Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 646: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2018

Following earlier comments, I know that many Members of the House would like to pay tribute, formally, to the life of Senator John McCain, who described the UK as

“the country which Americans have long regarded, in good times and bad, as our greatest and most influential friend.”

He also talked about the importance of the global role played by our two countries, saying that

“the future is in the safe hands of the two great peoples who long ago decided to make history together.”

So we celebrate his courage, integrity and generosity of spirit.

I endorse what the Secretary of State said in tribute to John McCain. May I put it to him that one of the most disreputable aspects of President Trump’s decision to end United States funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency is the fact that he dressed it up as part of a grand negotiating strategy towards what he calls the deal of the century, when in reality that decision is hitting schools and hospitals and the food aid for hundreds of thousands of people in abject poverty? I applaud the increase in funding for UNRWA, but may I press the Secretary of State a bit more about what action the UK Government and their partners will take to ensure that the vital lifeline that UNRWA provides to vulnerable people around the world will not be lost?

As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East said earlier, we do not agree with the American Administration’s decision on this issue. Today’s funding announcement is part of our response, but I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we will talk to other donors as well, to see whether we can make up the gap in funding to UNRWA that has been caused by that decision.

T2. The people of Clacton are getting ready to commemorate the end of world war one in November this year. I have had the honour of visiting our forces in Cyprus, some of whom are on vital NATO operations right now. Does my right hon. Friend agree that our membership of NATO has been key to the maintenance of peace in Europe since the end of world war two? (906734)

Labour can be incredibly proud that Clement Attlee was responsible for setting up NATO in 1949. NATO has been supported by every single Labour leader since then—except the current one. It would be interesting to know whether the current shadow Foreign Secretary supports the current Labour leader or his predecessors.

T4. I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role. I listened with interest to his comments about the plight of the Rohingya, but I am becoming impatient. It is now 12 months since the House heard of the massacre of 7,000 Rohingya people and the horrific circumstances that led to more than 700,000 having to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he views the situation as a matter of urgency and that the British Government, as a former colonial leader in the region, will take a lead on the issue, so that in 12 months we will not be in the same position, listening to reports of genocide? (906736)

I absolutely give the hon. Lady those assurances, because it is vital not just for the Rohingya people but for people everywhere that countries with values such as ours take a firm stand when there is genocide.

T3. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s recent comments about the need for further sanctions on Russia following the Salisbury attacks. Will he update the House on the progress that has been made on taking the case to the EU and its members and, indeed, to other trading partners, such as our Commonwealth friends? (906735)

I am very happy to do that. It is extremely important that there is a clear red line: the use of chemical weapons, of which nerve agents are one, is totally unacceptable. The price will always be too high. The EU has already agreed to a chemical weapons sanctions regime, and we will press it to implement that regime as soon as possible.

T5. The recent UN independent fact-finding mission on Myanmar called for the country’s top general, Min Aung Hlaing, to be investigated and prosecuted for crimes against humanity and genocide in northern Rakhine. Other Members have already referred to the situation there. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if the UK does not use its leadership role as the UN Security Council’s official penholder, there is a real risk that those Rohingya people who remain in Myanmar will face the same consequences as others have and that the genocide will continue? We have warned the Government about this issue, and action needs to be taken now. (906737)

I do agree with the hon. Lady. A referral to the International Criminal Court would need Security Council consensus, and we need to discuss with our Security Council colleagues whether that is achievable. We will not stop making sure that justice is done in this situation.

T6. As we prepare to leave the European Union, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to strengthen our diplomatic ties with Commonwealth countries around the world? (906738)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spent much of the summer travelling across Europe and meeting his European counterparts. Through EU membership, the UK is part of around 40 international agreements covering 70 countries. We are committed to ensuring continuity for existing EU trade agreements as we leave the European Union and to building up the closest trade agreements that we can with countries in the Commonwealth.

T7. I thank the Minister of State for Europe and the Americas for meeting me just before recess to hear my concerns about the Colombian peace process. I visited Congressman- Elect Jesus Santrich in prison in Bogota last month. He has been on a 41-day hunger strike. He is very frail, and has been denied access to doctors and to medication—the only medication that he has had is through his lawyers. Will the Minister please speak to the new Colombian Government not just about access to medication for him because he is frail, but about his continued administrative detention? (906739)

I hope to make the hon. Lady’s comments of even greater value by saying that I will have such conversations and that I will put in calls to Colombia. I know that our mission in Colombia, in Bogota, is always doing its best to make representations of this sort.

T9. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment as Foreign Secretary two months ago. I would be grateful if he committed to reviewing the resettlement of the Chagos islands, the British Indian Ocean Territory, by the native islanders. (906741)

As my hon. Friend appreciates we do have a long-standing policy on this issue and we do not recognise the sovereignty claim of the Republic of Mauritius over Chagos archipelago. We very much regret that Mauritius is taking its case to the International Court of Justice. That case started yesterday, so it would be more appropriate for us to wait until the outcome of any judgment, which should conclude this week.

T8. The Indian state of Kerala has suffered its worst flooding in almost 100 years. One million people have been displaced and more than 400 have already died. What is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office doing to ensure that it offers adequate consular assistance to British citizens in Kerala and to those with relatives in the state? (906740)

This is some distance from the middle east, but in the absence of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Pacific, I will say that I am aware that we have been engaged in supporting British citizens and in offering support to the Government of India where necessary. The Government are very self-sufficient, as they have dealt with similar issues before, but we have said that, should there be things they need, we will help. As always, our FCO team has been touch through its consular service with those who seek support.

I am proud that the UK has taken a global lead on tackling plastics in our oceans and the terrible pollution that it causes, including, of course, the ban on microbeads and microplastics. None the less, more must be done. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should continue to talk with other nations, so that they follow our example, and that we bring in the cause of microfibres as well, which are causing devastating pollution, too?

At the Commonwealth meeting, the Prime Minister launched the UK-Vanuatu-led Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, which sees countries across the Commonwealth join forces in the fight against plastic, including a ban on microbeads. I shall take further steps after these questions to investigate further the extent to which it also might include microfibres.

T10. Lesotho Minister John Maseribane admitted to “Channel 4 News” that he had received payments to his personal private bank account from Mr Arron Banks. Will the Foreign Secretary speak to the Attorney General about investigating this matter under the Bribery Act 2010 as this Government contribute to the Government of Lesotho? (906742)

I can confirm that we have announced this year that we are reopening an embassy in Lesotho. I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing this case to my attention, and I will certainly follow up by writing to him about the matter.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating Lewis Pugh on his recent swim across the English channel? It was a fantastic achievement. Along with 285 Members of Parliament, Lewis is championing the cause of the Great British Ocean Coalition. May I ask what progress is being made on marine conservation areas around the South Sandwich islands?

I think that the whole House will want to congratulate Lewis Pugh on his quite amazing swim. It puts my crawl—if I might put it that way—to shame. What he achieved was quite remarkable. The South Sandwich islands are very well managed. We are committed to protecting 10% of the world’s penguins there and around about. The UK is on course to protect 4 million square kilometres by 2020, which represents 60% of the UK’s oceans.

Further to the answer that the Minister gave my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), since President Duque took office there have been over 30 extra-judicial murders in Colombia; that is one every 18 hours. What can the Minister do when he calls Colombia to draw these murders to the attention of the Government in Colombia and to ensure that they bring the perpetrators to justice?

We are happy to include all such issues in any conversations that we might have with Colombian Ministers. Indeed, we are particularly concerned to ensure that the peace process remains on course. It has been deviating slightly recently. The Prime Minister confirmed the UK’s full support of that process during her phone call with the new Colombian President on 9 August. The Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister Holmes also discussed UN Security Council support for peace in Colombia when they met in New York on 24 August.

How are plans progressing to redeploy secondees to the European External Action Service, and what plans does the Foreign Office have to reconfigure our diplomatic footprint in Europe post Brexit?

As my right hon. Friend will be aware, we have dedicated more resources to increasing our representation across Europe, so that we are fully equipped to do all that we can to represent the UK’s interest once we have left the European Union.

The 50-year conflict in Colombia has seen thousands and thousands of campesino and indigenous families thrown off their territory, tortured and murdered, so the Minister is absolutely right to say that it is distressing in the extreme to see that the peace process has now stalled. The Spanish Prime Minister went to Colombia last week to impress on President Duque that he must get this back on track. Will the Minister make sure that British representations to President Duque are just as strong as those from Spain?

Yes, I will do so very genuinely. I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Gentleman has recently visited Colombia. I would therefore like to invite him and any other colleagues to see me in order to brief me on what they learned during their visit.

Further to the Minister’s earlier remarks, will he make it clear to our Saudi allies that they are on a hiding to nothing in this war in Yemen and that every effort must be made to support the peace process being brokered by Martin Griffiths, the UN Special Representative for Yemen? Will the UK support renewal of the mandate of the UN’s group of eminent experts on Yemen at the Human Rights Council this month?

Will the Minister insist as a matter of urgency that Kurdish representatives are allowed to attend the peace process meetings on the future of Syria?

Kurdish representatives are already included with the representatives of the Syrian opposition. Any further invitations are up to Staffan de Mistura, who is responsible for the negotiations, but the hon. Lady is right that it is absolutely important that Kurdish interests are represented.

It is now four years since my constituent Iftikhar Ahmad’s three-year-old son Shahryar—a British subject—was abducted and brutally murdered in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Will the Secretary of State meet me and others to see how we can get justice for this family?

There are reports this afternoon that Russian war planes have resumed bombing in Idlib province. What can we do to help Staffan de Mistura’s plan to create a humanitarian corridor to prevent more civilian tragedy in Syria?

In the first place, it is essential to convey to the Syrian regime, through its partners, the need to avoid a tragedy in Idlib, and that includes a bombing campaign or anything similar. I have been in contact with Turkey. I will be speaking to the Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister later this afternoon. It is essential that we find a way for non-combatants to leave the area, and all efforts are being made with all partners to try to ensure that this will be the case. However, the House should not be in any doubt that there is likely to be some military action. There are some terrorist entities in Idlib against whom the United Kingdom has been engaged in the past and who pose a threat. It is essential that there is not a humanitarian disaster, nor the use of chemical weapons.

What assistance has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office given to the victims of the devastating earthquakes on the island of Lombok over the past two months—UK citizens in particular—and to the humanitarian effort in general?

I am absolutely certain that the Foreign and Commonwealth, through its consular team, has given all assistance to those who have asked. I will redouble my efforts to find out more and relay that to my hon. Friend.

Will the Foreign Secretary respond positively to Etienne Krug of the World Health Organisation, who said that any Foreign Secretary’s priority should be the end of violent deaths of so many children worldwide?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this. I have regular contact with the WHO through my responsibilities at the Department for International Development. There is a tragedy of children caught up in violence wherever it may be, whether it is the result of trafficking, abuse or conflict. This is not just for the WHO; it is for all parties involved. It should be of interest that only last week we spoke about mediation at the UN General Assembly. There must be more mediation, rather than confrontation, to end conflict.

What conversations has my right hon. Friend had with his counterpart in Spain about the Catalan prisoners, some Ministers, who are imprisoned without charge?

As my hon. Friend will appreciate, this is of course primarily a matter for Spain itself, but in our conversations with Spain we urge it to make sure that every step it takes is fully in compliance with its constitutional obligations.

It is very welcome that the UK is the first country to support the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace to bring people together to build peace, reconciliation and coexistence—vital for a lasting settlement. What multilateral and bilateral steps will the Government now be taking to build international support for that vital fund?

The right hon. Lady is right that one of the elements of distress over the years has been the gradual separation of young people, in particular, in the Palestinian areas and those in Israel. All efforts to use the organisations that bring people together are to be supported and sponsored. She will know well that we have a bilateral programme to do this. I hope to ensure when I am in conversation with others, particularly at the UN General Assembly, that this area is not neglected and that we see more of it. It also forms part of the comprehensive settlement we know is necessary to end the conflict in the area.

I am sorry, because I could enjoy the eloquence of my colleagues for an indefinite period, but we must now move on to the next business.

Before we come to the urgent questions, I must advise the House of the following. I have received notification from the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron) of his intention to resign from the chair of the Standards Committee once a successor has been elected. He has served with great dedication and commitment for more than eight years in this role, often a thankless task, which has seen, of course, the introduction of lay members—a cause that I know is close to his heart—and, in recent months, the introduction of the new independent complaints and grievance policy, where the right hon. Gentleman has played an important role. He will also be stepping down from the chair of the Committee on Privileges.

Under the Standing Order, 10 sitting days have to elapse before an election. I have decided that the election for the new Chair of the Standards Committee will be held on Wednesday 17 October. The right hon. Gentleman has kindly agreed to continue in the chair until that date. I hope—I say this in all sincerity to colleagues across the House—that colleagues will want to show their appreciation of the work and commitment of the right hon. Gentleman. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you.