Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Finding a covid-19 vaccine is a top priority for the Government. The Prime Minister has set up a vaccine taskforce and appointed Kate Bingham to lead it. The taskforce aims to secure access to promising vaccines for the UK population and to support access to vaccines to help bring the pandemic to an end. We have invested more than £130 million in research for the vaccine front-runners at the University of Oxford and Imperial College, London, and this is in addition to the £250 million that we have contributed to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the £1.65 billion to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
That is a really important point. The Prime Minister has made it clear that equitable access is an integral part of the UK’s approach to vaccine development and distribution. Only last weekend, he emphasised how all the world’s leaders have a moral duty to ensure that covid-19 vaccines are truly available to all. That is why the UK has contributed more than £313 million of UK aid to CEPI, the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator, the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, and the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics. We have also committed £1.65 billion to Gavi over five years to strengthen immunisation for vaccine preventable disease in vulnerable countries.
Around the world, there are more than 100 programmes to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Can my hon. Friend confirm that our global diplomatic presence is assisting UK companies and universities to participate in those programmes, basically by using their local networks to highlight the significant expertise that the UK can contribute, but also vice versa to identify where those contacts can contribute to UK-based programmes, because this is truly a global effort?
Yes, our overseas network is working actively around the globe, particularly through our world-leading science and innovation network. The Vaccine Taskforce is also ensuring that work being done to find a vaccine in the UK complements and supports global efforts, including by providing industry and research institutions with resources and support. We welcome the announcement on 4 June of the innovative collaborations between AstraZeneca, CEPI, Gavi and the Serum Institute of India to support the production of 1.3 billion doses for global access to a potential covid-19 vaccine.
Israel is at the forefront of MedTech innovation, which presents many opportunities for the UK’s healthcare system, such as the use of AI technology in diagnostics and screening. Can my hon. Friend tell me what the Government’s plans are to strengthen partnerships between Israeli MedTech companies and UK researchers, particularly in the north-west, to help them not only develop a vaccine but better prepare for the potentiality of any future pandemic?
International collaboration is absolutely vital as we search for a vaccine, and finding a vaccine for covid-19 is a top priority for the Government. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we see vaccines as a global challenge and that no one country can do this alone. That is why the UK has called for clear global commitments from international partners to tackle the pandemic, including through the G7, the G20 and other international forums. The Prime Minister hosted a global vaccine summit on 4 June, which brought together more than 60 countries, including 44 Heads of State and Government, and raised an incredible $8.8 billion to support immunisation of more than 300 million children against vaccine preventable diseases.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Britain has demonstrated its global reach during this pandemic? May I thank the Department for listening to my representations on behalf of my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent Central, who were repatriated from Kathmandu and Durban during lockdown, and ask that the Department use the same global reach to ensure that our world- class vaccine development work benefits the global community?
I know how hard my hon. Friend works in her Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency. Together, the Foreign Secretary, the ministerial team and the diplomatic network continue to galvanise international support and financial commitments to support research, development and equitable access to vaccines. Through ongoing research at Oxford University and Imperial College, London, the UK is leading the way in developing a coronavirus vaccine. We are also working with international partners to ensure that, wherever a vaccine is discovered, it will benefit the global community as a whole.
“The breadth of the work that DFID is involved in is exemplary…It is firmly in our national interest…As we have seen in recent years with the Ebola crisis”.—[Official Report, 13 June 2016; Vol. 611, c. 262.]
Those are not my words, but those of the Minister. Destabilising Britain’s efforts to tackle disease globally in the middle of a pandemic is not diplomatic; it is dangerous, and the hostile takeover by the Foreign Secretary has been slammed by 200 leading health and humanitarian agencies, Prime Ministers and MPs from both sides of the House, and those who have assessed the impact of mergers in Australia and Canada. Why does she think she got it wrong, they all got it wrong, and instead, it is Dominic Cummings who is right?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We served together on the International Development Committee several years ago, but to be absolutely clear, when it comes to the FCO and DFID merger, as the Prime Minister set out on 16 June we retain our commitment to spending 0.7 % of our gross national income on official development assistance, but it is through closer integration that we will maximise the impact of our aid budget. At the recent Gavi event—the global vaccine summit on 4 June—we mobilised the collective influence of diplomacy and development; it is an excellent example of what the two Departments working together can we achieve.
Sino-British Joint Declaration
Today China has enacted national security legislation. We are waiting for it to be published so that we can see the details and assess it against what we have said before. When that is the case, I will make an oral statement to update hon. Members. None the less, at this stage what I can say is that the imposition of national security legislation on Hong Kong, rather than through Hong Kong’s own institutions, lies in direct conflict with China’s international obligations under the Sino-British joint declaration.
From what we know so far, it appears that Beijing has just voted to impose new hard-line national security laws on Hong Kong. They are widely thought to include a new law enforcement and intelligence agency to operate there, and to give the Chief Executive power to appoint judges to hear national security cases. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only through an internationally co-ordinated action that we will be able to safeguard the hard-fought-for rights and freedoms of those in Hong Kong?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and of course it is contrary to, we believe, China’s own interests and also China’s articulation of the relationship with Hong Kong through the one country, two systems policy. As she rightly says, we have been working very closely with our international partners, the EU and the G7, and, indeed, we are raising the issue with like-minded partners in the United Nations Human Rights Council shortly.
A number of commentators have been conversely saying that Hong Kong’s role as a financial centre may be buttressed by the national security law as Chinese companies look to list in Hong Kong, now that they are less welcome in the United States. What does my right hon. Friend make of this controversial assessment, and what are his predictions for the future of Hong Kong as an international financial centre and the implications for both London and British interests?
I thank my hon. Friend, who makes a very important point. Of course, the success of Hong Kong—the entrepreneurial spirit, the vibrancy, the economic success—has been built on its autonomy in the one country, two systems paradigm. That clearly is under threat if China, as we now fear, has enacted the legislation and our worst fears in terms of the substantive detail are borne out; and of course it would be bad news for all international businesses, but, fundamentally, not just for the people of Hong Kong but for China. That is why, even at this stage, we would urge China to step back from the brink, respect the rights of the people of Hong Kong and live up to its international obligations through the joint declaration and to the international community.
China passed the national security law today. It is a direct challenge to the joint declaration and undermines not only the promises made to us, but those that we made to the people of Hong Kong. The Foreign Secretary told me in the House a few weeks ago that at its application, Britain would act. That law comes into force tomorrow. He must not waiver. Will he fulfil his promise to BNO passport holders? Will he stop dragging his feet on the Magnitsky legislation that he was once so keen to champion and give us a firm date? Will he confirm that this has now changed the Government’s thinking on Huawei? He said just a few weeks ago that we would
“live up to our responsibilities…to the people of Hong Kong”.—[Official Report, 13 January 2020; Vol. 669, c. 769.]
It would be extraordinary were the UK to turn back now. We must live up to those responsibilities.
I thank the hon. Lady for her support for the Government’s position, which, as we have already made clear, if once the national security legislation is published—she has not seen it because I have not seen it and it has not been translated yet—[Interruption.] Yes, but she has not seen the legislation, so I think the right thing to do is to wait to see it, but as we have made clear, if it is as we expect then it would be not just a challenge, as she said, to the joint declaration; it would be a violation of the joint declaration. It would undermine the autonomy of the people of Hong Kong and the freedoms. I welcome her support. It is incredibly— [Interruption.] She says that it is weak; she has not read the legislation—she cannot have done because it has not been published. [Interruption.] No, so how can she say that it is weak? I have already made a commitment to the House that I will come here to make sure that all hon. Members can be updated, not just on what we will do on BNOs, which I can confirm we fully intend to see through, but any other action we want to take with our international partners.
West Bank: Planned Annexation
The UK’s position is clear: we oppose any unilateral annexation. It would be a breach of international law and risk undermining peace efforts. The Prime Minister has conveyed our position to Prime Minister Netanyahu on multiple occasions, including in a phone call in February and a letter last month. The UK’s position remains the same: we support a negotiated two-state solution based on 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as a shared capital and a pragmatic, agreed settlement for refugees.
Current sanctions are clearly not working as a deterrent for Israel’s plan to annex the west bank illegally. Strong words at this point are a betrayal of the Palestinian people—they need actions. Can the Minister outline what action the Government will take against annexation?
In 1980, the UN Security Council condemned Israel’s illegal annexation of East Jerusalem and, in ’81, its illegal annexation of the Golan Heights. What lesson does the Minister think the Israeli Government took from the failure to see those Security Council resolutions adhered to? Are the UK Government abandoning the Palestinian people, as suggested in a recent open letter by UK charities?
The UK Government remain a friend of Israel and also a friend of the Palestinian people. We have continued to have dialogue both with the leaders of the Palestinian Authority and with the Government of Israel, and we encourage them to work together to come towards an agreed settlement that will see a safe, secure state of Israel alongside a safe, secure and viable Palestinian state. There is still the opportunity for that negotiated settlement to be the outcome, and we will continue working with both the Israelis and the Palestinians to facilitate that.
World leaders are warning of consequences should annexation go ahead, but the silence from this Government has been deafening, so much so that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz says that France is now the world’s “last, best hope” to stop annexation. This really is shameful. I raised my concerns with the US ambassador—has the Minister? Will he commit to a ban on settlement imports and recognise Palestine, as this House voted to do? Forgive me, I may have missed it. If he will not do those things, can he tell us what exactly he is proposing to do?
The UK remains a friend and ally to the state of Israel and a good friend to the Palestinian people. It is tempting—and I am sure it will placate certain voices on the left of the political spectrum—to stamp our feet and bang the table, but we will continue to dissuade a friend and ally in the state of Israel from taking a course of action that we believe will be against its own interests, and we will do so through the most effective means available.
I listened carefully to the previous exchange, and I have much respect for the Minister, but I am not asking him to stamp his feet or bang the table—I am asking him to match the sensible position that he has outlined today on the illegal annexation of the already illegally claimed settlements with some actual action. No amount of warm words and sympathy are going to cut it in this discussion. My party, likewise, is a friend of the two-state solution. We are a friend of the Israeli state, and we are a friend of the Palestinians as well. We want to see a viable solution, but there is a lively debate that we can influence right now within Israel, and we need to put action on the table, not warm words and sympathy. Settlement goods should at the very least be labelled as illegal, and targeted sanctions need to be put on the table to focus the minds of the coalition. I urge him to act, not just talk.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has spoken with his opposite number and other members of the Israeli Government, as have I and indeed our Prime Minister. We are working to dissuade Israel from taking this course of action. There will always be voices in British politics that would jump at any opportunity to bring in sanctions and disinvestment. We do not agree with those voices, and we will continue to work towards a negotiated two-state solution, using the diplomatic means we have at our disposal.
I appreciate that answer, and I would urge more. When Russia illegally occupied Crimea, the UK Government, with our support, implemented sanctions with the international community. We need that sort of action now, and I would urge the Minister to greater efforts than we have heard today.
I reiterated the UK’s position at the UN Security Council on 24 June. I made it clear that annexation would not go unanswered. However, I will not stand at this Dispatch Box in order, as I say, to placate some of the traditional voices in criticism of Israel when the best way forward is to negotiate and speak with a friend and ally, in the Government of Israel, to dissuade them from taking a course of action that we believe is not in their own best interests.
UK Relations with France
On 18 June, we welcomed President Macron and Foreign Minister Le Drian to London to commemorate the 80th anniversary of de Gaulle’s appel. President Macron presented the Légion d’honneur to London and the British people, and also met Their Royal Highnesses the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary held talks with the President and the Foreign Minister. France is a close neighbour, a key ally and a vital partner, and that day in particular really emphasised our country’s shared history and our future joint ambitions. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I continue to have regular phone calls with our French counterparts.
South Kensington is home to a very large and vibrant French community, many of whom now have dual nationality. Will my hon. Friend assure me that, whatever temporary disagreements we may have with France—during, for instance, Brexit negotiations —it will always remain one of our closest and most strategic allies?
I can assure my hon. Friend that France will remain one of our closest and most strategic allies. We will continue to co-operate on security, defence, development and foreign policy. In regard to EU negotiations, as the Prime Minister has made clear, the faster we can reach an agreement the better. We welcome the fact that the EU has agreed an intensified timetable and signed up to a sensible process to take the talks forward.
FCO Staff: Brussels
The UK mission to the EU, the UK delegation to NATO and the British embassy in Brussels collectively employ about 250 staff. UKMis was reinforced to support our exit negotiations, while still defending our continuing interests in EU decision making. UKMis will continue to be our principal interface with the EU after 31 December. The Government have launched an integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, and the future level of resourcing for all three missions will be determined following this review.
It is very disappointing that my hon. Friend has not got a target for the reduction in the number of bureaucrats in Brussels to take effect on 1 January next year. May I suggest that the target might be to reduce the current numbers of 250 down to 50? Can she explain why she does not think that is possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for his follow-up question. As I am sure he would understand, as an independent country we of course want to have representation in Brussels because, after the transition period, what will be so important is promoting UK interests and UK influence overseas.
The UK is deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis and conflict in Yemen. We fully support the UN peace process and urge all parties to engage constructively with it. The UK has shown extensive leadership in this response, committing nearly £1 billion in support to Yemen since the conflict began. I recently conducted a virtual visit to Yemen, meeting special envoy Martin Griffiths, Yemeni Foreign Minister al-Hadrami and Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdul Salam, and I urged all parties to engage with the UN peace process.
I have been contacted by constituents in Clwyd South about the vital importance of the UK’s humanitarian aid to Yemen. Does the Minister agree that the UK Government’s role in Yemen is a prime example of the joined-up foreign policy and development work that will be needed in the new merged Department?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is impossible to separate our development work from our wider diplomatic work. The greatest step forward that we could have for the people of Yemen is for the conflict to cease, so that we can concentrate solely on humanitarian support. Conflict resolution is a classic function of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Indeed, when I speak to the development partners in country, they prioritise conflict resolution, and the work of DFID and the work of the FCO therefore go hand in hand with supporting the people of Yemen.
There is an urgent and desperate need to continue to work to prevent hunger and suffering in Yemen. Please will my right hon. Friend reassure me that the prioritisation of covid, which is absolutely essential, will not come at the expense of some of the world’s most vulnerable people?
I completely agree that the UK’s response to coronavirus is important, but we have not allowed it to distract us from the important international work. I recently announced considerable funding support for the humanitarian work in Yemen. As I say, I have had extensive conversations with parties right across the board, and indeed with regional countries, to support the Saudi ceasefire and encourage the Houthis also to engage with that ceasefire. We will maintain our responsibility —we will match our responsibility to the people of Yemen, and I can absolutely guarantee that that will continue under this Government.
Yemen is facing a humanitarian disaster. According to UNICEF, there are 1.7 million internally displaced children and 2 million children who are acutely malnourished, so what conversations has the Minister had with other Government Departments to ensure that the UK can play its part in addressing this catastrophe?
The hon. Lady highlights the important work of properly connected government when it comes to UK foreign policy. That is absolutely what under- pins the Prime Minister’s integrated review and his announcement of the merger of DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. She is absolutely right to suggest that, in order to protect the people of Yemen most properly, whether young or old, the UK Government must work with a co-ordinated approach. I regularly speak with ministerial colleagues in other Government Departments about Yemen, as well as with our international partners. I thank her for so clearly highlighting why it is important that Government Departments work closely on this, as on other issues.
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office is a huge opportunity for the UK to have an even greater global impact as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic, and also as we prepare to hold the G7 presidency and host COP26 next year.
The Prime Minister thinks that international aid is a giant cashpoint in the sky and the Paymaster General wants to use the aid budget for a new royal yacht, so it is no wonder that 200 non-governmental organisations are against the proposed merger. It has also been claimed that international aid was undermining the diplomatic processes of the Foreign Office, so can the Secretary of State give me the No. 1 example of where foreign aid was used to undermine foreign policy that justifies the abolition of DFID?
I will give him an example if he waits a second. We think we can have a stronger impact if we integrate development policy and the aid budget with foreign policy. A good example is the GAVI summit, where we smashed the target and raised $8.8 billion. That is a great example where, led by the Prime Minister, we brought together our development heart and soul with our diplomatic muscle and reach. That is what we are going to do with this merger.
The Paymaster General suggests spending official development assistance money on another royal yacht, instead of on supporting aid workers and the world-class development NGOs based in the UK that save lives. How does that square with the established commitment that every penny of aid is and will continue to be committed to the sustainable development goals, or are we to expect that definition to fade, along with any substantive connection to the Government’s legal obligation to spend 0.7% of gross national income on overseas aid?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to spending 0.7% of GNI on aid. The examples of GAVI and COP26, the questions on Yemen and this pandemic all illustrate why bringing together all the different aspects of foreign policy—particularly bringing together aid and development policy with the Foreign Office’s network—is an opportunity for us to be bigger than the sum of our parts abroad and to have an even greater impact as a force for good.
The Foreign Secretary is correct that we are starting to manage covid-19 in the north, but in the global south it is causing chaos, decimation and loss of life, as can be seen from the Afghanistan figures today. Will he explain why, when DFID staff are trying their hardest to shore up the global south against covid-19, he has chosen this moment in time to bring forward a confusing, complicated and expensive merger? Is he still looking for the merger to be completed by 1 September? Will the 30% cuts in the ODA budget that the Treasury is asking for be in this financial year or in future spend?
I reassure the hon. Lady that we are still committed to delivering the merger by September. She asks, “Why now?”. The reality is that coronavirus has illustrated just why it is so important to have an integrated and aligned approach. We have achieved a huge amount through the international ministerial groups we have brought together, but it has also shown how much more powerful we can be as a force for good abroad if we bring all those different elements together, such as aid and the foreign policy network. The GAVI summit is one example, but there are others. We have a moral duty to support the most vulnerable countries around the world to protect them against and prevent a second wave, but it is also important to save the United Kingdom from the implications of that.
As chair of the all-party group on Malawi, I hope the Foreign Secretary will join me in welcoming the election of Lazarus Chakwera as the new President. Malawi has benefited from DFID investment in governance and democracy, and from the transparency initiative, for many years, which has perhaps contributed to this peaceful transition of power. What guarantee is there that in merging the two Departments, that kind of work, which DFID was able to specialise in and which might otherwise be forgotten about, will continue to be provided and properly scrutinised?
I join the hon. Gentleman in welcoming the free and fair election in Malawi. It is really important that such things take place in countries that do not have a history or pedigree of democratic transitions. While I agree with him entirely about that, I am afraid that I do not agree with the assumption in his question. From Kenya to Nigeria in Africa, let alone more broadly across the world, the experience in our missions is that we are most effective when we fully integrate and align the development aims and aid budget with the wider foreign policy strategy. That streamlining is precisely what the merger will help us do across the board.
May I welcome the words of my right hon. Friend this morning? When he listens to the different aid agencies that have supported the merger, such as the Carronbridge-based HALO Trust, does he realise that what they offer is a real change in how we do foreign policy, not just a change in the way we integrate foreign policy and aid at home? Having a forward-leaning, multinational organisation like DFID shaping the way our diplomats act and our embassies respond is a real opportunity to update the way the Foreign Office acts; it is not just about bringing the two Departments together.
I thank my hon. Friend, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is right to quote the HALO Trust. He is right that this is an opportunity. Indeed, it will mean significant cultural change for the FCO, not just for DFID. We want to merge and innovate to bring something that is, as I say, the sum of our parts, but also something different. In fact, just one of 29 OECD countries has a separate Development Ministry. I have been talking to the likes of Paul Collier and Professor Stefan Dercon about how we can achieve this in the way that delivers the best impact, particularly in relation to poverty reduction and things like climate change.
I am concerned by reports that as part of the DFID merger, the Government have agreed to pause all new aid spending, including the conflict, stability and security fund. At a moment of such global insecurity, that would be an extraordinary decision. In a week when the Government have fired their national security adviser, are stalling on re-establishing the Intelligence and Security Committee, and are delaying the Russia report, can the Secretary of State at least give me a cast-iron guarantee that conflict, stability and security funding will continue to be applied to new projects and that this Government are taking national security seriously?
I can reassure the hon. Lady that conflict prevention—humanitarian aid—is going to remain, if not be elevated, as one of the key strategic priorities of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. There has been no sustained pause, but we are having a review based on the economic figures that will apply given the impact of covid-19 on GNI. That will make sure that we can prioritise the aid budget in the places that need it most. I would have thought, if she is serious about this, that she would welcome that.
South China Sea
The United Kingdom is disturbed by reports of militarisation, coercion and intimidation in the South China sea. We note the presence of a Chinese research vessel in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in April and May this year, close to a Malaysian-contracted drilling operation. This has raised tensions in the region. We take no sides in sovereignty disputes. We are clear that the best way to reduce tensions in the South China sea is for all parties to resolve their disputes peacefully in accordance with the UN convention on the law of the sea. In May this year, officials raised our concerns directly with China about the recent incidents in the South China sea.
I am grateful for that reply, but it misses the bigger picture. China is tightening its grip on the South China sea, turning places such as the Spratly islands and Paracel islands into military bases, yet the west simply looks on. The UN has confirmed that this activity is actually illegal. Maritime shipping is now denied. The next step will be the airspace, and following that will be the fact that Taiwan will become all the more vulnerable. Can the Minister confirm that the UK does not approve of the nine-dash line and that we need to be more robust in standing up to China, which is taking advantage of the west’s risk-averseness?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He has a great deal of experience in this area. With regard to the nine-dash line, as I have said previously, we do not take a position on the underlying sovereignty claims in the South China sea, but we do urge all parties to be transparent: they need to clarify the extent and the legal basis of their claims. UNCLOS provides a comprehensive legal order for the seas and oceans. Any claim should be set out in a way that is consistent with UNCLOS and its arbitration rulings.
From the Himalayas to the South China sea, Beijing’s aggressive expansionism could have serious consequences for our national security, and yet our Government are absent from the global stage. The Chinese Communist party respects strength and unity and is contemptuous of weakness and division, but successive Conservative Governments since 2010 have been naive and complacent, and Beijing has exploited these weaknesses. Will the Government be making a robust statement of support for Taiwan given that Taiwanese airspace is repeatedly being buzzed by Chinese fighter jets? What steps are the Government taking to forge alliances with key partners in the EU, NATO and the Asia-Pacific democracies to build an international consensus that will enable us to push back against Beijing’s increasingly belligerent behaviour?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s question. I do not necessarily agree that we have remained silent on this; in fact, we have been leading the international community. He was present yesterday during the urgent question on the human rights violations in Xinjiang. Our approach to China remains clear-eyed, and it is rooted in our values and beliefs. It has always been the case that where we have concerns, we raise them, and where we need to intervene, we will intervene.
Covid-19: Overseas Territories
We will always stand by the overseas territories. Government Departments, led by DFID and the FCO, are supporting them to respond to the pandemic. Baroness Sugg, the Minister for the Overseas Territories, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), are in regular contact with political leaders and governors to assess the situation and identify how the UK Government can best support them. So far, we have procured and delivered medical supplies to all inhabited overseas territories except Pitcairn, which has had no cases of covid-19. That includes delivering testing systems to six territories, enabling them to test for coronavirus for the first time, and boosting testing capabilities in three others.
I can confirm that we are working with the overseas territories to support their healthcare systems. In addition to the medical supplies and testing equipment that I mentioned, specialist health professionals from Public Health England provide ongoing advice and support to chief medical officers in each territory, and we have supported a number of them to recruit additional medical personnel.
South Derbyshire residents care about our deep relationship with our overseas territories, so will my hon. Friend update the House on what security assistance has been provided to the overseas territories to ensure that the UK Government are safe- guarding the wellbeing of their people?
It is great to answer a question from my predecessor, who did such a fantastic job as Minister for Asia. It is great to see her live this morning, albeit digitally. The UK Government take their responsibility to protect the safety and security of the people of the overseas territories very seriously. The Ministry of Defence and the Home Office have provided in-territory support to the Turks and Caicos Islands through a security assistance team of military personnel and police liaison officers. Twenty-nine additional military personnel supported Turks and Caicos to counter illegal migration from Haiti, which risks undermining the covid-19 response. Another team is in the Cayman Islands providing reassurance, security and logistics planning for covid-19, and we must also be conscious of the potential for hurricane responses in those areas.
Official Development Assistance Budget
We continue to spend 0.7% of our gross national income on aid, and that is enshrined in law. We will continue to be guided by the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015, including a commitment to spending on reducing poverty, and we believe we will be stronger in that aim as one Department.
The Secretary of State will soon be responsible for a sizeable amount of official development aid, so can the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State for the future FCDO will be bound by the same rules for aid spending as the current International Development Secretary, including the four key Acts of Parliament that currently govern international development?
Those with long memories will remember the Pergau dam scandal of the 1990s, where the High Court found that the Government had unlawfully provided aid in exchange for a lucrative arms contract. That was one reason why the Labour Government made the Department for International Development a separate and independent Department from the Foreign Office. What steps will the Government be taking to ensure that we do not see a repeat of the Pergau dam scandal in the future?
The UK is rightly proud of its commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on international aid. The decision by the Government to merge these Departments has been met with criticism by some world-leading international development charities. Former Prime Ministers have also criticised the decision, with David Cameron describing it as a “mistake”. Our international aid commitment can and does save lives, so will the Minister confirm that the budget for international aid will be ring-fenced within a future Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office?
We are bound by law to spend 0.7%, so it is not a choice; it is in the law, and we will obey the law. I was one of David Cameron’s Ministers in the Foreign Office in that period, and I found a lack of joined-up thinking. I worked well with DFID, but I think this will work better as one Department and it has already worked better with a Joint Minister.
Since the last oral questions, I have called on China, with our international partners, to adhere to its international obligations to respect the autonomy and freedom of the people of Hong Kong; we have welcomed President Macron to the UK from France to celebrate and pay tribute on the 80th anniversary of General de Gaulle’s appel; and I met E3 partners in Berlin last week to discuss Iran, the middle east peace process and ongoing negotiations in relation to Brexit.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that on Yemen we absolutely are part of the solution. I visited Saudi Arabia, where I had the chance not just to meet Saudi Ministers and members of the royal family, but to talk to the President of Yemen. We are fully supporting Martin Griffiths’ work as the UN envoy, and this is an exceptional example of where we can bring our aid budget—the significant contributions that we make—to alleviate the humanitarian plight, while also trying to resolve the broader conflict.
I am not going to be drawn down the tempting line offered by my hon. Friend, but he is right to say that the merger of our aid budget, and the heart and soul of our development expertise, with the Foreign Office network, and the diplomatic clout and muscle that we can contribute, will make our foreign policy more effective. I think I can give him a crumb of reassurance, which is that trade commissioners will be directly accountable to the ambassador or high commissioner in the specific post. That will make sure that we are more aligned and joined up, country by country, in the way he has described.
In the wake of revelations about potential Russian exploitation of the covid-19 pandemic here in the UK and press reports in recent days that Russian officials have paid bounties for British troops in Afghanistan—who have served for more than 10 years in that most dangerous region—does the Secretary of State accept that the Government’s failure to produce the Russia report, which everyone in this House has been waiting for, shows just how weak the Government are on national security?
First, I know that the hon. Lady would not expect me to comment on intelligence matters or, indeed, intelligence matters from other countries. I can tell her that right across the board we work with our Five Eyes partners on some of the nefarious activities that Russia is engaged in. We work very closely, through our security presence in Afghanistan, to protect all our staff and British nationals. The Intelligence and Security Committee report of course awaits the formation of the new ISC, but I understand that it will be published shortly.
Not only have we had advice from the JBC in relation to the review of quarantine and the potential exemptions, but it has also helped to inform the approach on travel advice. There are of course strict legal requirements that we must go through when we revise travel advice. We are considering exempting certain countries and certain territories, and we will update our travel advice shortly. Indeed, I believe my right hon. Friend will find that the Secretary of State for Transport will today publish a written ministerial statement that will give further updates.
I know that the hon. Gentleman follows this issue assiduously. I have raised with the Indian Foreign Minister issues in relation to human rights in Kashmir. We continue to regard it as a bilateral dispute that needs to be resolved between Pakistan and India, but the issues the hon. Gentleman has raised are important, we are concerned about them and we do raise them with the Indian Government.
As I set out in my statement on 19 June, in relation to cyber-attacks we stand shoulder to shoulder with our Australian close friends, partners and allies. We work closely across all Five Eyes partners to strengthen our resilience, and that applies in relation to cyber-attacks from not only state actors but, increasingly, non-state actors as well.
The UK Government’s commitment to Yemen is unwavering. We welcome the ceasefire announcement from Saudi Arabia, and we encourage the Houthis to engage with that peace initiative and to cease their attacks into Saudi. As I say, we support the work of the United Nations special envoy and will continue not only to discharge our humanitarian duties to the people of Yemen but to work at a diplomatic level to bring about a permanent end to the conflict.
I thank my hon. Friend, who I know has been a stalwart champion of freedom of speech ever since we both entered the House. I reassure him. I spoke to Amal Clooney about the case; Maria Ressa was her client and worked very closely with her. I know that the Minister for Asia has raised this with the ambassador from the Philippines. I also discussed the case with Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State.
More broadly, there are three elements of our strategy for preserving media freedom around the world. We have a joint campaign with the Canadians to strengthen media freedoms and protect journalists. We are championing freedom of religious belief around the world and I will shortly—certainly before the summer recess—be bringing the new Magnitsky legislation to this House, both the legal regime and the first designations we will be adopting.
I have spoken to President Abbas and Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, as well as Prime Minister Netanyahu previously. We make clear that the United Kingdom’s consistent position—in fairness, across all sides of this House—is that we want to see a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. We acutely feel that the vacuum without talks is very dangerous. We want to see talks proceed. That is why we are working with those partners in the region, Arab countries and the E3.
Let me be absolutely crystal clear to the House: we have made clear that any annexation, partial or full, in relation to further territory in the occupied territories and the west bank would be both contrary to international law and counterproductive to peace.
The UK’s position on imported goods from Israel remains unchanged. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has highlighted, we oppose annexation. We have made it clear to the Government of Israel that we regard it as contrary to international law, and also not in their own interests. That position will remain unchanged.
I agree with my hon. Friend in relation to the concerns he has raised about Iran’s conduct. We do want to keep the joint comprehensive plan of action. We would like to do better and we think there is an opportunity to do better in the future, but that is what we have got now. In order to hold Iran’s feet to the fire and to hold them to account, the United Kingdom, with our French and German partners, triggered the dispute resolution mechanism. I was in Berlin last week for E3 consultations about how we will approach this issue and how we will continue to hold Iran to account. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we will strive with all of our international partners to continue the arms embargo on Iran.
I am not sure I caught all of that, but I think I caught the gist. One of the things that covid-19 has shown is the need for global co-operation and, frankly, the good co-operation we have had with some that might ostensibly seem unlikely partners. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my Cuban opposite number, who during the coronavirus challenge provided proactive support to ensure that we could get passengers off the Braemar cruise ship—I think I am correct in saying there were something like 600 passengers at very high risk and a significant number of people with coronavirus symptoms—and back to the United Kingdom to the care they needed. We certainly welcome all of that collaboration.
The Foreign Office has put an incredible amount of work in. If the hon. Lady looks at the number of UK nationals who have been returned, it is over 1 million because of the work we did to keep commercial flights going. There were also the special charter flights we commissioned. We put £75 million in and tens of thousands of people got home via that route. I think we have had one of the most proactive and effective responses. It has been very difficult. We have also made sure there are loans for those who would otherwise be stranded. I am proud of the work across Government, but particularly from the consular division of the Foreign Office, to look after British nationals in their time of need.