Skip to main content

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Volume 655: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2019

The Secretary of State was asked—

Transatlantic Alliance

The UK works closely with Europe and the US to promote a strong transatlantic partnership. It is vital for our security and prosperity that we work with the Trump Administration to promote transatlantic unity through NATO. Since July’s NATO summit, we have urged allies to increase defence spending and have encouraged the US to recognise the significant allied progress.

May I welcome the efforts my right hon. Friend has made in his role to strengthen those ties and ask in particular what assessment he has made of the security and intelligence co-operation between our two countries on which so much of our peace and security depends?

The intelligence co-operation between our two countries is enormously valuable. It proceeds regularly on a basis of complete trust and adds importantly to the security of the wider world.

Later this year, the UK will host a NATO summit that will mark the 70th anniversary of the organisation’s founding. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as America’s closest ally in Europe, we need to be willing to make the argument to our European partners that the financial burden of defending our continent needs to be shared fairly and that other countries need to follow the UK’s example by meeting the NATO defence spending pledge?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—indeed, that is exactly what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been doing over the past week in his travels around the capitals of Europe—and I fully agree with her, as do Her Majesty’s Government, that burden sharing is important. We have been making that point with European partners—NATO partners in Europe —and I am pleased to say that there is progress, but there is still more to be done.

A strengthened transatlantic alliance could lead to more action in Sri Lanka to tackle human rights abuses. Will the Minister of State urge the Trump Administration to join him and the Foreign Secretary in putting pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to tackle human rights abuses and to respect international calls for a war crimes inquiry?

As the hon. Gentleman appreciates, I do not personally cover Sri Lanka. However, I am confident that, across the world, we work very closely together on all issues of human rights, and we will continue to do so in countries as appropriate.

The Minister knows that, after two world wars, we set up the United Nations, we set up NATO and we set up the European Community in an early form to stop our ever having wars again. Is he not concerned about some of the words and some of the actions coming out of the White House under President Trump at the moment?

It is a strong pillar of our foreign policy that we believe in multilateral organisations and participate in them fully. Obviously, we will soon be leaving one of them, but that will not diminish our co-operation with the EU27 thereafter.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact on the transatlantic alliance of the recent talks in Vietnam between North Korea and America? Does this have the potential to strengthen our security in the west?

My understanding is that those talks are happening today, so it is not easy for me to comment on something that has not quite yet taken place. However, my skills of foresight are well recognised in this House, as I well appreciate. I hope that these conversations and discussions will lead to a more peaceful world and are as successful as we would wish.

Yesterday, the International Court of Justice found that the UK’s control of the Chagos islands is illegal and wrong. This damning verdict deals a huge blow to the UK’s global reputation. Will the Government therefore heed the call of the ICJ to hand back the islands to Mauritius, or will they continue to pander to the United States military?

The hon. Lady is labouring under a serious misapprehension: yesterday’s hearing provided an advisory opinion, not a judgment. We will of course consider the detail of the opinion carefully, but this is a bilateral dispute, and for the General Assembly to seek an advisory opinion by the ICJ was therefore a misuse of powers that sets a dangerous precedent for other bilateral disputes. The defence facilities in the British Indian Ocean Territory help to keep people in Britain and around the world safe, and we will continue to seek a bilateral solution to what is a bilateral dispute with Mauritius.

UK Soft Power

We should be proud of the UK’s soft power and the contribution that independent institutions such as the BBC and the British Council make to it. That is why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has trebled its investment in Chevening scholarships since 2015, helped to fund the biggest expansion of the BBC World Service in 70 years and provided additional funding for the British Council’s work in developed countries. It is also why my Department is developing a cross-Government soft power strategy to further project our values and advance our interests overseas.

The Minister rightly mentioned the BBC World Service. Will he join me in celebrating the excellent work that that organisation does, given how important it is for expressing the UK’s soft power overseas, and in calling on the BBC to expand and enhance its reach?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in recognising the excellent work of the BBC World Service, which brings the UK and its values to the world at large. Since 2016, Her Majesty’s Government have been funding the World 2020 programme, which has seen the World Service undergo its biggest single expansion in the past 70 years, with 12 new language services opened in 2017-18, and I have been very proud to watch some of that excellent work in India.

The plays of Shakespeare have been translated into many languages and performed in many countries around the world, including China, so does the Minister agree that Britain has amazing cultural and linguistic assets that we can use to project our soft power around the world and to support democratic values, freedom of speech and creativity, as we build a new relationship with the world?

I do indeed agree with my hon. Friend. For example, in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death was marked by an HMG-funded cultural programme called Shakespeare Lives, which was jointly delivered by the British Council, the GREAT campaign and the FCO, involving the BBC and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his colleagues on their excellent work to co-ordinate better our soft power effort, but does he agree that it is very important that there is a proper plan to follow up on some of the very successful royal visits overseas with a very well co-ordinated effort, particularly in soft power?

I thank my right hon. Friend. We have already had questions today on Shakespeare and the BBC, but he is absolutely right that our royal family is one of our greatest soft power assets, and we will do our level best, through the GREAT campaign and elsewhere, to ensure that strength continues.

An important part of our soft power is our commitment to tackling global poverty and to international development. Will the Minister therefore take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to 0.7% spending on overseas aid and to the Department for International Development as a stand-alone Department, independent of the Foreign Office?

And a former DFID Minister, too.

I agree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), and this is a matter not just of soft power, but of hard power. There is little doubt that the 0.7% commitment has an important part to play. I see it in all parts of Asia, not least in Pakistan and Bangladesh, which have the two single biggest DFID budgets. It is important for aid and development and, indeed, for the prosperity fund, which will allow British companies to prosper in the years to come.

Over the past three years, this Government’s chaotic approach to Brexit has shredded our international credibility and diminished our soft power. Whether Brexit goes ahead or not, there is an important job to be done to repair our international standing in the world and build alliances, so will the Minister have a word with the Defence Secretary and ask him to cut out the foolish rhetoric, which has real consequences?

I obviously represent Asia and the Pacific abroad, and whenever I go to that part of the world, I always come back much more uplifted about the UK’s brand. We find that many countries in that part of the world—indeed, this applies globally—have had strong dealings with the UK for decades, if not centuries, and they recognise that we will have strong connections in the years to come. They know that there is obviously a small amount of uncertainty with the Brexit arrangements that are taking place now, but the positivity of the UK’s brand, our reliability as a partner and the sense that we project international values are important.

The Minister is right to point out outside organisations. Will he, like me, pay due credit to the brave non-governmental organisations that do fantastic work and enhance our soft power in some of the most difficult conflict environments in the world, not least Yemen? Today, the United Nations is appealing for £3.2 billion to help organisations such as Saferworld and International Rescue Committee. Should that not be our focus, rather than the £4.6 billion we spent on arms?

We have announced only today, in the aftermath of the Sharm el-Sheikh negotiations, that we will be putting a further £200 million into Yemen. It is important to recognise the tremendous contribution made by so many British citizens and British NGOs across the globe. That is one aspect of soft power that will enhance our standing in the years to come. It is in this sort of area where I hope we will continue.[Official Report, 27 February 2019, Vol. 655, c. 2MC.]

I welcome the Minister’s commitment, but that is outstripped by our arms sales. The UK could be a serious player for peace in the region. Will we move away from arming combatants and move towards finances that will help to prevent poverty and migration, because that prevents conflict—not arms sales?

We have made agreements—not least the negotiations that have taken place in recent months in Stockholm—to try to work together to ensure that the worst offenders do not have arms sales. It is not the case that we do not have an eye on the ethics and the moral values that are close to the heart of many of our constituents across the country. We will continue to work closely and utilise as much soft power as we can in the years to come.

May I urge the Government to use their soft power and diplomatic network to enthusiastically support the efforts of Cypriots to deliver a negotiated settlement for a free and united Cyprus?

I am happy to answer that in short order: yes. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas has worked tirelessly in that regard and we will continue to do so. I think that those in the diaspora in the UK, both Turkish and Greek Cypriots, recognise that it is important that we put 45 years of great difficulty behind us. I think that the UK has had an important part to play in helping to bring those sides together.

We are discussing soft power. I want to ask the Minister about an issue where the exercising of that power is growing long overdue. When we gather for the next Foreign Office questions on 2 April, it will be six months to the day since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul. Will the Minister ask his boss, the Foreign Secretary, to guarantee to the House that before we reach that sad milestone, he will present the Government’s findings on who, ultimately, is responsible for that murder and what actions the Government are taking in response?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be going to Saudi Arabia this week, and I hope that there will be progress in relation to the very serious issues the right hon. Lady raises. She will be aware that we will be hosting a conference in this country in July—again, a very important part of British global soft power—that will look at the dangers journalists face across the world. I think that the fact we are doing that will reflect well, and I hope that she and the Labour party will want to play an important part in that role. We need freedom for journalists to be able to go about their everyday business. The situation with Khashoggi is the worst and most glaring example, but some 80 journalists were murdered going about their business last year and many hundreds have been locked up. Internationally, we need to come together to stand up for those values.

I thank the Minister for that answer. While a conference is important, it is hardly an answer to the question of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. There are no official answers and there are no official actions. Worse than that, the Foreign Secretary went to Berlin last week and told one of the few Governments willing to act on the Khashoggi murder, by banning arms sales to Yemen, that they are wrong to do so. May I ask the Minister to once more ask his boss the Foreign Secretary—it is a simple request—whether he will, by the time of the next Foreign Office questions, six months on from the Khashoggi murder, be telling us all the people he believes are responsible and what action they are going to take in response?

As I said, my right hon. Friend will be in Saudi Arabia and clearly, this issue will be discussed. I hope that he will be in a position to update the House on 2 April or, indeed, prior to that time. The right hon. Lady raised the issue of the arms trade. We are proud to build on the contribution made by Robin Cook when he was Foreign Secretary that means that arms sales regulations here in the UK are among the strictest across the western world, and they will continue in that vein.

Iran’s Ballistic Missile Programme

3. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of Iran’s ballistic missile programme. (909439)

Iran’s ballistic missile programme presents a threat to the security of the middle east and Europe that cannot be ignored. The Foreign Secretary raised the issue of ballistic missiles with Foreign Minister Zarif in Tehran on 19 November, and on 5 December, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement following Iranian testing of a medium-range ballistic missile. Alongside our partners, we continue to call on Iran to act consistently with all UN Security Council resolutions in relation to its ballistic missile programme.

Earlier this month, crowds on the street chanted, “Death to Theresa May,” and called for the destruction of Israel and America. Will the Minister condemn that rhetoric, and does he share my concern that President Rouhani has also stated that he is going to continue his programme of uranium enrichment?

My hon. Friend is right: of course, the rhetoric that flows so often from staged public demonstrations in Tehran does not help very much, but it has to be seen in the context of Iranian politics. On uranium production, the International Atomic Energy Agency recently confirmed for the 15th time that Iran was not in breach of the provisions of the joint comprehensive plan of action. We still believe that that is a fundamental bank of relationships with Iran to try to curtail its activities, and of course we would strongly condemn any move away from those JCPOA principles by Iran.

Is the Minister concerned, as I am, that Iran is using Yemen as a testing ground for its missile programme? We have seen the UN panel of experts talk about the new kamikaze drones that are coming out of Iran. We have had the Badr-1—the missile system that looks like the V2—being launched into Saudi Arabia, and we are seeing from technical reports that the enhancements being applied by Iran in that war are considerable. This is very worrying.

The UN has already declared that missiles of Iranian origin have been fired from Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen towards Saudi Arabia, sometimes with lethal effect. Of course, it is essential to get the conflict in Yemen to an end to prevent that sort of threat, to prevent it being used as a base for the testing of weapons and to bring some comfort and humanitarian relief to people in Yemen.

Is it not the case that neither the carrot of the nuclear deal nor the stick of sanctions and other policy measures has so far encouraged Iran to be a responsible member of the international community? What more does the Minister think can be done to persuade Iran to desist from supporting terror, insurgency and pursuing its ballistics programme?

My right hon. Friend is right, and of course the short answer is that we keep on going, because the consequences of a confrontation leading to a conflict in the middle east involving Iran and others would be catastrophic. We will continue with our efforts. We have sanctions against elements in Iran. There are the economic sanctions employed by the United States and others, but we have to keep looking for a way in which we end the risk of a serious confrontation in the middle east. It is not to be encouraged by harsh rhetoric on either side, and I think that the United Kingdom’s diplomatic efforts to try to bring some resolution in the area are the best thing that we can do.

Given the extent of the human rights abuses of the Iranian regime, the detention of British citizens and so on, and the continued state sponsorship of terrorism and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, how does the Minister assess the success of the nuclear deal and efforts to bring Iran into a proper state of affairs as far as international relations are concerned?

The right hon. Gentleman puts together two things, quite rightly. First, the success of the nuclear deal can be measured in the fact that, as I said, the IAEA confirms that there has been no progress by Iran in relation to its nuclear ambitions. That is important in its own context, but secondly, did it lead to any change in behaviour in the region? The short answer is that no, it did not, so we need to continue to demonstrate that we are as concerned about the other aspects of Iran’s behaviour as we are about nuclear issues and get to see some change in that behaviour if we are to avoid the confrontation that I mentioned earlier.

Persecution of Christians

7. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in China on the persecution of Christians in that country. (909443)

The UK has long championed freedom of religion, but I am concerned that we could do more for the 240 million Christians estimated to be facing persecution for their faith around the world. I have therefore asked the Bishop of Truro to conduct an independent review into what more the FCO can do. Last week, I agreed the terms of reference for his review.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for that review. When I meet Christians from countries where they are under pressure or persecuted, I see loyal citizens who contribute enormously to those countries, whether in health, education, business or so much else. Why do those countries persecute their citizens for their faith?

It is often because they are in the grip of totally misguided ideologies. I thank my hon. Friend for his long championing of this issue. It is a little known fact that around 80% of the people who suffer persecution for their faith are Christians, often in some of the poorest countries in the world—and particularly in the middle east, which 100 years ago had a population that was about 20% Christian. Now that is down to 5%.

Given that a third of Christians in China and Asia are experiencing high-level persecution—that is 140 million people—what discussions have the Government had with the Chinese to end that? What protection can the Government give those Christians facing persecution?

We do all we can to raise these issues. I raised freedom of religion issues with my counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, when I went to China last August. We raised them in November in the Universal Periodic Review—a regular review of human rights issues in China. The noble Lord Ahmad is in Geneva this week for the UN Human Rights Council, where he will also be raising the issue of freedom of religion in China. My hon. Friend is right to be concerned.

It was reassuring to see the Pakistan Government protecting the independence of their courts in overturning the blasphemy conviction against Asia Bibi. What support are this Government giving the new Government in Pakistan to ensure consistent protection of Christians from persecution?

We have excellent relations with the new Government of Pakistan; in fact, I spoke to the Pakistani Foreign Minister yesterday. We co-operated on the Asia Bibi issue. We wanted to support them because we recognise that the situation on the ground there is extremely fragile. They are trying to do the right thing. As one of the biggest aid donors to Pakistan, we play a crucial role in stiffening their resolve to do the right thing.

As the Foreign Secretary will know, the Chinese face mounting criticism over the treatment of Uighur Muslims, up to 1 million of whom are said to be in detention. What action are we taking in Geneva to try to establish oversight of the situation of the Uighur Muslims?

On 4 July last year, Lord Ahmad, who is in Geneva at the moment, was appointed the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religious belief. He is himself from a persecuted Muslim minority, so he understands these issues. The answer is that China is, of course, a sovereign country but we raise this issue at every opportunity. We are very concerned about it. If we do not raise these issues, we have to ask who will. That is why we have a big obligation.

The continuing bloodshed in the Sudan is threatening Christians and Muslims alike. What plans do the Government have to deal with the Bashir regime, to make sure that we bring some peace to that bedevilled country?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East met the Foreign Minister of Sudan yesterday. We remain concerned; Sudan is one of the five countries where Christians suffer the worst persecution, alongside North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan and one other country. We are very concerned and continue to raise the issue at every opportunity.

First, I thank the Foreign Secretary for his hard work and dedication to the job in hand. I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on international freedom of religion or belief and on Pakistani minorities. Christians are being persecuted across the world. What steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to collect data about persecuted Christians and belief groups in order to support policy making?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise that issue. Good data is available from the campaigning organisation Open Doors, from which we get the figure that there are 240 million persecuted Christians around the world. One of the recommendations that I am sure the Bishop of Truro will be considering is whether we need to be more robust in our data collection, so that we can better inform debates in this House.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.] The Bishop of Truro’s review of the Foreign Office’s work is very welcome. Will the Foreign Secretary include Ministers in other Departments to ensure that the Bishop’s work in relation to the persecution of Christians, and the British Government’s handling of that support, are cross-governmental?

I shall try to give a one-sentence answer. The Bishop is free to make whatever recommendations he likes, and we have facilitated introductions to other Departments so that he can liaise with them during his review.


25. What recent assessment the Government have made of the prospects for peace and stability in Zimbabwe. (909461)

Fundamental political and economic reform in line with Zimbabwe’s own constitution is vital for a peaceful and stable Zimbabwe. I spoke to Foreign Minister Moyo on 29 January, and made clear that the Zimbabwean Government must investigate all alleged human rights violations and deliver on President Mnangagwa’s public commitment to reform.

Does the Minister agree that, first, the elections in Zimbabwe were seriously flawed, and secondly, the recent repression of peaceful protests was completely unacceptable and outrageous? Can she confirm that there is currently no question of Her Majesty’s Government’s supporting Zimbabwe’s return to the Commonwealth, and does she agree that we should now consider extending targeted sanctions?

I agree, Mr Speaker. There were at least three questions in there, and I will try to answer all of them.

External and international observers were invited to see the recent elections, and judged that, while imperfect, they were freer and fairer than those that took place in 2013 and 2008. As for sanctions, my hon. Friend will be aware that, along with the EU, we renewed them recently, targeting specific individuals and focusing on one organisation.

Zimbabwe has applied to join the Commonwealth. I must say that given the recent behaviour of the security forces, it would be difficult for the UK to support the application were it to come before the Commonwealth Secretariat in the near future, but that is a hypothetical situation.

In view of the continuing police and army brutality, will the UK Government immediately withdraw any support for the review of Zimbabwe’s relationship with the international community, step up efforts—working with neighbouring states—to hold President Mnangagwa to account, and ensure that the Home Office does not deport any asylum seekers to Zimbabwe while the current human rights violations continue?

My hon. Friend asked about the ongoing engagement with neighbouring countries. I discussed the situation in Zimbabwe recently with the South African Government, the Government of Mozambique and the new high commissioner from Botswana. I think it important for those in the region to send similar messages about addressing the recent well documented and credible reports. My hon. Friend may want to raise the Home Office issues with Home Office colleagues, but my understanding is that around the world the UK would return people to their country of origin only when we and the courts considered it safe to do so.

On 12 February, my constituent Victor Mujakachi was detained. The intention was to deport him to Zimbabwe, which has seen tragic human rights abuses in the past few months. What assessment did the Government undertake of the human rights situation in that country before they sought to deport Victor and others?

The hon. Lady will, of course, want to raise that case with Home Office colleagues, but my understanding is that each case is taken on its merits, and that neither the UK Government nor our courts would deport someone unless it was widely agreed by the courts that it was safe to do so.

Does the Minister not agree that much more direct liaison is needed between the nation states in the south of Africa to ensure that greater pressure is applied for efforts to impose additional sanctions that will produce the desired result in Zimbabwe?

I do not think we can particularly count on the southern area nations for support for sanctions; in fact their public statements have been critical of the sanctions that the EU has put in place. However, the UK believes there is a role for very specifically targeted sanctions on individuals and Zimbabwe defence industries, and we believe that those sanctions do not have a wider economic impact that harms the people of Zimbabwe.

Since 14 January there has been wholesale persecution by the military of the civilian population: documented cases of rape of civilians by the military, use of live rounds, and 17 civilians shot dead. Will the Minister make clear through our excellent new British high commissioner in Harare the terrible price Zimbabweans are paying for the economic mismanagement of their country and the subversion of the rule of law?

I join my right hon. Friend in paying tribute to our ambassador and indeed the whole team in our embassy in Harare, who are working heroically on what have been some sickening reports from credible sources. He will know that we provide a wide variety of support to civil society in Zimbabwe, and I had a meeting with civil society leaders when I was in South Africa recently. My right hon. Friend will be aware that for their own security we cannot disclose which organisations we support, but we endorse the credible reports he alludes to.

Israel and Palestine

6. What recent diplomatic steps he has taken towards helping to secure a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. (909442)

11. What recent diplomatic steps he has taken towards helping to secure a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. (909447)

Yesterday I met the Foreign Affairs Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Riyad al-Maliki—I met the Sudanese Foreign Minister on the same occasion—and I had a meeting with the Israeli Foreign Ministry last week in London and Israeli Ambassador Regev. We keep in constant contact with all parties who might have an influence on the middle east peace process to demonstrate how fundamental it is to United Kingdom foreign policy that this long-standing matter is finally settled.

I have here the names of four young Palestinians, all under the age of 18, who are currently in prison: Yaccob Qawasmeh, Akram Mustafa and Ahmad Silwadi, and one who is 15 years old, Akram Daa’dou, who in the early hours of the morning in the presence of—

Order. Resume your seat, Mr Russell-Moyle. There is a lot of pressure on time. We have not got time for lists; what I want is a question with a question mark, and then we will have a ministerial answer.

In the early hours of this morning, in the presence of his family, Akram Daa’dou was dragged from his home by Israeli occupation forces. His family have no idea where he is. Will the Minister raise with his Israeli counterpart questions about where this gentleman and the other young people are, and ensure that their rights under the fourth Geneva convention are upheld, as they should be in the Palestinian occupied territories?

Through the consulate-general in Jerusalem we regularly express concerns to Israel about activity relating to minors on the west bank. We have offered help and support for dealing with children who may have been detained and we are constantly in contact about any risk of incursion there and the effect on civil rights.

Labour is committed to a peaceful two-state solution that guarantees a secure Israel alongside a viable state of Palestine. For anyone working towards that goal it is worrying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has struck an election deal with two extreme nationalist parties whose leading members have advocated the forced expulsion of millions of Palestinians. Will the Minister commit to using all available diplomatic measures to ensure that that coalition does not threaten a peaceful two-state settlement?

Coalitions in Israel and matters affecting the Israeli elections are not a matter for the UK Government. Our position on a two-state solution and a comprehensive solution to the middle east peace process is exactly the same as that of colleagues on the other side of the House and, as I said earlier, it is a fundamental part of UK foreign policy that we will continue to press for that.

One of the big problems the Palestinians have is that they do not speak with one voice. Is there any sign of a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas?

My hon. Friend is correct: the issues between those in authority on the west bank and those in Gaza—between Fatah and Hamas—have long been a difficulty in getting a consistent Palestinian voice. My understanding is that conversations about reconciliation are continuing, and they are being handled very much by the Government of Egypt. If there is to be the peaceful settlement of issues in the middle east peace process that we want, it is essential that there is a consistent voice from Palestinians based around the Quartet principles and that the efforts made towards security and peace by the Palestinian Authority over a lengthy period are followed by others.

I welcome the decision of the British Government to proscribe Hezbollah. Would my right hon. Friend care to consider the distinction between Iran, which is using its rocket technology to produce ballistic missiles, and Israel, which will shortly be landing a scientific explorer on the moon?

My hon. Friend is right to make reference to the fact that the United Kingdom has found it impossible to continue any longer with the distinction between the military and political wings of Hezbollah, hence my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s decision yesterday in relation to proscription. Israel’s scientific technology and its progress in recent decades has been quite remarkable, and the use of technology for peace is something that we would all wish to see, but it is a complex region and a difficult neighbourhood. We support continuing efforts for peace in the region.

Too often, resolution of this conflict feels like a lost cause, but the British Government could prevent that from being the case by recognising the state of Palestine formally. Why will they not do that?

As I think the House knows, I have been anxious for many years to ensure that this is not a lost cause and that we have to keep at it. It remains fundamental in the region, and we will keep at it. The recognition of a state of Palestine would not, per se, end the issue, but we are pledged to do that when it is in the best interests of peace and of the peace process in the region.

Leaving the EU: Diplomatic Network

On 31 October, I announced the largest expansion of our diplomatic network for a generation. It involves opening 14 new diplomatic posts and 335 additional personnel overseas, and it will raise the number of sovereign missions to 161, second only to the USA and China.

I have seen at first hand the value of our missions around the world to raising our global aspirations, so I particularly welcome the announcement of the new posts and missions in Africa. What thought has been given to ensuring that those roles work across trade, diplomacy and development?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask that question, particularly about Africa, where the high commissioner or ambassador is the most senior person on the ground and has people from all Government Departments in the UK reporting to him. Making sure that we have a one-Government approach to our diplomacy will be a central part of our new fusion doctrine.

Does the Foreign Secretary intend to continue sanctions against those persons, groups and entities currently subject to EU sanctions?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this newly strengthened diplomatic network should work in tandem with our soft power influences, such as using 40 Commando, based in Taunton Deane, to be rushed out in times of natural disasters or hurricanes, as happened in the Caribbean? Working together, we can really demonstrate the qualities of this great nation.

I thank my hon. Friend, the consul for Taunton Deane. On the expansion of the diplomatic network, among the 14 new overseas posts will be three new resident commissioners, in Antigua and Barbuda, in Grenada and in St Vincent the Grenadines, which I hope might be of interest to colleagues thinking about their careers.

When the hon. Lady is not in Taunton Deane, she could trog around some of those territories if she were so inclined.

As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, I welcome the expanded network. Following our recent constructive meeting with the Immigration Minister, may I urge the Secretary of State to meet her to see how the network can be used to support cultural and business exchanges between African countries and the UK, and particularly to provide the local knowledge that is essential for visa applications, which remain a matter of huge concern?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that if we are going to get this right we have to combine all that we do, particularly in terms of our soft power. The British Council has an immensely important role in Africa. In particular, we need to be better at joining up the work between the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, and that is why we are proud to have joint Ministers on the Front Bench to ensure that that happens.

Equal Rights Coalition

The UK looks forward to co-chairing the Equal Rights Coalition with Argentina from May this year. We will use our role to promote and protect LGBT rights globally.

I thank the Minister for that answer. It is good news that the UK is taking over this role, but the Equal Rights Coalition is in its infancy and needs more work to ensure that the global fight for LGBT rights is effective. Will the Minister assure me that she will commit sufficient resources to the UK’s chairmanship of the Equal Rights Coalition and ensure effective co-ordination between Departments in this important year?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s leadership and to his all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights for drawing cross-Government work together. I can assure him, on behalf of both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, that we will certainly give the organisation the resourcing it needs. He will be aware that its work fits in with the Equalities Office’s overall strategy, including the international element.

We have seen a repressive crackdown on the LGBT community in Egypt, with routine detentions even for waving rainbow flags on social media. What can the Minister do to raise such concerns? Does she still believe, as the previous Foreign Secretary claimed, that—[Interruption.]

Does she still believe, as the previous Foreign Secretary claimed, that the UK should act as a champion for the Sisi regime that is carrying out the repression?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and our ambassador to Egypt regularly raise the examples that the hon. Gentleman cites as part of the ongoing engagement with the Egyptian Government.

Human Rights

17. What diplomatic steps his Department is taking to promote and support human rights internationally. (909453)

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) will be pleased to know that the UK is wholeheartedly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. As a result, we continue to support the work of the UN Human Rights Council and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The UK is one of the longest-standing members of the UNHRC, and we are keen to maintain that record at next year’s elections.

Child soldiers represent a major human rights concern. What more can be done to condemn and improve the situation of child soldiers in Yemen, both those on the Houthi side and, crucially, the Sudanese children being exploited by the Saudi forces?

The hon. Lady is right to point out that the situation is absolutely heartbreaking. I am the father of an 11-year-old son, and boys of roughly that age are fighting in parts of the world such as Yemen. I reassure her that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will raise the matter when he is in Saudi Arabia in the days ahead.

Human rights defenders around the world are under attack. They are censored, imprisoned and sometimes even murdered for speaking out, and women who speak out in countries such as Saudi Arabia are particularly vulnerable. Does the Minister agree that we need to do more to support the women around the world who are brave enough to stand up for what they believe in?

The hon. Lady is right that that is a major issue. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East raised the matter when he was in the region last week and will continue to do so.

When I was chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, we tried on a couple of occasions to raise human rights violations against LGBT citizens around the world, but our attempts were regularly blocked by Uganda, China, Russia and several other countries. Will the Minister use his influence, particularly in the Commonwealth, to try to raise such issues so that we can give hope to millions of people living in those countries?

My hon. Friend is right that the issue is still contested. We will continue to make the case for LGBT rights, and all Foreign Office Ministers and other Ministers with broader foreign affairs responsibilities will make it clear when abroad that we need to stand up for these important rights.

On 5 April, Professor Zaffaroni, a justice of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, will present to His Holiness the Pope a report on the consequences of the criminalisation of same-sex relations in the Caribbean. The Government will be invited to be represented at the presentation, so will the Minister ensure that they are?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. These are important issues, and clearly we will be represented at the most senior level possible. It may be difficult for a Minister to be present, but we will ensure that our ambassadors and other leading figures in the Foreign Office are there to make the case to which he refers.

Was the Minister as appalled as I was last week that it took an order from the European Court of Human Rights to force the Orbán Government in Hungary to provide food to the starving asylum seekers being held at the border? Further, has the Foreign Office protested to the Orbán Government about this disgraceful episode?

Clearly this is something that causes great concern. The shadow Minister will be aware that it is not an issue for which I have direct responsibility, but I know my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas will ensure that our embassy in Budapest is in a position to make the case in the way he has expressed it. Obviously we will try to return to the House at some point with more information, or do so in writing.

Topical Questions

I will travel to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates later this week to add further impetus to the peace process in Yemen. My aim is to build on the agreement reached in Stockholm in December, which allowed a sustained reduction in fighting in the port of Hodeidah, and to encourage all sides to carry out the redeployments they agreed at Stockholm. This may be one of the last opportunities to prevent a return to fighting and secure desperately needed humanitarian aid.

According to Oxfam reports, 6,400 people are being held in Libyan detention camps, which is the result of a deal between Libya and Italy. They have been trying to escape across Europe, only to be returned to Libya. They face malnutrition, violence and human trafficking. Has the Foreign Secretary spoken to Italy and Libya about this deal?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who has responsibility for north Africa, spoke to the Libyan Foreign Minister about that issue yesterday, and I spoke to the Italian Foreign Minister last week about immigration issues more generally.

T2. This Government have done great work supporting marine conservation around the world, but will my right hon. Friend outline what plans the Department has to support the marine protected area around the pristine waters of Ascension Island? This would cost as little as £120,000 a year to enforce and oversee, which represents good value. (909463)

As pioneers of the first marine protected area in the Southern ocean, the UK is working actively to see new designations in the Weddell sea, the east Antarctic and around the Antarctic peninsula. Ascension Island intends to designate a marine protected area this year, and a consultation is under way.

The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are in an invidious position in that they have the temporary peace and stability that they desperately want and need but a new President for whom they did not vote. Does the Secretary of State agree that we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and say this is a trade-off that we accept but that, instead, the people of the DRC deserve both peace and democracy?

The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo clearly voted for change in December 2018. We urged the Government to hold elections in line with the accord of Saint-Sylvestre. The elections took place on 30 December, and the official announcement has gone against what some observers felt was the case, but the UK is engaging with President Tshisekedi and his team following the elections. We clearly believe that the Congolese people voted for change, and we believe that the new Government need to be as inclusive as possible.

T4.   I welcome the work of the Foreign Office last year in hosting a major international conference on tackling the illegal wildlife trade, but what assessment has the Foreign Office made of the recent decisions made by Japan and Iceland to resume whaling? What steps will the Government take to encourage our friends to change their mind? (909466)

The UK is disappointed that Japan has announced that it will withdraw from the International Whaling Commission in order to resume commercial whaling, and we urge it to rethink its decision. The Prime Minister raised this with Prime Minister Abe on 10 January, confirming that the UK is and remains strongly opposed to commercial whaling.

T3. More than 1 million Venezuelan refugees who have been forced to flee Maduro’s humanitarian catastrophe are now in Colombia. I have a large, vibrant Colombian community in Southwark who are very worried about the knock-on impact of that crisis on their country, and on family and friends. What support and resource are the Government giving to the Colombian Government to manage this situation? (909464)

We are working closely with the Colombian Government in defending the continuation of the peace process. They have borne a massive burden of people who have left Venezuela, and we are at the forefront of European efforts to make sure that we can find a solution in Venezuela, in response to the absolutely unacceptable conduct of Mr Maduro.

T5. Along with the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan), I was in Kosovo last week representing the all-party group. Ministers will be aware of the concerns about land swap talks between Kosovo and Serbia. What assessment have the Government made of this and other potential changes to borders in the western Balkans? (909467)

As I set out to the Foreign Affairs Committee last September, the Government’s assessment is that border changes in the western Balkans would risk instability and contagion in the region and beyond. We support efforts to reach a normalisation agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, one that is deliverable and sustainable, and enjoys wide domestic support in both countries. We would support such an agreement.

T8. Family members of the London-based human rights defender Sayed Alwadaei had their sentences upheld yesterday in Bahrain in what the UN has described as a reprisal case, one that has been condemned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Will the Government call for their release? (909471)

I was in Bahrain last week, where I met the chair of the independent monitoring committee, who has taken a special interest in some of the cases that have been raised in the UK to make sure that proper human rights are available to those who have been convicted in Bahrain. We still monitor a number of cases, but I urge people to go through that independent process because we are confident that it is genuinely independent and it is making a difference to the administration of justice in Bahrain.

T6. What difficulties face the fair and effective delivery of the £200 million that the Prime Minister has pledged to Yemen? (909469)

We think that that £200 million will mean that 3.7 million people get access to food they would not have otherwise had and 2 million get access to sanitation and fresh water. This will make a significant difference, but the most important thing of all would be to stop the fighting in Hodeidah to allow the Red sea mills to be opened up and food to be transported to the capital, Sana’a.

My constituent Luke Symons has been held for some considerable time as a captive in Sana’a, and his family feel that the Foreign Office is not doing enough. Will the Minister undertake to give priority to this case, so that Luke can get out of Yemen with his family and back to the UK?

We continue to have contact with Luke’s family. This is a very distressing case. We are not able to offer consular assistance in Yemen. We appreciate that he was in Yemen before the conflict broke out and we will continue to exert every effort we can to try to find a way to get him home.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend confirm what support the UK is providing to Ukraine to ensure that its merchant and naval shipping can have free access to its ports across the sea of Azov? (909470)

Russia’s action against Ukrainian vessels near the Kerch straits on 25 November was not in conformity with international law. Continued Russian restrictions on access to the sea of Azov should be ended immediately. We have worked with our partners to support Ukraine, including through securing political agreement in the EU for new sanctions listings, targeted on those responsible for the attacks on the Ukrainian vessels.

EU observers saw that

“violence has marred the election day, and significant obstacles to a level playing field remained in place throughout the…electoral campaign”.

What steps are the Government taking to ensure that the rights of minorities during election time in Bangladesh?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his heartfelt question. We were clearly concerned by the outcome of the elections in Bangladesh, and we are waiting for the Electoral Commission to come up with its full report. One aspect of it clearly has to do with various minorities in the Bangladeshi state. I shall be visiting Bangladesh in the course of the next six weeks and hope to be able to write to the hon. Gentleman in due course to answer his question in full.

My right hon. Friend will have been as shocked as I was to see the appalling scenes of Venezuelan troops using violence and intimidation to prevent vital aid from entering their country, which has been ravaged by socialism for decades. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on all parties around the world, and in particular the Labour leadership in this House, to condemn utterly Maduro’s actions and his illegitimate regime in Venezuela?

Any and every decent person in this House utterly condemns the barring of much needed humanitarian aid from getting into Venezuela. We all stand together in condemning those who are preventing that much needed source of supplies.

Several British overseas territories are still refusing to implement full transparency and to have public registers of ownership. Why are the Government refusing to obey the command of this House, which was to introduce legislation swiftly? Why are they refusing to do it until 2023?

We are fully adhering to the obligations and requirements of the Act that was passed. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that 2023 is the date by which we hope every requirement will be met in respect of public registers.

Significant ones. I was in Iraq two weeks ago and met the new President of Iraq, and its Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Iraq knows that it must complete its introductory reconstruction efforts. It is important that those who have been abandoned in the Nineveh plain are able to get back, but the security situation remains crucial. Only when there is a strong security situation, organised and controlled by the state, will it be safe for everyone to go back. The United Kingdom is playing a leading part to encourage and support the efforts to promote reconstruction and the safety of those who have been displaced.

Fourteen million people in Yemen face the threat of starvation because of a blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia. How can the Government ever justify selling a billion pounds’-worth of weapons per year to a country that is deliberately using famine as a weapon of war?

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that if we had followed his policy and stopped our strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia, there would be no peace process in Yemen and we would not have the first prospect for four years of solving the problem.

The recent terrorist attack by the group Jaish-e-Mohammad in Pulwama, where 49 Indian servicemen and women lost their lives, has been widely condemned. Will my right hon. Friend utter a clear and unreserved condemnation of this suicidal attack and call on Pakistan to stop funding these terrorist groups?

The UK Government unequivocally condemn the appalling terror attack in Pulwama on 14 February. We are actively encouraging the Governments of both India and Pakistan to find diplomatic solutions and to refrain from actions that could jeopardise regional stability. We are also working in the UN Security Council to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

I have a wonderful Chagossian community in Wythenshawe. In the light of yesterday’s International Court of Justice decision, what does the Minister have to say to that community?

I repeat what I said earlier: the court decision yesterday was an advisory opinion, not a judgment. We will continue to uphold our commitments, as we have frequently stated in this House.

What work are the Government doing to support relations and enhance the interaction between all political groups, in both opposition and government, in Iraq?

The formation of the Iraqi Government and the efforts being made—in particular by the President of Iraq, who is from the Kurdish region—to ensure better relationships between Irbil and Baghdad certainly seem to us to be paying dividends. Every effort is being made to enable the relationships to become stronger so that reconstruction right throughout Iraq can take place and it can once again be a strong and independent country in terms of its foreign policy, and serve all its people.

In the light of the detriment that older people experience globally, what steps is the Foreign Secretary taking to advance a UN convention for the rights of older people?

It is an issue that I have a great deal of interest in because of my previous role. I can assure the hon. Lady that, having the third largest development budget in the world, we continue to champion this issue at every opportunity.

The stability of Lebanon is vital to the wider security situation in the middle east. It has taken Prime Minister Hariri nine months to put together a Government that reflects all the different complex denominations and sects in Lebanon, including several Ministers from Hezbollah. What discussions have the British Government had with Prime Minister Hariri or the Lebanese Government about the proscription of the political wing of that organisation?

By good fortune, the Prime Minister and I met the Prime Minister of Lebanon on Sunday at the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. We were able to discuss not only the issue relating to Hezbollah, but our own efforts to support the stability of the Government of Lebanon. Prime Minister Hariri recognised the support that the United Kingdom gave. We want to see Lebanon’s Government formation completed and also for the Government to go forward economically, a process in which our own investment conference in December was a landmark event.[Official Report, 27 February 2019, Vol. 655, c. 2MC.]