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Topical Questions

Volume 679: debated on Tuesday 8 September 2020

Since the last oral questions session, on 25 August I visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to press for a new dialogue and to reinforce the UK’s commitment to a negotiated two-state solution. On 2 September, we launched the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to integrate our aid expertise and our diplomatic reach and to project global Britain as an even stronger force for good in the world.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the case of Ye Ming Yuen in Singapore, and will he ensure that the Government continue to raise our objections to the use of corporal punishment all over the world?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and our staff continue to support Mr Yuen and his family during what must be a very distressing time. I can tell her and reaffirm that the United Kingdom’s long-standing global position is to oppose corporal punishment in all circumstances and to call for the consideration of alternative sentences.

In the last six months, the Foreign Secretary has publicly reminded Iran, Israel, China and Russia of their obligations under international law. I agree with him, so does he agree with me and with the most senior legal official in Government, who has behaved with honour and principle this morning, that when the Prime Minister briefs that he will unilaterally tear up our international obligations under the withdrawal agreement, it undermines our moral authority, harms our national interest and makes a mockery of the Foreign Secretary’s attempts to stand up for international law? Will he assure the House that he, as the Foreign Secretary, will never vote for amendments that violate our international obligations?

I obviously respect all the brilliant civil servants who work for us. I used to work as a Foreign Office lawyer myself. I can say to the hon. Lady that I am surprised she would open up this question. As we go through the uncertainty of changing our relationship with the EU, we will make sure that there is maximum certainty for businesses as regards the UK internal market, and of course we will legislate to that effect. Ultimately, we will take every measure necessary to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom and to comply with and live up to the Good Friday agreement, ensuring that it is respected. I am surprised she is not supporting that.

The right hon. Gentleman clearly does not read the newspapers, because his own Government have been briefing the precise opposite. Let me try him on another international obligation. An international arbitration ruling determined that the UK owes a debt to Iran, which has not yet been paid. In a letter to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family last week, the Defence Secretary said that the UK

“acknowledges there is a debt to be paid”

and is seeking to find ways to pay it. It is absolutely vital that the Government have a clear and agreed strategy for Nazanin, Anoosheh Ashoori and all dual UK nationals to ensure that they are brought home as soon as possible. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the Defence Secretary, and if so, what steps is he now taking to resolve these heartbreaking cases?

I can tell the House that I had two conversations throughout August with Foreign Minister Zarif. We pursue all the cases of our dual nationals. The question of the International Military Services debt is a parallel issue, but we have always said that we would work to resolve that. As well as all the wider issues that have already been raised in relation to Iran, there is never an engagement, a meeting or a telephone conversation that goes by without our being absolutely clear—and I hope that the hon. Lady agrees—on the appalling and arbitrary detention of all dual nationals and calling for their immediate release.

Given my right hon. Friend’s much enhanced departmental responsibilities, together with Britain’s current chairmanship of the 42-nation Equal Rights Coalition, he has an unprecedented opportunity to reinforce Britain’s claim to leadership in advancing the freedom of all LGBT+ people around the world to be themselves. Britain also has a special responsibility to address the unhappy legacy of the laws and the culture bequeathed by imperial Britain. What measures is he considering for global Britain to take this opportunity, as well as helping to address the legacy of imperial Britain? (905700)

I thank my hon. Friend and hugely welcome all his efforts in this regard. We are taking forward all these strands—from media freedom to the Magnitsky sanctions, to the work that we are doing on LGBT rights. He will know that we intend to build on our current official development assistance allocation for the strategic review on LGBT rights, which will be completed in the autumn. As a founding member of the Equal Rights Coalition of 42 states sharing the same values, in 2019 we took on the role of co-chair and we plan not only to deliver the first ever UK-led five-year action plan, committing the coalition to taking domestic and international measures on LGBT and equality issues, but to expand the ERC and, in particular, to try to draw in more participation from Asia, Latin America and Africa, for all the reasons that he mentioned.

There is clearly a global effort to find a vaccine and treatments for people suffering from covid-19, but what representations have the Foreign Secretary or any of his Ministers made on trying to tackle disinformation on vaccines or in relation to false cures for covid-19? There really needs to be a global effort to tackle the ticking time bomb that is disinformation. (905703)

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the UK has a comparative advantage internationally, with research that is going on at Oxford and Imperial in pursuit of the vaccine and the leadership that the Prime Minister showed at the Gavi summit to smash all the records and get $8.8 billion-worth of funding to ensure equitable access to the whole world. That is good for the United Kingdom—we do not want a second wave globally—and important as a matter of moral responsibility. On misinformation, we have discussed it in the G7 and plenty of other formats, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we must be rigorous and robust in rebutting false information, particularly when it is irresponsible about something such as vaccine safety standards.

May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the exchange of correspondence between our right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and me as Chairman of the Liaison Committee about the continuing scrutiny of the overseas aid budget? I welcome the fact that the Government seem to have withdrawn their proposals simply to merge the International Development Committee with the Foreign Affairs Committee. What possible justification could there be for any reduction in scrutiny by Parliament of this very substantial and complicated budget? [R] (905701)

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does as one of the leading parliamentarians and Select Committee members, and indeed, Chairs. The normal position that the Government take is that Select Committees ought to shadow Departments, but, that said, the representation is ultimately for the House to decide. I welcome all the scrutiny; he will know that not only have we affirmed the role of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact in providing scrutiny and accountability on aid decisions, but I want to review it to make sure that it is focused on what adds the most value and that its critical analysis is followed by practical recommendations.

The Government embarked on and rushed through an unnecessary and expensive merger of the FCO and DFID right at the time when UK aid is needed most overseas. Despite repeated requests from my office, it appears that the Government either do not know what the merger will cost or are not willing to say. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether or not any estimate of merger costs was made prior to the merger’s announcement in June? (905707)

First, on the issue of timing, covid has shown precisely why we need to integrate more in respect of our international endeavours. That was true in relation to the combination between research for a vaccine, the Gavi summit and the misinformation that was asked about earlier. On the cost of the merger, we envisage that, notwithstanding our commitment to 0.7%, over the long term—over the course of the comprehensive spending review—we can make considerable savings on administrative costs as we streamline, fuse and synergise the various different aspects of the previous Departments.

Does my hon. Friend think that Cornwall Council’s staffed office in Brussels is a good use of taxpayers’ money at this time, when the money could be spent on local services? (905702)

As we have left the EU, it is curious for us to have an operation overseas. We have a global network of 280 overseas posts, which represent all parts of the UK, including Cornwall. The decision to operate overseas is one for Cornwall Council and, ultimately, the voters of Cornwall, who I am sure will want at the next local elections to have a say on whether it is a good idea and a good use of their taxpayers’ money.

This summer, I hosted the British South Asian Youth Summit, bringing together more than 150 young people from across south Asia and Britain. They discussed the future, wrote a memorandum of understanding and agreed to work together. Will the Secretary of State meet me and some of those young people to hear their proposals and offer the support of his network to the positive cause of promoting understanding and engagement in the region? (905708)

I thank and pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for an exceptional endeavour. As we depart the EU and forge our way in the world, we ought to have stronger relationships with that part of the world. I would be very interested in receiving directly those proposals and ideas, and would make sure that either I or the Minister for the region meets the hon. Gentleman and those involved.

The UN embargo on the sale of conventional weapons to Iran expires in October. Unless it is extended, Iran will no doubt have more access to weapons to use to oppress its own people and spread death and terror through proxies such as Hezbollah, so why did the UK abstain on a resolution to extend the embargo? What action is the Foreign Secretary going to take to make sure that it stays in place? (905704)

My right hon. Friend will know that the resolution that was tabled garnered only two votes in the UN Security Council. The UK’s position is clear: we want to see the continuation of the arms embargo. It has to get through the Security Council, frustrating as that may be. We have offered our good offices; indeed, had time been allowed between the original tabling of the resolution and the vote, we had offered, with the E3, to work with all the permanent members of the Security Council to try to find a compromise. Ultimately, unless the resolution can pass, it has no impact in restraining Iran.

Nearly 80% of the Uyghur Muslim population has vanished since 2016, as a result of either detainment in concentration camps or forced disappearance. The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales has detailed disturbing covert drone footage showing Uyghurs blindfolded and taken on to trains. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State outline what steps his Department is taking to hold the Chinese Government to account for these heinous crimes? Will he confirm today that the Government will call for an impartial international investigation into what is taking place in Xinjiang? (905709)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and he is absolutely right to raise it. We have serious concerns about gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, including the extrajudicial detention of over 1 million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in political re-education camps—as they have been referred to. We are playing a leading role in holding China to account for its widespread violations of human rights. On 30 June, the UK led a joint statement on behalf of 27 other countries at the UN Human Rights Council about the situation in Xinjiang. Finally, the Foreign Secretary has again raised Xinjiang with his Chinese Foreign Minister counterpart.

The JCPOA—joint comprehensive plan of action—deal did not include terms relating to Iran’s financing of terrorism and development of ballistic missiles. As Iran appears to have both breached its nuclear commitments and allowed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to intervene violently across the region, does my right hon. Friend agree that a new deal addressing these issues is vitally needed? (905705)

My hon. Friend will know that, along with our E3 colleagues, we have triggered the dispute resolution mechanism for the JCPOA on the nuclear side. It has always been the case that the JCPOA did not encompass the wider destabilising activities in which Iran engages in the region through militias and proxies, and we have always been open and willing, and indeed pressing, to try to incorporate a bigger agreement. But it is also right to say that until there is scope for that wider agreement, what we have is the JCPOA, which provides the vehicle for some kind of restraint on Iran, although I accept that it has been eroded because of systemic non-compliance. We would be reluctant to move to something bigger until it is in place, and should not lose sight of what the JCPOA adds.

It is two years since President Mnangagwa took office in Zimbabwe, yet progress in human rights reform has been non-existent. In the past year alone 70 critics of the Zimbabwean Government have been abducted and tortured by security forces; what steps is the FCDO taking to engage with the Zimbabwean authorities to progress reforms and ensure that those responsible for human rights violations are brought to justice? (905711)

I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the situation in Zimbabwe. We follow it carefully and engage with our international partners as well as directly with the Government of Zimbabwe. Working with our partners, we have the tools, if the evidence allows and we decide it is the right thing to do, to apply targeted sanctions to those who commit the most egregious human rights abuses.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.