, particularly as the YPG has been reported as wishing to ally itself with the Assad regime in order to fight back against Turkey’s activity.
Further to that point, what is the Minister’s assessment of the veracity of reports that the Assad regime and the Kurds are joining forces militarily to resist the Turkish incursion?
That is exactly the issue to which I have just referred. We are assessing it, and I am sure that there will be further reports later, but it is too early to say exactly what may be happening.
Girls’ education is a moral imperative. Women and girls have the right to be educated, equal, empowered and safe. This is one of the Foreign Secretary’s top priorities, and he has instructed his officials to put girls’ education at the heart of their work.
Given the appalling revelations about some employees in Oxfam and the subsequent attempts to cover that up, could the Minister assure us that any organisation that is asked to deliver education for girls’ programmes anywhere in the world by the British Government is fit for purpose?
I share my hon. Friend’s assessment that this is an utterly despicable example. I hope he agrees that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has shown real leadership by writing to all the organisations with which we contract to ensure that safeguarding levels are raised. I believe that you have allowed her to make a statement on this subject later this afternoon, Mr Speaker.
During the Foreign Secretary’s recent trip, what discussions did he have with Burma, Thailand and Bangladesh on the Government’s policy on the education of women and girls?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary champions this issue at every opportunity, including the opportunity that my hon. Friend mentioned. He will be aware that not only has my right hon. Friend shown tremendous leadership on this issue, but he has appointed a special envoy for gender equality and has really put this work at the heart of the diplomatic network.
Khwendo Kor provides education at the north-west frontier province of Pakistan, an incredibly dangerous environment for women and girls. UK Friends of Khwendo Kor tries to bring people over to the UK to provide human rights support, but the Home Office often blocks them. What discussion has the Minister had with the Home Office to help this situation?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the important work that a range of different organisations do, often in partnership with us. If she has specific examples on which she would like me to make representations to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I would be delighted to receive her correspondence.
Further to the previous question, what discussions has the Minister had with the Government of Pakistan on the education of girls in that country? Can she tell the House what proportion of UK aid to Pakistan goes towards the education of women and young girls?
It is certainly very significant. Last month, I had the pleasure of meeting two very impressive education Ministers from different parts of Pakistan. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, education is quite devolved across different parts of Pakistan. As for the specific statistics that he wishes me to provide, I will follow that up in a letter to him.
I welcome the work that my hon. Friend and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are doing in this field, but does she agree that in a place such as Africa, a huge amount more needs to be done?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a huge amount to be done. Something like 136 million girls around the world are not in education. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, this is truly the Swiss army knife of development, because it works in so many different ways. It helps to resolve issues of conflict and is also important to advance global prosperity.
CNN recently reported the story of 12-year-old Halima from Yemen, who wants to become a doctor, but whose father is being forced to make the choice to marry her off to make ends meet. He will receive £2,000 as a dowry for marrying off his daughter. What will the Minister do to prevent conflict in Yemen so that young women there can fulfil their potential?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight a particular example that illustrates the challenges faced by girls around the world. The UK Government have demonstrated significant leadership on this issue as a way of progressing peace and development around the world, and are urging all parties to the conflict in Yemen to make a political solution.
New Channel Link
At the conclusion of the highly successful Anglo-French summit, it was indeed agreed that a committee of wise people, or “comité des sages”, should be established to look at reviving the great tradition of UK-France collaboration in such matters as security, defence, space, genomics, infrastructure, and indeed, infrastructure projects, such as the idea of a new connection between our two countries—an idea, I can tell the House, that was warmly welcomed both by my counterpart, Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian, and by President Macron himself.
I note that the Foreign Secretary did not say whether he would be on this committee of wise people. He will be aware of the warning from Maritime UK and many others that the channel ports face gridlock if a transition arrangement for Brexit is not put in place urgently. What is the point of a 20-mile bridge if there is going to be a 20-mile queue waiting to get on to it?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on crowbarring Brexit into that question. Most people appreciate that the existing channel tunnel is likely, at the current rate, to be full within the next seven years, which is a very short time in the lifetime of a great infrastructure project. It is a curiosity that two of the most powerful economies in the world, separated by barely 21 miles of water, are connected by only one railway line. I think that is a matter for legitimate reflection by our two countries on the way forward.
With regard to links across the channel with France and many other European partners, yesterday the Exiting the European Union Committee heard evidence from Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt and many others, and it is absolutely clear that the deep partnership we are seeking with the European Union will be a unique and specific agreement that will benefit those on both sides of the channel enormously. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that should be the outcome of the talks that will be starting again soon?
Order. On the subject of crowbarring, or indeed shoehorning, I remind the Foreign Secretary—I am sure that he requires no reminding—that the question is not about Brexit; it is about a fixed link across the channel. That is the pertinent matter upon which he will focus.
If I may say so, I think that my hon. Friend has hit upon the notion of a metaphorical fixed link: a great, swollen, throbbing umbilicus of trade—I will not say which way it is going—with each side mutually nourishing the other. I very much approve of the note of optimism that he strikes.
I am generally in favour of building bridges rather than walls, but may I urge the Foreign Secretary, instead of indulging in fantasy engineering projects, to focus on the important work, which he just mentioned, of building metaphorical bridges with nations that share our values, such as France and other European neighbours, in order to prevent Brexit Britain from becoming isolated and increasingly reliant for trade and influence on regimes that have dubious human rights records?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, but she will recognise that we are beefing up our diplomatic representation in the EU and seizing the opportunity to build new links and revive old partnerships around the world. Nobody could have been more eloquent about our unconditional commitment to our friends and partners in the EU than the Prime Minister was in Munich last week.
In 1971, when French and English counterparts starting talking about the channel tunnel, they were mocked. Can we have more vision and less mockery about ideas on how we can take forward our future relationships?
I remind those Opposition Members who have been jeering from a sedentary position about great infrastructure projects that it has invariably been Conservative Administrations who have come forward with these schemes. It was the Conservatives who revived the east end of London with the Canary Wharf project, and it was Margaret Thatcher who green-lighted the first channel tunnel.
It is estimated that the Foreign Secretary’s channel bridge could be built at a cost of £120 billion. He wants to build bridges, but at the same time he is pushing for a hard Brexit, pushing us further away from the European Union. Does he think that that money could instead be better spent over the next six and a half years by giving the national health service £350 million a week? Which would he prefer?
The hon. Gentleman is possibly too young to remember, but when the first channel tunnel was commissioned it was the vision of the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, that it should be entirely privately financed, and there is no reason why we should not have the same ambition this time. As for his point about the Brexit dividend, as the Prime Minister has herself said, there will unquestionably be substantial sums of money available for spending in this country on the priorities of the British people, including the NHS. If Labour Members are opposed to that, let them stand up and say so now.
Can the Foreign Secretary tell us about any economic analysis that he has had done on the infrastructure that he is talking about, and tell us where it sits in relation to the Government’s new Mad Max dystopian barometer?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I defer the economic analysis to the comité—the committee of wise people. However, the first channel tunnel will be full within the next few years, by the middle of the next decade. I think it incumbent on us to be responsible enough to reflect on the future development of our economies, and I look forward to the committee’s findings.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me about the importance of evidence from impartial civil servants? Does he agree with me that evidence in terms of our relationship with France and the rest of Europe is important, and, in that context, does he agree with the former First Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), about the
“problem of politicians who won’t accept evidence”?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have nothing but admiration for the hard work and dedication of the Whitehall civil servants who are preparing the Brexit negotiations. Believe me, they are doing a superb job.
Illegal Wildlife Trade
The United Kingdom will host an ambitious, high-level illegal wildlife trade conference in London in October this year. I believe that the ambition to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade is shared by the entire British people.
At that conference, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the United Kingdom remains at the forefront of efforts to stamp out the illegal trade in ivory?
As my hon. Friend will know, we are nearing the conclusion of a consultation about a total ban on ivory, which I think many people in the House and in the country would agree is devoutly to be wished for. We will see where we get to, but I think my hon. Friend can count on us once again to be in the lead, and I believe that the October summit will produce some very substantive conclusions on saving elephants.
During his recent trip to south-east Asia, what discussions did my right hon. Friend have with palm oil-producing countries about the illegal wildlife trade and deforestation?
I am acutely aware of the problems caused by palm oil cultivation. We are in urgent dialogue with our partners to discourage them from deforestation and the consequent loss of species.
China has come a long way in the ivory trade discussions, but what discussions is the team having with Vietnam and some of the other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations?
Only the other day, I had discussions with Thailand. We absolutely appreciate the importance of not simply diverting the flow of ivory from China to other countries in south-east Asia.
Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House, and the people of the United Kingdom, that an international approach is being taken to ensure that nations across the developed globe take a similar position, so that we can ostracise and alienate those who are engaged in this sort of trade?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is why we are hosting a global summit, and the participation rates are already very high indeed.
I was able to meet with both Prime Minister Abadi and Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Munich at the weekend, when on behalf of the UK I encouraged the continuing dialogue recently begun between them individually, which is essential to the long-term stability of Iraq. We have no current plans for observers from the UK to attend May’s elections, but we are working with others to ensure efficient and effective monitoring.
Will British diplomats study the Federal Government’s progress in implementing the Iraqi constitution, especially in disputed areas like Kirkuk, where there have been reports of murder, looting and expropriation, and where the autonomy promised under the Iraqi constitution is under threat?
There is no doubt that both sides see the opportunity under the constitution to ensure that the relationships between them are strong and good. There has been a great deal of conciliation in an area that could be one of much greater conflict, and the UK is encouraging that dialogue to minimise the risk of the issues that my hon. Friend raises.
Will my right hon. Friend accept the Foreign Affairs Committee’s observation that many Kurds feel imprisoned in a country they see as not implementing the commitment to equality for them? Does he also agree that the five month-long blockade of international flights to and from Kurdistan has been a needless outrage, separating families, obstructing medical treatment and impairing the economy, and will he encourage Baghdad to lift the blockade?
The issue of the airport is foremost in the discussions between the respective Prime Ministers, and there is a recognition that if the arrangements for the airport could be changed, that would make a difference. It is essential for the future of a Kurdish region in Iraq that it is stable and secure and that rights are honoured on both sides, and that the constitution is seen to be effective.
I have just returned from Iraq, and I monitored the first ever elections in Iraq. Elections are important, and the Iraqis in particular would like more technical assistance and advice. They are doing a good job there at the moment, but they need more UK help to bring about reconciliation and progress between the various factions.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her steadfast support of Iraq over many years. Indeed, she and colleagues from the Inter-Parliamentary Union were over there to talk to those in the Iraqi Parliament about governance issues, and the contribution she has made over many years is immensely valuable. Of course, technical assistance from the UK to assist in this process is part of the support we provide, and I will certainly be looking into what more we can do in relation to the elections.
I know the Minister to be a fair-minded man, so when any of these negotiations are taking place, will he balance loyalty as allies of the Kurdish people over many long years with the track record of President Erdoğan?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas referred to the Turkish issue earlier. Certainly there is concern about what is happening on the border and a recognition that the needs of the Kurdish peoples, who are represented by a number of different parties, should be recognised. The UK is always conscious of the relationship we have with those peoples, and with the people of Iraq.
My right hon. Friend is a noted expert on the region, and it is a pleasure to see him representing Her Majesty’s Government in the middle east, but can he bring a little clarity, which the FAC asked for, on the difference between the YPG and the PKK? We received evidence after evidence that there is indeed no real difference, yet Her Majesty’s Government are supporting a group that appears, at least slightly, to be linked to a group that, as my right hon. Friend’s colleague the Minister for Europe and the Americas said just now, is a proscribed organisation.
I thank my hon. Friend not only for his question but for his leadership of the FAC, and we will study its report carefully. It asked for clarity in some situations in which it is genuinely difficult to provide clarity. There will be a full written response from the Foreign Office in due course, but we do designate the PKK as a proscribed organisation; that is the situation at present.
Syria: Chemical Weapons
We are deeply concerned by recent reports of chemical weapons use in Syria. UK officials are in contact with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is investigating. We condemn all use of chemical weapons and are working with international partners to identify and hold to account those responsible.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Anyone who seeks to draw a false equivalence in relation to Syria’s grotesque gassing of its own citizens risks aiding and abetting that gruesome activity. The Government’s concern is not enough, and words are not enough. What is the UK actually going to do to take action to stop this activity? This was supposed to be a red line for the international community, but it has been walked over time and again.
The hon. Gentleman is right to express concern and anger not only about the use of chemical weapons but about their increasing use. We think that they have been used on perhaps four occasions since the turn of this year. If the use of chemical weapons once again becomes the norm in war, that will go against a century of a united response against them by the world. I took part in the recent conference in Paris led by the French Foreign Minister and the United States Secretary of State to counter activities in the UN, where the joint investigative mechanism has been vetoed on three occasions, by trying to create some other mechanism. We will continue to work through the UN to ensure that the international convention on chemical weapons once again becomes properly effective.
I thank the Minister for his responses on this subject, but 2018 has proved to be an absolutely brutal year so far for Syrian civilians. What can we do? We can put in place monitoring in that country. Will the Minister tell us a little more about what UK Government resources are available for monitoring and collecting evidence of these terrible crimes?
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, the UK has been working to equip civilians on the ground with the tools they need to collect evidence that can be used to ensure accountability and justice. We have been doing that work for some years, and we will continue to do it. The hon. Lady has called attention to the increased use of chemical weapons in the past few weeks, which is an outrage. The world community is entitled to be outraged by it, and we must ensure that, through the UN, we do something effective to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The United Kingdom supports the concept of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Department for International Development’s people-to-people programme has similar aims, and brings together individuals from both sides to build support for a durable solution. We also remain concerned about the provision of healthcare in Gaza, and we are urging all the parties to take the necessary steps to improve conditions there.
I think the Minister for his response. With the UK’s increased commitment to funding coexistence projects in Israel-Palestine, which many on both sides of the House have long supported, we have an opportunity to lead the way on the global stage. Will he therefore pledge the UK’s diplomatic support to help to create that international fund, to ensure that our funding is matched by others as part of a sustainable international initiative to build the peace in the middle east that we all long for?
Many of us have worried over the years that one of the worst aspects of the conflict has been the separation of peoples. To that extent, we are following the concept of the development of this fund very carefully, and I will continue to take a strong personal interest in it. The sentiment behind it is exactly why we have the £3 million programme, but we will be watching the development of the international fund and giving it support where we can.
A couple of weeks ago, I was humbled to meet a group of young Palestinians and listen to their personal stories about the restrictions on healthcare. A report from the World Health Organisation states that 54 patients died in 2017 while awaiting exit permits to get medical treatment outside Gaza. Will the Minister press Israel to remove the restrictions on patients, to prevent more Palestinians from dying while waiting for medical treatment?
The circumstances in Gaza remain dire in many ways. The free movement of patients and medical personnel is vital to the effectiveness of care. We regularly raise concerns about ambulance and permit delays with the Israeli authorities, and we will continue to do so.
Since September 2015, some 58 Israelis and four foreign nationals have been murdered by Palestinian terrorists in more than 400 separate stabbing, shooting and car ramming incidents. The terrorists have been rewarded with honorary titles, monthly salaries and other opportunities. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear to the Palestinian Authority that, until such time as glorification of terrorism ends, there can be no peace in the middle east?
As my hon. Friend is aware, we continue to condemn incitement and violent activities in the region at all times. The attacks that he mentions are absolutely not conducive to peace and should not be celebrated. However, the context of the situation means that we must continue to work for an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, because only when that happens will the seeds of conflict be taken away. In the meantime, we unreservedly condemn all terrorist and violent attacks.
After the US halved its funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency last month, President Trump explained the decision by saying that the Palestinians
“disrespected us…by not allowing our great vice president to see them...that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace.”
May I ask the Minister to state, on behalf of this House, that extorting the Palestinian Authority to bend the knee to Mike Pence by removing essential healthcare and education from impoverished Palestinian families is nothing short of a disgrace?
The actions of the United States Government in this case have nothing to do with us. Our view on UNRWA remains absolutely clear. I met the director of UNRWA just this morning at the Department for International Development. We will continue to support it and to fund it. To leave refugees in Lebanon and Jordan without support would be a disaster. UNRWA needs to continue to get support, and it will do so from the United Kingdom.
Institute for Free Trade: Launch Cost
There was no cost to the public purse.
Oh, come off it! Come off it! The right hon. Gentleman must think that we were all born yesterday. The truth is that this was a private party, which was going on on Government premises, sanctioned by the Foreign Secretary. He has been trying to dress up a tinpot bunch of ideological crackpots as an institute, quite against the law, and he has broken the ministerial code. He has been caught in flagrante delicto, hasn’t he?
I am under the unhappy duty of contradicting the hon. Gentleman. He is talking the most perfect tripe. The event that took place was completely non-partisan. Members of all parties were present. [Interruption.] Including the Labour party. EU and non-EU ambassadors were represented. It was fully in line with Foreign and Commonwealth Office rules on hosting such events, and I have here a letter from the Cabinet Secretary to confirm that, which I am happy to pass to the hon. Gentleman. I am afraid to say that the Cabinet Secretary has been pestered with complaints from the Labour party about this absolutely blameless event, which was there to support and encourage free trade, which is a major objective of Government policy and should be an objective of the hon. Gentleman—or is it not?
Was the excellent continental free trade area agreement of the African Union, which would bring great prosperity, discussed? If it was not discussed then, could it be discussed at the next meeting? I would be very happy to pay for it.
I don’t think it was a meeting, I think it was a booze-up.
I hesitate for an age before correcting you, Mr Speaker, but it was a serious discussion of the advancement of free trade. The subject of free trade in the African Union, which my hon. Friend raises, is a very good one. The only advice I would give to the African Union is not to acquire a parliament, a court or a single currency.
I readily defer to the Foreign Secretary’s knowledge of this important event.
He was there for a long time.
I do not know how long he was there, and I cannot say that I greatly care. We have had the answers.
Global Ocean Conservation
At the previous Foreign Office questions in January, I explained that the UK is leading by example on ocean conservation. The Government are on track to meet their manifesto blue belt pledge, which will deliver marine protection across nearly 4 million sq km of the waters around our overseas territories by 2020. Through the Commonwealth marine economies programme, we are working to enable small island Commonwealth states to conserve and use their maritime space sustainably.
In common with my constituents, I welcome the microbeads ban and other measures taken by the Government to protect the marine environment, but we need a global approach. What diplomatic steps is my right hon. Friend taking to engage with the United Nations and other countries to push the blue belt charter up the global agenda?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the steps that we have taken, such as on microbeads. As for her main point, we are closely involved in negotiations to develop a UN treaty on marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdictions. As chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years, we will work with member states to create a Commonwealth blue charter. In the G7, we are working closely with Canada during its presidency to deliver our shared ambition to tackle the threats facing our oceans.
I welcome the significant contribution made by the British Council to projecting British values overseas, which I regularly witness on my visits to Asia and the Pacific. My officials and I are in regular dialogue with the British Council across the globe to discuss the scope of its important work. We will continue to work with it to ensure compliance with our manifesto commitment to
“place… the British Council on a secure footing”.
I thank the Minister for that response. Given the importance of the British Council to our soft power, what are the implications of possible cuts to non-overseas development aid funding for the council’s work? How might they affect the Government’s plans for a global Britain?
The council has agreed to reduce its non-ODA grant from the Foreign Office to zero by the end of the spending review period in exchange for additional official development assistance funding. As part of our vision for a global Britain, we want a properly funded and effective council that projects British values right across the world. The council will continue to deliver activity in non-ODA countries through the income generated from other sources, such as its commercial income.
Leaving the EU: Diplomatic Co-operation
We are seeking a deep and special partnership with the EU post Brexit. Our existing relationship provides a strong foundation for vital continued co-operation on global challenges. We are working to strengthen, reinvigorate and reshape our bilateral relationships with our European partners, focusing on shared values and interests.
The Foreign Secretary’s 5,000-word speech on Brexit last week was described by one of his ministerial colleagues as follows:
“He is completely in denial about the complexity of the exit and the negative economic…consequences.”
Will the Foreign Secretary clear something up? Is he in denial or is he just wrong?
If I may, I will respectfully resist the alternatives that the hon. Gentleman lays before me. Last week, I was trying to make the point that we now have a massive opportunity to come together—people who voted remain and people who voted leave—to get a positive arrangement and a positive Brexit that will be of massive benefit to people both in this country and in the whole of the European continent. If we are ambitious and positive, I have absolutely no doubt that we can pull it off.
The Foreign Secretary claimed last week that it would be “intolerable” for the UK not to set its own regulations after Brexit. The next day, a Harvard survey of UK importers and exporters found that the last thing that they want is the dual regulatory burden of having to comply with both UK and EU rules. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us who is right?
I think that the Harvard survey is right: nobody wants two sets of regulations to be imposed on the UK economy. That is why the Prime Minister was completely right—wasn’t she?—at Lancaster House and, indeed, in Florence and in sundry other places when she said that Brexit means taking back control of our money, our borders and, above all, our laws. That is what we are going to do.
Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to praise the work of Her Majesty’s diplomatic service? Is he content that our embassies in the 27 remaining EU countries are sufficiently resourced to represent the United Kingdom effectively after Brexit?
I am so glad that my hon. Friend asked that question because we are not only upgrading seven ambassadorial posts in the 27 other EU countries, but increasing our staffing across the network in the EU by 50.
No you’re not.
Yes we are. Again, I am getting some negativity from a sedentary position on the Opposition Benches. In addition to beefing up our relations with our EU friends and partners, we will open 15 embassies in Africa.
It has been pointed out that the Foreign Secretary’s Brexit speech last week was 5,000 words long, but it did not once include the words “Northern” or “Ireland”. That is perhaps the biggest problem that the Government need to tackle, yet the Foreign Secretary did not even mention it. Will he belatedly take the opportunity to explain in simple terms how it is possible for the UK to diverge from the EU in regulations, tariffs and other aspects of trade while retaining the current arrangements on the Irish land border? Will he enlighten us? What is the plan?
As the right hon. Lady knows very well, there is no reason whatsoever why we should not be able to exit the customs union and the single market while maintaining frictionless trade not only north-south in Northern Ireland, but with the rest of continental Europe. That is exactly what the Government will spell out in the course of the coming negotiations.
The UK champions peacekeeping financially, politically and militarily. Since 2015, we have more than doubled our commitment to UN peacekeeping, with British forces deploying to South Sudan and Somalia. There are now more than 700 UK personnel deployed on eight UN peacekeeping missions in seven countries.
In the light of ongoing reports of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers, does the Minister agree that increasing the number of women peacekeepers is a vital part of addressing the crisis in the long term? Will she also tell us the proportion of peacekeepers from the UK who are women and what plans she has to increase their representation on UN deployments?
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s leadership on the issue and her work on all aspects of it. I think that she will admire the leadership role that the UK has played not only in putting the subject on the UN’s agenda last year, but with our Prime Minister’s appointment to the Secretary-General’s Circle of Leadership. I assure her that we will continue to champion that agenda at every opportunity.
On the topic that the hon. Lady raised about women from our armed forces, she will know about the impressive agenda that includes the Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Act 2018, and that we are aiming to increase the proportion of women from 11% to 15%.
My immediate priority is to take forward Britain’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Burma and in Bangladesh. I was deeply moved by the plight of Rohingya refugees whom I met in Cox’s Bazar earlier this month. I went to Burma with the express purpose of raising the tragedy with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. The UK’s goal is to help to create the conditions for the safe, voluntary and dignified return of the refugees to their homes.
The House will join me in welcoming the Gambia back to the Commonwealth, providing an excellent prelude to the Commonwealth summit in London in April.
Will my right hon. Friend say what discussions he has had with the Government in Wellington about UK-New Zealand trade and co-operation on Brexit?
I have just returned from a sun-kissed New Zealand, where I had fruitful discussions—[Interruption.]—indoors in the main, with a range of political figures, including my counterparts the Associate Foreign Minister and the Trade Minister, and with the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee. New Zealand is a valued Five Eyes security partner and a priority for a deeper security and trade agreement once we leave the EU. We have the broadest and deepest friendship with New Zealand.
The UK is joint guarantor of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, yet we have seen booksellers abducted, elected legislators barred and student demonstrators imprisoned, and in Guangdong, in December, 10 people were tried in a sports stadium before being executed. Why did the Prime Minister not raise the issue of human rights in public in Beijing? Was it because she does not care or because she is so desperate to get a trade deal?
I reassure the shadow Minister that the Prime Minister did raise these issues, but we do this not through megaphone diplomacy but in private meetings; we relentlessly raise human rights issues, not least in respect of Hong Kong. As the hon. Lady rightly says, it is vital that Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms are respected. Our most recent six-monthly report states that one country, two systems must continue to function well, and we remain concerned by, for example, the rejection of Agnes Chow’s most recent nomination for March’s Legislative Council election.
We have fully supported the United Nations resolutions that have imposed increasing sanctions upon the use of overseas labour from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Many such workers operate in slavery-like conditions while the DPRK regime takes a large slice of their wages. The latest of those was UN Security Council resolution 2397, which was adopted as recently as 22 December last year.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s interest in this subject. As he knows, the difficulty is that in the UN Security Council there will be those who would not support such a resolution at present. The crucial thing is that everybody in the region and around the world makes it clear to the Government in Naypyidaw and to Daw Suu that the only way forward now for Burma is to create the conditions for a safe, dignified and voluntary return—and that must mean an independent UN-led agency to oversee the repatriation; otherwise those people are going to be too frightened to return. That is the priority on which we should focus.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this disastrous situation and the importance of the UK’s role. He will be aware that the DRC is an extremely dangerous place even for the UN peacekeepers; some were killed last year. The UK Government are calling on President Kabila to respect the constitution, to fulfil the commitments made in the Saint-Sylvestre accord and to continue with the implementation path to elections this year.
We have one of the strictest arms control regimes in the world, governed both by this House and by the law, and we will continue to abide by that. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to encourage a diplomatic solution to end the conflict in Yemen. That is the only thing that will bring the suffering of the people of Yemen to an end.
We are totally aligned with what is taking place in Redditch in the sense that, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Africa said earlier, our ambition for there to be 12 years of quality education for every girl in the world, which I believe is the universal spanner that will help to unlock so many other global problems, is at the heart of our Commonwealth summit—
The universal what?
The universal spanner—a device that will solve almost any problem. I truly believe that female education is at the heart of solving so many other global problems, which is why we are putting it at the very centre of the Commonwealth summit in April and the upcoming G7 summit. Across our network, female education is at the heart of everything that we do.
Order. There is a lot of chortling going on in the Chamber, but we have had an update on the spanner situation, for which we are indebted to the Foreign Secretary.
What steps is the Department taking to provide training on freedom of religion or belief for its officials?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question; I am well aware that this issue is close to his heart. He will be aware that Lord Ahmad and I regularly liaise on the issue with our embassies and high commissions. I wrote a joint letter to those on my patch, in Asia and the Pacific, and I have received replies from Bangladesh, Burma, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. I am encouraged that the network takes the issue as seriously as the hon. Gentleman does.
If Britain is to assume a more ambitious global trading role as we leave the EU, we shall surely need to expand the depth and reach of our network of high commissions and embassies in regions such as North America. What assurances can my right hon. Friend offer the House that critical diplomatic missions in countries such as Canada are being expanded, not cut back?
I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that to the best of my knowledge we have, just in the past 18 months, opened three new trade missions in North America. I cannot comment about Canada specifically, but we are certainly beefing up our presence in the United States in advance of doing a great free trade deal.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described what is happening to the Rohingya people as a military campaign in which
“you cannot rule out the possibility that acts of genocide have been committed”.
Having met the victims in Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Foreign Secretary said earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) that a Security Council referral is too difficult. Will he show some leadership and work with our EU partners next week at the Foreign Affairs Council to build support for a referral? The act of a referral will make a difference.
As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, Myanmar is not signed up to the International Criminal Court, but there must be no doubt about the gravity of what has taken place. Anybody who flies over northern Rakhine, as I did last week, will see literally hundreds of villages that have been burned or destroyed. Some 680,000 people have been displaced. This has been ethnic cleansing on an industrial scale and it may also have been genocide. It is vital that the evidence is acquired to determine whether any future prosecution can be mounted.
The recent extension of the state of emergency and the arrest of former President Gayoom and two Supreme Court judges has shown President Yameen tightening his grip in the Maldives and the further extinguishing of the democratic institutions there. Given the fact that at any one time there are literally thousands of British holidaymakers on those islands, and that until recently the Maldives was a welcome member of the Commonwealth family, will the Secretary of State agree to head up a mission there, or encourage the UN to establish one? The situation has the potential to bring China and India into an unwelcome regional conflict.
Like my right hon. Friend I am deeply troubled by the declaration of a state of emergency in the Maldives on 5 February and the accompanying suspension of fundamental rights. Last November in London, I met former President Nasheed, whose own time in office was turbulent, and we discussed the deteriorating situation. We will very much take on board my right hon. Friend’s suggestions.
Is the Secretary of State concerned about weekend reports by human rights observers that the civilians of Afrin have been subjected to chemical gas attacks by Turkish forces? Should we expect that conduct from a so-called NATO ally?
As I mentioned earlier, any suggestion of the use of chemical weapons must be independently verified. The degree to which they have become more used in the Syrian conflict by a number of different sources, not least the regime, is a matter of great concern, but any suggestion must be properly identified and verified.
The Good Friday agreement has brought about peace for almost 20 years in Northern Ireland. Will the Foreign Secretary give an unequivocal assurance that Her Majesty’s Government will not do anything that undermines the agreement, including pursuing any policy that undermines the principles that led to its creation?
Has the Secretary of State had the chance to speak to the Sri Lankan ambassador regarding his defence attaché Brigadier Priyanka Fernando and his behaviour on 4 February, when he made throat-slitting gestures to Tamil protesters? If somebody else incited hatred in that way on our streets, they would be interviewed by the police. Will the Minister make arrangements for Brigadier Priyanka Fernando to be interviewed by the police about that crime?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the UK takes this incident very seriously. When I spoke recently to Foreign Minister Marapana, he left me in no doubt that the Sri Lankan Government were treating it with the seriousness that it deserves. They have informed the UK Government that they have ordered the defence attaché to return to Colombo from London with immediate effect for consultations while the incident is thoroughly investigated. I hope that the UK and Sri Lanka bilateral relationship will remain strong and co-operative.
I know the Foreign Secretary shares my view that our leadership in marine conservation, particularly in respect of the blue belt, is a source of national pride, but may I urge him please to use the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April to press our Commonwealth allies, more than half of which are island states, to make that a high priority in the discussions ahead?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the pioneering role he has played in championing the blue belt initiative, which has consecrated millions of square miles of ocean, protecting habitats and species around the world. As he knows, the UK Government have put a further £20 million into that scheme. As he rightly foreshadows, it is our ambition at the Commonwealth summit to go further.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the plight of my constituents Mr and Mrs Westwood, who were first of all defrauded of their entire possessions in Zimbabwe and then forced to flee for their lives by armed gangs with very close links with the Mugabe regime. Will he explain why the Westwoods recently received a letter that appeared to indicate that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was no longer willing to give them any assistance? Will he agree to meet me and the Westwoods to give them his personal assurance that the FCO will not abandon them?
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.
May I ask my right hon. Friend what his view is of the position with the Ecuadorian embassy in London? The situation has been going on since 19 June 2012. In the first three years, it was estimated to have cost the Metropolitan police an extra £11 million. When are we going to take action?
Julian Assange breached his bail conditions in 2012. In upholding the arrest warrant of 13 February, Judge Arbuthnot said:
“He appears to consider himself above the normal rules of law and wants justice only if it goes in his favour.”
In our view, Assange is not a victim of arbitrary detention. He is avoiding lawful arrest. He should step outside the door and face justice. That would bring an end to the matter.
Almost two years ago, my constituent Adrian St John was murdered in Trinidad. Since then, his mother Sharon and I have been working with Ministers and officials in both countries to secure justice, but progress has been grindingly slow. The case in Trinidad has been adjourned 27 times. Will the Government ensure that Adrian’s murder is on the agenda when the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago visits London in April, and will Ministers allow time during Mr Rowley’s official visit to meet Sharon and me to help her to secure justice?
I commend the hon. Gentleman for the manner in which he is defending the interests of his constituent. I am acutely aware of this case. Adrian was murdered in Trinidad. We cannot interfere in the judicial process, but we are extending every possible support. I advise the House that we understand that a preliminary trial to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to charge the accused with murder will be held on 8 March. I hope that this will mark some progress towards what the hon. Gentleman is seeking.
Millions of people are celebrating the seventh anniversary of the start of the Libyan uprising and the ousting of Colonel Gaddafi. Fayez al-Sarraj has been the Prime Minister of Libya for nearly two years and progress has been painfully slow. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what his Department is doing to help the Government of National Accord to bring about a prosperous and—more importantly—peaceful Libya?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his interest in a country that is still bedevilled by factional feuding between a very small number of men—a maximum of about half a dozen—who have it in their power to come together and build a better future for Libya. We are trying to back the efforts of UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé to bring the eastern and western parts of Libya together, with a plan for the whole country—a new constitution, to be followed by elections. That is what we are working for.
May I ask the Minister for the Middle East what representations have been made in the case of Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who is facing another long prison sentence tomorrow, simply for taking to social media to criticise torture in Bahrain’s prisons and the Saudi-led war in Yemen?
There are a small number of those who have been arrested and have had lengthy trials in Bahrain. The United Kingdom has made representations in a number of these cases, including those mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, and we continue to monitor the trials and processes very carefully.
Estimates suggest that 12 million tonnes of plastic go into our oceans every year, causing immense damage to our ecosystems. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need not only to get involved on the global stage to influence the cleaning up of our oceans, but to lead by example in the UK, not least—it might only be a small thing—by giving up plastic for Lent as far as we can, as many hon. Members are doing?
My hon. Friend speaks for millions of people in the country who feel ashamed to see the state of our oceans and wish that they could be cleared up. This country is taking a lead. Cracking down on plastic waste will certainly be at the heart of the Commonwealth summit. I have to admit that I do not know how easily I could give up plastic for Lent. I have a plastic biro in my right hand; I propose to take it out and dispose of it in a suitable manner. My hon. Friend is entirely right.