Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 673: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2020

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.

T5. The Iranian regime has taken a country rich in natural resources and cultural history to a position of poverty that is brutal to its own people. However, rather than being supportive of the moderate opposition regime in exile, the UK Government have banned Maryam Rajavi instead of welcoming her here to promote the cause of peace that could prevail in Iran. Will the Foreign Secretary take steps to ensure that Maryam Rajavi is welcomed here, so that Iran can get back to becoming the wonderful nation that it really could be? (901603)

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.

T2. The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed this month that Iran has nearly tripled its stockpile of enriched uranium since November, in flagrant violation of the 2015 nuclear deal. That puts it well within reach of the amount needed to produce a nuclear weapon. Does the Minister share my concern that further steps must be taken as a matter of urgency to stop Iran’s aggression, including the re-imposition of major sanctions? (901600)

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.

T6. In 2016, President Adama Barrow gave hope to Gambians across the world when he was democratically elected, ending the dictatorship of President Jammeh and 22 years of human rights abuses. Now he himself is in danger of following suit. At the last questions session, the Minister told me that he was monitoring the situation. May I have an update, please? (901605)

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.

T3. I thank my hon. Friend for the help that he gave my constituents over the weekend. A number of them are on cruise ships, including the Celebrity Eclipse and the Silver Shadow, which are in quarantine off certain areas of Latin America. Might the Foreign Office be able to review the consular engagement that it is providing for British nationals overseas to ensure that there is a joined-up approach? (901601)

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.

T4. Given the Government’s recognition of the importance of the Sahel region, will the Minister please tell me what they are doing to improve the security of the area? (901602)

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.

T7. I thank my right hon. Friend and his Department for their very quick help with my constituent on Saturday, over an issue in the Philippines. My constituent, Mr Clark, is due to go on holiday on Thursday and wants to follow the Government’s advice on non-essential travel and not to go. Unless the Government detail which destinations are covered by non-essential travel, there will be real ramifications, particularly on insurance. When are the Government going to clarify that? (901606)

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.

T8. Covid-19 is obviously no respecter of international borders. Will the Minister set out what steps the FCO is taking to maximise cross-border co-operation with the Republic of Ireland to manage covid-19 effectively on the island of Ireland? (901608)

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.