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Topical Questions

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2020

Since the last oral questions, I have opened the first ministerial meeting of the global Media Freedom Coalition of 37 countries, which the UK co-chairs alongside Canada; I have spoken to Prime Minister Abiy of Ethiopia to call for an urgent ceasefire in the Tigray region; and worked with my Five Eyes counterparts to issue a joint statement expressing serious concern regarding China’s imposition of new rules to disqualify legislators in Hong Kong.

Will the Secretary of State identify opportunities to pressure the Chinese Government into ratifying the forced labour convention, the abolition of forced labour convention, and the 2014 protocol to the forced labour convention, allowing the UK to be sure that supply chains being used by UK businesses and government are in no way supporting the Chinese Government’s persecution of the Uyghurs? Does he agree that if UK business cannot get a full assurance, they should preferably onshore their supply chains back to UK plc?

I warmly welcome the spirit of my hon. Friend’s question, although I think we need to be realistic about what China is going to be willing to sign up to. Therefore, for our part, we work very closely with UK businesses. It is very important—a hallmark of global Britain—that our businesses conduct themselves with integrity. We were the first country to produce a national action plan on the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, and the first country, with the Modern Slavery Act 2015, to ask businesses to report on their supply chains and how they could be affected. We are very proud of our international leadership in this area.

Our existing 0.7% aid commitment sends

“a strong signal that the UK is a reliable partner for long-term economic, social, environmental and educational advancement across the globe”,

and this is “cheaper than fighting wars”—not my words but those of the CBI and the former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Lord David Richards. Does the Secretary of State agree that rowing back on our promise to the world’s poorest people would jeopardise our soft power status ahead of the year when the UK will host the G7 and COP26, and will he recommit to his manifesto pledge, made exactly a year ago today, to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid?

ODA and our aid budget will remain at the absolute centre of the work we do as a force for good. I am afraid that we will have to wait for the spending review to hear what the Chancellor has to say on that.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the aggressive language from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, saying that the west “should beware of their eyes being poked and blinded”,demonstrates that country’s contempt for freedom and democracy and that now is the time for stringent actions, including targeted sanctions? If the current sanctions regime does not allow for the targeting of those responsible for what is happening in Hong Kong, will the Government consider new regulations that target those authority figures who are truly guilty, not innocent Hongkongers? (909211)

I totally share my hon. Friend’s objective. With the Magnitsky sanctions, the key thing is to target those directly responsible. That requires evidence, and we work very closely with all our international partners to share our experience and compare notes in relation to that. The recent comments follow on from the solidarity that we as Five Eyes, alongside the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, have shown in relation to human rights, in particular in Hong Kong. It also follows on from the wider caucus of 39 countries that backed the UK in the UN Third Committee on not only Hong Kong but the issue of Xinjiang.

Christians, Muslims and others have been persecuted for their faith across India. What are the UK Government doing to ensure that people have freedom of religion and belief worldwide? (909215)

My hon. Friend is right to raise that. Protecting and promoting the freedom of religion or belief is an important part of our bilateral and multilateral relationships, and we do not shy away from acting on our concerns. We continue to deliver the recommendations of the report by the Bishop of Truro. Of the 22 recommendations, we have fully delivered 10 and made good progress on another seven, and we are on track to deliver all 22 by the time of the three-year review in mid-2022.

It was reported last week that the Government are considering reducing our international aid spending from 0.7% to 0.5% of our GNI, despite that being a commitment enshrined in UK law and a firm Conservative manifesto promise. Does the Secretary of State agree that the pandemic landscape has changed things in such a way that this spending is probably needed now more than ever, and the FCDO must build up the resilience of vulnerable and developing countries to tackle current and future pandemics? Is the 0.7% commitment written in stone? (909212)

The hon. Gentleman is right to point to the important work that we do through ODA and on development. The Prime Minister hosted the Gavi summit, working with countries around the world to ensure that there is equitable access to a new vaccine. In relation to the 0.7% commitment and our future ODA spending, I am afraid he will have to wait for the spending review tomorrow.

My right hon. Friend is aware of my concern about the economic collapse that the pandemic has caused in some of the world’s most important conservation areas and the resulting increase in poaching and the illegal wildlife trade in many areas. Could he reassure me that, over the coming weeks and months, he will target more of our aid budget at helping communities in those areas, protecting wildlife and tackling the illegal trade, which is damaging so much of our conservation? (909219)

The full extent of the impact of covid-19 on the illegal wildlife trade is not known, but my right hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. We know that it is a serious crime undertaken by organised criminal networks. We have contributed £250 million to the Global Environment Facility, which runs the world’s biggest programme to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. He will understand that I am not able to give full details of future ODA spending commitments at this point.

Tomorrow is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, as declared by the United Nations. British citizen Caitlin McNamara has spoken publicly about being seriously sexually assaulted by Sheikh Nayhan, the United Arab Emirates Minister of tolerance. Has the Foreign Secretary raised that case with his counterparts in the UAE and demanded action on it? Have the Government looked at using Magnitsky sanctions, given that this gentleman is based in the UK and has property here? What are the Government doing in this case to show that it is not just words but deeds that matter when it comes to gender-based violence? (909213)

The FCDO takes all reports of sexual assaults abroad extremely seriously. Miss McNamara had a deeply distressing experience in the UAE earlier this year. Consular officials from the embassy supported her when she reported the incident to them, and the FCDO consular staff are standing by to do everything they can to support Miss McNamara and her legal team.

My right hon. Friend will know that we enjoy very close security and other relationships with the United States of America. This will indeed have been strengthened by the Prime Minister’s announcement to increase defence spending and, of course, our membership of the Five Eyes. However, my right hon. Friend will know that this morning the Dunn family lost their appeal against the Foreign Office regarding the recall of Anne Sacoolas to the United Kingdom to face trial for death through dangerous driving. Could my right hon. Friend make a statement about that, and does he think that, with the change of Administration, she might now be able to come back to the United Kingdom? (909220)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this case. He is right to say that the High Court has found that the Foreign Office behaved lawfully, properly and in good faith throughout. However, I appreciate that, as he will know, that will be no solace to the family, who are still very much grieving for the loss of their precious son. We have made it very clear that we are on side of the Dunn family. We have consistently called for Anne Sacoolas to return. We will continue to do so, including, as my hon. Friend asked, in relation to the new Administration. I also negotiated the change of the arrangements as they affect the Croughton base so a case like this—an injustice like this—cannot happen in the future. In relation to the claim that the family are bringing in the US, I have made it clear that we are willing to support it in various ways.

Kenyan Government pensions in respect of service often decades ago have not been paid since early last year. A cross-party group with constituents affected has just written to the Minister for Africa—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge)—about this. Will the Minister meet us to discuss what more can be done to ensure that payments do resume and that the arrears due are paid as well? (909216)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who I know always raises this case and these issues very assiduously and conscientiously. Of course, I will make sure that he can have a meeting with the Africa Minister to look at what further we in the FCDO can do.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to fighting disease abroad, and I have personally seen the benefits that UK projects have brought to parts of Africa affected by malaria. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the £500 million investment by the UK in tackling malaria is both a welcome step against disease abroad and a benefit at home? (909222)

I thank my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. The UK is a founding member of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Malaria deaths have halved since 2002. That is an incredible achievement, and vital to bringing stability and hope to those countries affected.

The human rights abuses that Kashmiri people have faced over generations are unacceptable. The 2018 and 2019 United Nations human rights reports documented the scale of these abuses, and since August 2019 things have only got worse. Just last week, shelling between India and Pakistan—two nuclear powers—across the line of control saw at least 15 people killed. This follows on from escalating tensions between India and China in the Galwan valley since the summer. Kashmiris feel that they have been abandoned by the international community, including the UK. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to contribute to an international coalition to support India and Pakistan in negotiations on de-escalating the immediate crisis, and will he commit to targeting development funding to support Kashmiris? (909217)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and for her continued emphasis in this regard. These matters about the region of Kashmir have to be settled bilaterally between Pakistan and India. What I can say is that we do raise this issue at every opportunity with both authorities. I am more than happy to ask the Minister for South Asia to meet the hon. Lady, so that she can get a deeper insight into the actions that the Government are taking.

Will the Secretary of State comment on the FCDO’s activities promoting Wales in the world, particularly around the time of St David’s day each year? What other Wales-focused activities does it conduct in its embassies and diplomatic missions globally? (909224)

An important part of the work we do involves promoting all four corners of the United Kingdom. We do that in our post through a celebration of St David’s day, as well as other national festivals, and we do it all round the world. Through the GREAT UK Challenge Fund, the FCDO promotes Welsh businesses and Welsh culture. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that in the last financial year we supported 40 projects promoting the devolved nations, including 14 in Wales, and with the Department for International Trade we helped to attract 62 foreign direct investment projects, creating 2,736 new jobs. That demonstrates the value to the people of Wales of the United Kingdom Government, including in their foreign policy.

    The International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed that Iran is building an underground nuclear facility, and that its enriched uranium stockpiles are now more than 12 times the limit set out in the 2015 nuclear deal. Given those facts, will the Minister confirm to the House that in the event of continued non-compliance by the Iranian regime, the UK is prepared to consider sanctions? (909225)

I was in Berlin yesterday for an E3 meeting with my French and German counterparts on exactly that issue, and on how we are taking forward accountability within the scope of the joint comprehensive plan of action. More than 200 EU sanctions are listed in place against Iran, and with our E3 partners we are continuing the JCPOA to maintain and constrain Iran’s nuclear programme as best we can. We are looking to re-engage with the new US Administration, to see how we can strengthen that even further.

The Minister for Europe is aware that my 18-year-old constituent, Tom Channon, tragically died at the Eden Roc complex in Mallorca in July 2018. That followed a similar death of Tomas Hughes, just weeks earlier. I believe there is a strong criminal case to be pursued for prosecution for negligence, and on 10 July this year I wrote to the president of the provincial court. I have pursued the matter persistently, but I still have not received a reply. Covid will have played a part, but does the Minister agree that waiting five months after the deaths of two 18-year-olds, two years earlier, is wholly unacceptable?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise that case. Deaths abroad of our constituents are always tragic, and our consular staff at post have spoken with the president of the provisional court in Palma. We have asked him for a response to my right hon. Friend’s letter. He is right to point out that there are some enormous workloads as a result of the covid pandemic, but the president has assured us that he will respond to the letter in due course. We will continue to push on behalf of my right hon. Friend and his constituents.

Given that the Rajapaksa Government in Sri Lanka have effectively withdrawn from the commitments that the country made at the UN Human Rights Council, can we count on the Foreign Secretary to show the leadership we need to secure a new UN resolution, and ensure the prosecution of historical war crimes and accountability for previous human rights abuses, as well as an effective challenge to the present Government for ongoing human rights abuses?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue and I applaud his work with the all-party group for Tamils, alongside that of other colleagues. We will work closely with our international partners and the Human Rights Council on how best to take forward this important issue. The Minister responsible for Sri Lanka, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, raised a number of those concerns, including the harassment of civil society and the militarisation of civilian functions, when he spoke with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister on 5 November. We have been clear in our support for the UNHRC framework, both in our discussions with the Government of Sri Lanka and with the UNHRC in February, June and September.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has witnessed the most appalling attacks and bullying by the dictatorial Chinese Government against Australia, including sanctions just because it asked for an independent inquiry into the covid issue. We stand together with our oldest friend and ally, so will the Secretary of State please now publicly condemn the actions of China, and support Australia at this very difficult time?

We stand absolutely shoulder to shoulder with Australia. I had exchanges with Marise Payne, the Australian Foreign Minister, at the weekend, and as we have shown, not just on the issue that my right hon. Friend has mentioned, but on Hong Kong, with the Five Eyes alliance, we will always stand shoulder to shoulder to make sure that we protect our key interests, protect our values, and show the solidarity that he expects and requires.

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.

Sitting suspended.