House of Commons
Tuesday 11 September 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
University of London Bill [Lords]
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 9 October (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Pubs are a vital part of our local communities and the Government are committed to supporting them, which is why I froze all alcohol duties in the 2017 Budget. That freeze, and cuts in alcohol taxes since 2013, mean that a typical pint of beer is 12p cheaper than it would otherwise have been.
Pubs are also benefiting from recent wider reforms of business rates that will be worth £10 billion by 2023, including the doubling of rural rate relief to 100%, the switch from retail prices to consumer prices indexing, reforms in small business rates relief that have taken 600 small businesses out of rates altogether, and the introduction and then the extension of the £1,000 business rates discount for pubs.
Will the Chancellor join me in congratulating the Friends of Haden Cross, a pub in my constituency? Will he, in particular, join me in congratulating Tim Haskey and Jim Mumford, who rescued the pub when it was on the point of closure, and who, working with new management, have seen a 500% increase in takings since November? Does he agree that the Government should continue to provide good fiscal support for pubs, given their importance to our local communities?
My hon. Friend has detailed a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of a pub. I congratulate the Friends of Haden Cross on that success, and on making such good use of the “assets of community value” scheme to save their local.
The Government remain clear about the fact that local pubs are instrumental in facilitating the support networks and social interactions that are such a vital part of local communities. We will continue to protect them, and it is welcome news that pubs such as the Friends of Haden Cross are benefiting from the measures that we have taken.
Will my right hon. Friend join me on a pub crawl in Shrewsbury? [Laughter.] I am buying.
My right hon. Friend has mentioned some very positive figures relating to Government support for pubs, but I should like him to come to the Salopian Bar, my local in Shrewsbury, and hear at first hand about the extraordinary rises in business rates with which some pubs have had to deal. I should like him to gain first-hand experience, by talking to landlords, of some of the financial pressures that they are under.
Provided that I can have it in writing that my hon. Friend is buying, I am very tempted to consider his offer. I will negotiate with him.
I understand the pressure that pubs and many other traditional businesses are facing. Pubs in Shrewsbury have benefited from recent cuts in alcohol duties and business rates, but of course we recognise the challenge that many smaller businesses face, and we will keep that challenge very much in mind as we formulate our policies.
The Chancellor is obviously very welcome to join me in a pub crawl around Darlington as well. I always stand my round.
Many of us who represent towns are fighting very hard to support our high streets, and the business rate pressures that have confronted retail businesses are exactly the same when it comes to pubs and catering outlets. In my town, there are so many anomalies in relation to pubs and business rates that such anomalies have become almost normal. The situation needs to be looked at as a matter of urgency. Will the Chancellor investigate the way in which smaller pubs are particularly disadvantaged by the business rates system?
It is true that pubs are assessed in a different way from other retail premises for business rates purposes. We looked into that recently and concluded that the current system was in fact the best system for pubs, but I shall be happy to look into it again.
We all recognise—every single one of us, whichever part of the country we represent—that high streets are under pressure, primarily because the behaviour of consumers is changing. I think that our challenge is to support the high street as it undergoes that process of change. We cannot simply turn our backs on a change that is driven by consumer behaviour, but we must support businesses as they make it.
I am sure the Chancellor will agree that there is a need to encourage entrepreneurs and small business start-ups, including the setting up of new pubs. Will he agree to follow the lead of the Welsh Labour Government, who have set up a micro small business fund that provides up to £500,000 a year to enable small businesses to protect and create jobs? A UK-wide scheme could protect a great many small industries, including the pub industry.
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have the start-up loan scheme, which provides support for entrepreneurs starting small businesses, and the Government will continue to encourage small businesses to be established and then to grow.
We have regular meetings with the Health Secretary and have recently allocated an additional fund of a 3.4% rise per year to the national health service, which will equate to £20 billion by 2023.
In Bedfordshire, children with mental health issues are travelling up to 100 miles to access services. Their recovery is hugely compromised by sending them away from their families and friends. Will the Chancellor now commit funds to local specialist facilities for young people and reinstate the mental health beds in Bedford that his Government took away?
We recognise that there is increasing demand for the NHS, which is precisely why we have allocated the additional funding, and the Health Secretary will shortly publish a 10-year plan with mental health as one strand of it.
Is it reasonable for me to expect to pass my assets and property to my heirs unencumbered and intact and at the same time to expect the taxpayer to pay for my social care?
We recognise that social care is an area where reform is needed, and my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary will shortly publish a Green Paper to outline some of the options and to make sure we have a proper discussion as a country about the future of social care.
My clinical commissioning group in north Derbyshire has seen an uplift of only 1% over the five-year funding settlement from 2016-17, resulting in a deficit of £51 million to find this year in cuts and of £71 million next year. It is having to cut everything that it is not statutorily required to provide, including all voluntary services. Will the Chancellor look at the funding that has gone to the national health service over the past six years to make sure this can be met?
No doubt, the hon. Lady will welcome the additional money allocated to the NHS to reflect the increasing demand. I point out that under the plans proposed by the Labour party, which would mean fewer businesses, fewer jobs and less tax revenue, there would be less money going into the NHS and the hon. Lady’s local services.
There is strong public appetite for increased spending not only on the NHS, but on education, defence and a whole host of other areas, and, if the polls and all the petitions are to be believed, there is a strong public appetite to pay more tax in order to finance those spending increases. Will the Minister bear that in mind in the upcoming Budget?
I am sure my hon. Friend will recognise that we are not going to announce the contents of the Budget at today’s Treasury questions, but I point out that we are a Government who believe in low taxes: we have reduced taxes on basic rate taxpayers by £1,000. Of course, as well as putting that extra money into the NHS, my job as Chief Secretary is to make sure we get value for money from every penny we spend, and that is why we are developing a 10-year plan. We are improving the use of technology and we are getting better value for money from the drugs budget as well.
Is the Chief Secretary aware in the discussions the Health Secretary may have had on NHS funding whether he mentioned his unilateral plan to ditch the 2013 pensions deal agreed with representative bodies, which was supposed to last for 25 years, and which may affect 1 million NHS staff?
What I am aware of is the deal that has been done with NHS workers to give them a 6.5% pay rise in exchange for reform over the next three years. We know that on average public sector workers get approximately 10% more in terms of pensions than their private sector counterparts, but we are also making sure that we have the right wages to recruit and retain people in the NHS.
Clearly, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury does not even know what she has put out in her name. The pension changes snuck out on Thursday evening could negatively affect the pensions of a further 4 million public sector workers—[Interruption.] No, that is not the case. So I ask on behalf of those dedicated public sector workers—nurses, doctors, social workers, teachers, support staff and refuse collectors—will the Chancellor withdraw these snidey proposals and honour his predecessor’s deal? Is that too much to ask? Or will millions of staff in the public sector be let down and betrayed yet again by this Government?
I think the Labour party has misunderstood the announcement we made last week, which will actually ensure that more money goes into public sector pensions, in line with the deal that we did with the unions previously.
The Government are taking a proactive approach to supporting boroughs and enabling them to manage their money well and help those in problem debt. We reformed consumer credit regulation in 2014, and I am now working on setting up a single financial guidance body to help those who are in difficulties.
One in eight workers is living in poverty, and the average worker is earning £25 a week less than they were 10 years ago. Many of my constituents who are working all the hours they can find still have to come to my office for food bank referrals and debt advice. Does the Minister accept that the rhetoric is talking down the people who are working as much as they can but still living in poverty?
No, I am sorry; I would not accept that. I accept that this Government are committed to doing all they can for hard-working people. That is why we have raised the national living wage, which means £600 for those who are working full time. I am sure that the hon. Lady would also want to welcome the wage data that have come out today.
According to the Money Advice Service, the proportion of people in Greenwich and Woolwich who are over-indebted is higher than both the UK and the London averages. I know from my advice surgery that a significant amount of that is down to the behaviour of rip-off lenders. What more will the Government do to clamp down on predatory lending?
The primary responsibility for rogue lending lies with the Financial Conduct Authority, and its report at the end of May brought in a number of measures, including a cap on rent to own. I accept that more can be done, and that is why I am working hard with my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), on the financial inclusion forum to look at the expansion of alternative affordable forms of credit for the poorest in our society.
May I urge the Minister to take firm action against people who exploit the most vulnerable in our society? I refer particularly to loan sharks, payday lenders, rent-to-own outfits such as BrightHouse, rip-off bank overdraft fees and exploitative doorstep lenders. Will he be firm, to ensure that we protect the most vulnerable?
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I have deep conversations on this matter with the Financial Conduct Authority regularly. I also met representatives of Scotcash and the credit unions over the recess to see what alternative supplies of affordable credit are available.
Under Labour, household debt rose in every year bar one, but the Office for National Statistics now shows that, since 2010, the number of children in workless households has fallen by a staggering 637,000. Does that not demonstrate the huge contrast between the economic achievements of this Government and the track record of the Labour party?
I thank my hon. Friend for reminding us of those facts. During the Labour Government, there was also an increase in the welfare budget of 65%, or £84 billion in real terms. We have to spend money wisely, and my hon. Friend’s observations are welcome.
British families are currently spending considerably more than their disposable income and, as a consequence, debt levels in relation to income are rising back to crisis levels. At the same time, France and Germany have big savings surpluses. Which is the most sustainable of the two options?
What is sustainable is that real household disposable income is up by 4.6% since 2010. I acknowledge that there are those who are experiencing challenges, and that is why I have set out the measures the Government are taking and are determined to take to assist those in a vulnerable position.[Official Report, 9 October 2018, Vol. 647, c. 1MC.]
The way to combat poverty and generate prosperity is to create jobs and raise wages. In that context, is it not welcome that a combination of the massive increase in the minimum wage and the rise in the personal allowance since 2010 have increased the net wages of someone working on the minimum wage by 39% when CPI during that period has been only 19%?
My hon. Friend is on top of the figures, as always, and sets out the positive story that this Government have to tell, but there is no room for complacency. This Government are committed to getting as many people back into work as possible, and we welcome the current record figures.
There are different profiles of debt across the country, which is why the Government are committed to making interventions through the Financial Inclusion Forum to expand affordable credit and to assist those who are in difficulty. There is no room for complacency, and the Government are committed to assisting where necessary.
Does the Minister share my view that one of the best ways of helping hard-working families is to enable them to keep more of the money they earn by keeping taxes low? Will he confirm that this Government will continue to keep taxes as low as possible for working people?
Absolutely we will.
This Government may say that they are taking action on household debt, but the fact is that they rely on that excessive debt for economic growth. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that nine tenths of all GDP growth last year is attributable to household consumption, which is being fuelled by unsustainable levels of debt. Instead, we should raise investment, both public and private, which in the UK is well below the average for a developed country. We have plans to do that, but will we see any such proposals from the Government in the forthcoming Budget?
The Chancellor has set out in successive Budgets our commitment to invest in this economy with the national productivity plan. We must recognise that we need affordable investment, and we have found out over the past 24 hours that the Opposition’s plans are confused. If £500 billion is just a down payment and the start of the investment, where will it end? Is that affordable?
Let us have some facts. The OBR predicts that unsecured household debt will reach 47% of income by 2021. The last peak was 45% in 2007. Families are using credit to pay for essential items. The people who are going to food banks are often in work, because work is not paying. What is the Treasury going to do? Will Ministers admit that austerity has created this mess?
The Government are creating the conditions for growth and raising the national living wage. When I visited Glasgow just a few weeks ago, it was encouraging to see the constructive way that the 1st Class Credit Union and Sharon MacPherson of Scotcash are working with the poorest to help them when they are in difficulty.
I am really pleased that the Chancellor said that he will consider visiting a local pub. Will he consider coming to the Community Food Initiatives North East food bank in my constituency, which has today called for more food because its shelves are empty? If he was to come and visit a food bank such as CFINE’s, he would find out at first hand the effect that Tory UK Government policies are having on individuals up and down the country. The Minister cannot stand there and say that employment is up when the reality is that people are poorer than ever.
I will take no lectures from the hon. Lady about food banks. The Trussell Trust was founded in my constituency. I have a dialogue with the charity, which has done a great deal to assist many people up and down the country, and I am proud of its work.
Infrastructure: East Midlands
Over the course of this Parliament, long-term investment in our infrastructure will reach levels not sustained since the 1970s. In the east midlands, for example, we are investing from the national productivity investment fund to reduce congestion. We are investing £125 million this year on local road maintenance, and we announced this summer £780 million for a series of works to upgrade the east coast main line.
As my near neighbour in Nottinghamshire, the Minister will be aware of the Robin Hood line that runs through my constituency from Nottingham. Proposals to extend the line across Warsop in the north of my constituency have now appeared in various Budgets. The Transport Secretary has ensured that the new franchisee will have to consider the business case for that extension. Can the Minister confirm that the Treasury will support it financially if that business case comes forward?
My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) have been campaigning on this for several years, and we recognise its potential to unlock economic opportunities in Mansfield and Ollerton. Within the east midlands franchise, we have included a requirement that the operator should come to the Secretary of State for Transport within a year with a business case for extending passenger services to my hon. Friend’s communities. The Department for Transport and the Treasury will consider that business case very carefully.
Does the Minister accept that crucial investment from the European Investment Bank and the European regional development fund recently underpinned the midlands engine investment fund and that a hard Brexit risks pulling the rug from underneath many critical investment projects? He knows in his heart that a “cake and eat it” Brexit is a pure delusion and that his European Research Group colleagues still cannot explain how it would work. Would it not be better if we just let the public sort this out and have a say with a people’s vote?
The public have already had a say, and in the east midlands, which we are discussing, the public were very clear that they want to leave the European Union. Infrastructure investment will be substantially higher over the course of this Parliament than it was under the last Labour Government—25% higher in the east midlands and 40% higher in Yorkshire and the Humber. The primary reason for that is this Government’s responsible management of the public finances.
Will my hon. Friend take the time to point out where some of this infrastructure spend is going? At the moment, Derby station is being remodelled—£200 million —and the M1 is being upgraded to a smart motorway. This is massive investment for the long-term future of the east midlands.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course he was the Secretary of State for Transport who led many of these important investments. In the east midlands, we are investing in the smart motorway, in the upgrade to the east coast main line, in Derby bus station and in new green buses in Nottingham. The list continues, and only because of this Government’s management of the public finances, which is keeping the economy growing.
No, no, no. Bishop Auckland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar are both admirable places, but last time I looked neither was situated in the east midlands, to which this question is devoted.
We recognise that the Mayflower commemorations are an important moment for this country to celebrate our tied history with the United States and the unending quest for religious freedom and toleration. The Government gave £0.5 million to the Mayflower 400 project in the 2015 spending review, and we will continue to support it in the years to come.
Given the significance of the voyage of the Mayflower—in historical terms, it was one of the planet’s most influential journeys and it helped to found our democracy and freedom—will the Minister respond positively to the letter he has received from the all-party parliamentary group on the Mayflower pilgrims requesting that we have sufficient resources to celebrate this amazing event in a spectacular fashion?
At the suggestion of my hon. Friend and of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), I met Charles Hackett, the chief executive of the Mayflower 400 project. We had a productive meeting, and we are considering the materials that the project left with us. I advise my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) and the organisers of Mayflower 400 to continue working with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Treasury as they continue to formulate their plans, which will benefit not just Plymouth but Boston, Bassetlaw and communities across the country.
For the edification of those observing our proceedings, I can advise that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) has just been chuntering at me that his grandmother had a link with the Mayflower, about which I think we are to be enlightened.
Some Members may think that I was on the Mayflower, although as a young man I did emigrate to the United States. Some of my ancestors, the Sheermans, could have been on the Mayflower—[Interruption.] Just hold it for a moment. This is the 400-year anniversary. Is it not time that we celebrated migration and the talent, the genius, the innovation and the ideas that we in this country and America get from migration? Should we not use this quadricentenary to celebrate migration across the world?
The hon. Gentleman is testing my knowledge of the pilgrim fathers, but of course they were inspired by William Bradford, who came from Yorkshire, I believe. He was the one who said that from small things great things can emerge, and that it takes just one small candle to light a thousand, which was the way that the whole pilgrim fathers’ enterprise was summed up. So I want to see the commemorations take place in Yorkshire, as well as in Plymouth and the rest of the country.
I urge the Minister not to forget Immingham in my constituency, which also played a major part in where the pilgrim fathers sailed from. Will he ensure that Immingham is a major player in any celebrations?
I have tried to list all the places where the pilgrim fathers came from. I was not aware that some came from Immingham as well, but I am sure that that will be included in the celebrations.
Discussion of DDCMS support for the Mayflower celebrations raises the problem that DDCMS regional funding is deeply unfair, with far more in London. Indeed, that is the pattern on infrastructure, which the Minister was talking about before. So to what extent does the Minister believe that unfair patterns of Government spending are the cause of the fact that household income in the north-east is only £15,000 per year, whereas in London it is £27,000?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Arts Council has a formula to distribute funding across the country. We believe, like she does, that it is important that all communities in this country can have access to culture and heritage. It is for that reason and others that we funded the Great Exhibition of the North, which has been a huge success; and of course the Chancellor, in his Budget two years ago, supported the huge economic and cultural opportunity of restoring Wentworth Woodhouse, near to the hon. Lady’s constituency.
Prisons: Contracting Out
Guidance on contracting out public services is set by the Cabinet Office, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office has reviewed the guidance thoroughly.
Appropriate transitions from prisons to the community are central in successfully reintegrating prisoners into society and bringing down reoffending rates, yet it is my understanding that some prisoners are being prevented from moving from category C to category D as they near their release date. Could the Minister confirm whether that is the case, and whether that is just another example of ineffective cost-saving measures?
My right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary recently released a strategy about how we are going to get more offenders into employment. We have a cross-Government working group on that, to ensure that people make the appropriate transition. I suggest that the hon. Lady speak to the Justice Department to get further details.
To support British households, the Government have frozen fuel duty for eight successive years. By April 2019, these freezes will have saved the average car driver £850 compared with the pre-2010 escalator, and the average van driver over £2,100, but it is important that we remember the other side of this coin. The fuel duty freezes since 2011 have meant that the Exchequer has forgone around £46 billion in revenues through to 2018-19, and a further £38 billion will be forgone over the Budget forecast period, as a result of these previously announced freezes. For context, that is about twice as much as we spend on all NHS nurses and doctors each year.
A Treasury study in 2014 said that freezing fuel duty benefits the economy to offset almost all the loss of tax to the economy, and it said that GDP would increase by £4.5 to £7.5 billion over the forthcoming years. Given the rise in petrol by 13p and diesel by 15p over the past year, does he agree with his own Treasury report that maintaining the fuel duty freeze would benefit the economy and help hard-working people in our country?
The analysis that my right hon. Friend refers to is from 2014, and obviously that analysis would have to be looked at again in the context of the economy today. I do understand that the way the rise in oil prices has had feed-through to the pump represents a real pressure for motorists, and we will take it into account.
The Chancellor will know that the freeze on fuel duty is only a sticking plaster and cannot go on forever. One way of cutting down on emissions is electric cars, but in my constituency there is not a single electric car charging point. Will he commit to investing in more electric charging points across the country?
I don’t know about forever, but it has gone on for eight years, as I have just explained to the House. The hon. Gentleman is right: the car fleet has to electrify if we are going to meet our carbon emissions targets. We set up a £400 million fund in the last Budget to support the roll-out of electric charging infrastructure, which is clearly critical for us to meet those targets.
One of the other major impacts on the wages of the lowest-paid is a national living wage. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is our reforms as a Government that have boosted the incomes of the lowest-paid significantly?
Of course. We have sought, despite the very difficult fiscal circumstances, to address drivers of cost for households, for example by freezing fuel duty and alcohol duty. On the other side of the equation, we have reduced the tax that people are paying on their wages and raised the earning of those on the lowest wages by introducing and then increasing the national living wage.
Despite the freeze in fuel duty, diesel is currently at £1.33 a litre. Rural communities in particular are finding it very difficult. Will the Chancellor indicate the help he can give to rural communities that are dependent on their vehicles to get to work and have a life?
Many people are dependent on vehicles for everyday living and for work. As I have already said, we understand the pressure that higher oil prices and their feed-through to the pumps presents for individual consumers. We take all such matters into account when setting future policy.
I hope the House will join me in welcoming the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) back from her maternity leave.
Technology Companies: Tax
Mr Speaker, I echo your welcome to the hon. Lady. It is good to see her in her place. It is absolutely right that all companies in this country should pay a fair rate of tax. The Government recognise that for some businesses—typically online companies—the current international tax regime is not entirely appropriate. We are working with the OECD and the European Union to find a solution to that, and we have made it clear that in the event we cannot reach a position where we can move multilaterally, we will take unilateral action.
I thank the Minister for that answer. The fact that Amazon’s UK profits trebled, yet it ended up paying less tax, shows how the tax model is broken for large international tech companies. He said that the UK may act unilaterally if international progress is not made at sufficient pace. With the OECD report not expected until 2020, is he prepared to wait that long before starting to act? Does he anticipate perhaps joining in with our European Union allies on the 3% interim revenue tax before then?
We are not only working with the European Union; we are also working closely with the OECD. At our persuasion, it has recently decided to bring forward that report to 2019. We are making progress at the multilateral level, but as I have clearly stated, we should all be in no doubt that we are prepared to take unilateral action, should that be appropriate.
The question is whether there is a level playing field. When my right hon. Friend hears that bookshops pay around 11 times more total tax than Amazon on the same £100 of turnover, does he think we are striking the right balance to enable our town centres and communities to thrive?
When it comes to business rates, which are the heart of the taxes that my right hon. Friend referred to, we have done a great deal since 2016. We will by 2023 have provided reliefs totalling some £10 billion, much of which will fall as relief to the high street. I take on board the comments he has made. As with all taxes, we will keep business rates under review.
Contrary to the comments of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, international co-ordination on tax has frequently been blocked by the Government. We saw that particularly when it came to the taxation of trusts with both David Cameron and now the current Government arguing against more transparency. It is no surprise that, as a result, a director of Fidelity International and other experts are saying that the Amazon case shows
“how tax policy hasn’t moved on.”
Why are this Government letting giant multilaterals get away with it and letting everybody else down?
Let me be extremely clear to the House: this Government have an exemplary record on clamping down on avoidance, evasion and non-compliance. We have one of the lowest tax gaps in the entire world, at 5.7%, far lower than was the case under the Labour party. We have brought in a number of rules under the base erosion and profit-shifting project—a project of which we were in the vanguard. For example, tax deductions for interest expense came in in 2016 and yielded £3.9 billion by 2021, and the diverted profits tax that we introduced in 2015 has already raised some £700 million.
We have brought in a number of incentives to encourage employee share ownership, not least employee ownership trusts, which provide a capital gains tax advantage to those businesses selling shares into the trust and tax advantages to employees alike. We have also brought in enterprise management incentives, company share option plans, the save-as-you earn scheme and the share incentives plan as well.
Small and medium-sized businesses are the lifeblood of the economies of local communities, but with 60% of small businesses with no succession plan after their founders retire, what are the Government doing to ensure that employee ownership is one of the options going forward to keep businesses going?
I have set out a number of the schemes that the Government are moving forward with, and, of course, that has been with great success. In 2016-17, some 3 million employees entered into SIP share arrangements, 400,000 entered into arrangements under save-as-you earn with an average value of shareholding of some £5,000, and 3,500 employees were offered EMI schemes in that particular year.
Today’s data show regular wages growing at the fastest rate for three years. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that wages will continue to grow, reaching 3.5% by 2021, while consumer prices index inflation will continue to fall, reaching the target of 2% by the end of this year. That is welcome news for everybody. Nevertheless, the Government recognise the pressure on household budgets, which is why we introduced the national living wage, delivering a 7% pay rise in real terms for the lowest, paid from April 2015 to April 2017. It is why we raised income tax thresholds, saving the average taxpayer more than £1,000 this year and, at the last Budget, froze fuel and alcohol duties for a further year.
Under the current business rates system, city centre-based businesses are paying more in rates than large out-of-town-based warehouses, severely restricting the amount that they can put towards wages and hampering wage growth for employees. Will the Chancellor today commit to reforming this outdated business rates system so that businesses are able to pay their staff higher wages while boosting our high street economy?
I have already acknowledged the pressure that the high street is under, and it is certainly something that the Government are extremely concerned about. I do not think that we can hold back the tide of changing consumer behaviour, but it is certainly right that we seek to facilitate high streets as they evolve. I remember, when I came into this House 21 years ago, that there was a similar angst among our electorates about the growth of out-of-town supermarkets and the impact that that was having on high streets. High streets evolved and survived and, in many cases, prospered. Now they are facing another challenge and we must help them again to rise and meet it.
Sheffield city region has the lowest hourly pay of any city region, at £1.15 below the national average. A real living wage, action on zero-hours contracts and tougher labour market regulation would transform the lives of hard-pressed working people across South Yorkshire. When will the Government recognise that and do something?
The hon. Gentleman needs to look a little deeper. The real answer to low wages is improving productivity. The challenge for this Government—for any Government in this country—is to work with industry, trade unions and training institutions to ensure that we address our productivity challenge. That means investment in infrastructure and skills, support for businesses to improve management and access to capital for growing businesses. Only when business is growing, successful and productive can it pay the higher wages that we all want to see.
One of the people most interested in the trends in wage growth and inflation—and who gives the Treasury Committee evidence about that—is the Governor of the Bank of England. Will my right hon. Friend indicate to the House when he expects to be able to let us know about the discussions that he has been having with the current holder of that post about extending his position?
Not least because he will have important views about wage growth and inflation.
I know that he does have such views, Mr Speaker. As my right hon. Friend asked—and I know that her Committee questioned the Governor on this subject last week—I can now announce to the House that I have been discussing with the Governor his ability to serve a little longer in post in order to ensure continuity through what could be quite a turbulent period for our economy in the early summer of 2019. I can tell the House today that the Governor has agreed, despite various personal pressures to conclude his term in June, that he will continue until the end of January 2020 in order to help to support continuity in our economy during this period.
Will the Chancellor please confirm that the income of the lowest-paid has grown more than twice as fast as the income of the very highest over recent years?
Yes, thanks to this Government’s introduction of the national living wage.
Green finance is a key Government priority. The Chancellor recently announced the creation of a new green finance institute to ensure that our world-leading green finance expertise is available to UK and international firms. This was the first recommendation of the green finance taskforce, and further responses from the Government will come in due course.
I commend my hon. Friend for the action that the Government have already taken in this area, but does he agree that we should encourage green investment to support new technologies, especially in the energy sector, to help develop devices that can bring down household bills, make us more efficient, waste less energy and cut down on our greenhouse emissions? That is the subject of my ten-minute rule Bill tomorrow.
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is absolutely the case that every household and small business will have those advantages by 2020 through the supply of smart meters. According to data from a leading energy supplier, we are already seeing energy efficiency savings of around 4% on annual consumption.
The Minister will know from the UN that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish, so will he ensure that the Chancellor brings forward a Budget with a comprehensive fiscal strategy that ensures that plastic producers pay 100% of the recycling and that targets tax on plastics according to their recyclability?
We are very interested in that area and have published a response to the call for evidence. I am sure that the Chancellor will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representations.
Absolutely. Only two hours ago, the Department for Work and Pensions published its consultation response on pension trustees’ duties, which clearly sets out the Government’s intention to raise the profile of financially material climate change factors in investment decisions.
Absolutely. Green energy is very important to the UK economy as a whole; it is just very unfortunate that the rate of growth in the Scottish economy is half as strong as in the rest of the United Kingdom.
My principal responsibility is to ensure economic stability and the continued prosperity of the British people, both during this period of heightened uncertainty and beyond it after Brexit. I will do so by building on the plans that I set out in the autumn Budget and the spring statement. This Government will continue to take a balanced approach to the public finances that enables us to give households, businesses and our public services targeted support in the near term as well as investing in the future of this country and getting debt down to cut interest costs and deliver fairness to the next generation.
South Essex has the potential to play a huge part in delivering on those aspirations, as I and some of my Essex colleagues saw last Friday as we took a Clipper journey from Purfleet out to Southend and back. It was an extraordinary experience. May I therefore invite the Chancellor to come and join us and see the part that south Essex can play in making Britain great again?
I think it comes back to the same point: it depends if my hon. Friend is buying.
There are only weeks to go now before a deal has to be agreed with our European partners, but there are still mixed messages coming from Government Ministers. The Foreign Secretary says that crashing out of the EU without a deal would be a
“mistake we would regret for generations”,
the Brexit Secretary says that no deal would bring “countervailing opportunities”, and the Prime Minister says that it
“wouldn’t be the end of the world.”
The Chancellor has a critical role to play in bringing some rationality to this debate. The Treasury has calculated that no deal could result in the UK’s GDP being over 10% smaller. Will he outline, and be absolutely clear to some of his colleagues, what that would mean for jobs, wages, investment and living standards?
There is no ambiguity at all about the Government’s objective. We want to strike a deal with the European Union based on the White Paper that we have published, which we believe will be good for Britain and good for the European Union. We are devoting all our efforts over the coming weeks and months to securing that deal and protecting the British economy.
The problem is that time is running out, and increasingly people on all sides of this issue are feeling let down, so let me put this to the Chancellor: can we both try to get the message across to the Prime Minister, who continues to insist that no deal is better than—[Interruption.] She continues to insist that a bad deal is better than—[Interruption.] I will negotiate that again, Mr Speaker. She continues to insist that a bad deal is better than no deal. Business organisations are clear. The CBI is warning of a “catastrophe”, the National Farmers Union says it would be “an Armageddon scenario”, and, according to the TUC, a no deal Brexit would be “devastating for working people”. So may I appeal to the Chancellor? He knows the consequences of a no deal scenario, so will he now show some leadership and make it clear to his colleagues that he will not accept it?
First, I would love to know what it actually said on the right hon. Gentleman’s bit of paper. Let me be very clear to him. I, the Prime Minister and all members of the Cabinet are committed to achieving a deal that protects British jobs, British businesses and British prosperity going forward. That is what we are committed to. He is absolutely right that time is running out. We are working against the clock; we understand that. We will be working flat out over the coming weeks and months to achieve that.
First, I recognise my hon. Friend’s long-standing commitment to this cause and the role that his constituency has played in bringing to people’s attention the catastrophe going on with plastics in our oceans. We want to be the first generation that leaves the environment in a better state than we found it, and tackling the scourge of plastic waste is a clear priority to support that. As he said, the response to the call for evidence represents the level of public concern. I want to be clear that we are committed to acting to tackle plastic waste and to using tax alongside other tools to change behaviour. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I will bring forward further proposals in the Budget.
We have protected the police budget in real terms since 2015. Is it not time that the London Mayor started taking responsibility for what is happening in the city that he is meant to be leading? When it comes to Crossrail and crime, he is not taking responsibility, and he needs to stop passing the buck.
I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend and see the booming businesses in Lowestoft and St. Peter’s Brewery, which is exporting around the world, and Baron Bigod, which I think has the only raw milk vending machine in the whole of the UK. We will look closely at his submission and continue to invest in this vital part of the country.
We have protected police budgets in real terms since 2015. Of course, the nature of crime is changing, and police forces across the country have to adjust to that. We also recently announced a 2% pay rise for frontline police officers.
In 2010, the Government inherited the largest Budget deficit since the second world war, at 9.9% of GDP. Our balanced approach to fiscal policy means that we have significantly reduced the deficit by over four fifths, to 1.9% of GDP last year. That has had benefits for all our constituencies, as the economy has continued to grow. My hon. Friend’s constituents will have seen that benefit: in the north-west, more than 268,000 more people are in employment over that period, and there are 93,000 more businesses.
When the Conservatives came into government in 2010, the vast majority of money spent locally was raised centrally, damaging accountability. We have now switched that around, and more money—the vast majority of it—is being raised locally. Of course, we have recently given councils more power to raise council tax, to meet growing demand in areas such as social care and children’s services, and we will continue to look at that.
This summer, we saw the devastation of the collapse of an elevated roadway in Italy. In Chelmsford, the main route into the city is over the Army and Navy flyover, which is now 40 years old. I am not suggesting that it is on the brink of an Italian disaster, but it will need replacing. What funds might be available to assist?
My hon. Friend and I met earlier in the summer to discuss the flyover, and she raised concerns then. I appreciate that it has been closed, owing to safety concerns, over the summer. Funding is available through Essex County Council, and of course through her local enterprise partnership, which has received almost £600 million over the spending period.
One of the first things I did was to encourage the FCA to bring forward that paper, and I would be very happy to meet those involved in Macmillan care again to discuss their concerns following its publication in July.
The Economic Secretary to the Treasury saw at first hand when he visited East Renfrewshire a couple of weeks ago how small businesses are utilising FinTech to become more efficient and agile. What are the Government doing to help more small and medium-sized enterprises, such as First Floors in Giffnock, which he visited, to understand and take advantage of the opportunities FinTech presents?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was a privilege to meet David Hepburn at First Floors and see the value of new products. The Government are committed to stimulating more investment in FinTech, and it was a privilege to visit FinTech Scotland, which is doing a lot, too. We have invested a considerable amount to increase the numbers of people who are taking this step to innovate in finance, and with open banking we will see more.
I imagine the reason is that the provision of these services is contracted out, but I will investigate and write to the hon. Lady.
The Chancellor can rightly take pride in his policies which result in South Leicestershire having one of the highest employment rates in Britain. On Friday, I am meeting local businesses in Lutterworth, where Councillor Neil Bannister, leader of Harborough District Council, will be hosting a “Meet your MP” session with local businesses. What other positive messages does the Chancellor have for local businesses in Lutterworth and South Leicestershire?
In areas of the country like the one my hon. Friend mentions, we have seen a resurgence of the entrepreneurial spirit since the financial crisis, with high levels of employment and good levels of wages. Now we need to see businesses being prepared to invest and innovate to grow productivity so that we can carry on seeing wages rising to create the sustainable high-wage economy that we all want to see.
Starving the NHS of finance has led to South Tyneside Hospital being forced into an unpopular merger with Sunderland Hospital. Not only is South Tyneside Hospital losing key services, but staff are at risk of being placed into a private, wholly owned subsidiary where their terms and conditions are under threat. Cuts forcing back-door privatisation are either a deliberate design of the Government’s plans for the NHS, or incompetent financial management. Which one is it?
I find it astonishing that no Opposition Member is prepared to congratulate the Government on the announcement of the £20 billion that we are putting into the NHS because of increasing demand.
The Chancellor has been an outspoken advocate of a fairer distribution of regional spending. Has he read the letter that we sent him in late July? Will he commit to the Transport for the North strategic investment priorities in his forthcoming Budget?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has my hon. Friend’s letter. Over this Parliament, we will spend more central Government funding per capita on transport in the north than in, for example, London or the south-east. We will consider carefully the business case for Northern Powerhouse Rail when we receive it from Transport for the North later in the year.
This is further to the points raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury). In the light of the National Audit Office’s recent comments that there are signs that police forces are struggling to deliver effective services and that the Government do not know whether the police system is financially sustainable, what real reassurance can the Chancellor give me that police forces will be given a real increase in funding, so that they can cope with growing demand?
Police force funding has been protected in real terms. The nature of crime is changing, and police forces are reforming to reflect that.
Corby and East Northamptonshire are seeing considerable housing growth, and it is essential that the infrastructure keeps pace, so will my right hon. Friend consider a new round of enterprise zone bidding opportunities to support more growth and jobs?
I think I will treat my hon. Friend’s comments as a Budget submission.
It is time the House heard from Mr Dennis Skinner.
For the past hour, we have heard everyone on the Treasury Bench spouting about this wonderful situation that they are in, with money to burn. Why then has Tory-controlled Derbyshire County Council’s first decision been to close 20 libraries and cut the hours of every librarian in the county? What is the Chancellor doing to stop it?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman either has a hearing test or relies on the Hansard of this session, because he has misheard what we have been saying today.
Region deals are an excellent example of Scotland’s two Governments working together to make it a better place in which to live and work. Will my right hon. Friend outline the progress she has made with the Scottish Government to ensure that constituencies such as Angus benefit as much as cities?
My hon. Friend is right: we have seen a number of beneficial city deals in Scotland, and we have devoted £1 billion to them. I am delighted that we are making progress on the Tay cities deal; I will be visiting the Tay cities very soon to have further discussions.
A recent Treasury Committee report on household finances found that arrears to local authorities are growing, and there is an overzealous pursuit of those arrears by bailiffs. The same goes for some central Government Departments. What will the Treasury do urgently to ensure that people are not penalised, and vulnerable households are not criminalised, by the Government?
We have made several interventions since we responded in 2014 with bailiff law reform. I have spoken to the Ministry of Justice, and we continue to look carefully at the matter. We have arrangements in place through the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs time to pay scheme, and the Cabinet Office has its fairness group as well.
Next year, we move into a post-Brexit economy with new global trading opportunities for UK economic growth. Will the Chancellor update the House on his commitment to investing further in the Royal Navy, which is a vital tool for maintaining safe seas and oceans, so that trade coming out of north-east and other ports can be sustained and can underwrite economic growth?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the Royal Navy is vital to the defence of Britain’s interests around the world, and in peacetime it is the principal way in which we can project our power and military influence around the world. We are waiting for the conclusion of the modernising defence review that is being undertaken by the Defence Secretary with the Cabinet Office. Once we have received that, we will be able to work with the Ministry of Defence to find a way forward out of the very considerable budgetary challenges that that Ministry faces.
In March, the Government postponed the closure of the childcare voucher scheme to new entrants to 4 October, during the forthcoming parliamentary recess, reflecting concerns about its impact on low-income families in particular. With the closure now imminent, what work have the Government done to assess the impact on low-income families?
The issue with the current childcare vouchers scheme is that only people whose employers sign up to the scheme are eligible. Under tax-free childcare, everybody will be eligible, regardless of whether they are self-employed or working for an employer. We wanted a bit more time to transition from one scheme to the other. Tax-free childcare is now up and running, and we are ready to transition to that system.
Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but we must now move on.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Whether people agree or disagree with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), he is respected across the House. I invite the Chancellor to apologise for the personal remarks he made.
I must say I have never found anything wrong with the hon. Member for Bolsover’s hearing. I think it was an off-the-cuff remark. It probably was not the best chosen, but it is a matter for the Chancellor to judge whether he wants to say anything.
The Chancellor is shaking his head. Fair enough. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) has registered his point. Knowing the hon. Member for Bolsover as I do, I very much doubt he will lose any sleep over it.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The only thing I would say to the Chancellor is why doesn’t he answer the question? It is pretty clear that he knows the Tory county council has played a blinder by throwing people out of work. That tells you a lot about this economy.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I am sure it is a genuine point of order, not one of frustration or a Treasury question that was not asked. We look forward to hearing the hon. Gentleman.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wanted to clarify and correct the record in relation to something I said yesterday. The House will have heard me ask the Education Secretary about Brookfield Community School in Chesterfield, an outstanding local authority school that was forced into being an academy. I said yesterday that it now required improvement and that the governing body was being replaced. I have subsequently been told that I misinformed the House: the school has actually been rated as inadequate, with serious failings. So I wanted to make the House aware, at the earliest possible opportunity, that things are even worse under the Tories’ education policy.
That is notably candid of the hon. Gentleman. It is certainly not, it has to be admitted, an expression of frustration. He has put his point on the record and I thank him for doing so.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make administrators and moderators of certain online forums responsible for content published on those forums; to require such administrators and moderators to remove certain content; to require platforms to publish information about such forums; and for connected purposes.
On 18 June 2017, Darren Osborne drove a van into a crowd of people gathered outside a north London mosque, killing one man and injuring 12 people. He had also intended to murder the Leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of London. Just one month earlier, Osborne was a different person with no history of extreme ideology or beliefs. His ex-partner claimed he had been radicalised in just three weeks. The ground was laid by his mental health problems, long-term unemployment and alcohol abuse, but the catalyst was a television drama about grooming gangs in Rochdale. After seeing it, Osborne spent the next three weeks consuming anti-Muslim extremist propaganda online from sources including Tommy Robinson and Britain First, after which he was ready to kill innocent people.
Whether it is inspiring domestic terrorism, young British people being pulled into fighting for terrorists overseas, or facilitating the resurgence of the far right, online radicalisation is a frighteningly dangerous process, which we are not currently equipped to counter. Moreover, the spreading of hate, racism, misogyny, antisemitism or misinformation, knowingly and without any accountability, is dangerous and is having a profound effect on our society.
Our newspapers, broadcasters and other publishers are held to high standards, yet online groups, some of which have more power and reach than newspapers, are not held to any standards, nor are they accountable. It is about time the law caught up. The Bill is an attempt to take one step towards putting that right. It would make those who run large online forums accountable for the material they publish, which I believe would prevent them from being used to spread hate and disinformation, and for criminal activity. It would also stop groups being completely secret.
Most of the examples I will use in my speech relate to forums or groups on Facebook. As the most popular social media platform, it is the subject of the most research and press coverage on this issue. Facebook groups range from a few members to hundreds of thousands. They are run by administrators and moderators, who are charged with upholding Facebook’s community standards. Groups are set up to help old school or university friends keep in touch, and for people with a common hobby or interest to come together for the first time. However, there are also numerous examples of forums being used for utterly appalling ends, and deliberately so.
One such group is the Young Right Society, which is run by a Breitbart journalist and was uncovered by Hope not Hate. The charity revealed that the group was
“frequently awash with appalling racist”
content, white supremacy, jokes about the holocaust, and antisemitic conspiracy theories. It was also used to organise the members for events. Because it was set to secret, it was only exposed when one member alerted the charity to its existence.
It is not only racism that is allowed to thrive on such forums. Marines United was a secret group of 50,000 current or ex-servicemen from the US and British militaries. Members used the forum to share nude photos of their fellow servicewomen. A whistleblower described
“revenge porn, creepy stalker-like photos taken of girls in public, talk about rape, racist comments.”
That it was allowed to grow to a membership of tens of thousands before anyone thought something had to be done demonstrates the need for greater transparency.
Research by Professor Jen Golbeck of the University of Maryland shows that members of online forums feel at risk of becoming a social pariah in closed groups if they report objectionable posts, so they do not. It is the format of the forums that normalises the content for their members. People will receive far more “likes” for a post to a group, which will be seen by a far wider audience, than something they post about their personal life on their own page, but any posts that go against the grain result in harsh criticism and potential exclusion from the group. That can have a profound effect on society’s attitudes on a number of issues. Many of the people in the forums will not have joined because they agree with the most extreme content, but if they regularly read posts espousing unacceptable or wrong content that go unchecked, it can alter their perceptions.
There are already several examples of such forums having troubling effects in the real world. Canada’s largest far-right organisation started as a Facebook group on which Islamophobic conspiracies were circulated, the claimed Islamification of Canada was criticised, and members were encouraged to send pigs’ heads and blood to mosques—plans that were then carried out.
The most disturbing example I have come across is a forum of 8,000 parents of autistic children here in Britain. It is the sort of group that Facebook might point to as an example of how the site can bring people in a difficult situation together to share their experiences, but it was being used in a truly horrific way. Members told the group that giving their child so-called “bleach enemas” would cure their autism. Several parents carried them out and then shared images of what they believed to be parasites—but which were, in fact, the children’s bowel linings—leaving their children after the process. The group’s secret setting meant that charities like the National Autistic Society were locked out until one member contacted the police.
One thing we know is that social media companies cannot be relied upon to monitor and regulate the forums themselves. They have proven that time and again.
The Russian Internet Research Agency’s actions in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election show that these forums are an open door to our democracies. Our political parties are also struggling with the phenomenon. Abusive and hateful views and misinformation about politics or politicians can quickly take hold unchallenged, and unacceptable views can become normalised, such as antisemitism or that violence is an appropriate political tactic.
I am talking not about censorship or small private gatherings but about accountability for powerful and large-scale publishing and sharing. Social media can be a wonderful thing that brings together people who might otherwise have never met, but there is no reason why we cannot maintain that while also regulating the space to prevent its abuse. So far we have largely left the online world as a lawless wild west. If 1,000-plus people met in a town hall to incite violence towards a political opponent, or to incite racism or hate, we would know about it and deal with it. The same cannot be said of the online world.
Figures from the House of Commons Library show that, in 2007, 498 people were convicted under the Communications Act 2003 for sending grossly offensive messages. After a decade in which social media became a prominent part of most people’s lives, this figure had nearly tripled, but the Act they were convicted under was passed in 2003, before Facebook even existed. Stalking and harassment represent 60% of online crime, but, despite the increase, online hate crimes are still rarely prosecuted and go largely unreported. Our laws desperately need to catch up. Today I am proposing a small step to establish clear accountability in law for what is published on online forums and to force those who run the forums no longer to permit hate, disinformation and criminal activity. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Lucy Powell, Nicky Morgan, Robert Halfon, Robert Neil, Mr David Lammy, Anna Soubry, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, Ruth Smeeth, Luciana Berger, Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips present the Bill.
Lucy Powell accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October, and to be printed (Bill 263).
Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the recent escalation of violence in Yemen.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent debate under Standing Order No. 24. With the United Nations Human Rights Council and General Assembly this month, we are approaching what could be a pivotal moment in the Yemen conflict. I am extremely grateful to colleagues from all parties who supported my application yesterday, and I am pleased that the House has this opportunity to consider the ongoing conflict in Yemen before the conference recess.
This has been an ugly conflict, with all warring parties committing atrocities. The Houthi attack on Riyadh’s main international airport last year was described by Human Rights Watch as
“most likely a war crime”,
while there have been widely documented civilian deaths attributed to the Saudi-led coalition. The Houthis have been accused of indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, of besieging the city of Taiz and of using “wide area effect” munitions in built-up parts of Yemen. If confirmed, these acts would constitute violations of international humanitarian law. Our aim must be to ensure the protection of civilians, humanitarian workers and supplies, as well as working through diplomacy to bring all the parties together around the table to negotiate peace.
Tragically, August was one of the most violent months so far in this conflict. In the first nine days of August alone, it is estimated that more than 450 civilians lost their lives, including 131 children—nine days, 131 children! Three events, in particular, stand out: the coalition attack on 2 August on a market and hospital, which killed 55 and injured 130; a week later on 9 August, the coalition airstrike that hit a school bus full of children, killing 40 children and leaving 56 injured; then on 23 August, at least 22 children were killed trying to escape fighting in the port town of Hodeidah.
Abdul’s son was one of those who died in the 9 August school bus attack. The bus, he says, was returning from a picnic. As he searched through the wreckage of the bus to find the remnants of his son, he broke down and said, “I didn’t find any of his remains, not a finger, not a bone, not his skull—nothing.” The parents of those killed cannot even hold a proper funeral because of security concerns. This is the horrifying reality for the people of Yemen. Families are losing children every day.
To my knowledge, the Government have not condemned these August attacks. A statement by the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office earlier this month expressed “serious concern” and welcomed the speed of the coalition’s investigation into the school bus airstrike. That is too soft. We need a strong, clear and firm condemnation by our Government of these attacks.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. I, too, was deeply troubled by the lack of a firm condemnation from the Government. Does he agree that simply asking the coalition to investigate its own misconduct is not enough, and does he understand the concern felt by many of our constituents about our complicity in these actions given our association with a coalition that has shown callous disregard for human life and human rights and dignity?
I concur entirely with everything my hon. Friend has just said. On an independent investigation into these atrocities, time and again in debates on this issue in the House, the point has been made that we need a fully independent UN-led process that looks at all allegations by all sides—the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis and others in this multifaceted conflict.
On callous disregard, would the hon. Gentleman refer to the fact that the Houthis are launching drone boats against commercial shipping, recruiting child soldiers and killing those who will not join the military, and have sown 500,000 land mines, posing a mortal danger to innocent civilians? It is important in this debate to get the balance right.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I similarly concur with everything he has just said. I have already spoken about a number of the Houthi atrocities—the attack on Riyadh that Human Rights Watch described as almost certainly a war crime, and the siege of Taiz—and in a moment I will come on to the specific issue he has rightly drawn to the House’s attention, which is the engagement of child soldiers in the conflict by a number of different parties, but particularly, as he says, the Houthis.
I completely concur with the points my hon. Friend has just made about the indiscriminate attacks by the Houthis, including the rocket attacks, the indiscriminate artillery shelling and many of the other issues. Does he share my frustration that, despite the Saudi Foreign Minister and the Saudi Government repeatedly promising to provide the results of the investigations of the Joint Incidents Assessment Team into these attacks over the past few years, we have not seen reports into all those incidents? That is why we need an independent UN investigation.
I thank my hon. Friend, who has done fantastic work on this issue over a long time, and agree absolutely with his comments. Others in the debate may wish to enter into that aspect of the discussion.
In opening this debate, the hon. Gentleman has, to a degree, drawn an equivalence between the behaviour of the Houthis and that of the coalition. The truth is that we are actually on the side of the coalition, which is unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council. It is trying to suppress the Houthi rebellion, which is against the legally constituted Government of Yemen, and while we will rightly have serious criticisms of how the coalition is carrying out its operations, in the end it is our coalition, endorsed by the United Nations. It is important that it is held to account, but it is also important that we understand that it is trying to do the job of the international community.
Let me make two points. First, international humanitarian law applies, whether the alleged violations are committed by a recognised Government or by a rebel force. In fact, surely we have a greater responsibility to condemn the actions of those whom the hon. Gentleman has described as our allies if they are acting—as has been widely alleged—in violation of international humanitarian law.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unfortunate that we have not had a proper debate about our involvement in the coalition of which, as we have just heard, we are apparently part? It is particularly concerning that we continue to sell arms to the coalition, but do not investigate some of the atrocious issues that my hon. Friend and others have raised.
My hon. Friend, who is a new Member, has already made his mark on both the International Development Committee—which I chair—and the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which is especially relevant to this debate. In a moment, I shall deal with the issue of our arms sales to members of the coalition, particularly Saudi Arabia.
The hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent speech and is already presenting a very balanced argument about who is to blame. For me, however, the biggest cause for concern is the support for a Saudi-led coalition that has imposed an embargo—basically a siege—on the port of Hodeidah. Millions of civilians will be affected in respect of food and resources, which could lead to the largest famine that we have ever seen in the middle east.
The hon. Gentleman, who is an active member of the International Development Committee, has anticipated the next part of my speech. In the light of that, I shall plough on.
Just before he does so, will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
We have heard that we are supporting the “legitimate” regime in Yemen. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that President Hadi’s regime was elected on a ballot paper with only one name on it, that his term of office has long since expired and that he spends most of his time either in Riyadh or offshore, on an Emirati warship? He is one of the few Presidents who have to make a state visit to their own countries.
The right hon. Gentleman has expressed that very well indeed, and I pay tribute to his sterling efforts on this issue. Unlike me, he has visited Yemen during the conflict. I think that what is really important—and I shall return to it in a moment—is for us to enable all the different parties to come together to undertake a peace process. That is surely something on which all of us can agree.
Should not the answer to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) have been that President Hadi’s is the legitimate Government because it is the Government recognised by the United Nations Security Council? Were that not the case, the position would be entirely different, but is that not the clear position, which is being flouted not only by the Houthis but, very deliberately—and I hope that my hon. Friend will come on to this—by the theocracy in Tehran?
Clearly, the United Nations Security Council recognises that Government, but I think that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) made a very fair point in assessing the level of support that President Hadi actually has now in Yemen. I think that if we are to secure a meaningful peace process for Yemen, that will be determined on the streets of Yemen, not in the corridors of New York and votes in the Security Council. My right hon. Friend was right in saying—as did the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt)—that the Security Council’s position is to recognise the Hadi Government, but what he said does not contradict the powerful point made by the right hon. Gentleman that the level of popular support for that Government in Yemen is at least open to question, to put it very mildly.
Let me now deal with the position on Hodeidah, which was raised earlier. When the Minister responds, will he tell us what is the British Government’s view of the coalition strategy there? Does he agree with me that in the light of the attempts to restore a peace process, to which I shall return in a moment, the coalition should halt its military offensive in Hodeidah so that peace can be given a chance in Yemen?
The American Congress has taken a strong line on recent events, and I encourage the British Government to reflect on that. Lawmakers in Congress have signed amendments which would provide for greater scrutiny of US arms sales and would make it a condition of ongoing US support for the Saudi coalition that the Secretary of State should certify that the coalition is supporting peace talks, improving humanitarian access and reducing the number of innocent casualties. Todd Young, a Republican senator from Indiana, has said:
“The actions of the Saudis in Yemen undercut our
“national security interests and our moral values—exacerbating the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.”
May I invite the Minister, when he responds, to agree with Senator Young in that regard?
Does my hon. Friend also share my concern about the fact that the head of the Export Control Organisation, which controls arms sales here in Britain, advised the Minister in 2017 that he thought it would be “prudent and cautious” to suspend licences,
“given the gaps in knowledge”
that the British have about the humanitarian results of use of our weapons? It is concerning, is it not, that the Minister overturned that official advice and continues to allow sales?
I do share my hon. Friend’s concern. I hope that he will catch your eye later, Mr Speaker, so that he can elaborate on that important aspect.
I am pleased to see that the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), is with us. Yesterday his Committee published an excellent report entitled “Global Britain: The Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention”. It recommended that
“The Government should update its protection of civilians in armed conflict strategy to include a focus on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. As part of that strategy the Government should set out the measures it is taking to reduce the impact of these weapons on civilians and on the essential services that civilians rely on, such as healthcare facilities.”
I urge the Minister to respond positively to that recommendation when the Government consider their response to it, and, in particular, its central relevance to the situation in Yemen.
The sharp increase in the civilian death toll must surely act as a reminder to us all that this conflict is far from over. August also saw the release of the report on the conflict by a United Nations panel of experts on Yemen. It is a damning report, and it is damning of all sides, saying that all the parties are
“responsible for a violation of human rights”,
including rape, torture, disappearances, and the
“deprivation of the right to life”.
As we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), children as young as eight are being conscripted into the conflict, in a clear violation of the convention on the rights of the child. It is estimated that in 2017 alone, 800 children were conscripted, mostly—as the hon. Gentleman rightly said—by the Houthis.
The experts’ report says that some of these horrendous atrocities could amount to war crimes and that the international community should
“refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict”.
Spain recently cancelled an arms deal with Saudi Arabia over concerns that such weapons were being used in the war in Yemen. As I said earlier, there is also a live debate in the United States about American arms sales to the coalition. May I once again urge the Government to consider suspending the sale by the United Kingdom of arms that could be used in Yemen?
Three Members wish to intervene, and I will give way to them in the order in which I saw them.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this debate is happening not just in Parliament, but throughout these islands? According to the findings of a YouGov poll, released this week, just one in 10 of the British public supports UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and one in six believes that they promote British values and interests. This is a dead duck, and almost no one in these islands believes in it. I hope that the Minister will say a bit more about that when he responds to the debate.
My friend the hon. Gentleman expressed that point very well.
In supporting my hon. Friend’s call for a suspension of arms sales pending an investigation, which the Leader of the Opposition—who is in the Chamber—and I in my previous capacity jointly made a couple of years ago, does my hon. Friend not agree that this is a matter of the law? I know that there has been a legal case, but criterion 2c says very clearly that a licence should not be granted
“if there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law”.
Are not the incidents in August merely further proof that breaches of international humanitarian law are being committed by the coalition?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the role he has played on this issue over a significant period of time, and I absolutely share his view. I know there are different views about this in the House, and we had a fundamental difference of view on this in the Committees on Arms Export Controls in the previous Parliament, but I share his view, and I fear that our approach to this as a country undermines our credibility as a force for good in the control of arms around the world.
In my hon. Friend’s considerations in coming to that conclusion, does he give any weight to the tens of thousands of skilled aerospace workers, and their families and their communities, who depend on the military aircraft, let alone the whole aerospace supply chain which is vitally important for our industry? Should we not be thinking about them as well?
My right hon. Friend is of course right to say that one of our considerations in having a policy on the defence industries must be the work for those who are in those industries, but we have not only signed up to a set of laws in our own country, in Europe and internationally on arms control. We have taken the lead in international forums, and those laws and rules have very little meaning if we are not prepared to enforce them, and enforce them consistently.
As the hon. Gentleman said so graphically, we have heard different views from different sides in this difficult issue. Does he agree that we operate one of the most robust arms control regimes in the world at the moment, and would it not be sensible to wait for the conclusion of the judicial process in the UK? The matter is being very carefully considered by the courts, and it was in the divisional court last year, which found for the Government.
I am of course aware of the court case, and the hon. Lady is right that that process will move forward. She is right, too, that on paper we have some of the strongest and most robust controls in the world, but the test is in the reality of what we do, and our country has not been turning down licences for the members of the Saudi-led coalition, unlike other countries. That raises concern about the practice, as distinct from the theory, of our robust approach to arms control in this country.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for calling this debate. Does he not agree that in considering our support for the coalition, it is important to understand that it is also fighting against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? Should we not commend the efforts of Emirati troops who have liberated Mukalla, which is a common security benefit for us all?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. This conflict is multifaceted; it is not simply two-sided. AQAP is a security challenge that predates the Yemen conflict and there is a further element to which I will refer in a moment: the north-south element of this conflict. However, all of us will of course agree that the defeat of al-Qaeda is of absolutely crucial importance.
Is this not at the heart of the complications of this conflict: on some occasions we have found, to our horror, the coalition engaging in battle with the Houthis and supported by ISIL and al-Qaeda, the very people who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) says, we profoundly oppose?
The right hon. Gentleman expresses his point very powerfully.
The mandate for the UN panel of experts to continue its work is one of the topics being considered at the UN Human Rights Council meeting which started this week. It is vitally important that the work of this group is able to continue so that it can ensure that all potential violations of international humanitarian or human rights law by any side in this conflict are investigated thoroughly by a neutral panel. There is serious concern that, at the HRC, Saudi Arabia and the UAE might try to block the extension of the panel of experts’ mandate. Will the Minister say when he responds to the debate whether the UK Government believe that the coalition may well try to do that, and if so how will the UK work to ensure that this vital body can continue? In particular, will he confirm to the House today that the UK will give its support to the work of the panel when this issue is debated in Geneva?
Also in Geneva, the UN special envoy was due to hold the first round of consultation talks on peace in Yemen last week. The Houthi delegation failed to turn up, citing claims that they were not guaranteed safe return to Yemen once the talks were finished. Geneva has the potential to be a major step forward for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy, has said that this latest impasse does not mean that the talks are dead, and he is visiting Sana’a to meet Houthi leaders to agree a new timetable for talks.
Why does the hon. Gentleman think the Houthis did not turn up to that meeting? The demands they made show they were not serious about attending in the first place.
The hon. Gentleman anticipates what I was going to say next. I was going to ask the Minister the question the hon. Gentleman has asked me, on the basis that the Minister is probably rather better briefed on these matters than I am. So I ask the Minister for the Government’s assessment of the reasons for the non-attendance of the Houthis. What will the UK do to help facilitate their participation so that the talks can get under way as soon as possible?
I commend my hon. Friend on his excellent speech.
It is deeply disappointing that the peace talks did not proceed, but does my hon. Friend not agree that here is an opportunity for our Government to call together the Quint in London in order to keep the peace process going? We simply cannot wait for Martin Griffiths; we need to take the initiative and we need to hold talks here. President Macron managed to do it in Paris; we should be doing this in London.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s work, not least with the all-party group on Yemen. Again, he has anticipated the next part of my speech. A meeting of the Quint would be a very welcome move by the UK, and of course we hold the pen on Yemen in the UN Security Council, which places a responsibility on us to increase our efforts to bring the parties around the table and seek a peaceful solution.
It is my understanding from speaking to contacts in the region that some of the Houthi leadership did in fact want to attend those talks. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must make space for those talks to proceed and for the work of Martin Griffiths, that we must look at other options, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) has just suggested, and that the worst thing that can happen at this stage is an all-out assault on Hodeidah, both in terms of the cost in lives and also the potential for undermining the possibility of peace talks?
I absolutely agree with both parts of what my hon. Friend says. That point illustrates once again the complexity of the situation. None of us has any illusions about the Houthis, and none of us, I think, has any illusions about Iran and its role, but if we are to get a peace process going, we are going to have to engage with people, including some pretty unsavoury people; we will have to do that if there is to be any chance of bringing peace to Yemen. I also urge the Government to seek an immediate ceasefire so that we can work constructively with the special envoy towards peace.
The hon. Gentleman has, for the first time in his speech I think, mentioned the “I” word: Iran. How are we going to achieve peace in this situation unless we involve Iran at the beginning and stop the massive export of weapons from Iran to the Houthis?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that Iran needs to be fully engaged in this process. The war is often described as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but that is quite simplistic. The situation is far more complicated than that, although that is definitely one of the dimensions. We know of the damage that has been done by Iranian influence in the Syrian conflict, so there are no illusions at all about Iran.
I have sought to highlight the atrocities of the Houthis as well as those of the Saudi-led coalition, because it is incredibly important to take an accurate and balanced approach to these questions. Those atrocities have contributed to the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe. The statistics are shocking: 22 million people in Yemen are in need of humanitarian protection and assistance, and half of them are children. That is actually 4 million more children than was the case six months ago. I checked that figure when I was preparing for this debate, because it sounded so dramatic: 11 million children are now affected.
Famine, the denial of access to goods, the destruction of medical and educational infrastructure and mass outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria are the daily reality of life for the people of Yemen. Petrol, a key commodity, has more than doubled in price, which is severely debilitating transport and healthcare. The transport issue is hugely important; if goods and aid cannot be moved throughout the country, people will clearly continue to suffer on the edge of starvation.
Let me praise the Department for International Development, which has a positive story to tell when it comes to Yemen. Since the beginning of the conflict, DFID has allocated more than £400 million to help to relieve the humanitarian crisis. That money has helped more than 1 million children and pregnant women to get food and medicine, supported children through education and reached around 650,000 people through water, sanitation and hygiene programmes. That work would not be possible without the dedication and skill of those delivering those programmes on the ground. Those aid workers put themselves in great personal danger to help to relieve the suffering of some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and it is our duty to ensure that they have the resources they need to carry out their work and to do so in as safe an environment as possible.
The UN group of experts highlights the lack of proportionality in the use of blockades across Yemen, which it says
“have had widespread and devastating effects on the civilian population”.
This is further deepening the humanitarian crisis on the ground. Civil servants in Yemen have not been paid for years, and the rial, Yemen’s national currency, has lost more than half its value since the beginning of the war. Over recent weeks, citizens have taken to the streets of Aden to protest against the ongoing economic turmoil in their country. The situation could represent a turning point in the south, where instability threatens to spill over and create more conflict between the Hadi Government and the southern separatist movement.
When this conflict is eventually resolved, there is a huge risk of leaving behind a lost generation of young people whose lives have been ravaged by conflict. Will the Minister tell us what the British Government will do, when the conflict ends, to support rebuilding in Yemen? The time is surely ripe for real, meaningful action. With the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly meeting this month, the UK and other parties have an opportunity to pressure the warring sides to get back round the negotiating table. For too long now, we have seen atrocities in Yemen, seemingly without an end in sight. We have an opportunity to act now to prevent further bloodshed, to ensure that civilians and humanitarian aid are protected and to achieve an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of peace talks. Rebuilding Yemen after this conflict will be a huge task, requiring humanitarian assistance, development aid and diplomacy. I urge the Minister today to affirm the UK’s long-term commitment to Yemen and its people.
I draw the House’s attention to my outside interests, which are clearly registered in the House of Commons Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this debate. The House has shown on no less than three occasions, when you, Mr Speaker, have granted an emergency debate, the deep concern that is felt in all parts of the House about the humanitarian consequences of this dreadful conflict.
The arrival of a new Foreign Secretary is perhaps a good time to take stock of Britain’s position on this matter. Our position very much affects the role we play at the United Nations. As we have heard, this issue is increasingly of salience in a Britain dominated by the Brexit debate, and it is increasingly a matter of concern to our constituents. I do not expect to carry everyone in the House with my remarks today, but the one thing that ought to be able to unite everyone here is the importance of moving from conflict to a ceasefire and negotiations. These conflicts always end either by outright military victory—it is fairly clear that that is not going to happen—or through a ceasefire and negotiation.
I want to look briefly at the position of the three protagonists, starting with the Saudi position. When the Crown Prince came to Britain, I think we were all delighted to see him here. We all thought that he was a breath of fresh air as a result of the changes he was seeking to bring about domestically in his country. It was equally clear, however, that he had a complete blind spot when it came to Yemen. I noticed that there were advertisements for the extraordinary amount of aid that Saudi was giving to Yemen—it is true that it is giving that country an extraordinary amount, as indeed are we—but it was not pointed out that this was basically the equivalent of punching someone in the face and offering them an Elastoplast afterwards. Night after night, the bombing of innocent Yemeni citizens continues, and there is a complete blind spot in that regard. It would be worth while for those leading this war to study closely what happened to America during the Vietnam war.
Let us consider what is happening in Hodeida. In the past few days, and overnight, the fighting there has intensified, and large numbers of United Nations stores and warehouses are now caught up adjacent to where the fighting is taking place. The UN is bravely trying to take those stores into Hodeida. But just imagine what would happen if the coalition were able to invest Hodeida. Imagine the result of that entirely crackers, bonkers strategy. There is a small number of soldiers on the ground and some naval assets offshore attacking Hodeida, and an almost equivalent number of Houthi fighters dug in in the city resisting them, as well as a population of between 300,000 and 400,000 people. If that crazy strategy were to work, and the coalition were able to take Hodeida, it would then hold the port through which more than 80% of all the food required in Yemen comes in. It would also be responsible for looking after the 300,000-plus citizens there, who would have had their infrastructure smashed and who would be without food and the basic sustenance of life.
My right hon. Friend has served in uniform, as have I, and he knows the complexities of trying to run states that have collapsed. Does he remember, as I do, those moments in Basra after the invasion of Iraq in 2003? Many of us were on the streets, looking around and trying to establish which way was up, and the locals would come up to us and ask us things. Someone responded by saying, “You must ask the Government about that,” to which the response was, “You are the Government. You have removed the Government and now you are the Government.” That is the problem that our Emirati and Saudi friends could face if they continue with this absurd strategy.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He brings to this debate his thoughts and experiences as the Chairman of the Select Committee, and he has served extremely bravely in combat zones in the past.
I am using Hodeida as just one example—
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, in just a moment. I just want to finish this point. I am only using Hodeidah as one example of this crackers, crazy strategy whereby the Saudis are, to use my words and the words of the Minister, on a hiding to nothing. They are going to be humiliated. As for the Shia-Sunni divide, as referred to by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby, who started this debate so well, the Iranians are scoring a cheap victory and will be laughing up their sleeves, and the Saudis are playing into the Iranians’ hands. That is what I wanted to say about the Saudi position, so I will now give way to the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), who is my constituency neighbour.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he address whether the Houthis are using their position to steal the food that is being brought in? They are using food as a weapon by depriving anyone who does not support them and making huge sums of money to finance their vicious rebellion.
The right hon. Gentleman may well be right. There are no good guys in this appalling conflict. I am certainly not standing up for the Houthis, but he needs to address the military position that I have described, which is why the Saudis are on such a hiding to nothing. All that I will say on the Houthis is that I met President al-Sammad on my visit to Yemen, and it was probably a mistake for the Saudis to kill him in an air attack when he was one of the doves among the Houthis who might have assisted in the negotiations that I was describing.
I am afraid that my right hon. Friend cannot get away from the fact that there is a perfectly sensible alternative analysis here. Hodeidah is the vital ground in this conflict, and it is the control of Hodeidah that finances the Houthi rebellion through all that it rakes off from the international aid coming through the port. If Hodeidah is secured by the coalition, the conflict will be on the way to being sorted. It is our responsibility to help the coalition to deliver that objective. There have been endless opportunities for a political process, and the Houthis simply did not turn up to the latest one, which was the last of a long list of efforts.
My hon. Friend is a distinguished former soldier, but he is not addressing the military aspects of how that point would be reached. Even if he is right that whoever controls Hodeidah is in a strong position, the coalition will nevertheless have to take and look after Hodeidah, and my submission is that there is no chance of it being able to do so.
Turning to the Yemeni position, the country is in complete and total chaos. A famine looms, and I described to the House in a previous emergency debate what it is like watching a child first starve and then die as a result of famine. This is a man-made famine, and we are part of the people who are creating it. The infrastructure that has been destroyed by the coalition and the advancement of medieval diseases that have been eradicated throughout most of the world underline that point. Bombing by the Saudi air force happens night after night, killing innocent civilians. The people of Yemen know that the UK and the US are involved. It is written all over the walls in Sa’dah, which I had the chance to visit. They know who is to blame. Equally, British-led groups are also trying to clear mines, which shows the confusion. All that means that a younger generation of Yemenis see what is happening and hundreds and thousands of them are prey to the immoral advances of terrorists. They are prey to those who tell them who is causing the situation and then radicalise them.
Wanton damage is so prevalent in Yemen. I went to the location of the funeral where so many innocent mourners were killed by the Saudi air force. We heard about the murder of innocent children dressed in the blue colour of UNICEF while out on a picnic—40 of them killed in what has quite rightly been described as a war crime.
The right hon. Gentleman is giving an excellent speech, and I completely agree with him. I am sure that, like me and others, he has had contact with senior military officials in the Saudi Government, so does he share my frustration that, despite repeatedly discussing avoiding targeting humanitarians, hospitals, schools and civilians out in the open as he described, they keep on making these terrible mistakes? We are so fearful of an all-out assault on Hodeidah because they have shown repeatedly that they cannot avoid killing civilians.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but my point is that it would be hard to find a more eloquent and effective recruiting sergeant for those who wish to do us ill than the policy that is being pursued by our Government.
Finally, I come to the position of the British Government. We hold the pen on Yemen at the United Nations, and we know that a presidential statement, drafted by Britain, had to be suppressed by the Norwegians, the Russians and the Swedes. We are increasingly nervous—let us not beat about the bush—about a diminution of Britain’s influence at the United Nations. My submission to the Government is that the UK needs to move from outright support through the coalition for our friends in Saudi Arabia to a much more neutral position, using our moral authority not to protect the Saudis, but to save them from the ignominious fate that so clearly awaits them in Yemen.
The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time and is making some powerful points. Will he join me in urging our Government to support the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said last week:
“It is crucial that there be…international and independent investigations into all allegations of violations of international humanitarian law”?
We know that such violations are happening, and we need an international investigation. Will the British Government please do that?
The hon. Lady is right on that point, not because a Saudi-led investigation will necessarily be false, but it simply will not be trusted. If I may use a wholly inappropriate analogy, people will think that the Saudis are marking their own homework. It would therefore be much better to have an international investigation.
The Minister agrees that the Saudis are on a hiding to nothing, so surely it is the duty of the Saudis’ friends and allies to move them to a better place. Some time ago, the British Government took a judgment through the National Security Council that our economic and security relationship with Saudi Arabia took precedence over everything else. I believe that that judgment is now fundamentally flawed, because both our economic and security relationships are being greatly damaged by what is happening in Yemen.
In trying to persuade the Government that we need to move to a position of much greater neutrality, using our power and influence at the United Nations, I hope that the Minister, who understands such things, will reiterate today the importance of supporting without qualification the work of Martin Griffiths, a distinguished British international civil servant, as he tries to move this whole awful experience from fighting to a ceasefire and then to talks. My understanding is that the reason why the Houthis were not in Geneva was that there were no adequate guarantees of safe passage, and Martin Griffiths has specifically said that he wishes to address that point and ensure that the next round of talks, to which he is absolutely committed, are more inclusive and therefore more comprehensive.
The important thing is that we move to a ceasefire and to talks. The talks will be difficult, halting and slow, but as the extremely impressive work of the UN group of eminent experts on Yemen has so clearly stated, the present position is the worst of all worlds for all involved. We must now get a ceasefire and move to talks, which are the route through to the end of this dreadful catastrophe.
Thank you for granting this emergency debate on Yemen, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), the Chair of the International Development Committee, on securing it. I will come to his powerful speech in a minute, but on this day of 9/11, especially at this time of day, we should all pause and pay our respects to the almost 3,000 innocent people killed in the attacks on New York and Washington 17 years ago today, including the 77 British victims. Our thoughts are especially with their families, friends and colleagues, for whom this day always brings such painful memories and to whom we owe a constant duty to fight the scourge of jihadi terrorism wherever it rears its head.
I also acknowledge an anniversary that the events of 2001 have naturally relegated in importance over the past two decades, but one that we should also remember. Forty-five years ago, Salvador Allende, the great reforming, democratically elected socialist leader of Chile, killed himself in the presidential palace in Santiago as the forces of General Pinochet approached to seize power and plunge Chile into 17 dark years of brutal military dictatorship.
In historical terms, this is a dark and painful day, and it is a dark and painful subject that we debate today, but I still thank the Chair of the International Development Committee for raising it, as he has so consistently and insistently. The last time we had an emergency debate on this subject back in November 2017, secured by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), there was great media criticism because only around 30 Members were present to debate what is still accepted as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. There may be slightly more Members in attendance today.
When I look back at debates on Yemen over the two or three years since we began to realise the enormity of this crisis, I see that there have been certain constants. The Chair of the International Development Committee, from whom we have just heard, has of course been a constant voice, insisting that wherever the blame for this conflict lies, and wherever our international alliances preside, the only thing that matters is stopping the violence and allowing the people of Yemen to get the humanitarian relief they need.
There have been other constants over the years: my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is here; the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, who again made a powerful speech today; my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty); my great and esteemed predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn); and many others who I am sure we will hear from today and who have fought the long and often lonely struggle to give the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen the attention they deserve, and to rightly condemn the Houthi rebels for their atrocities, their use of child soldiers and their firing of missiles into Saudi Arabia, but also to hold the Saudi-led coalition to account for its actions in this war. Those actions include the indiscriminate airstrikes that have killed thousands of innocent men, children and women; the systematic and targeted destruction of Yemen’s agricultural and food infrastructure; and the blockade that has stopped supplies of food, clean water and medicine, jeopardising millions of lives.
For those of us who feel as though we have been hitting our head against a brick wall these past three years, it is easy to feel jaded and to give up hope of ever forcing a change in the British Government’s policy or approach, because it seems as though no Saudi atrocity is too much and no Saudi behaviour cannot be excused so that the Government’s inaction at the United Nations and their lucrative trade in arms can be allowed to continue.
If we are becoming jaded, all we have to do is listen to the families of the victims of this conflict. They remind us all that if we do not continue campaigning for an end to this disastrous conflict and Britain’s support for it, their numbers and their pain will just continue to grow. I will put on record the words of Zaid Tayyib, a father of five boys from Sa’dah city, three of whom—Youssef, Ahmed and Ali, aged 14, 11 and nine—went on a school bus trip together a month ago, along with dozens of schoolmates.
Mr Tayyib was in the same street as the bus as it returned from the trip, which was when the Saudi missile struck. He rushed to the scene, despite his own pain and shock, to try to help the survivors. When he turned over the body of one young boy, with his blue UNICEF rucksack still on his back, he saw that it was his own 11-year-old little boy, Ahmed. Over the next few hours he discovered his two other children on the bus had also been killed, and he had to break the news to their mother. The hardest news to tell her, he said, was about their nine-year-old boy, little Ali. When Mr Tayyib finally discovered Ali’s body, he brought him home and his mother held him like any mother would hold a young child who had just come home from a trip. But with Ali she kept holding on to his lifeless body because she simply could not let him go.
That is the war we are supporting. That is the coalition we are arming. That is the handiwork of the Saudi crown prince, over whom this Government fawned so desperately when they welcomed him here in March.
When Mr Tayyib was asked what he thought of the international reaction to the death of his three sons and of the 37 other children killed in that Saudi airstrike, he expressed his shock at the silence of the international community with these poignant words: “It’s as if it was livestock that was targeted, as if it wasn’t children that were targeted, as if it wasn’t people who were killed.”
We owe it to Mr Tayyib, we owe it to his wife, and we owe it to the sons they have lost, and to the thousands of other innocent children who have been killed in this conflict, not to stay silent but to raise our voices ever louder in demanding again the same three things that the Opposition have consistently demanded for the past three years: first, an independent UN-led investigation of all allegations of war crimes in this conflict; secondly, the suspension of UK arms sales for use in this conflict until the investigation is complete; and thirdly, for the UK Government, at long last, to do their job as the penholder on Yemen at the UN Security Council and bring forward a new resolution obliging all sides to respect a ceasefire to allow peace talks and open access for humanitarian relief.
Many of my right hon. Friend’s points are extremely valid, and the Government should be undertaking them, but on shutting off plane sales to Saudi Arabia is she prepared, as her next visit, to go to the north-west to say to workers there, their wives and their families that we should shut their factories and destroy their communities? Is she prepared to do that? Because that is the logical consequence of what she proposes.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that very serious and very important point. I will put it as I have put it to many of those who work in these factories: no one who makes arms in this country wants those arms to be sold in contravention of national law and international law.
I appreciate that there has been a court case, and I appreciate that there is an appeal. I watched the court case carefully, and I feel that, from those parts of the trial held in open court, there is an overwhelming case that we should no longer be selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, half the case was held in secret court, in which we do not know what happened, so we do not know why the court came to its decision, which frankly, raises a completely different issue about the accountability of secret courts.
Ultimately, no one wants to do anything outside the law, and it is important for our arms industry that sales are done within the law. I know those workers understand that. I do not stand in the way of our arms industry; I stand in the way of our arms industry selling weapons illegally around the world. Frankly, I do not want our bombs and our planes to be responsible for this, and I am quite sure my right hon. Friend does not, either.
Will my right hon. Friend explain how she would resolve the issue of the United Arab Emirates, which by and large buys American, Chinese and French equipment and is operating independently on the southern battlefields within the internal border of Yemen? The United Arab Emirates largely has nothing to do with the Saudi Arabians on those battlefronts. How will the United Kingdom influence what the United Arab Emirates is doing? What exactly has the United Arab Emirates done that she would specifically point out for criticism?
I believe in doing what we can; and I believe in the power of moral indignation; and I believe in the power of being right. I think it is right that we take the right course, and that we hold our head up high. It means that we are more powerful when it comes to being in the United Nations, and we deserve our place on the Security Council by doing the right thing, and by being a moral force in the world. That is what I think.
Increasingly, we are not alone in making the three demands that we have made today. On the first, we heard at the UN this week from Michelle Bachelet, the former President of Chile, whose father in fact served under President Allende and was tortured to death in one of Pinochet’s jails. Now she is the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She spoke very powerfully this week, in the wake of the 9 August bus attack. She said it was crucial that there should be
“international and independent investigations...into all allegations of war crimes”,
particularly in the light of the apparent inability
“of the parties to the conflict...to carry out impartial investigations.”
We in the Opposition could not agree more. But I hope that the Minister of State will later tell us why the Government continue to reject that argument—[Interruption.] If I might, I will just ask this question. Why do the Government continue to reject that argument and maintain that the Saudi-led coalition should be left to investigate themselves?
In the context of war crime investigations, Michelle Bachelet continued:
“The recent Saudi royal order...which appears to provide a blanket pardon...to members of the Saudi armed forces...for actions taken in Yemen is very concerning.”
Well, yes! And I would ask the Minister to explain, if Saudi Arabia is not guilty of war crimes, and if it knows that it has done nothing wrong, why on earth does it need to issue a royal order pardoning the military men
“who have taken part in the”
“Operation...of their respective military and disciplinary penalties...in regard of some rules and disciplines”?
On the second issue, of arms sales, again we are not alone in our demands. This week, the Spanish socialist Government confirmed that they would join Germany and Norway in suspending arms sales for use in this conflict because of their use against civilians—something Belgium has also been obliged to do, thanks to the position of its own Supreme Court, but which the British Government still refuse even to consider.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I want to be able to finish my contribution. Many Members wish to speak and I have already spoken for quite some time. I am sure that my hon. Friend will enlighten us with his views at a later stage.
When even the Trump Administration, in the shape of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, said in the wake of the bus bombing that American support for the Saudi coalition was not “unconditional”, suggesting that if the coalition could not
“avoid innocent loss of life”,
that support could be withdrawn—when even the Trump Administration is willing to take that moral stance when it comes to arms sales—we are bound to ask this Government why they alone seem to believe that military support for the Saudi coalition should apparently come without conditions, without strictures and without scrutiny.
That brings us to our third demand, which I know has support across this House, including from the all-party group on Yemen. It is this simple request: that the Government do their job—do the job that they have been assigned to do at the Security Council and bring forward a resolution to order an immediate ceasefire on all sides, to allow open access for humanitarian relief and to provide the space and time for what will undoubtedly be a long and arduous process of negotiating a lasting peace and a long-term political solution, rather than what we have seen over the past week, with the Saudi coalition responding to the setbacks over talks in Geneva with an immediate and brutal renewal of its assault on Hodeidah.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Next month, it will be a full two years since the UK’s delegation at the UN circulated a draft resolution that would have achieved all those ends—a draft that, had it been tabled, agreed and successfully implemented, could have ended the war long ago and saved the lives of Mr Tayyib’s three sons. It is too late for them, but not too late for all the other children in Yemen, facing a fourth year of war—a fourth year of hardship, of fear, of saying goodbye to their parents each morning and not knowing if that will be the last time. We cannot let this go on. We cannot delay any longer in submitting that resolution at the Security Council and trying to force all sides to respect a ceasefire to allow humanitarian relief and to proceed, in good faith and with patience, with the Geneva peace talks.
It may be difficult. It may not even succeed. But to borrow a phrase that the Government will understand, from the former Foreign Secretary,
“is not that we have failed, but that we have not even tried.”
It is a privilege to speak here this afternoon on this important subject, and I pay huge tribute to my colleague and friend, the Chair of the International Development Committee, who has done an awful lot of work on this challenge, not just today but over many, many months. I also pay a huge tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) who speaks with a fluency that comes only from experience.
I am not going to double over what has been said, nor the appalling abuses that we have seen, but if I may, I shall use this opportunity to address our friends in the region—to recognise the challenges that face them, to recognise the assault that is coming to them, and yet to try to persuade them gently that they could think again, and that we, their friends, could help them to do so. There could be no finer advocate of that process than the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). He has developed a bond of friendship with many people around the world whose trust stems not just from his post but from his character, which makes him such a powerful advocate, not just for the United Kingdom, but for the interests of our friends and allies around the world.
Perhaps I may start by paying a huge personal tribute to the armed forces of the Emirates, alongside whom I served, as did many others in this House, in Afghanistan. I pay huge tribute to the professionalism that they have demonstrated in other conflicts and to the commitment that they have maintained to the rule of law and to human rights, in a region that is not always famous for those two important values.
I also pay tribute to the reforms that Mohammad bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, appears to be starting. I encourage him, as I know many across this House do, and indeed Her Majesty’s Government have been very clear in doing, to push down that road with the speed that he thinks is possible—his judgment on this is better than ours. That speed should allow us to see that that great country liberates its people, particularly those who have been oppressed for so long, such as the women, who were liberated in many ways before the Wahhabi revolution closed the doors.
I urge them—those two countries, those two partners, those two allies of ours—to look very carefully at what they are doing in Yemen and to realise that what they are doing is not just damaging them; it is damaging their friends, their allies and their interests. The right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) spoke clearly and well when she explained the tragedies that we are seeing. My right hon. Friend the Chair of the International Development Committee put it extremely powerfully when he outlined the humanitarian disaster, the price in humanitarian terms, not in financial terms, of the collapsing rial, and what that would mean for the economies of so many. But please allow me, if I may, to move away from the emotional, which we must not forget, and to remember the strategic.
What we are seeing in Yemen today is the danger of the destruction of one of the main points of entry—in fact, the point of entry—to the Red sea. That important seaway, through which much of our commerce travels, is reliant on the peaceful coasts and the control of the Bab el-Mandeb. Today, we are seeing that being put at severe risk. We are seeing the assault on Hodeidah, putting at risk hundreds of thousands of people. We are seeing the danger of that assault tying down armies that are simply not prepared for it.
Mr Speaker, I can assure you that the preparation required to govern a city is something that was even—I say this with no great pride—beyond the British Army in 2003. The arrival in Basra, the effort required, the difficulty of that initial government, was extraordinary, and one that even we did not expect. The idea that the Saudi armed forces or the Emirati armed forces are prepared to take on the civilian government of Hodeidah is simply not true. That is not to impugn the professionalism of their armed forces, their integrity or their honour; it is simply a fact that governing cities is not what armies are trained for. It is a challenge that would be beyond most.
My hon. and gallant Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that, aside from the logistical challenge of a conflict environment, we know all too well from painful experience in Iraq and Afghanistan about civilian casualties following airstrikes? That perhaps puts us in a stronger position to help our allies prevent the same.
I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend, alongside whom I served in Helmand and Afghanistan well over 10 years ago. We both had more hair at the time. The truth is that I am setting out this situation not to call into question the integrity or honour of the armed forces of our friends and allies, but to highlight the difficulty and danger they are entering into and the problems they face and to urge that they change tone.
We, too, have made mistakes. I remember mistakes that have happened in units that I have been connected with in which civilians have either been hurt or killed. I have seen the effects of so-called collateral damage, which, let us be honest, is a rather clinical way of talking about the death of innocents. I have seen the impact on lives. I have felt it when I have been to villages and talked to communities with whom we have been trying to work. I have seen the consequences that last, not for hours, days or months, but, rightly and understandably, for generations, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield made extremely clear. The cost to us all is enormous.
I urge my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench to talk to our allies. They should go to Riyadh and the Emirates, speak clearly and say to our friends, “This is not in your interest. You are beginning to lose the support of the Senate in the United States. You are beginning to lose the support of people in this country. You have already lost the support of many in Germany, Spain and other parts. If you are to maintain support and defend yourself against the serious threats that you face and against which you have the right to defend yourself, you need to reform the way you act. That means several things.”
I acknowledge my hon. and gallant Friend’s considerable experience of the region, not least from his own military service. He talked about the Saudis facing serious and dangerous threats. In the interests of balance, is it not right to remember that Saudi Arabia has for some time been under a rain of missiles manufactured almost certainly by Iran and fired into the country from Houthi rebel areas? If that were happening in our country, what would our reaction be? What would the headline in The Sun be?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. These are real threats, and I am not denying them. Of course we would not put up with a rain of Iranian missiles falling on London, as they are today far too often falling on Riyadh and other towns in the region. We would respond. It is right that the Saudi armed forces are able to respond. I do not question their right of self-defence; I question their tactics. That is where we have to help them see the way.
The truth is that Iran is a direct threat to the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It is the most extraordinary regime we see today. It is exporting violence. It is deliberately capturing and holding British citizens hostage. It is abusing its own people, murdering hundreds, torturing thousands and exporting violence into countries such as Bahrain, Saudi and, most obviously, Syria. We know that Iran is a threat. We see it, we feel it and we hear it all the time. We now know that Iran is looking to expand its area of operation into the political sphere, copying the Russians.
On the list of actors on this particular stage, would the hon. Gentleman also include Hezbollah? It sends its commanders and troops into the country on fast boats from that Iranian ship parked in the Gulf. To follow up on the question asked by my friend from the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), part of the problem we face is that the Iranians are bringing the rockets in on long trucks. The large rockets are taken to market squares, tilted upright into a vertical firing position within 15 minutes, and the Saudi Arabians have a tremendous problem in identifying them and making a decision in minutes about what to do. Hezbollah is involved in that. We almost have a pseudo-terrorist operation. Human shields are becoming a weapon of war in Yemen.
The hon. Gentleman demonstrates why he was such an appropriate choice for chairmanship of the Committee on Arms Export Controls. His knowledge and expertise are second to none. He makes a clear point, and he is absolutely right: it is not one side “wrong” and one side “good”; two sides are behaving abominably. Iran’s proxies in Hezbollah, who we see fighting today in Syria, are murdering thousands. We see them fighting alongside Russian forces today, seeking to bring death to hundreds of thousands in Idlib. We also see them fighting in Yemen, trying to slaughter others and trying to further the deaths of innocents.
I return to the point I will dwell upon and hammer home, because it is the one that fundamentally matters, not only to us, as representatives of the British people, but to others, as representatives of their own peoples seeking a peaceful outcome for the conflicts we see today in the middle east. The point is that this war must end, but before it ends and as it ends, it must be conducted legitimately. Does that mean we need to ensure that Saudi Arabia has the missile defence system to resist the rocket attacks that the hon. Gentleman spoke about so clearly? Yes, it does. It means we must recognise that the Saudi Government have a right to self-defence and weaponry that secures that self-defence. Does it mean we should ban them from buying anything? No, it does not. They have the right to defend themselves in the north, where they are facing very serious threats and the possibility of even more serious threats sponsored by Iran through Iraq and Syria. What does it mean for Saudi Arabia and the Emirates? As I have said time and again, they are friends, allies and partners of ours, on whose economies much of our business is based. Let us not forget that energy underpins our economy. It matters to us all.
What is it that we need to do? My friend the Chair of the International Development Committee has been clear, and he is absolutely right. We need to encourage Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to reach out to the international community, the United Nations and the lawful bodies to conduct the investigations that we would demand of ourselves in similar circumstances. We must call upon them to think hard about their targeting strategies. We must call upon them to think about that awful phrase “collateral damage” not just in purely legal terms—the Geneva convention is actually not as clear on it as some say—but in moral terms. What is the end state? What is the effect in military terms that they are trying to achieve by the conduct of these military operations?
In considering the endgame, it is very clear from my experience that the coalition wants out, but what does my hon. Friend think could be the motivation of the Iranians and their Houthi allies for coming to the table?
My hon. Friend touches on the point to which I was reaching: what is the effect that the Saudis, the Emirates and indeed Britain are trying to have in the region? That effect is clear: it is that Yemen goes from being a land of war to what the Romans called Arabia Felix—happy Arabia. At the moment, that is not possible, but what is true is that it demands that others play their part, particularly the theocracy in Tehran. That means that we must cut it off. We must be very clear that we close down its avenues of manoeuvre and we close down its routes to political support. It means that we must shun it; we must shun its TV stations and its radios. We must refuse its money and close off its businesses, because that is having an effect. We are seeing that today in Tehran, and we are seeing it across the country. I am talking about the rising up of many people against those theocrats—those mullahs—who have murdered thousands, and whose regime of terror forces women into a form of servile second-rate citizenship. That regime denies other religions; denies homosexuals; denies any form of opponent to its theocracy; and denies the legitimacy, the dignity, and the status even of being a human being. That is where our enemy is focused, not in Yemen. To achieve the effect that we need in Yemen, we need to focus on the head of the snake, and not on its tail.
I call on my right hon. Friend the Minister to redouble his efforts, to continue the pressure, to lend Army lawyers and judges, to talk to the United Nations, to lend all the support that we can to help close down the errors that are happening now, to help investigate the tragedies that we have heard so much about, and, most importantly, to change the strategy of two countries that have a glorious future in a happy and peaceful peninsula, but only if they can make sure that they do not sow the seeds of hate in a land that has borne so much culture, so much history and now so much sadness.
It is a huge pleasure to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). He spoke with great passion and huge knowledge. His connection with Yemen—he learned Arabic when he was in Yemen—is known to us all. As Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he has to cover the world, so I thank him for coming here today and participating in this debate.
I particularly want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg)—he is a dear friend whom I have known for more than 30 years—not only for securing this debate but for his very hard work as Chair of the International Development Committee over the past four years. I also thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this important debate. At a time when there is so much business in the House, you have understood the importance of having an emergency debate. The debate allows us to send a message to the world that, even though there is other business and even though people call this a forgotten war, here in the British Parliament it is not forgotten and many Members of this House are here today to participate.
I also take this opportunity to thank the newly re-elected officers of the all-party group on Yemen: the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) who works so very hard and who is a great and passionate voice for the Yemeni people; my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss); the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Douglas Chapman); and the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who went on a visit with me to Sana’a. We had to send out the guards because he had gone out of the hotel without permission and we were very worried about what had happened to him. He was actually taking some marvellous photographs. That was the last time that we were able to take photographs in Sana’a. It must be very, very different today.
The all-party group released its report on the UK policy towards Yemen in May this year following a six-month inquiry. Entitled “Yemen: The continuing Tragedy”, it is now available on our website. The group made 20 recommendations in consultation with its partners. Present at the launch were my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who is always coldthere when we discuss these issues—I am grateful, as are others, for his very hard work on this subject; the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry); the Scottish National party spokesman on Europe and foreign affairs, the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins); the shadow International Development Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor); along with Mr Eddie Izzard who, like me, was born in Aden, Yemen, and many others.
The report was described by the shadow Foreign Secretary as a “blueprint” for UK policy, but, sadly, four months later, we are still awaiting a response from the Foreign Office to that report. Many of the recommendations are even more pressing following the bloody summer that Yemen has just endured.
I have to say to the shadow Foreign Secretary that she made a stunning speech today, and I was very pleased to see the Leader of the Opposition in the Chamber during part of the debate. As a Back Bencher and as Opposition Leader, he has been a great friend of the Yemeni people.
The current situation in Yemen is a scorecard of shame for the world. We have heard some of the statistics: 22.2 million Yemenis are in urgent humanitarian need; 8 million are at risk of famine; and 11 million people are water insecure. Estimates suggest that, since 2015, more than 6,000 children alone have died because of this conflict; 14.8 million people do not have access to basic healthcare; more than 20,000 people do not have access to critical health facilities; violence against women has increased by 63% since the conflict began; child marriage is up 66% since 2015; and food prices have risen by more than 40% since the conflict began. Fact upon fact brings many of us to tears when we have to recount them.
The escalation in fighting over this summer has been shocking. Back in June on Yemen’s west coast, the coalition forces began an advance towards Hodeidah. This would have had disastrous humanitarian consequences, with the United Nations predicting that it could have displaced 300,000 people. To give him credit where it is due, the Minister did tell Members of this House that the Government were against the advance on Hodeidah and had made that very clear to coalition partners, who, sadly, did not listen to them.
In June, I, along with the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central, co-authored a letter to the Prime Minister calling on her to stop military assistance to the coalition if an attack on the port occurred. This letter has been signed by more than 95 Members of this House, including three Select Committee Chairs, and the leaders of the Liberal Democrat party, the SNP and the Green party. We must all now accept that this conflict will never be settled on the battlefield.
As we have heard, the first report of the UN group of eminent experts was released 14 days ago. It has been eagerly anticipated since the establishment of the group in September 2017. It produced a damning indictment of all sides in the conflict and said that the violations amounted to “war crimes”. The report came out just 12 days after a school bus containing 40 children was blown up by a coalition airstrike, which was allegedly as a result of a US-provided missile.
In May, the all-party group recommended that the United Kingdom should cease selling arms to all sides until the report of the UN eminent experts had been published. In the aftermath of the findings of the UN and of this horrific attack, it is clear that the UK must urgently review its decisions to grant export licences to parties involved in the war in Yemen. To be associated with such actions does a great deal of damage to the idea of global Britain. The United Kingdom Government must use all their leverage with allies to ensure that they continue to champion British values of fairness, justice and human rights in all aspects of foreign policy. As we have heard from the Chair of the Select Committee, the mandate of the eminent experts must be extended to allow them to continue to do their work, especially in the upcoming session of the Human Rights Council.
We have heard about the involvement of Iran in Yemen. It cannot be disputed. The Houthis have continued to fire weapons at Saudi Arabia and these attacks are totally unacceptable, but the response to them must be proportionate. There is also concern about the threat that they will target ships in the Bab el-Mandeb strait—a busy but vital shipping lane.
As we have heard in every single debate, the United Kingdom holds the pens in Yemen. But we seem very reluctant to use these pens. I respect the important work that has been done by Martin Griffiths, and he must be allowed to continue his work, but we urgently need a new resolution before the United Nations so that we can include a ceasefire and stop the prevention of the passage of humanitarian supplies. Through our ambassador, Karen Pierce, we can table this resolution immediately. We held a meeting of the United Nations Security Council only last week, after the events in Salisbury. If we can call such a meeting—if we can use our power as a permanent member of the Security Council for that very important reason—we should also do so for Yemen.
The peace talks convened by Martin Griffiths were, as we have heard, the best chance for peace in Yemen for some time. For the first time in two years, there was a prospect of us moving forward. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield said, Martin Griffiths deserves our praise for the way in which he has persevered with all the groups—the absence of the Houthis was a bitter blow—but we must ensure that we pick up where he left off. I urge the new Foreign Secretary to invite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over to London with the Foreign Secretaries of all the other Quint countries so that we can continue the Geneva peace talks in London. Like the Dayton peace accords in the 1990s, this should be driven from the top down. We need to try and try again. It is no good blaming others; we have a responsibility and we must make sure that it is followed.
We all want peace, but there is a pattern that seems to be a roadblock to peace. The Geneva talks have collapsed twice because the Houthis refused to turn up and leave Sana’a. The Kuwait peace talks collapsed because the Houthis refused to come to the peace table. When the outgoing special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ahmed, had a peace deal on the table in January, he told the UN that the Houthis simply walked away and were not interested in peace. Again, the Houthis did not bother turning up in Geneva last weekend. Does my right hon. Friend recognise a pattern?
Yes, there is a pattern, but in difficult and complex problems it is always difficult to get people round the peace table. My hon. Friend knows; he is a politician who perseveres, no matter whether people say that he cannot do something. He carries on and is determined to achieve what he wants to achieve, and that is what we have to do.
The former Foreign Secretary was asked by the all-party parliamentary group on so many occasions why the Quint had not been called together in London. The Minister is one of the most—if not the most—liked Ministers and Members of this House. He is hugely respected and liked. Whenever there is a reshuffle and he is forgotten, there is a huge groundswell of opinion and the Prime Minister has to relent and give him back the job. This is his chance to become Alistair the peacemaker. This is an opportunity that he must follow; I urge him to do it.
We parliamentarians are not going to stand by and wait for Governments. We have identified a number of parliamentarians in Parliaments of Europe—Norway, Sweden, Germany, Spain and the Netherlands—and Congressmen and Congresswomen in the United States, some of whom were mentioned by the Chair of the Select Committee, who are willing to join a parliamentary coalition of peace. On 8 November in Paris, the all-party group will be co-hosting an international parliamentary conference on Yemen, alongside the French National Assembly’s France-Yemen friendship group. President Macron at least tried to seize the initiative by holding a humanitarian conference in Paris. I know that our Prime Minister is incredibly busy, but I hope that the Minister will urge her to take the lead as President Macron has done to ensure that we have a conference here on Yemen.
I thank Sébastien Nadot, the Member of the French Assembly for Haute-Garonne, and Fabien Gouttefarde, the chair of the France-Yemen friendship group and a representative of his country, for agreeing to work with the all-party parliamentary group. If Governments are too slow, we in Parliament must move this forward.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent and powerful speech. How does he think that Iran and the Houthis can be compelled to attend such peace talks? Unless there is a compulsion, they will not attend, when—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said—they have so cheaply bought such chaos in Yemen?
I did not think that I would say this, but if President Trump can meet the leader of North Korea, which I never believed was possible, it is possible for others to sit down at a table. We just have to make them sit down together. This is the art of diplomacy. It is 17 or 18 years since I was a Foreign Office Minister, so I cannot remember how it is done, but it is possible; and the British Foreign Office is the best at it. If anyone is going to do it, the Foreign Office is. And that is what we need to do.
Let me end by mentioning the horrifying image of the bus attack last month that can be seen on the internet—the haunting image of children, most of whom were under the age of 10, singing and clapping as they went to school. The second film shows the agony of dozens of tiny, bloodied UNICEF backpacks strewn in the aftermath of the destruction. In a conflict that has led to unconscionable destruction and death across Yemen, this incident, which has been highlighted by every single speaker in this debate—and, Mr Speaker, which I hope was one of the reasons that you granted this emergency debate—will live with us for ever.
When the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, will he please announce a new round of peace talks? I long to return to Aden—that beautiful city. I actually want to end my life there; I want my last days to be in the beautiful city of Aden, where I was born. Every time I think of the country, what it has been through in the last few years and what we have failed to do, it brings me to tears. Now we see a whole generation being wiped out. Before that, there is a whole generation who are going to hate those who have rained bombs upon them. Britain’s task as a leader in world affairs is to convene these peace talks. I beg the Minister to do so.
Order. I encourage colleagues to restrict their speeches to no more than 10 minutes, because it is important that the Minister of State has adequate opportunity fully to respond. There will be a Front-Bench speech from the Scottish National party, which is not time-limited. If there is time, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who initiated the debate, would ordinarily be asked to conclude it. Therefore, let us ensure that Back-Bench speeches last for a maximum of 10 minutes, although this is an informal exhortation at this point.
Thank you, Mr Speaker: I take that exhortation extremely seriously.
It is a privilege to be in the Chamber this afternoon with people with such extraordinary expertise—in the case of the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), a lifetime of expertise—in this region. I praise all those who have kept the faith and continued to speak about the position in Yemen over the years. I, for one, think that we should adopt the new name of “Alistair the peacemaker” for our Minister. We have heard various suggestions from all parts of the House as to what he should do. I would like to put on record that I have complete faith in his experience and abilities to take this forward, to listen to what is said this afternoon and to continue to do his utmost, as I know he has been doing over his years in office, for the people of Yemen.
I will concentrate on the humanitarian situation in Yemen. I see no point in getting stuck into the suggestions that have been made by others, although occasionally, as a former Government lawyer, I find it irresistible to talk about our position on arms sales and how the judicial system is looking at that extremely carefully. I exhort the House to wait for the Court of Appeal. At the moment, only permission to appeal has been granted in this case, and we will have to see what happens. The divisional court ruling of last year is worth reading. I heard what the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who is no longer in her place, said about the special advocate system. For better or for worse, it is the system we have in the United Kingdom. We are proud, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) said, of Britain’s values. We should be proud of our judicial process and allow it to take its course.
We have heard that 22 million people, an unimaginable number, currently need humanitarian assistance, and approximately 10 million are in need of immediate support—support today; this week. The country is currently experiencing famine. There is denial of access to humanitarian and commercial goods, considerable destruction of much of the medical and education systems and massive outbreaks of disease. We heard a bit about cholera earlier, but very little about the diphtheria outbreak, which is causing extraordinary damage. The images we have seen are horrific. We know from the Syrian situation that it is the photographic images that have the potential to change public opinion and to make people care.
I want to focus on the children caught up in this conflict. We have heard a great deal today about the bus attack of 9 August. I found the testimony of Abdul particularly moving. Over 11 million children in Yemen are currently in need of humanitarian protection and assistance. The famine-like conditions are creating irreversible damage to what I fear has already become, in four years, a lost generation. They have been denied education and essential nutrition. Obviously, they are suffering violence and bearing the mental and physical scars from that. We have heard about the small number who have become child soldiers and are very damaged by that, and also about child marriage, which is a sure sign that the safety systems in society have irrevocably broken down. Save the Children has told me that at least one child in Yemen dies every 10 minutes from preventable causes, although it fears that this figure could be much, much higher.
The country is currently experiencing the largest cholera outbreak since records began, with 1 million cases reported. I know that Ministers are just as concerned as I am about that epidemic which, although slowed after an enormous humanitarian effort this summer, is likely to surge again as the rainy season begins. The epidemic is undoubtedly a direct consequence of the war. The non-payment of public sector salaries has, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby said, led to complete, systemic shutdown. The ever-increasing population of acutely malnourished children, mass displacement, the collapse of the health system and the bombing of water and sanitation networks have also played their part.
At the same time, the country is struggling with the largest diphtheria outbreak since 1989. There have been over 1,000 cases of this highly infectious disease in the country so far. Young children suffer worst; 90% of fatalities are under 15. I am worried to hear that the aid community is struggling to cope with the disease and, frankly, does not know what to do. In an environment where more than half of all health facilities are closed or only partially functioning, there has been an enormous surge in child mortality, driven by communicable—but treatable—diseases such as diphtheria. The fact that so many children in Yemen are deprived of nutrients in their very early years will have lifelong consequences for them if they survive into their adult lives.
I am proud that the Government have been robust in their response, leading the way as they often do on humanitarian issues. We are the fourth largest humanitarian donor to the country and the second largest donor to the UN appeal, but millions of vulnerable Yemenis remain at enormous risk because aid is blocked. Houthi forces have obstructed the distribution of aid and prevented access. The alleviation of the hunger and famine in Yemen cannot occur until we get access to the Red sea ports. We have heard many of the views of others on this, but I would be grateful for the Minister’s views on the long-term future of the port of Hodeidah, how he views that situation going forward, and what his plan is.
The hon. Lady raises aid matters. Was she not appalled, as I was, by the Houthi assault on an aid convoy and aid workers in the last month? Does she not think that when the Houthis demand $300,000 dollars for every ship that lands at Hodeidah, that is taking food out of the mouths of the poorest and simply propping up high-value cars and swimming pools in this war economy?
The hon. Gentleman speaks with enormous knowledge on this issue, and I listened very carefully to what he said earlier. The port of Hodeidah is in a horrific situation. I am always surprised that it does not have the media coverage in Britain that, for example, the current siege in Idlib has. What is going on there is truly iniquitous. On a purely commercial level, this is our aid that we have paid for that is not getting to the recipients who need it so desperately. It is right that we focus on that, and I hope that the Minister will do so.
Does the hon. Lady, like me, congratulate the forces of the United Arab Emirates, particularly the special forces, who helped the aid convoys get into some of these areas, and paid a huge price for trying to deliver this aid, with over 110 UAE soldiers having lost their lives trying to fight for freedom in Yemen and support the Yemeni people?
Of course I do. We have heard a great deal about how difficult the situation is and how it is right that we have friends in the region. The United Arab Emirates has done much in this conflict that is to be commended.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister is as keen to resolve this situation as anybody in this House. I hope that he will continue to press for full and unhindered access, including in the north of the country, particularly following the UN Security Council presidential statement, which we, as a Government, proposed and co-ordinated. I believe that this Government will continue to do what they can to help the humanitarian relief effort. I hope that we will be able to play a greater role internationally in encouraging other donors to increase their funding. As has been made clear many times, there is no military solution to this conflict, and only a negotiated political settlement can possibly work. The UN special envoy has been working tirelessly to broker such a solution, and this House should send him our best wishes and support for his further efforts. Until an agreement is found, the children of Yemen will continue to pay the heaviest price.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on gaining this important debate. There can be little of the horror left to express that we all feel about the situation in Yemen, which is, without doubt, the worst humanitarian crisis facing the world at the moment. As we have heard, 22 million Yemenis are in need of some form of humanitarian aid or protection. As the hon. Gentleman laid out clearly, the horror and heartbreak of the situation cannot be over-emphasised.
Yet this is a crisis in which we potentially already have the means at our disposal to intervene to protect the civilian population. The international community is crying out for action.
As we have heard, recent weeks have seen an increase in attacks on civilians. In August, 450 civilians died, and among the worst incidents was the airstrike on the school bus. Seven NGOs, including Save the Children, Oxfam GB and the International Rescue Committee, have written to the Foreign Secretary calling for support for the UN Secretary-General’s call for an immediate investigation. We all know that there have been atrocities by all groups involved, and neither side in this is blameless.
On that important point, is the hon. Lady aware that the attack on the bus has been investigated by the coalition, and the Saudi coalition has accepted responsibility and undertaken to try to find the families of those who were lost in that incident, in order to pay them compensation? It has taken responsibility for that action.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I appreciate that the Saudis have taken responsibility, but that does not help us to resolve the situation or find a way of preventing that from happening again. As I said, no side is blameless, and it is important that we recognise that and take a balanced approach.
NGOs concerned at the growth in attacks on civilians want an immediate suspension of the transfer of all arms that could potentially be used in Yemen, and this is where we could act. What compounds my frustration is that we potentially have the means at hand. We have heard that we hold the pen on this in the United Nations. We should take note of the fact that in the final days of the coalition, it was agreed, after some argument and debate, that weapons and bombs could be licensed and sold to Saudi Arabia on the condition that British personnel were there to oversee any potential use. In the current situation, the question arises: is that oversight taking place? If not, why not? If it is, what are those personnel doing to intervene and protect civilians?
We heard about the need to defeat al-Qaeda and the complications of the alliances and interwoven factions in the eloquent speech by the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), who laid it out clearly, but is that an excuse for not using whatever means we can to take the opportunity we have to oversee and protect the population wherever and whenever we can? As the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) so eloquently and movingly said, this is a population who have already been through so much.
There are other issues. On human rights, 55 NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have urged support for the UN group of eminent experts. On the peace process, the UK must continue to do what it can for an immediate ceasefire. In the short term, 22 million Yemenis are in need of aid and protection, 8 million of them are at risk of imminent famine and nearly half of all children aged between six months and five years old are chronically malnourished. The World Health Organisation has warned of the danger of cholera. It is almost unthinkable that we are somehow allowing this to continue.
In the midst of all this, the main parties in the conflict continue to make humanitarian access difficult. We cannot and must not allow that to continue. It is vital that our Government press for an end to that obstruction and for immediate access for commercial goods—the basic goods that we all need: food, fuel and medical supplies. It is not good enough simply for us to say here that we do not approve and that it has to end. The time has come when we have to act, and I believe that the British people expect no less from their Government.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for securing it. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which shows that I have travelled across the Arabian peninsula a number of times, following my long-term interest in the region.
The first and most important point to make in my brief remarks is that the intervention by the coalition in Yemen is fundamentally legitimate, and it is not legitimate just because of technicalities such as UN Security Council resolution 2216, which encapsulates the fact that the coalition intends to restore the Hadi Government. It is about the coalition defending their strategic national security interests. This was all brought about by the fall of Sana’a in late 2014. The fall of Sana’a to the Sunnis precipitated the start of this conflict. It started for a reason, and that was an urgent military reason, for which the Saudis felt compelled to act.
If anyone has any doubt of the grave national security threat that the situation in Yemen poses to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, they should visit the border region of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as I have done, to take a look at the extraordinary damage done by ballistic missiles and other munitions fired across the border by Houthis into the kingdom. Earlier this year, I visited Jizan and Najran, close to the border of Yemen, where munitions of all shapes and sizes can be seen, from the smallest rounds fired by cross-border skirmishing parties, to Katyusha rockets, up to full-scale Scud variant Qaher missiles, which are manufactured by Iran, dismantled and then reassembled inside Yemen, with the help of Lebanese Hezbollah. I have seen the remnants of the Scud ballistic missiles on the border region, which have threatened not just Riyadh but other cities across Saudi Arabia. The threat is very real, and in Jizan and Najran provinces, hundreds of Saudi civilians have been killed and thousands have been displaced. We must analyse the conflict in that context.
We must also ask what is at stake in this conflict, and when we do, we must understand a little more deeply the true nature of the Houthi militia group. The Houthis have not only practised such depravities as using child soldiers, indiscriminately using landmines, weaponising food aid and using suicide and drone boats, but they practise a form of Hezbollah-type radical extremism that poses a regional threat to not just Saudi Arabia but the middle east region and, by extension, our own security.
When I was in the Saudi-Yemen border area, I inspected a number of the munitions that had been seized by a Saudi patrol from a skirmishing band of Houthi militiamen. Attached to one weapon was a sticker with the Houthi battle cry on it, which is attached to a lot of Houthi material, whether munitions or public relations output. The translation from Arabic of the Houthi war cry, which others may have seen in the media, is, “God is greatest. Death to America. Death to Israel. Curse the Jews. Victory to Islam.” We need to be very clear about the true nature of the Houthi group. We must be clear that they are not some sort of civic uprising seeking to better represent under-represented civilians in Yemen. They are a military group backed and resourced by Iran that pose a strategic threat to the interests of our allies and us. That is more important when we consider the proximity of the Bab al-Mandab, the strategic waterway between the bottom of the Arabian peninsula and the Red sea, through which some 4% of global oil supplies passes. This is a strategic issue as well as one of domestic importance.
When it comes to the UK’s role, we can be very proud of the tremendous activity that this Government have afforded. First, in terms of humanitarian help, £400 million has been spent on the ground in critical life-saving areas since 2015 to support the people of Yemen. We must, however, acknowledge that the coalition countries themselves have spent several billion dollars on humanitarian supplies. We should also acknowledge that while of course no one wants to be in this situation—no war is ever a good idea—we have to support our allies, now that they find themselves in this tough spot, to fight their way out of this war better than they would otherwise do. To be blunt, it is certainly the case that British involvement—our strategic relationship, our security relationship, the way in which we mentor Saudi military personnel and the doctrine we provide—does indeed achieve a better outcome when it comes to avoiding civilian casualties.
The whole House would of course express nothing but horror at the appalling tragedy on 9 August. However, having visited the military joint command targeting centre in Riyadh, in which the Saudi military assesses and allocates its targets, and having seen the NATO-like doctrine and processes that they use, because of the close military association that we have had with the Saudis over decades, I am confident that our influence is a highly positive one. I am convinced that our influence helps the Saudis fight this war better, and that is extremely important.
When it comes to the end game, the coalition countries of course want out of it: they do not want to prolong the war any more than it has to be prolonged. What they will not accept, however, is a Hezbollah-type proxy in the form of the Houthis dominating the country of Yemen even though they are only 5% of the population. They would not accept a Houthi Hezbollah-type Government who would continue to threaten their strategic interests and have a malign regional impact on such a strategically important part of the world.
The politics—the political process—will come, and we know from our own experience in the Arabian peninsula that extracting military forces from Yemen, which we did in 1967, is a very untidy business that will require a great deal of patience and determination. When we consider the diplomatic process, which the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) described so eloquently, we must recognise that unless the Houthis and their Iranian backers are compelled to attend through military pressure or otherwise—but let us be frank that it will probably be military pressure that brings them to the table—the political process will not move forward. It is our duty as a long-standing ally of our friends in Saudi Arabia and in the UAE to help bring about such a peaceful resolution.
It is important first to note that the people paying the heaviest price in this conflict are those who are least responsible for it—the children of Yemen. A child is dying every 10 minutes from a preventable cause. It is at least one every 10 minutes, but it could well be more; we just cannot get access to find out. In this three-hour debate, that means 18 children—imagine 18 children lined up along this green Bench—and the many more who would, by the end of the day and by the end of the week, fill this Chamber, sadly, in no time at all. Famine conditions, widespread diseases such as cholera and diphtheria, and the shut-down of medical facilities are the real and lasting side effects of the sustained conflict in Yemen, which will result in stunting, trauma and a lost generation scarred by conflict.
There has been a recent upscaling of the violence, with fresh Saudi and Emirati-led coalition attacks in the past few days, and humanitarian agencies have described the pace of the attacks as relentless. With progress in the negotiations stalling over the weekend, there is real concern that there is no end in sight for this conflict. I pay absolute credit to all the aid staff currently based in Yemen, because they are putting their lives at risk every day to make sure that people in that country have food to eat and are treated for diseases and to prevent the further loss of life that could happen.
I am certainly not the only Member of the House who has concerns about the part Britain is playing in this unimaginable suffering. It is no secret that billions of pounds of weapons made in the UK are being supplied to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. As the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) has set out, British military personnel have been involved in training Saudi troops in how best to target those weapons. It shocks me that he would suggest that their role is making this war less bad, because this war is not a good war. This war is a messy, dirty war in which children are dying—children are dying regularly—and I do not believe that that is the way to approach this.
It is quite disturbing that our involvement in this war is resulting in so many mistakes. I would ask all Members who support such involvement how many mistakes they are willing to accept and how many children they are willing to have die in inexcusable circumstances. There has been mistake after mistake, and I will set out some of them. When is the UK going to stop putting profit before the lives of innocent civilians? It is time to take action now to suspend arms sales, as other countries have done—Spain did so just last week—and send the message to Saudi Arabia that using the threat of starvation as a weapon is fundamentally unacceptable and that the indiscriminate targeting of civilians is also unacceptable.
The report of the UN group of experts on Yemen has been particularly damning for the Saudi-Emirati coalition. It is clear that there is a litany of cases on both sides of this conflict about which we should have serious and grave cause for concern. The group said:
“The Group submitted a request to the coalition for specific information on this”—
“process; regrettably, it has not received any response to date. The brief public reports by the coalition’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team do not provide any detail on the targeting process.”
The group has raised concerns about proportionality, about timing, about compliance with the “no strike” list and about double-strike hits, in which those rushing to save lives end up being targeted in a subsequent attack.
The experts mentioned the situation in Taiz, but they were not able to get to that city to assess the detail. On the Houthi side, they picked up on the instances of shelling and of snipers, which are also clear violations of international humanitarian law. The situation and the danger are such that the panel could not even get access and had to verify that from other sources.
I support the call for an independent investigation made by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg). I pay absolute credit to him for securing another debate on this very important issue; he has been a stalwart in this cause. We must have an independent investigation because there is so much mess, conflict and confusion on both sides. The shelling of the World Food Programme aid convoy at al-Tuhayat has been mentioned, but there has been no investigation of it and there has been no accountability for it. The activist Hisham al-Omeisy, who was held by the Houthis and was lucky to escape with his life, has had to flee Yemen with his young children to be safe. He has highlighted the persecution of those of the Baha’i faith, who have also been detained and tortured by the Houthi regime.
It is clear that Saudi Arabia and the coalition do not have clean hands either. On 14 June, coalition anti-Houthi forces hit a Save the Children hospital, leaving 20 dead. On 2 August, a fish market and hospital were hit, with 55 killed and 130 injured. On 9 August, there was the school bus attack—everybody has spoken well about the absolute atrocity of children on a school trip being killed on their way home—with 51 killed, of whom 40 were children, and 79 injured, of whom 56 are children. It absolutely sickens you when you think of all the children who travel to school every day and who ought to be safe in doing so. On 23 August, 22 children and four women were killed in an airstrike as they were trying to escape the conflict in Hodeidah.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) touched on the issue of violence against women. The UN group of experts has mentioned something that other Members have not talked about, so I want to raise it. The Bureiqa migrant detention centre in Aden, run by Security Belt forces, held many Eritrean, Ethiopian and Somali migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, some of whom had been in Yemen for many years, who have been subject to rape—mass rape—as well as sexual abuse, humiliation and torture. All those things are going on in this country, and we are not getting in there to play our role in stopping it.
As the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, the risk for women is significant. They are at greater risk of sexual violence in the absence of law enforcement, and more at risk of child marriage, which will ruin their future. They are more likely to drop out of education and to contract diseases such as cholera because of their caring responsibilities. We must not forget their role in peacemaking. The all-party parliamentary group on Yemen held an excellent session with women from Yemen, who ought to have a great role to play in building the peace. Their voices are not being heard, but they must be.
The issues around the UN Human Rights Council report are significant. I recommend that every Member of this House who has not read it does so. What it says about the Joint Incidents Assessment Team causes me great concern: it says that it
“lacks independence, its public findings contain insufficient details and that there is no mechanism to ensure implementation of its recommendations.”
Not only is the Saudi coalition marking its own homework, but it cannot be trusted to do so—that is a UN finding and a recommendation of the report. We must pay attention to that. We cannot rely on the Saudis alone to make representations on this matter, because it is clear from the report that the UN could not get access to the information it needed to complete the report satisfactorily. We cannot allow that situation to continue.
Amnesty and other human rights organisations have agreed with the report’s recommendation that the international community refrain from providing arms that could be used in the conflict. The only way that progress will be made quickly in Yemen is if a ceasefire is obtained quickly, and it is clear to me and many others that there will be no ceasefire while we continue to supply arms. Spain has already cancelled its contracts. Canada has spoken out about the role of Saudi Arabia, and concerns are being raised in the United States. We cannot turn a blind eye to this.
As well as the conflict, there are the blockades that the Saudi coalition is perpetrating. The UN verification and inspection mechanism should allow ships into Hodeidah with a turnaround of 28 hours, but the blockades lead to delays of several weeks in aid and commercial goods getting in. Those goods are extremely limited, and there is a very high premium on what is available. Most people certainly cannot get food or medicine, or pay for it if they do get it. Save the Children is increasingly concerned that starvation is being used as a weapon of war in the conflict and that countless children—more than we could ever imagine, because we cannot get access to count them—will starve and die on our watch if we do not do something about it.
Like other Members, I have a lot of time for the Minister for the Middle East. I know that he cares deeply about the conflict and has put great effort into his work on it. However, on 4 September, he said in the House that the justification to withdraw arms sales to Saudi Arabia had not been made. So the case has not been made though bombs have been used to attack hospitals; though arms were used to blow to pieces a bus full of children; though women and children fleeing attack have been targeted; though weapons contribute to the systematic rape of women, and to a situation in which women are told to commit suicide in detention centres; and though children as young as eight—as young as my son—are being sent to fight on the frontline. When will the case be made? What depths have to be reached before the Minister will take action and stop the UK being complicit in this violence?
I will read from the UNICEF briefing, which lets us hear children’s voices from the conflict. Over the summer holidays, I re-read “Zlata’s Diary”, which is Zlata’s account of Sarajevo between 1992 and ’93. It breaks my heart that children are today facing the same terrible situations that she faced. The briefing says:
“I am Hanin Al-Asaadi, 8th grader, from Yemen, let me tell you something about our school and life.
First of all, war is such a scary story, everyone feels afraid of, nobody ever likes it, it’s really awful.
Five years ago, we were having kind of normal life, we were safe with our families and friends, playing, running, laughing, and learning without any scariness.
Suddenly without any introductions, the crazy war began. Families were dispersed, friends got separated. Most of my close friends have travelled and I haven't seen them since this damn war began.
We were about thirty students in our class but now, we are less than the half of what we used to be!
We were moving to school safely, but now bombings might surprise you while you are on the way to school or maybe to a place you like for example, parks.
Few months back we decided to change home routine and go to the park…we went there to enjoy our time but while having fun with my sisters and brother two bombings changed everything, everybody who was inside went to the exit, that place was very crowded, we moved on, we wanted to ride on a bus to get back home but third strong bombing exploded, it was to near to us, bombing’s fragments, stones and dust fall on us like heavy rain drops, we went back home scared.
No more parks, no more games, no more family trips to climb mountains, in short no more fun!
I hope that Yemen will be a safe and wealthy place to live in like your countries, so I can invite you to come visit and enjoy Yemen’s beauty.
Even though it’s so hard I will go to school again.”
How hard is it to maintain hope when it feels like no hope is left, and when death and destruction are all around? We owe this generation much more than just to look the other way and say that everything will work out in the end.
Between 2015 and 2017, the Government’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia were worth 18 times UK aid. With 10,000 people dead and 8.4 million at risk of famine, the UK Government need to begin to reverse that imbalance. I very much support the calls for us to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, because it is clear that everything else that we have done has had absolutely no impact on that country’s behaviour. We need to try something different.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I am about to conclude my remarks, and the hon. Gentleman has said plenty in this debate.
I support calls for an independent UN investigation, because without that independence, we will not get a satisfactory resolution. There are war crimes on all sides; that is perfectly evident. The UN has the independence required to get a conclusion on this. We need a new resolution at the UN to ensure progress towards peace. We need to support the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, and give him our ultimate backing to make sure there is progress.
The Scottish National party has been consistent in its calls. At the moment, there is no possibility of Scotland having an independent foreign policy. Until we do, we will continue to push this UK Government to have a bit more ethics in how they conduct their business.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), who brought forward this important debate. He will recall, as will the House, that over the past year I have asked various Ministers a lot of questions about Yemen. One of the themes that I have brought out is how we can ensure that our aid workers are kept safe in what is effectively a proxy war, though he does not like the term, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and I will stick to that theme.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) said a lot about humanitarian aid; let me set out what it is achieving. A number of people have mentioned the £400 million that has been made available since 2015. In the 2018-19 financial year, I think we have added an additional £170 million—the Minister is nodding—which is a great achievement.
A number of people have mentioned the incidence of cholera, but that says nothing about what we have done on it. We have funded and provided a tremendous amount of vaccine and have provided a whole lot of things that keep people safe, such as chlorinated water. We have helped to restore medical facilities in the country, too. I think that we are all agreed that it is unacceptable that millions of vulnerable Yemenis are at risk because aid is being blocked. We should all do whatever we can to help get it through, but we should not in any way diminish the amount of humanitarian aid that is being provided.
The influence of Iran has been only partly mentioned. The Iranian regime is an active sponsor of international terror groups. It operates a complex network of weapons smuggling in defiance of not one but four UN Security Council resolutions. The question we have to ask is: what pressure can we bring to bear on Iran to stop funding the Houthis? That is a question I have asked in previous question sessions in this House.
A good starting point would have been the nuclear arms deal, which we conducted with Iran. Unfortunately, however, it is completely silent on this important point. It is one of the great lacunae in that agreement, because it provides no mechanism to stop released funds from reaching the Houthis. It provides no mechanism for us to put pressure on Iran to stop funding the Houthis. If we just think about it, just a fraction of the £100 billion that was there as part of the sanctions that have now been released, would triple or more the amount of funds that are reaching the Houthis.
If we want to look at that in more detail, we need to look at the Government’s position on Iran. I am very pleased that the Prime Minister said in 2017 that her aim is to
“reduce Iran’s malign influence in the Middle East”.
That is an accurate description of Iran’s influence. She went on to say:
“we must also work together to push back against Iran’s aggressive regional actions, whether in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria or in the Gulf itself.”
That is an important list of areas where Iran is trying to establish its own arc and explains why there is such antagonism from the Saudis to taking that and not fighting back.
Can we work with the Saudis and are we having success with them? I would say that on this particular issue our continuing closeness with the Saudis is having an effect on what we can say to them and on what we can get them to do. The failure to look at it in that way goes to the heart of one the things that was mentioned at the beginning of the debate, which is missing the wider context of this terrible fight in Yemen. Missing the wider context ignores one of the main players and makes it appear as though this is nothing more than a Saudi attack on Yemen, without any possible additional influence.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful speech about aid, and the importance of peace and supporting the Yemeni people. He raises a point about them wanting to take back control of their country. The 25,000 Yemeni people backed by the Government on the outskirts of Hodeidah do not want war. They want peace and a return to civic democracy with human rights, as opposed to oppression by the Houthi militia who have no right to be in Hodeidah.
I agree very much with the hon. Gentleman. My thoughts, and the principles of my actions, are with the people of Yemen: those who are not Houthi rebels and do not side with the Saudi regime, but who want to carry on having normal lives and go about their normal business as best they can. If we do not stress these points, we begin to lose balance in this discussion and I do not think that that is helpful. It is not helpful to the Yemenis and it is certainly not helpful to us. For example, there was a BBC report on the situation in Yemen—I do not know whether hon. Members saw it—that was the usual three or four minutes long. Not once did it mention Iran as the financial backers of the Houthis. It was presented entirely as a Houthi versus Saudi Arabia conflict.
We have heard a lot about resolving the problem. The Houthis were either misinformed or simply did not take seriously the need to be in Geneva to participate in the talks. I agree that that is probably not a disaster, but it is illustrative of the difficulties we have to overcome to ensure that we can achieve a real taking forward of the peace initiative. I agree with those who have made this point before: the battle is going to be won not on the military field, but by negotiation.
I have listened to the debate with huge respect. One can understand the emotional attachment of the chair of the all-party group on Yemen to the country of his birth, which he expressed beautifully, and his enormous pain about what is happening there. We have heard, very strongly presented by the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), the shadow Foreign Secretary, the emotional position in response to some of the appalling consequences of the conflict.
I would like to get back to what the alternative is. The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and others have said that we have to go back to the peace process. However, it is not as though the United Nations and its special envoys, as well as a number of other international actors, have not made repeated attempts to sponsor a peace process. In understanding the illegitimacy of the Houthi rebellion, I am indebted to the analysis by Michael Knights, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has travelled extensively in the region. I am also indebted to the briefings I received from British experts when I was Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
We all have to face the fact that the legitimate Yemeni Government have been progressively usurped by the Houthis in a guerrilla war that started in 2004. There was then the added complication of the Arab spring and the expulsion from office of the then president, President Saleh, who took the republican guard over to the side of the Houthis in a completely self-interested exercise. One then sees the conditions under which the Houthis were able, illegally, to usurp control of Yemen. That gave the international community a dilemma that remains: what are we going to do about it?
To their credit, and obviously because of their enormous interest as the country most at risk from what was happening in Yemen and of being under direct attack from Houthi forces in Yemen, the Saudis put together and led a coalition that was unanimously supported by the United Nations Security Council to try to restore legitimate order in Yemen. What we cannot escape is that if the Houthis will not engage in a political process, which yet again they have not, there is no alternative but for us to support those who, on behalf of the international community, are trying to put a legitimate Government, recognised by the United Nations Security Council, back into power and in control of administration in Yemen.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene on him. He knows that I have a great deal of respect for him. Is not the point that resolution 2216 is now many years old? Does he not agree that we should be looking for a new resolution that meets current circumstances and has a chance of brokering peace, as opposed to continuing to support a resolution that in my view is simply being used as an excuse to continue the war?
I am afraid that we cannot escape the central dilemma: there has been an illegal usurpation of power in Yemen. Having read Michael Knights’ scholarly analysis of the development of the Houthi movement, which covers its radicalisation, the elements within it and how it has built alliances within Yemeni society, we should be under no illusion: the international community has no choice but to try to ensure that the illegal usurpation of power by this movement does not stand. That leads us to the conduct of the coalition’s operations.
My hon. Friend says that we have no choice but to do what we are doing, but it is absolutely clear that what we are doing will not be successful. We are going to fail. Indeed, the coalition is going to be humiliated because of the situation on the ground, which he has described. In those circumstances, apart from proceeding to get a ceasefire and a negotiation, with all the regional and great powers crowding in to make the negotiation a success, what does he propose that we do?
My right hon. Friend’s military analysis, which is based on his experience, particularly in the National Security Council—I am sure he learned a great deal with the Royal Tank Regiment, but obviously he has had access to Government briefings on this matter—will bring enormous comfort to the Houthi forces who are defending Hodeidah. I happen to disagree. Hodeidah is the vital ground in this conflict. If we had believed him, the Emirati-led forces would never have taken Aden. It took them seven days once they had taken it to get shipping going back into Aden to bring supplies back into Yemen to help relieve the famine.
The failure of the international community to support the coalition to take Hodeidah back is continuing the conflict and continuing the opportunity for forces such as al-Qaeda and ISIS to take advantage of the situation. The failure to take Hodeidah means that the international community puts support into the country through Hodeidah and the Houthis who control it charge the forces of the international community an excessive tax for the privilege of getting aid into Yemen. That sustains the Houthi rebellion. That is how they are earning their money, quite apart from the support they receive from external parties such as Iran.
What has changed about UN resolution 2216, which has been ratified? It calls for a ceasefire. What has changed today about our calling for a ceasefire? It calls for the Houthis to relinquish all the power they have taken, because they have taken it illegally, and it calls for an embargo on all arms going into Yemen. What has changed today about UN resolution 2216?
I am minded to agree with the hon. Gentleman, who has made a number of useful interventions in the debate. Given the success of the Emirati side of the coalition, which has rolled up the southern part of the country with remarkable success, bringing its land forces to the gates of Hodeidah, where the Saudi part of the coalition has maritime investment and total air supremacy, I do not believe that it is a military impossibility to displace the Houthi forces that occupy Hodeidah. What is needed is absolute resolution and an understanding that this is the vital ground. Already, the main supply line of the Houthis to Hodeidah port is in the process of being cut by the coalition forces, on behalf of the international community.
Of course, we need to look at the conduct of the whole operation, but we must remember that this is the first time that Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of this kind. We have talked about the awful event on 9 August, with the destruction of a bus containing wholly innocent people, but the British and American contribution to Saudi accountability and Saudi targeting has at least meant that within 22 days, the coalition accepted responsibility, apologised and said that it would pay compensation to the victims. That is a significant improvement on the situation at the beginning of the conflict. We have seen the quality of the targeting and the conduct of the operation improve as the Saudis gain experience, with the assistance of their international allies.
Let us not think that we are immune from this. I was in this House on 15 April 1999, when a NATO spokesman had to defend the killing of 70 wholly innocent people when an American plane flying at 15,000 feet bombed a convoy of refugees in Kosovo. Jamie Shea said on that day:
“He dropped his bomb in good faith”.
That sounded pretty dreadful then and, quite rightly, people made a great deal of it. We are entirely right to make a great deal of what happened on 9 August and in all the other incidents. It is right to hold the coalition to account to the highest possible standards, but we must remember that this coalition is, in effect, our coalition. It has been unanimously endorsed by the international community through the UN Security Council.
If we accept the rather pessimistic analysis of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield that nothing can be done and that there is no way Hodeidah can be taken off the Houthi rebels, it is a counsel of despair and a policy that will continue the illegal usurpation of power in Yemen.
I want to continue my train of thought, because the failure to deliver the vital ground in this conflict has two critical consequences. It means that the international community cannot get the scale of aid that is required into Yemen because it does not control the port. Even if the port facilities are destroyed, the international community would be able to put back together sufficient port facilities to get—