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Volume 646: debated on Tuesday 4 September 2018

5. What representations he has made to his Saudi Arabian counterpart on the bombing of a school bus in Yemen by Saudi-led coalition forces. (906712)

11. What representations he has made to his Saudi Arabian counterpart on the bombing of a school bus in Yemen by Saudi-led coalition forces. (906718)

We are deeply concerned by the tragic incident in which so many were killed. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to his Saudi counterpart shortly afterwards and pressed for a quick and transparent investigation, so the recent announcement of the outcome, the coalition’s regret and action to address the recommendations are important developments. We call on all parties to adhere to international humanitarian law, and to engage in the UN-led talks this week to reach a political settlement.

It beggars belief that anyone could claim that a school bus travelling through a marketplace crowded with civilians could ever be a legitimate military target, but that is precisely what the Saudi Arabian regime did. Does the Minister now accept that the previous Government policy of leaving Saudi Arabia to investigate its own crimes is not working, and will the Government support the call from the United Nations Human Rights Council for us to refrain from providing arms that could be used in this dreadful conflict?

The hon. Gentleman’s concerns are obviously shared by all, but let me draw attention to the fact that the report produced by the Joint Incidents Assessment Team is almost unparalleled in terms of admitting error and pointing out where that error was. I think that the hand of the United Kingdom can be seen in the work that we have done with the coalition over time in order to ensure that should things go wrong, there is proper accountability, and I think that that is what we have seen in the report. Of course we regret the circumstances hugely, but what is most important is for the conflict to come to an end so that we see no more of this.

As the Minister will know, in the past I have offered help from SNP Members to support the work of Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen. I have also issued a plea for a halt to the bombing and the weapon sales from the UK to Saudi Arabia, and for the envoy to be given space in which to do his work and, indeed, back up some of the great work done by Karen Pierce, our ambassador to the UN, who has asked for a review in the event that an investigation proves flimsy. Why is the Minister tone deaf to those calls? How many more Yemeni children have to die?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s approach to this and know that he wants Martin Griffiths’s work to succeed. The United Kingdom is not tone deaf to this at all; I draw attention to the detail of the report which sets out the errors that were made and suggests that this would just not have happened some time ago. I am not aware of it happening in parallel with others responsible for humanitarian offences and issues in the region, such as the Houthi; there is no comparison with this. We are not tone deaf; we will continue to work with partners but the most important thing is to give Martin Griffiths that space so that the conflict comes to an end.

The value of British arms sales to Saudi Arabia surpassed £1billion in the first six months of 2017 alone. Is not one of the most effective diplomatic and political steps the Government can take right now to join other countries such as Germany and Norway and stop selling arms and call for a genuinely independent international inquiry to fully establish culpability?

I understand the force of the question and I think we will be coming to that in detail in a further question, but the short answer is no. The coalition acted in support of a legitimate Government; they are currently having missiles fired at civilian targets in their own state and I do not see the political justification for withdrawing our arms.

Assad has been roundly condemned in this Parliament many times for dropping bombs on schools and hospitals, let alone the barrel bombs, so why are the Saudis getting off lightly in this case when they are acting like barbarians? The Minister should go and tell them that.

There is no justification for any breaches of international humanitarian law. It is absolutely essential that it is adhered to, and should errors be made in any bombing, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure that those responsible are called to account, but the way in which there has been a particular response on this is, in my opinion, unparalleled.

I am pleased the Minister has condemned the latest tragic mistakes made by the Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen, but what steps is he taking to ensure that we support UN attempts to broker dialogue between the Houthi rebels and the Saudis?

The United Kingdom continues to work very closely with all parties to ensure that special envoy Martin Griffiths has the necessary space. We are in constant contact; I spoke to the Deputy Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates yesterday and spoke to the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister just this morning to urge the maximum support for the negotiations, and we have spoken to other parties who have an opportunity to make representations to others involved in the conflict to do exactly the same.

Last week’s United Nations expert panel report on Yemen completed before the bus bombing of 9 August said that the Saudi coalition was routinely ignoring its own no-strike list of 30,000 civilian sites. Surely that is the very definition of indiscriminate bombing. In light of that, how can the Government continue to claim that there is no clear risk that the arms we sell to Riyadh are being used to violate international humanitarian law?

The particular report that has been brought forward is not accepted in full by the coalition, and there are some elements of it that the UK does not accept, so we are looking at that more carefully. The important thing is—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct on this—that international humanitarian law must be adhered to, but the practices of the coalition that have developed over the conflict to ensure proper investigation should anything go wrong are far more developed than they were. Nobody wants to see such investigations because nobody wants to see the actions that have caused them, and that is the UK position.