Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Prime Minister spoke to his G7 counterparts yesterday about the international effort to take a global and effective response in tackling covid-19.
In the light of the rapidly developing coronavirus pandemic, will my right hon. Friend update the House on how the Government, and specifically the Foreign Office, are providing support to British nationals who are currently in other countries?
We are working with £241 million of aid funding and investing £65 million in research to support vulnerable countries’ capacity to tackle this. The Foreign Office is regularly reviewing our travel advice, and consular staff are working with British nationals right across the world to give them the support and advice that they need. I will be making a further statement after oral questions.
What discussions is my right hon. Friend having with his counterparts in countries such as the United States, Australia and Israel, which are working actively on a vaccine for covid-19, so that we can share information from our research and develop a vaccine more quickly together?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question —I know how expert she is in this field. We are, of course, emphasising the importance of vaccine research and encouraging the scientific community to co-ordinate. In particular, we want to prioritise collaboration on vaccine research, including with financing and co-ordination through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations fund.
SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—swine flu and now coronavirus are all thought to have emanated from unsanitary wet butcheries in east Asia and China. What can my right hon. Friend do to co-ordinate an effort—perhaps after all this is over— to prevent any such disease from ever starting in such places again?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that addressing the root causes of covid-19 and similar potential pandemics will require close co-operation with the international community, including China and other south-east-Asian partners. With that in mind, we welcome the Chinese Government’s decision on 24 February to make permanent the temporary ban on the trade and consumption of live wild animals.
Many constituents are finding that unless Government travel advice advises against travel to a specific country or area, insurance companies do not pay out. Australia currently requires a two-week self-isolation period, but we are still not advising people not to travel there. What discussions is my right hon. Friend having with the insurance industry to make sure that constituents are covered in such situations?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The situation is moving very rapidly—to give him a sense of that, I should say that the Foreign Office made more than 200 changes to our travel advice over the last weekend alone. We have also published a checklist to help British travellers to think through the challenges of international travel and the questions they should ask about it. We are in contact with the airlines for the insurance reasons that my hon. Friend explained. As I mentioned, I will make a further statement after oral questions.
Over the coming weeks and months, as more and more airlines, travel operators and insurance firms go bust, more and more British nationals will find themselves stranded abroad without accommodation or flight options. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that the Foreign Office is gearing up for that challenge and will be there to provide whatever support is required?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. On the one hand, we do not want to take precipitate measures, but on the other we do want to take measures to prevent more and more UK nationals—particularly vulnerable ones—from being stranded overseas. It is a difficult risk-balancing exercise, and I will say more about that in the oral statement to follow.
Happy St Patrick’s day, Mr Speaker.
The lack of global co-ordination in tackling the covid-19 outbreak has been truly shocking, but is that any wonder, given that last week, according to the German Government, the so-called leader of the free world offered CureVac “large sums of money” to make sure that the vaccine it is developing would be available only for those from the United States? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Donald Trump’s response to this outbreak has been nothing but a disgrace?
I certainly agree with the right hon. Lady that we need a co-ordinated international response, and we need to get better internationally at that—the Prime Minister made that point during yesterday’s G7 conversation. I do not think that just bashing the Americans or the President of the US is a substitute for the sensible, practical measures that we need to take to bring British nationals, and also our European partners, home on the repatriation flights that we have organised, to deal with research and the vaccine mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), and to increase the resilience and capacity of those vulnerable countries that are trying to deal with an even greater challenge. We are addressing all those issues. The Foreign Office is working with the Department for International Development, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Ministry of Defence, and we are talking to all our partners right around the world.
The truth is that Donald Trump’s lack of international leadership has been quite extraordinary. He started by calling the outbreaks a hoax, comparing coronavirus to winter flu and dismissing health advice, but he now calls it the “foreign virus”, blaming Europe for its spread and today blaming China, and says that he takes no responsibility at all. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is shameful that such behaviour is what we have come to expect from the current American President, even at this time of global crisis?
I have to say to the right hon. Lady that I think we have done quite a good job in this House of trying to adopt a bipartisan approach. Whether domestically or internationally, finger-pointing just does not help in any shape or form. We are going to work with all our partners—the US, the Europeans, those in South America and those in Asia, as I have already mentioned—to try to forge the most effective response. That is what all our constituents expect and deserve.
Aman Nasir and Laura Bartley, two of my constituents, are among 100 Brits trapped in Lima, Peru. They say that they cannot get through to our embassy in that country, so how are the Government ensuring that all Brits trapped elsewhere can access embassies and missions that are resourced to answer their queries and to get them home as soon as possible?
We understand the concern of any constituent who finds themselves in a vulnerable position and also, of course, that of MPs who are trying to do their best. We have beefed up the support we are providing. There is a parliamentary hotline for MPs, and I will make sure that Ministers give the hon. Gentleman all the details so that he can provide the most support and up-to-date advice to his constituents.
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s response today, but does he remember from the Ebola crisis only a few years ago the woeful and very slow approach of the World Health Organisation? Does he not feel that we are seeing a similar response from the WHO today? Can he assure me that he is working with international partners to ensure that there is a proper, co-ordinated response despite the WHO, and that that will be the foundation for building a new international co-operative response?
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We are doing our level best as the UK to forge the strongest consensus possible. We have a total aid envelope of £241 million of funding. We are providing up to £150 million of that to the International Monetary Fund, £10 million to the WHO, £5 million to the Red Cross and £5 million to UNICEF. It is important that we work as collaboratively as possible with all our international partners—the WHO, but also those working in the voluntary sector, who often have particularly good expertise and access on the ground where it is needed most.
We welcome the ceasefire in Idlib agreed by Turkey and Russia on 5 March, and we call on all parties to respect it and make it permanent.
First, may I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all right hon. and hon. Members a happy St Patrick’s day from everyone in Northern Ireland?
The crisis in Syria means that Lebanon is in the middle of an economic crisis, and its infrastructure was already straining to support an influx of more than 1 million Syrian refugees, who now make up 20% of the country’s population. Those refugees are also facing coronavirus. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that Syrian refugees, particularly those from more vulnerable groups, are adequately supported?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Let me say at the outset that I totally agree with him about the need to stem the flow of refugees. He mentions Lebanon; of course, Turkey has also taken 4 million refugees. The first thing to say is that we must hold the Syrian regime and the Russian Government to account for the brutality of the fighting, which is causing the refugee flows. We must do everything within our power to firm up the ceasefire and make it nationwide, and then also, of course, provide humanitarian support. The Department for International Development announced £89 million in new aid for Idlib this month. On 11 March, the RAF delivered 37 tonnes of UK aid. I was recently in Turkey talking with the Foreign Minister and President Erdoğan about the measures that we need to take to bring that terrible conflict to an end.
Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict
The preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative remains a top Government priority. The UK is recognised as a global leader on the issue. We have committed over £46 million across 29 countries since 2012 and deployed the UK PSVI team of experts over 90 times. We are currently reassessing potential dates for the PSVI international conference in the light of developments on coronavirus, but we are committed to progressing conference ambitions of strengthening justice for survivors and holding the perpetrators of these horrific crimes to account.
I thank the Minister for his response. In 2019, 14 million women were subject to gender-based violence. We know that this figure rises during conflicts and crises. Will the ministerial team work with international groups and make representations at the UN later this year—presuming that the conference goes ahead—on preventing sexual violence in conflict and ensuring that we keep a firm eye on gender-based violence?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he takes a keen interest in this area, given his previous work for Lord Hague, the former Foreign Secretary.
This is a big year for gender equality, as it includes the 25th anniversary of the Beijing declaration and platform for action, and the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. The UK is proud to be a global leader in efforts to eradicate gender-based violence, and this year we will launch a new £67.5 million multi-country programme to prevent gender-based violence. We have expressed a strong interest in leading the Generation Equality action coalition on ending gender-based violence, and we will announce plans for the proposed UN General Assembly summit in due course.
The aforementioned Lord Hague—the architect of the preventing sexual violence initiative—recently said that if the UK was not prepared to take effective action in this area,
“it would be better to let another country take the lead”.
Does the Minister agree, or will he listen to Lord Hague and give this vital initiative the funding and political leadership it deserves?
We are wholly committed as a nation to ensuring that all efforts to tackle conflict-related sexual violence are survivor-centred, in line with UN Security Council resolution 2467, and that this policy and practice avoids the re-traumatisation of survivors.
Some appalling incidents of gender-based violence occurred during the Sri Lankan civil war. Will the Foreign Office do everything in its power to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to live up to the commitments they made in sponsoring resolution 30/1 in the UN Human Rights Council?
We certainly will. My right hon. Friend raises an important point. We are in regular contact and will ensure that, through our network and all channels, we discuss this with our Sri Lankan friends.
Saudi Arabia: Human Rights
I travelled to Riyadh on 4 March to 5 March and met senior Saudis, including His Majesty King Salman and the Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal. We discussed a whole range of bilateral issues, and I raised human rights, including detained women’s rights defenders.
I am pleased to hear that the Foreign Secretary raised with the Saudi Arabian Government the women’s human rights defenders. Did he mention Loujain al-Hathloul, who is facing an unfair trial, arbitrary detention, and sexual abuse and mistreatment in custody for carrying out lawful and peaceful campaigning activities? If her case goes to trial, will the British Government observe that trial, and did the Foreign Secretary call for her release?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her championing of this very important issue. I raised a whole range of cases before the Saudi courts in relation to women’s rights defenders, and also the fact that, having lifted the ban on women driving and taken other measures, that was particularly anomalous. Her concerns have been raised, and we will continue to raise those issues with the Saudi Government.
I appreciate that my question is not about what is currently uppermost in people’s minds, but human rights abuses continue to be committed, even while covid-19 is spreading. What active steps are the Government taking to help to secure the unconditional release of human rights activists?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I was not quite clear whether she was talking specifically about Saudi Arabia, but we raise these issues. Obviously the Government and the jurisdictions are very sensitive about their cases, but we raise these issues because that is what international law requires. We have made the points that she and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) have raised, and we will continue to do so.
There has been an incremental and modest improvement in Saudi Arabia’s human rights situation. In the World Bank’s “Women, Business and the Law 2020” report, Saudi Arabia was ranked as the most improved economy for women’s economic opportunities. We want to encourage that positivity, and also, where there are abuses of human rights—whether in relation to the Khashoggi case, Raif Badawi, which was another case I raised, or the women’s rights defenders—to make sure that that is a part of our bilateral relations. We will keep raising these important issues.
This week will mark five years since the start of the war in Yemen. That war has seen the Saudi Government bomb Yemeni civilians in their thousands and starve them in their millions, with callous indifference and complete impunity. After five years, when will the Secretary of State finally bring forward a resolution demanding a full independent UN-led investigation of these appalling war crimes?
We are focused on bringing that terrible conflict—I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that—to an end. We want pressure to be put on the Houthis, and also a positive dynamic. Probably the single biggest issue that I raised with my Saudi counterparts was an end to the conflict in Yemen, which will require all the relevant actors to come together. There is a political dialogue through the UN. We want confidence-building measures that will lead to a proper political dialogue, and to get that issue and the conflict resolved. There is a window of opportunity in 2020 to achieve that, and we will be working very hard with all the relevant actors to secure it.
While we are trying to get somewhere on war crimes in Yemen, may I ask the Secretary of State about another imminent anniversary? It is 18 months since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul. At the time we were promised, from the Government Dispatch Box, a credible investigation to find out who ordered his murder, with serious consequences to follow as a result. Almost a year and a half on, can the Secretary of State explain why we are still waiting?
I think that the hon. Gentleman will know that there is a certain limit to what we can actually force Saudi Arabia to do. There has been a trial. There have been criticisms and concerns about that, but some have been held to account. We continue to raise the issue. I raised it when I was in Riyadh on 4 and 5 March. We do not shy away from it or, most importantly, from getting the reassurance—as well as the accountability that he wishes—that something like this will never happen again.
I warmly endorse the sentiments of the question asked by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), and I do think the United Kingdom could do more to promote human rights in Saudi Arabia. I am conscious that we also need to deal with the interlocutors we are dealt. On that point, I would be grateful for the FCO’s assessment of the stability of the regime in Riyadh, given very worrying reports of arrests and incarcerations of key members of it. Was that part of the discussions when the Foreign Secretary was last in the capital?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise human rights issues. I have explained all the issues—from Raif Badawi to the women’s rights defenders and Khashoggi—which we will always raise with our Saudi interlocutors. Equally, they are an important partner with us for all sorts of reasons, but particularly in relation to forging peace and trying to secure peace in Yemen. The regime looks entirely stable to me but, of course, given everything else that is going on with coronavirus and with oil production, there is tremendous economic pressure on the whole region. We want to try to reduce that pressure and, particularly on Yemen, to work with all partners in the region to end that terrible conflict.
I am grateful for the answer, and I was struck by the Foreign Secretary’s earlier point that we can only force the Saudis to do so much. However, we could stop selling them guns, tanks and bombs, and we could actually put some ethics into our foreign policy and prioritise the rights of the people in Yemen and the children who are currently suffering so badly as a result of the conflict. I am struck that the Saudis are indeed a partner in that war in terms of promoting the peace, but they are also a partner in that war full stop. I think that the UK could be rather more muscular in our discussions regarding that point.
The hon. Gentleman will of course know about the efforts—in particular with the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths—to bring an end to that conflict, and we have been tireless in supporting, pursuing and supplementing them. Of course a lot of the diplomacy will go on behind the scenes.
The hon. Gentleman mentions arms exports. We have one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. We have carefully considered the implications of the Court of Appeal’s judgment, for example, and we will make sure that we are always compliant. However, the reality is that our focus has been on, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, raising human rights issues when necessary, and also on trying to bring all the parties, including the Houthi rebels, to the table to have a proper political dialogue that can end the conflict in the interests of all the people in Yemen.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that only through constructive dialogue with Saudi Arabia can we hasten progress on issues of human rights and the ongoing conflict in Yemen?
My hon. Friend is right, and we are listened to more because we engage and try to exert positive influence. Equally, however, we will not be shy or retiring in raising those issues. We raised them in the Human Rights Council statement in March 2019, and in other UN forums. As I said, when I was in Riyadh recently, we raised those issues bilaterally with all senior interlocutors.
What is the Government’s latest assessment of the role of Saudi Arabia in promoting radical Islamist doctrines beyond its borders?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s expertise in this area. We have raised that issue. There has been a step change and a reduction in the Government promoting that kind of extremism, and we want to ensure that other private sector or charitable bodies are also compliant. We have raised those issues, and I will continue to do so.
The UK is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. We are one of the longest standing members of the Human Rights Council, and we are committed to maintaining that record when we stand for re-election this year. The UK’s autonomous global human rights Magnitsky-style sanctions regime is due to come into force in the coming months. That will allow us to impose sanctions in response to serious human rights violations or abuses around the world.
Since June 2019, when the UK became co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition to defend LGBT communities around the world, no additional Commonwealth countries have joined. Even now, there are no Commonwealth members from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean. What can the Minister do to improve that dire situation?
We must tackle all human rights issues through multilateral organisations wherever possible. The UK Government will continue to make that case through our networks and ministerial team, and the hon. Gentleman raises a serious point.
University professor Chan Kin-man said about the 2014 Umbrella protest in Hong Kong:
“The reason we had this protest is that China did not honour a promise to Hong Kong to let it have democracy.”
He now faces seven years in jail for leading that protest. Will the Government stand up for him, or was Chris Patten right to describe their policy towards China as simply “craven”?
I met the Chinese ambassador in the past 10 days, and raised the issue of Hong Kong. We remain concerned about the political situation in Hong Kong, and believe that the underlying causes of the protests have not been addressed. We welcome the peaceful manner in which so many Hong Kong people have expressed their views, and we will continue to call for a robust, credible, and independent investigation into the events in Hong Kong between June 2019 and last January.
I was interested to hear what the Minister said about multilateral institutions, because the European convention on human rights was the brainchild of Winston Churchill. It was drawn up by British lawyers, and the UK was the first country to ratify it in 1951. Instead of being proud of that achievement, why do the Government now want to stand alone with Belarus, Europe’s last remaining dictatorship, in refusing to support the convention?
We continue to work with regional organisations, including the European Union, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the Commonwealth, to strengthen their democracy work. Most recently we have offered support for election monitoring in North Macedonia and Serbia, and we are supportive of the work that human rights defenders do across the world by promoting and protecting democratic values as well as human rights.
Arctic Ocean Trade Routes
Climate change is the greatest threat facing the Arctic, and it is driving other changes there too. The reduction in summer sea ice cover in the Arctic has the potential to increase international shipping activity in the Arctic; however, hostile conditions and the lack of infrastructure will make commercial operations difficult for a considerable time. The UK cross-Government Arctic network met in January and discussed issues related to shipping and environmental protection in the Arctic ocean.
There are huge economic advantages, particularly for the far east, in these lanes opening up, but that will come at huge environmental cost. Will the Minister explain what discussions have been had through the United Nations about how we ensure the protection and preservation of such an important pristine natural environment?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is vital that the world comes together to take renewed action to limit global warming to 1.5°. There are 70-plus UK institutions engaged in Arctic research. The UK’s research station at Svalbard in Norway celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2020. We are doing a huge amount of work in this area.
Human Rights: Sanctions Regime
As the Foreign Secretary has said on previous occasions, we will establish an autonomous UK global human rights Magnitsky sanctions regime shortly. That will reinforce our role as a global leader in the promotion and protection of human rights. We will do that through secondary legislation under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. That sanctions regime will allow us to impose sanctions in response to serious human rights violations or abuses anywhere in the world.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the benefits of leaving the European Union is that our new sanctions regime will allow us to go faster and further in holding the worst human rights abusers to account?
The sanctions Act allows the UK to implement our own sanctions regimes, and we intend to use those powers in line with UK interests and values to reinforce the UK’s role as a force for good. We will continue to co-operate with international partners on sanctions, including on human rights, because sanctions are most effective when delivered collectively.
The Foreign Secretary was one of the loudest in clamouring for these Magnitsky sanctions to be brought forward, yet they have been on the statute book for two years and we still do not have the statutory instruments. One Minister has said we will have them “in the coming months”; another has said we will have them “soon”. If the Foreign Secretary were sitting on the Back Benches, he would be saying, “Do them now!”
And we absolutely are. We are working really hard; the hon. Gentleman just needs to wait a little longer. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) will allow me to speak, I will reinforce my answer. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) just needs to wait a little longer. The regime will be coming forward. We are taking the time to get it right, which is absolutely the right thing to do. Just wait a little longer.
When we bring forward the Magnitsky regime, will we also bring forward sanctions against individuals who profit through corruption and human rights abuses?
It is important that we recognise that the sanctions regime is intended to target not individual countries but those who commit serious human rights violations. As I said, we are working really hard to ensure that what comes forward is right; just wait a little longer and we will see that come forward. It is no good speculating in advance about who may be designated, because that may reduce the impact of sanctions.
Nigeria: Persecution of Christians
The UK condemns all attacks by terrorist groups in north-east Nigeria, including those against Christians, but communities of all faiths have suffered; in fact, the majority of victims are Muslims. The Prime Minister discussed our concerns and UK support with President Buhari in January. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), the Prime Minister’s excellent special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, who is in his place, also discussed the violence recently with President Buhari’s chief of staff and has had a number of other meetings, including briefing the full ministerial team last week.
I thank the Minister for his response. Given that recommendation 2 of the Truro review states that the UK should:
“Articulate an aspiration to be the global leader in championing FoRB”—
freedom of religion or belief—and that the UK Government have committed to all its recommendations, what more does the Minister think the Government can do to assert pressure on the Nigerian Government? Will he also be considering the claims of asylum seekers from the Nigerian community?
As the hon. Lady says, we accept in full the Truro recommendations. I am meeting the Prime Minister’s envoy again to discuss progress—I think we are about halfway through. The point I gently make is that the situation is quite complicated. Religious belief is central to the identity of many in Nigeria, but the underlying drivers of conflict go beyond to ethnic rivalries, criminal banditry, competition over land and water, and the settled community and the nomadic Fulani community. There is a lot of complexity to work through, but I will continue to do that with the Prime Minister’s envoy. I am more than happy to work with the all-party group on Nigeria, of which I was once secretary, as well as the hon. Lady and other interested parties.
I thank the Minister for that answer. On the question posed earlier about the United Kingdom being a leader and champion on freedom of religion or belief, will the Minister clarify that the UK, not just bilaterally but through other forums such as the International Religious Freedom Alliance and the International Contact Group in Geneva last week, has raised the issue of Nigeria? As the Prime Minister’s envoy, I can say that the UK is taking forward with ministerial colleagues the issue of Nigeria at every level. Recommendations 12 and 13 of the Truro review, as well as recommendation 2, cover the work we do on Nigeria with non-governmental organisations, both in the UK and with our counterparts around the world.
My hon. Friend demonstrates his excellence in this area and makes the very valid point that it is about not just bilateral activity, but multilateral activity and the leadership role we have, particularly now as the chair of the Commonwealth and in handing over the baton in Kigali to the Rwandans. We will continue to raise these issues, which we do not see in isolation. These are thematic issues that we raise consistently, both bilaterally and multilaterally.
During the recent discussions, did the Nigerian authorities hold out any hope or prospect that Christian groups and other faith-based groups can look forward to the immediate prospect of a cessation of violence, and some safety and security for the future?
All parties are looking for a greater degree of safety and security, particularly in the north-east. It is a complicated situation that does keep coming back. As one suppresses some problems, others come out. We are working very closely with our Nigerian and international partners in the north-east and across the whole of Nigeria. Nigeria is one of our biggest partners on these and a number of other issues. I will raise them with our high commissioner again. I met our high commissioner last week and will continue to work on these issues, and I look forward to going back to Nigeria to visit friends and colleagues.
Climate change is one of the most urgent and pressing international challenges we face today and no country alone can solve this problem. As COP presidents, in partnership with Italy, we are driving forward the historic agreement secured in Paris. The year 2020 is crucial for international co-operation on climate, which is why this is a cross-Government priority. The Prime Minister and other Ministers are working hard to make COP26 a success.
Does my hon. Friend agree that central to delivering a successful COP is the UK playing a leadership role in the international community and pushing our global friends to more ambitious climate targets?
Absolutely. This is something the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and all my colleagues on the Front Bench take very seriously. We use every opportunity to raise this issue in bilateral meetings and in relation to business. It is vital that the world comes together and takes renewed action to limit global warming to 1.5°. We urge every country to come forward in 2020 with ambitious new nationally determined contributions that will help us to meet the commitments set out under the 2015 Paris agreement.
Department for International Development contributions to the international climate fund between 2011 and 2017 were matched almost pound for pound by Department for International Trade funding for fossil fuel projects. Is it not the Secretary of State’s job to ensure that the UK engages consistently with international partners? What steps is he taking to make that happen?
The Government have a good record in that field. As I said, the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and all our Ministers are taking huge steps to encourage the world to come together to take renewed action and to use COP26 to deliver the climate change agenda.
Our consistent top-table ranking in numerous soft power indices makes the UK’s strengths clear, from our diplomatic network to cultural institutions and leading scientific research. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office enhances the UK’s soft power overseas by investing in international future leaders through the Chevening and Marshall scholarship programmes, supporting the BBC World Service in its biggest expansion in 70 years and, this year, showcasing our creativity alongside the British Council as part of the UK-Japan season of culture, as well as taking a leading role on climate ahead of COP26. Through our actions, we continue to have a positive influence in the world.
I recently visited Union Papertech in my constituency with Britain’s high commissioner to Pakistan to see how its innovations in paper technology are leading the way in booming consumer and green economies in the subcontinent. Does the Minister agree that some of global Britain’s best advocates and ambassadors open our markets for our values as well as our products?
My hon. Friend is spot on. I agree that British innovation is a key soft power asset. We recognise the importance of innovation and technology for global Britain, which is why the Prime Minister has committed to the UK being a global science superpower by increasing investment in R&D. My hon. Friend’s example of the high commissioner’s visit to Heywood and Middleton shows that our diplomats are committed to supporting innovative British products, as they do throughout our global network.
Does the Minister agree that our cultural exports are a major contributor to our soft power, in particular our film and television industry, which is prominent in south Wales? Will he do all he can to support it?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. I have had the pleasure of visiting studios in Wales. I agree that our creative industries are at the forefront of the innovation I have mentioned. They put the UK’s skills and expertise on a global stage, about which we can all be proud. People who work in those areas, including in Bridgend, are an asset to our influence around the world.
The British Council is an important institution. My constituent, who remains its employee, is still in Evin prison in Iran. What assessment has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made of this morning’s announcement that some prisoners have been released? Is Aras Amiri, or indeed Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, among them?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised that issue with his Iranian counterpart yesterday. We are deeply concerned about both the individuals the hon. Lady mentions. We are liaising constantly with the Iranian authorities whenever possible and keeping in touch with family members to ensure that they are let out as soon as possible.
In what way is continuing to disregard the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice and the resolution of the UN General Assembly on the future sovereignty of the Chagos Islands a diligent exercise of the UK’s soft power?
We are confident in our position on the issue the hon. Gentleman mentions. We are more than happy to talk to him following the session so we can discuss it further one to one.
Violence in Delhi
The events in Delhi in February were very concerning, and the British high commission in New Delhi is monitoring the situation closely. The death of one protester is one too many. India’s strength, like that of the UK, is in its diversity. We trust the Indian Government to address the concerns of people of all religions. Where we have concerns, we raise them directly with the Indian Government. Most recently, my colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon raised concerns about the impact of recent judicial and legislative measures on minorities with a senior official from India’s Ministry of External Affairs on 25 February.
The violent riots that took place in Delhi have resulted in 1,638 arrests, 14 damaged mosques and 10 damaged Hindu temples, and more than 50 Hindus and Muslims have been killed. After 330 community meetings, however, places of worship are being repaired and business is being restored. Can my hon. Friend confirm that business is returning to normal in India, with peaceful protests allowed but not violent ones?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in this issue. We welcome the fact that there have been no new reports of rioting since February, although we are sure that tensions remain. Now, as ever, we support Prime Minister Modi’s call for peace and harmony. India’s strength, like that of the UK, is in its diversity, and we trust that the Indian Government will address the concerns of people of all religions.
Sri Lanka: Human Rights
On 25 February the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, met the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister in Geneva to express the UK’s serious concerns about the new Sri Lankan Government’s announcement that they no longer support UNHRC resolution 31 and subsequent resolutions. Lord Ahmad urged the Foreign Minister to reconsider.
Human Rights Watch has this month chronicled Sri Lankan security agencies stepping up surveillance, harassment and threats against human rights activists and journalists. Great as it is that Lord Ahmad is raising concerns, as his ministerial colleague has just set out, is it not about time that Britain got a little more robust with the Sri Lankan authorities?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this matter. In a statement on 27 February we raised our serious concerns about those reports of surveillance and harassment of human rights defenders. We have raised those concerns directly at senior level with the Government in Colombo, and I can assure him that we will continue to urge the Sir Lankan Government to fulfil commitments made in the resolution; to deliver truth, accountability and meaningful reconciliation; and above all, to ensure the protection of human rights for everyone in Sri Lanka.
In February I visited Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, and this month I have visited Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Both regions are of growing importance as we deliver on our vision of global Britain. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s immediate priority, of course, is to do everything we can to ensure that our citizens are safe, at home and abroad, as part of our international response to covid-19.
My constituent Stephen Lewis has been incarcerated in France for several months without charge or trial, and the judge is citing Brexit as one of the reasons why he will not be released. Will my right hon. Friend help me and Stephen’s family in our efforts to secure his release as soon as possible?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his efforts to represent his constituent. He will know that FCO staff in Bordeaux have been following the case closely and have spoken to his constituent’s lawyer. The examining magistrate is currently reviewing the case. We cannot provide more than consular support because, as my hon. Friend will know, we cannot intervene politically in individual judicial proceedings, but we will follow the case very carefully.
I am not sure that that sole measure would release the change in behaviour that we need in Tehran, but I accept the hon. Gentleman’s diagnosis of the problem. We have seen it in relation to the issue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and in relation to its destabilising activities in the middle east, from Iraq through Syria to Yemen. As other Members have mentioned, we have also seen it in relation to dual nationals. When I spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister yesterday, I made very clear that on all these fronts we will continue to hold Iran to account, and that if it wants to improve the situation both for the Government and, most importantly, for the people of Iran, the Iranian Government must take steps to build confidence and return to compliance with international law.
As my hon. Friend will know, Iran is already subject to a wide range of sanctions. She rightly raised the issue of systemic non-compliance with the JCPOA, and I have been working on that with my French and German counterparts. We triggered the dispute resolution mechanism, we will hold Iran to account, and, above all, we will make sure that it can never acquire a nuclear weapon. I made all those points very clearly to Foreign Minister Zarif yesterday.
I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in Gambia. We were very optimistic about it when it rejoined the Commonwealth. I have visited the country outside my ministerial roles, and I look forward to talking to our high commissioner within the week. I will raise these issues again and will update the hon. Lady, but we expect all Commonwealth members to uphold the best of standards.
I know that my hon. Friend has been working very hard, because I have been in contact with him over the weekend on behalf of his constituents who have been affected by the outbreak. I can assure him that our consular staff in London and worldwide are working around the clock to ensure that British nationals affected by the epidemic, including those in hospital, quarantine or isolation, are safe and have access to healthcare whenever necessary. As Members know, in some cases that has included repatriation, although it remains a last resort.
David Miliband and David Cameron demonstrated the importance of leadership from the top in the context of human rights in Sri Lanka. In that spirit, would the Foreign Secretary be prepared to meet me, and other members of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, on a cross-party basis to discuss the leadership that we now need from him in the light of the events and developments at the United Nations Human Rights Council?
We are extremely concerned about the issues in Sri Lanka, to which I referred earlier in response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas). As the Minister responsible for that region, I should be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss those issues further.
We are opening two new embassies in Niger and Chad. Last month I attended meetings of the G5 and the Sahel Alliance, where I was able to reassure the five countries of the Sahel and the French Foreign Minister of our support for the security and military efforts in the region, including the deployment of UK troops in Mali. I was also able to raise the issue of 12 years of quality girls’ education, which, in the long term, helps both prosperity and security.
We all have constituents who are stranded overseas because of the lack of flights. I have five nurses who are stuck in the Philippines, and the consular advice from the embassy has been for them to get on a flight as quickly as possible. First, there are no flights back to the United Kingdom. Secondly, there is no way for them to get to the airport. What help is the Foreign Office giving UK nationals across the world who are stuck despite being advised to get home?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue that his constituents face in the Philippines. Travel advice is changing hourly—we have made over 100 changes in the past 24 hours. I would urge him to wait for the Foreign Secretary’s statement on the issue, which will come after this session.
I thank my hon. Friend, who will have to wait only a short while to get an answer to that very question.
Last month saw the second anniversary of the capture of Leah Sharibu, a young Nigerian schoolgirl. Can the Government tell us, and provide an update, what representations they are making to the Nigerian Government to secure Leah’s release from captivity?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the case. I have reviewed a number of these cases as historical cases. Unfortunately, kidnapping is all too common. Various Ministers have met families and representatives, but I am more than happy to take up that specific case, discuss it with him today and take it forward in the normal way.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. The UK and Ireland are in regular contact at the highest levels to discuss our respective responses to covid-19, and we will continue to work closely together. On Saturday, at a meeting of the North South Ministerial Council in Armagh, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health met the Taoiseach, the Irish Health Minister and the Irish chief medical officer to discuss the issue. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is also in regular contact with his counterpart. Obviously, health is devolved in Northern Ireland, but my hon. Friend can rest assured that we are in regular contact with our Irish friends.
I have four constituents stuck in Vietnam after discovering that they were on flights with somebody who had coronavirus. Two of my constituents are young women who are stuck in an overcrowded hostel, which is filthy and has limited running water. They are fit and healthy, but they might not be for much longer. What support are the Government providing in terms of Government-sponsored flights home? Will the Minister meet with me to discuss these cases and how we can help those women get home, please?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. I know of the particular problem. I have spoken to other hon. Members about constituents who are probably in the same accommodation. I spoke this morning with the Vietnamese ambassador, with a request that the British nationals are moved urgently into hygienic conditions, so we are working on that and I will have an answer from the ambassador. Rest assured, we are doing our best to improve the treatment for those individuals.
Although the immediate focus of our interests in south-east Asia rightly has to be the safety of British citizens and how we can get them back home, which no doubt will emerge shortly in the statement, I know that the Secretary of State shares my huge enthusiasm for the potential in south-east Asia for greater trade, investment and, indeed, much wider partnerships. Will he say today whether the idea of having an Association of Southeast Asian Nations investment forum, which would be as good and possibly even better than the Africa investment forum, is one that he supports?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is playing to all my prejudices with his question. We are absolutely committed to ratification of CPTPP, the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. We are also committed to joining ASEAN formally with dialogue partner status. In the context of that, he raises an interesting idea. It is obviously difficult to host conferences at the moment, but that is certainly something we should keep under review.
On Saturday morning, I was advising constituents, on the basis of Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice, that they had until midnight to leave Poland. Later that day, Jet2 advised them that their flights for the following two days would be going ahead and leaving Poland. Will the Minister therefore tell me why the advice was incomplete and what they are to do if any travel insurance claim they make is now invalid?
I am more than happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman after these questions. The travel advice remains in place, and I know that the Foreign Secretary will be updating the House more broadly.
Two of my constituents are currently aboard the MS Marina, en route to Miami. The cruise liner was refused entry at the ports of Lima and Panama yesterday, and will reach Miami by tomorrow afternoon, but they are concerned that they may be refused entry to the USA when they reach their destination. Both have underlying health problems and are, understandably, worried. What discussions has the Department had with counterparts in the USA about the repatriation of some of our constituents who are in this position?
My hon. Friend is another example of a Member who treats constituency casework with great seriousness and she is right to raise it here, alongside others. Foreign Office staff are working flat out, as are my colleagues and I, to tackle this. We are aware of a number of cruise liners in the region, and I will ensure that she has the right information. I am more than happy to talk to her after these questions.