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Topical Questions

Volume 653: debated on Tuesday 22 January 2019

My colleague the Minister for Africa is not with us today, as she is meeting partners from the African Union. At that meeting, she will be underlining our concern about the issues in Zimbabwe, where we have seen widespread unrest and a heavy security force response over the last week. Yesterday, I called on President Mnangagwa not to turn back the clock. People must have the right to peaceful protest without fear of violence.

Gaza has been described as the biggest open-air prison in the world. Israel continues to plan settlement expansion and demolitions with impunity, and clearly US foreign policy is making things worse. When will the UK set a realistic timeframe to step up and recognise the state of Palestine?

We have always said that we will recognise the state of Palestine when the time is right—we support a two-state solution—but we want to do it at the moment it will have the most impact on the peace process.

T2. Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), at a time when relations are improving greatly between Israel and many countries around the world, particularly its Gulf neighbours, will my right hon. Friend stress that not allowing Israeli swimmers to participate in the Paralympic qualifiers would be a retrograde step? (908720)

We also have strong relations with the Malaysian Government, and I am very disappointed that they have made what I feel is a fundamentally wrong decision. As my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out, those Israeli Paralympic athletes should not be banned from competing. I shall be seeing the Malaysian Education Minister this afternoon—with, I think, a senior representative of the high commission—and I promise to ask for an assurance that this will be dealt with properly, as a matter of urgency.

T4. I thank the Foreign Secretary for travelling to Stockholm for the peace talks, and for resolution 2452. Yesterday, however, five aid workers were killed in Yemen as they tried to de-mine parts of the country. Will the Foreign Secretary ensure that the safety of aid workers is a priority during the talks? [R] (908722)

Absolutely. In fact, I had an exchange with Martin Griffiths, the Yemen special envoy, yesterday. De-mining the road between the port of Hodeidah and Sana’a so that food supplies can come from the port into the rest of the country is essential, and I think that the whole House will wish to express our admiration for the bravery of the aid workers who are in Yemen right now.

T3. Recently, six underground tunnels built by the Iran-funded Hezbollah terror group were discovered leading into Israel from Lebanon. The deepest tunnel had electricity and a rail system. Does my right hon. Friend share my fear that Hezbollah was building those highly advanced tunnels in order to launch a large-scale invasion of northern Israel, on the watch of the United Nations and the peace- keeping United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon? [R] (908721)

My hon. Friend is right. The discovery of those tunnels has highlighted concerns about a re-armed Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it is essential for them to be dealt with by both UNIFIL and the Lebanese armed forces. They constitute a clear breach of UN Security Council regulation 1701.

T7. My constituent Mr Niranjan Rasalingam is currently shackled in a prison in Myanmar, serving a 13-year sentence after being forced to sign a confession in Burmese, a language that he does not understand. Regardless of his guilt or innocence, he is a British citizen being mistreated. I have raised his case in this place before, but I understand that the Foreign Secretary did not make representations on his behalf during a recent trip to the country. May I ask him again please to give more support, and to advocate on behalf of my constituent? (908725)

I shall be happy to deal with this matter in my role as Minister of State. I hope to go to Burma, or Myanmar, within the next few months, but I will obviously try to deal with it from London at an earlier stage.

T5. What assessment did my right hon. Friend make of the future economic, trade and diplomatic relations with Singapore and Malaysia? (908723)

I had a very good trip in the new year. We have excellent relations with both countries. What I find impressive is the fact that their prosperity has come about through openness to trade. In that regard, our post-Brexit foreign policy, embracing free trade, will be central.

T9. Of the almost 7,000 Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS, there are still very few who have received treatment for their physical and psychological injuries, and many have been unable to return to their homes. What more can the Government do to support those women, and to urge the Iraqi Government and the Administration in Kurdistan to work together to bring about their resettlement? (908727)

That is another good question. When I was last in Iraq I met agencies involved with Yazidi women, and I hope to go there again in the not too distant future to make the same representations. The difficulty of going back to such areas is related to the overall security situation in Iraq. It is essential for the Iraqi authorities to be able to protect everyone, and that work is ongoing in very difficult circumstances.

T10. Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on his assessment of our relationship with China, particularly in respect of financial services in the City of London? (908728)

The City of London’s connections with China form an essential part of our overall bilateral relationship, and we look forward to proceeding with an ambitious commercial agenda during 2019. As my hon. Friend will know, the City is already the world’s leading offshore trading centre for the renminbi. It engages in more than 40% of global trading, even more than Hong Kong.

Yanto Awerkion, Sem Asso and Edo Dogopia were among six members of the West Papua National Committee who were arrested in December, when the police and the military took over the group’s secretariat in Timika. The three men were detained on 5 January and later charged with treason, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment in Indonesia. Amnesty International has called for the unconditional release of the activists, because they have only expressed their political views. Will the Minister press his counterpart in Indonesia to release them?

Order. May I very gently advise Members that, in future, if they have a substantive question that is not reached, they must ask a truncated version of it during topical questions? That is the way it is.

Sadly, Mr Speaker, the hon. Gentleman has asked a rather different question, so I cannot just refer to the briefing I have here. May I, however, reassure the hon. Gentleman that the officials at our embassy in Jakarta, including the ambassador, visit Papua and West Papua regularly? We will do our very best in future visits to bring up the specific cases to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

With India entering the Open Doors world watch list top 10 and now designated as a country where Christians experience extreme prosecution, what steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to promote the importance of religious freedom in India?

As my hon. Friend knows, I have just asked Bishop Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro, to do an independent report on what more we can do to support the quarter of a billion Christians across the world facing persecution, but in India the British high commission regularly meets minority communities, including Christian groups, and we have recently enabled training for 900 minority students on faith issues in six universities.

May I ask about human rights defenders in Bahrain, as we have close links with Bahrain? There is not time to name them now, but they are prominent people and I would like to give their names to the Minister afterwards, and they include Nabeel Rajab and political opposition leaders such as Sheikh Ali Salman, imprisoned for exercising their fundamental rights. What are we doing to get them out of jail?

As the right hon. Lady knows, all the prominent cases of human rights activists are carefully monitored by the UK representatives in Bahrain. There are independent processes in order to oversee the activities of the courts in Manama, and we urge that there is a consultation and dealings with them. We keep a constant eye on this; it is a matter for progress in Bahrain, and the United Kingdom is very involved in seeing greater progress there.

Will Ministers use the United Nations as a forum where the United States can expose the Russian violation of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty so that if America does withdraw, responsibility will lie where it should?

We are absolutely sure that Russia has been violating the terms of the INF treaty and that the way forward in this is to get back to compliance because it is vital for Europe’s security, but that starts with Russia recognising what it has done wrong.

What representations are the Government making to the Government of Nepal in relation to the recent case of the death of a woman and her two children who were suffocated while being confined in a poorly ventilated so-called period hut?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I must confess that I do not have direct knowledge of this case, but I will get in touch with Kathmandu to make sure we make representations on her behalf.

When can we expect the report the Foreign Secretary has commissioned on UK support for persecuted Christians to be published, and will he make a statement at that time?

Subject to other parliamentary business I will welcome the opportunity to do that, because it is a very important issue. The timetable we are provisionally working to is that the interim report will be published before Easter, which will outline the issues faced by Christians all over the world, with the final report later in the year.

We were told earlier that the Foreign Secretary has raised the brutal treatment of Muslims in China. I am interested to know what possible excuse his Chinese counterpart came up with for their medieval behaviour.

It is fair to say that the responses we got in no way assuaged our concerns about what is happening. We do raise these issues: we raise them in private but we raise them persistently, and it is very important for the Chinese to know about the concern in this House and indeed across the country.

Following a further week of violence in Venezuela and a refugee crisis that is overwhelming its neighbours, what conversations have the Government had with the United States and Lima group countries to resolve this crisis?

We are working very closely with the Lima group. I made a very firm statement in the last few days and indeed only yesterday 25 members of the National Guard revolted against President Maduro’s leadership. We are taking a very robust stand on this and we recognise the legitimacy of the constituent Assembly, as indeed should all countries.

The Minister for the Middle East knows that we normally agree, but what on earth did he mean when he implied that we might normalise relations with the murderous tyrant Assad if he learned his lesson?

We do agree; there is no normalisation of the relationship with Syria. The point I was seeking to make was that before there can be any recognition of Syria, there has to be an understanding of what has happened there. We are looking for the regime, in its political settlement, to understand that it cannot continue to rule as it did in the past. There are no plans whatsoever for the United Kingdom to normalise any relationship with Syria. Looking at the numbers of deaths, of people killed and of murders committed by the regime, it is very difficult to see what arm of justice could possibly result in normalisation.

On the Bishop of Truro’s review of the Foreign Secretary’s review of persecution of the Christian Church, will the Foreign Secretary tell me what human and financial resources the bishop and his team will get to ensure that the report is done thoroughly?

Before I address that question, I need to correct the record. When the Minister for Europe and the Americas, my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), talked about the constitutional assembly, he actually meant the National Assembly in Venezuela. We will extend all the necessary resources to the Bishop of Truro and his team. We have had good discussions about the resources that they need. This is an important review, and we want to ensure that it is done properly.

I thank the Secretary of State for his remarks on Zimbabwe. Has he—or the Minister for Africa—spoken directly to the South African Government? If not, he should do.

I agree with the hon. Lady, who is very wise on these matters. The answer, truthfully, is that I have tried to speak to the South African Foreign Minister and so far I have not been able to find a time that suits.

There is widespread concern among the Muslim, Hindu, Tamil and Christian communities in Sri Lanka about the appointment of alleged war criminals to very senior positions. What representations has my right hon. Friend made to the Sri Lankan Government to prevent this from happening?

We welcome the progress that has been made towards a peaceful resolution of the destabilising situation in Sri Lanka that took place from late October onwards. Just last week, I welcomed the Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and commended him for his central role in bringing that about. Clearly the situation in Sri Lanka is very fluid, and I would be happy to take specific representations from my hon. Friend about the particular concern that he has just raised.

On Friday, the skirl of the bagpipes will be heard and haggis, neeps and tatties will be consumed in large quantities all over the world. Have the Government instructed their network of high commissions, embassies and consulates to facilitate the celebration of our Scottish national bard’s work and life all over the world?

I am pleased that the United Kingdom has regained its No. 1 spot in the Portland soft power top 30, particularly because we overtook France in order to do so. Although not every element of our soft power is under my right hon. Friend’s Department’s control, will he ensure that organisations such as the British Council and the BBC World Service are well funded and able to project our soft power globally as we leave the European Union?

My hon. Friend is right to mention those organisations; they do a very important job. I actually think that the role of the BBC in providing impartial news across the world is very underestimated; that is an area in which we could do much better.

Will Ministers tell us what representations they are making to the Turkish authorities in relation to hunger strikes by Kurdish politicians and activists, and what representations have been made to end the persecution of Kurdish people?

We are in regular dialogue with the Turkish Government, as is the Minister for the Middle East, specifically in respect of Syria and the Kurds.

Are Ministers aware of reports this week from China Aid that Christian persecution is escalating in China, and that it is now at its worst for 40 years? Thousands of churches have been desecrated and destroyed, and pastors have been imprisoned and are facing trial. Whole sections of society, including children under 18 and students, have been banned from going to church, and those who do attend church are now being filmed and fingerprinted. What can be done to raise this issue internationally?

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. I read a moving report about a pastor in Chengdu who has suffered greatly. We raised these concerns during the universal periodic review that we did with China in November 2018, and I regularly raise concerns about human rights issues with my Chinese counterpart. One of the reasons for doing the review is to ensure that I am properly informed on matters of religious freedom.

Given the Minister for the Middle East’s earlier expression of support for UNRWA and the concern about the alternative education that Palestinian children might receive if UNRWA pulls out, will the UK Government consider filling the vacuum resulting from the withdrawal of US leadership in this important service?

In reference to the question from the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), I am appropriately wearing my tartan tie to celebrate this week.

As I indicated earlier, we support UNRWA’s work and work hard with the organisation in case reform is needed. In the long term, UNRWA’s future will be about the future of refugees and their final settlement status. In the meantime, we cannot completely plug the financial gap left by the United States, which is why we are working with others, but leadership is vital, as is trying to get it across to the world that UNRWA is doing important work, and the UK will remain a champion.

Order. Demand always exceeds supply, but I thank the Foreign Secretary and his team, who have been addressing the House, the nation and, very importantly, the world—the planet!