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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2021

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Poverty-focused Aid

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has a new strategic framework for official development assistance that focuses on poverty and delivery of sustainable development goals. Specifically, our priorities will be climate, biodiversity, covid, global health, girls’ education, science and research, open societies, conflict, humanitarian assistance directly and trade.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. With international development spending already falling in line with the country’s drop in gross national income, and given the Chancellor’s deplorable plan to slash the UK’s commitment to the world’s poorest still further, it is more important than ever that UK ODA spending directly reaches developing countries and the communities and individuals in those countries who need it most. Could the Minister explain what criteria are being used to ensure that poverty alleviation is prioritised in decisions on spending? How are the Government planning to consult civil society on this?

I can reassure the hon. Lady that the UK Government remain one of the most generous donors in relation to ODA, with more than £10 billion focused on poverty reduction. Clearly, we will consult with civil society and non-governmental organisations; Lord Ahmad has recently done that, and we will all continue to do that. In addition, £1.3 billion has been focused specifically on covid, and more than 300 programmes have been repurposed to deal with covid issues.

Global poverty has risen for the first time in more than 20 years, and by the end of this year, it is estimated that there will be more than 150 million people in extreme poverty. Against that backdrop, the UK Government recklessly abolished the Department for International Development, they are reneging on their 0.7% of GNI commitment, and they do not even mention eradicating poverty in the seven global challenges that UK aid is to be focused on. Can the Minister explicitly commit to eradicating poverty within the new official development assistance framework, rather than pursuing inhumane and devastating cuts as part of the Prime Minister’s little Britain vanity project?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we share a passion for international development. These specific targets do aim to alleviate and eradicate poverty, but the causes of poverty and the solutions to it are complex. That is why the merger of the Departments works, dealing with development and diplomacy alongside one another to overcome the scourge of poverty, which, sadly, has increased not decreased as a result of covid. The joined-up Department will help in the objectives that he and I care so passionately about.

UN Human Rights Council: Sri Lanka

What steps he plans to take at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2021 in response to (a) Sri Lanka’s recent withdrawal from its human rights obligations under resolution 30/1 and (b) forced cremations of people who die from covid-19 in Sri Lanka. (910975)

We are disappointed at Sri Lanka’s withdrawal of support for resolution 30/1; we made that clear in statements at the United Nations Human Rights Council in February, June and September 2020. We are working with international partners and have had discussions with the Sri Lankan Government on how to take this forward at the UNHRC in March. We are committed to the principles of the resolution, and our approach to Sri Lanka will be a priority for the UK at the HRC over the next few months.

The UK’s leadership on the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka, in terms of both historical and ongoing human rights abuses, has been critical. We saw, whether through David Miliband as Foreign Secretary or David Cameron as Prime Minister, the importance of leadership at the very highest level. What specifically will the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister do as leaders of the core group ahead of that crucial UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March to ensure that the perpetrators of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka do not go unpunished, and that we can look forward to a future based on truth, justice and reconciliation for all the peoples of Sri Lanka?

As I pointed out in my response, we are absolutely committed to the principles of the resolution. My ministerial colleague, Lord Ahmad, discussed human rights and accountability with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister and the high commissioner in November and December respectively. We have spoken with Sri Lankan officials and with Geneva over the last week on these very issues.

We on the Opposition Benches believe that the Government’s foreign policy should be rooted in our country’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law. Therefore, we deeply regret that in February 2020 the Sri Lankan Government withdrew from their Human Rights Council obligations to promote reconciliation and accountability following the country’s devastating civil war. More recently, the Sri Lankan Government have introduced forced cremation for covid-19 victims, a policy that has absolutely no basis in science, rides roughshod over the traditional practices of Sri Lankan religious minorities and has rightly caused hurt and outrage among Muslim and Christian communities across the UK. So I ask the Minister: what steps has he taken to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to end forced cremations, what work is he doing with international partners ahead of the next Human Rights Council session in March to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government re-engages with the peace, reconciliation and accountability process, and what discussions has he had about human rights in the context of UK-Sri Lankan trade deal negotiations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and he is right to raise it. We have shared guidance and scientific background with the Government of Sri Lanka on how the UK has ensured that burials can continue to operate in a safe format within the World Health Organisation guidelines. We also discussed, via my colleague Lord Ahmad, the importance of minority rights with the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister in November. Our high commissioner to Sri Lanka has raised forced cremation several times with the Sri Lankans—most recently, just over a week ago. We continue to speak with Sri Lanka, and have done so within the last week, and with Geneva regarding its commitment to upholding this resolution. We are certainly committed to it, and we will continue that dialogue.

Events at US Capitol

What assessment he has made of the effect of events at the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021 on the state of democracy worldwide. (910976)

What recent discussions he has had with the US Administration on reports of the (a) detention and (b) assault of journalists covering the rioting in Washington, D.C. on 6 January 2021. (911009)

The resumption of Congress and the certification of Joe Biden’s victory on 7 January sent an essential message that the democratic will of the US people cannot be challenged by a violent minority.

In the wake of what happened on Capitol hill, politicians around the world looked on in condemnation at the incendiary language of Mr Trump—without regretting how close a relationship they had formed with the President. Sadly, though, the same cannot be said for political figures in this Government. So I must ask the Foreign Secretary whether he and his party regret cosying up to Trump, kowtowing to him and legitimising him and his racist, climate change-denying rhetoric, or will they remain eclipsed by any populist leader who comes along?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s assertion and caricature are very far from the truth. We made it clear that the scenes by a small but ugly minority in Washington were disgraceful. We also made it clear we had full confidence in the system of checks and balances in the US to provide a definitive result and a smooth transition. We look forward to working with the new Administration.

There were 342 assaults on journalists in America last year and there have been 13 further this year. Will my right hon. Friend work with the new Administration in America to protect the rights of journalists around the world, and also call on social media companies to do more—[Interruption]—not just to tackle harmful disinformation, but to make sure that social media platforms are not used to incite attacks against journalists?

I thank my hon. Friend. I do not know whether that bell came from his end or our end, but in any event it certainly added a bit of flourish to his question.

It’s Amazon, is it? Okay. Thank you, Mr Speaker, as ever.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The press must be allowed to cover events without fear or denial of access. We have discussed our concerns about the violent events that we saw at official level, but also at ministerial level. I have done that myself. I can assure him no British journalists were detained. Of course, working with Canada and others, we have a media freedom coalition, and we certainly look forward to co-operating with the US and many others to pioneer that work through our global leadership year in 2021.

Today, we all utterly condemn the lawless and violent storming of the US Capitol on 6 January, with the FBI identifying the involvement of far-right activists and domestic terrorists. It is clear that, week after week, President Trump’s behaviour, undermining the electoral victory of President-elect Biden, played a key role in inciting the mob. Does the Foreign Secretary believe that this violent episode has damaged democracy, and what urgent steps can be taken to mend the sense that our Government were lukewarm around the election time and failed to uphold the sense of democracy that we all deeply care about?

I say to the hon. Lady that the UK was not lukewarm, and she must have missed the Prime Minister’s statement in which he was very clear that what President Trump should have done—[Interruption.] We do not conduct diplomacy by Twitter, unlike the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy). We were absolutely clear about it. At the same time, we are also confident in the US system of checks and balances, and we are very much looking forward to working with the new Administration.

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

What diplomatic steps he is taking to bring Iran back into compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. (910977)

We are very concerned about Iran’s continued systemic non-compliance with its nuclear commitments, and we have made that clear with our E3 partners, including recently at the ministerial meeting of the joint comprehensive plan of action.

Recent confirmation from the International Atomic Energy Agency that Iran has resumed enriching uranium to 20% purity at its Fordow facility is enormously concerning, and it is arguably the most significant breach of the JCPOA. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that his Department will press the new Administration under President-elect Biden to rejoin the deal, and put much-needed pressure on Iran to return to compliance?

My hon. Friend is right about the risk from the now systemic serial non-compliance from Iran. On 21 December we held a ministerial meeting of the JCPOA ministerial commission, which was an opportunity to set out clearly our position, not just the UK, but with our French and German partners. It is welcome that President-elect Biden and the new Administration have talked about coming back to the JCPOA, and enhancing and strengthening it, and that will be one of the early topics of conversation that we have with the new Administration.

I hope the whole House will join me in welcoming the newest member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on the birth of her second child, which I have just heard about. Before the Secretary of State joins me in offering such congratulations, will he also give some thought to the approach of the new Biden Administration on the Iran deal? He will have read in the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, which was expertly helped by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton, the various thoughts that we put down, including looking at how we can work with regional partners and allies who are deeply concerned by the change of Administration, and perhaps a change of tone in the White House. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Biden Administration, the UK Administration, and our friends and partners in the region work together to ensure that we stop this malevolent dictatorship expanding its evil reach any further?

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee, and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns). I congratulate both parents on their new child—a very happy moment. We are obviously putting a lot of thought into how we engage with the new Administration, including on Iran. The E3 unity that we have shown throughout is a value of strength, and a lever for the United States and the new Administration. My hon. Friend will also be aware that there is a window of opportunity between now and the Iranian presidential elections in early June, to try to make some definitive progress. Against that timeframe we ought to be able to focus minds.

Covid-19 Vaccine Access

What recent steps the Government have taken to help ensure equitable access to covid-19 vaccines for people living in the global south. (910985)

What recent steps the Government have taken to help ensure equitable access to covid-19 vaccines for people living in the global south. (910989)

What recent steps the Government have taken to help ensure equitable access to covid-19 vaccines for people living in the global south. (910997)

What diplomatic steps the Government are taking to support the development and distribution of covid-19 vaccines (a) in the UK and (b) throughout the world. (910998)

What diplomatic steps the Government are taking to support the development and distribution of covid-19 vaccines (a) in the UK and (b) throughout the world. (911010)

The UK is committed to rapid equitable access to safe and effective vaccines through multilateral collaboration. We are combining our diplomatic influencing, development expertise, and money to tackle covid-19 and secure vaccines. The UK is a founding member, and one of the largest donors to the COVAX advance market commitment. We have committed £548 million to this international initiative for global equitable access, which through match funding has encouraged other donors to commit an additional $1 billion.

The world is on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure” according to the head of the World Health Organisation. Unless there is a collaborative global approach, the pandemic and the ensuing human and economic suffering will merely be prolonged. Does the Minister therefore agree that any hoarding of vaccines by richer nations is unforgivable and unconscionable, and that we must all work collectively for the betterment of all humanity by simultaneously helping people within our nation while helping to provide for those who are less affluent than us?

The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point and I am sure that that is why he will agree with me that the COVAX AMC is such an important tool and facility for us to help developing countries. This particular facility will support access to covid-19 vaccinations for up to 92 developing countries. This will contribute to the supply of 1 billion doses in 2021 and the vaccination of 500 million people. Let me be clear, Mr Speaker: the UK is at the forefront of multilateral efforts to ensure equitable global access through the COVAX facility.

Yesterday, the director of the World Health Organisation stated that 39 million vaccine doses had been administered in 49 higher income countries, whereas in one poor country just 25 doses had been given—not 25 million, not 25,000, just 25. Does the Minister agree that global equality on the vaccine roll-out should not just be a moral imperative but a strategic one to stop the spread of the virus? If she does agree, why do her Government not support calls for pharmaceutical companies to waive intellectual property rights and openly share technology through the World Health Organisation covid technology access pool?

When it comes to vaccines, we have been very clear that we support equitable access. This is a global pandemic. This is a virus that respects no boundaries and no barriers. That is why we are working and leading the way at the forefront of multilateral efforts to ensure we get equitable access through this really important COVAX facility.

I want to press the Minister further, because none of us is safe until all of us are safe. Clearly, with the threat of the spread and the mutation of the virus we are all at risk until the world is vaccinated. Will the Minister say specifically what work her Government have done to overcome intellectual property rights to ensure the manufacture of the vaccine in the global south and ensure that those countries that currently cannot get access to the vaccine can distribute it locally?

The UK believes that a robust and fair intellectual property system is a key part of the innovation framework that allows economies to grow and become innovators, while enabling society to benefit from knowledge and ideas. We believe that non-exclusive voluntary licensing has advantages over compulsory licensing, because it creates a sounder basis for long lasting beneficial relationships and incentives to create and commercialise new inventions such as those life-changing vaccines.

I thank the Minister for her answer. What steps is her Department taking to ensure that the poorest and most disadvantaged countries have access to vaccines?

I think this goes to the heart of this particular question today. Our commitment will support access to covid-19 vaccines for up to 92 developing countries by contributing to the supply of 1 billion doses in 2021. That is only possible through the COVAX AMC facility, which we have been leading on from the front with our big commitment of £548 million to that facility and the encouragement of others to step up to the mark and reach the $1 billion target, too.

The Minister has set out how important it is for people around the world to be vaccinated against covid-19 and reminded us about the UK’s strong record of supporting vaccination in the developing world. Is she confident that we will be able to continue to meet our international commitments on vaccination if we reduce our levels of aid from 0.7% of GDP?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in international development. The seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, including our temporary reduction of ODA from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income. We will return to that level as soon as the fiscal situation allows, but let me reassure him that we will remain a world-leading aid donor, spending that 0.5% percent of GNI. When it comes to our commitment, particularly on vaccines and vaccinations, I point to the Gavi vaccine summit, which the Prime Minister hosted in the early part of last year. At that summit the UK Government committed to £1.65 billion over the next five years to support Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. That will immunise 300 million children and save up to 8 million lives.

I echo the concerns of colleagues across the House that vaccine nationalism is dangerous and self-defeating. This is not an Olympics; it is a global problem that we must deal with on a multilateral basis. I pay tribute to what the UK has done in donating to the COVAX system. There is still a $4.3 billion dollar shortfall to this and, as we have heard, nobody is safe until everybody is safe on a global scale. What plans are there to convene a Gavi II summit to bring international donors together to work with colleagues across the world to make sure that nobody gets left behind in this? And would she condemn colleagues in her Government who are indulging in vaccine nationalism and pretending that one country is doing better than another, when we really are facing a common challenge?

This is a global pandemic and I commend the work of the Government in the vaccination programme that we have. I look to my constituency and the tremendous work that Walsall Manor Hospital and the Oak Park centre are doing. Alongside that, let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are absolutely committed to equitable access. The global Gavi summit that we held earlier last year was just one example of the leading part that the UK Government are taking when it comes to the fight against the covid-19 pandemic.

The longer the pandemic rages, the more damage will be done to ordinary families around the world who are suffering from a crisis they did not create. We have an opportunity to save countless lives and livelihoods here in the UK and abroad by playing our part in co-operating with other countries and using our influence to bring them together. As we have seen during the pandemic, the Government have consistently struggled with transparency and accountability, so will the United Kingdom fulfil the ask made yesterday by the director general of the World Health Organisation and make public all bilateral contracts that they have signed for covid-19 vaccines, including on volumes, pricing and delivery dates, so that we can deal with production bottlenecks and ensure equitable access to the vaccine, giving us all the best chance of beating this deadly virus?

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s assertions when it comes to transparency. We, the UK, are absolutely at the forefront of multilateral efforts on ensuring equitable global access. If we look at what the UK Government have done, we see that we have contributed to CEPI—the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations—in the early part of this pandemic and to FIND, the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics. We have contributed to Gavi and to the COVAX AMC. This is all about helping the world’s poorest. We have also flexed a lot of our normal aid work to help countries that are suffering from the pandemic, because we know that, as well as the primary impact of covid-19, there are many secondary impacts.

The Minister is right that vaccines alone are not enough, and she is aware that the International Development Committee has just done an inquiry on the secondary impacts, which show that developing countries are suffering economically through their healthcare and through gender inequality. What efforts and preparations are being made by FCDO to prevent there being a development mountain to climb after the pandemic subsides?

I recognise the work of the IDC and I am very pleased that its work is continuing. Let me just reiterate that when it comes to covid-19, the UK and the FCDO remain at the forefront. With the funds that we have, we continue to support the world’s poorest, and we will continue to focus on the bottom billion. Yes, it is about working with the development world, but it is also about working, where we can, with the public sector and the private sector. I look to the example of Oxford-AstraZeneca. The UK Government invested £84 million in helping to develop that vaccine, and we are now rolling it out. We have committed to the AMC, and we are absolutely committed to helping the world’s poorest.[Official Report, 25 January 2021, Vol. 688, c. 2MC.]

Science and Technology: International Development

Scientific advances funded by the UK have helped drive reductions in extreme poverty, declines in childhood mortality and increases in life expectancy across the developing world. Our investments, including in affordable rapid diagnostic tests for covid-19 and the world’s first child-friendly antimalarial drug, are delivering benefit to hundreds of millions. We will continue to leverage UK and global scientific excellence and invest in cutting-edge technology and research to provide solutions to critical development challenges.

The Government are doing extremely well in rolling out the vaccine in the UK. The AstraZeneca vaccine in particular is potentially deployable in developing countries. Will the Minister say at what point we will pass vaccines that we have ordered that greatly surpass the need of our population to COVAX? Does he agree that it is vital that, in advance of that, we do everything in our power to develop healthcare infrastructure in developing countries, without which a credible vaccine roll-out is just not possible?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I agree that we should be incredibly proud of the work that we have done with regard to the vaccine.

I have had meetings with my Philippine counterparts on vaccines, alongside AstraZeneca. We are supporting equitable access through our funding for the COVAX facility. We are one of the largest donors to the COVAX advance market commitment to support access for 92 developing countries; we have committed £548 million. COVAX’s partners, which include Gavi, the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, have huge experience in supporting developing country immunisation systems and the programming of immunisation. We expect the initial roll-out to COVAX AMC countries to start in the first quarter of this year.

Antimicrobial Resistance

What progress the Government have made through international co-operation on tackling antimicrobial resistance. (910980)

The UK is a global leader in promoting action on antimicrobial resistance. It is an international priority. We helped achieve the 2016 UN political declaration on AMR, and UK aid contributes significantly to AMR efforts around the world. This includes our flagship Fleming fund, which builds capacity on AMR in lower and middle-income countries, focusing on investments in water, sanitation and hygiene; healthcare facilities; and broader health systems strengthening.

A leading Oxford-based professor of microbiology today described covid as “the short, sharp earthquake” and antimicrobial resistance as

“the massive tsunami in the background.”

On the basis that AMR in pigs and chickens has trebled in developing nations since 2000, will my hon. Friend press for more action to limit the unnecessary use of antibiotics in humans, pigs and chickens?

This is a really important point. My hon. Friend has taken a keen interest in this topic for some time in this place. We absolutely recognise the risks to human health of the inappropriate use of antimicrobials in agriculture and food production, as seen through our national action plan. The vast majority of global antimicrobial use, as he will probably be aware, is in agriculture. We are a major funder of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, which supports low and middle-income countries in controlling agriculture-associated AMR risks and is working to understand how antimicrobials are used, by whom and how that contributes to the misuse of antimicrobials.


What recent assessment the Government has made of the (a) political and (b) humanitarian situation in Yemen. (910981)

What recent discussions he has had with the US Secretary of State on that Administration’s proposed designation of Houthis as a terror group. (910987)

The UK remains deeply concerned by the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. We welcome the positive steps towards implementation of the Riyadh agreement, including the formation of a new inclusive Yemeni Cabinet. We condemn in the strongest terms the Houthi attack on Aden airport, which killed over 25 civilians, and we call on the Houthis to cease such attacks and demonstrate a renewed commitment to the political process.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary warned in September, Yemen has never looked more likely to slide into famine. We are using our £214 million in aid funding to help around 500,000 vulnerable people each month and to enrol 25,000 children into malnutrition prevention programmes. While we share the US concerns about the Houthis’ continual attacks on civilians in Yemen and cross-border attacks into Saudi Arabia, we do not intend to proscribe the Houthis at this time, but we will keep this under regular review.

The crisis in Yemen is of great concern to all of us, and it is perfectly clear that Iran is exploiting the conflict for its own ends. Reports of Iran sending advanced unmanned aerial vehicles to the Houthis will no doubt only inflame tensions further. Does the Minister agree that until Iranian aspirations for regional dominance are curtailed, this conflict and many others will continue and more lives will sadly be lost?

We must see an end to Iran’s destabilising influence in Yemen, which has stoked further conflict. We have raised this issue directly with the Iranian Government. Iran’s provision of weapons to the Houthis is in contravention of UN Security Council resolution 2216 and the UN Security Council embargo on the export of weapons by Iran. We remain deeply concerned at Iran’s political, financial and military support to a number of militant and proscribed groups in the region, and we will continue working with international partners to dissuade Iran from proliferation and wider destabilising actions.

Mark Lowcock, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, has clearly stated that the US’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group will push Yemen into a famine on a scale not seen for 40 years and that only a reversal of the US decision will fix this, so could I ask the Minister what the UK Government are doing to avert this catastrophe and get the US Administration to change their mind?

Following President Trump’s Administration’s decision to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation, we have requested that the US put in place comprehensive exemptions to limit the humanitarian impact and the impact on commercial imports and the UN peace effort. Our priority is to support the UN peace effort, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will engage with the incoming US Administration on this and a number of other important bilateral issues.

Salford is home to one of the UK’s oldest Yemeni communities, as well as charities providing humanitarian relief to the region, and they fear that the US designation will have a devastating impact, as humanitarian access and the ability of food supplies and other goods to reach Yemeni civilians will be severely obstructed. I welcome the comments that the Minister has just made, but will he go one step further? Will he contact President-elect Biden and ask him to revoke the designation when he starts in office?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will no doubt engage at the earliest opportunity with the incoming Administration in the White House. I have made it clear that we have already requested the US to put in place comprehensive exemptions to facilitate humanitarian support. We will continue to work both bilaterally with the US and internationally through the UN and others to protect the people suffering in Yemen, to prevent famine where we can and to work with all parties involved to bring this extended conflict to a conclusion.

As we have heard, from today President Trump and Mike Pompeo have designated the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organisation. That will make peace in Yemen more difficult to achieve and could now lead to the starvation of more than 1 million people, yet our Government have said and done little, and even abstained at the United Nations Security Council. Why have the Government failed to condemn this obviously dangerous step? Will they now join us in calling on Joe Biden to reverse this decision as quickly as possible?

The idea that the UK has not been active on this issue is self-evidently nonsense. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have discussed the issue with each other, and with the international community through the UN. We have provided significant amounts of humanitarian support to Yemen. We have lobbied to ensure that humanitarian access remains. This is a genuine global tragedy, and I am incredibly proud of the work that the UK Government have done, both on their own and in conjunction with the international community, to bring this terrible, terrible conflict to a conclusion.


The British Government remain concerned at the continued conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and I urge both sides to end fighting, protect civilians and allow unfettered humanitarian access. The Foreign Secretary has stressed those points directly to Prime Minister Abiy, and to Deputy Prime Minister Demeke when he visited the UK recently.

Mrs Peta Benson, a constituent of mine, has supported an orphanage in Tigray for years. Like many, we are extremely worried by the reported appalling humanitarian crisis that conflicts have brought to the region. Can my hon. Friend tell me that every effort is being made by the British Government to calm those hostilities and further de-escalate civil war in that region of Ethiopia?

I thank my hon. Friend for his activity on this issue and can reassure him that we are making such efforts. I certainly underlined the need to end the fighting and prioritise the protection of civilians when I spoke to the Ethiopian Finance Minister last month, and I have also raised the issue of the conflict with regional leaders in the past few weeks. The Foreign Secretary and I will continue to raise these points, and I thank my hon. Friend for the contribution he is making to the debate.

Global Malnutrition

The UK has invested £3.7 billion in tackling malnutrition since the nutrition for growth summit in 2013. The UK has reached 55.1 million children, women and adolescent girls through our nutrition programmes from 2015 to 2020. I was really pleased when the Foreign Secretary appointed the UK’s first special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs last year, announcing alongside that £119 million to address food insecurity and a £30 million partnership with UNICEF to address acute malnutrition.

It was excellent to see UK leadership on global nutrition acknowledged by world leaders at the Canada nutrition for growth event in December, which launched 2021 as a year of action for nutrition. That could hardly be more timely, given that covid-19 is causing rates of malnutrition worldwide to rise for the first time in decades. So nutrition must be central to my hon. Friend’s new Department’s objectives for aid spending. For example, it is impossible to meaningfully progress girls’ education while rates of malnutrition among girls are on the rise. Will the Government therefore urgently review their commitment to tackle malnutrition as part of their participation in the year of action?

I know my right hon. Friend has taken a keen interest in this and has been trying to get a question at Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office orals for some time. It is evident that good nutrition underpins education and health outcomes, and adult learning, in developing countries. That was the rationale for the UK playing a lead role on nutrition over the past decade. The prevention and treatment of malnutrition remain key to achieving the Government’s commitment to ending the preventable deaths of mothers, newborns and children. The Department is, of course, beginning a rigorous internal prioritisation process in response to the spending review announcement, and we will update on the implications of that for nutrition as soon as is feasible.

Kashmir: Human Rights

What assessment he has made of the effect of the death of Kashmiri citizens Abrar Ahmad Khan, Imtiyaz Ahmad and Abrar Ahmad Yousuf on human rights in that region. (910986)

We are aware of reports that an Indian soldier has been charged after the deaths of three Kashmiri men. We welcome assurances from the Indian Government that their army is committed to ethical conduct, and that disciplinary action will be undertaken in accordance with Indian law where necessary. Where we have concerns about human rights in Kashmir we will continue to raise them with the India and Pakistani Governments.

Three young Kashmiris working as labourers were abducted and brutally murdered by an army counter-insurgency officer. Illegal weapons were strapped to their bodies and they were wrongly branded hardcore terrorists. I know the Minister shares my concern that horrific abuses in Kashmir are not new or uncommon, but as our country continues to chart a new course internationally, can he tell us what the Government are actually doing to protect human rights in Kashmir and why the Secretary of State, sat next to him, lacks the courage to speak out against injustices around the world?

The hon. Lady, I know, is very passionate about this area and speaks on behalf of many of her constituents who have an interest in Kashmir. I can assure her that the Foreign Secretary has spoken directly with his counterpart as recently as December on this issue. India and Pakistan are long-standing important friends of the UK. We encourage both to engage in dialogue and find lasting diplomatic solutions to maintain stability in the region. It is not for the UK to prescribe a solution or act as a mediator; it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution on Kashmir.

A Kashmiri man showed me footage of his home in Kashmir on fire, purportedly after being shelled by India. I have provided to the Government some evidence that cluster munitions were used by India against another village in Kashmir. These things really matter to my constituents. After the pandemic, people in Wycombe could easily be in their homes in Kashmir. Is it not time to take seriously a UN report on the human rights situation on both sides of the line of control, to have a co-ordinated international effort to put UN human rights inspectors on both sides of the line of control and then to move forward with a new human rights framework for the UK, which can reassure diaspora communities such as mine in Wycombe that the UK is standing up for their human rights when they are in the countries from which their families and their ancestors hail?

My hon. Friend is 100% correct to raise this matter again. He is a constant champion for his constituents on this area. We do recognise that there are human rights concerns in both India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Again, we encourage all states to ensure that domestic laws are in line with international standards and to co-operate with UN human rights officials and all mechanisms of the Human Rights Council. We have requested permission for officials from the British high commission in New Delhi to visit India-administered Kashmir as soon as the situation permits.

Topical Questions

Since the last oral questions, I have visited India, where I had positive conversations with Prime Minister Modi, Foreign Minister Jaishankar and others about strengthening our trade, our security co-operation and, indeed, human rights, which Members have asked about in this session. Last week, I introduced measures to ensure that no British organisations—Government or private—profit from, or contribute to, human rights violations in Xinjiang. Last month, we delivered the historic EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement, which is an excellent deal for all parts of the United Kingdom.

I certainly welcome the comments of the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa earlier regarding the situation in Yemen. However, will the Government now back up their words with action, and suspend all arms sales and military support to the Saudi-led coalition for use in Yemen, especially in the context of President-elect Biden’s commitment to end the war in Yemen?

We are absolutely pushing every lever to try to precipitate peace in relation to Yemen. Our arms exports to Saudi, to which the hon. Member referred, are subject to a world-leading and very rigorous process, so we are ensuring that we do everything that is required on that front. On 3 December, I announced an extra £40 million of UK aid to help 1.5 million households to access food and medicines, and of course we are pushing, through every possible avenue, the efforts of UN special envoy Martin Griffiths.

New variants of coronavirus are emerging, from South Africa to Brazil. The Government have acted quickly by banning flights from these regions, but how can we try to pre-empt these risks? Countries such as Australia shut their borders in March last year to all countries, and only permitted their citizens with permanent residence entry with strict quarantines. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of following a similar approach in the future, should the public health risks be severe? (911036)

My hon. Friend is right; we have taken decisive action in relation to South Africa and South America. We have also, as a precautionary measure, suspended the travel corridors and ensured that we have a system in place whereby people have to have a pre-departure negative test. The passenger locator form is backed up by increased enforcement by both Public Health England and Border Force. Of course, we have also reintroduced quarantine on arrival, with extra checks to ensure that people are resting in the home.

The Foreign Secretary had strong words about the arrest of Alexei Navalny, but he knows that those words will not be taken seriously by Moscow until the UK takes action to disrupt the networks of dirty money on which this regime depends. How many of the Russia report recommendations have now been implemented?

We, like the hon. Lady, are absolutely appalled by Alexei Navalny’s politically motivated detention. It is a Kafkaesque situation, frankly, when the victim of this Novichok poisoning, instead of being dealt with and supported, has been arrested. The hon. Lady will know that we have taken action, including imposing sanctions on six individuals and the State Scientific-Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology. We are leading efforts in the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is the real action that will send a message to Russia.

The Secretary of State seems to be struggling with the answer, so I can tell him that the answer is none. Of 21 recommendations made 15 months ago, the Government have implemented not a single one: no action on foreign agents, no action on golden visas, and the London laundromat is still very much open for business. Can he not see the problem? For as long as the City of London acts as a haven for dark money, he can tweet all he likes, but those words will be met with nothing but derision in Moscow.

Let me ask the Foreign Secretary an easy one that he should be able to answer. We know that the laws in this country on espionage and foreign interference on British soil are not fit for purpose, so will he commit to the House today that he will bring forward legislation to fix this great big gaping hole in our defences—not in the coming months and not at a date to be determined, but before this House rises for recess next month?

The hon. Lady raises the report that preceded the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. I am explaining to her what we are doing in response to that, which I thought was what she cared about. Not only have we introduced sanctions on the individuals and the organisation to which I referred; we led the joint statement in December, supported by 58 countries in the OPCW, calling for Russia to be held to account for what it does. If she really wanted to do something about the issue at hand, she would support and commend those efforts.

Covid is bankrupting Iraq and the Kurdistan region. A stalled budget deal between Irbil and Baghdad is bleeding the Kurds dry, and public servants were not paid for half of last year. A Barnett-style revenue sharing formula and progress to resolve the status of the disputed territories are vital, as ISIL is regrouping in the no man’s land between Kurdistan and Iraq. Could the UK urge the United Nations to take a more active role between Irbil and Baghdad to help break the logjam so that they can stabilise their relations—and quickly? (911037)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. We recognise the importance of securing a budget deal between Irbil and Baghdad. The UK continues to encourage both sides to work towards resolving their issues to get a sustainable budget solution, but also to solve internal boundary disputes. The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa discussed this with the Governments of Iraq and of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq during his visit in November and December. We regularly raise this in the United Nations and will continue to do so.

Returning to the subject of Alexei Navalny, what discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Home Office about granting refuge to the supporters of Alexei Navalny, and indeed any other human rights defenders in Russia, should they want it or need it? (911035)

I have had detailed discussions with the Home Secretary about the response to this and other examples of hostile state action. We have one of the most open and generous asylum systems in the world, and we continually focus on the support we provide for civil society groups, including media organisations in both Russia and Belarus.

How many British Islamic State prisoners—men, women and children—are being held in northern Syria, and are there any plans for them to come back to the UK? If not, what assistance are we providing to the Kurds to secure them, and indeed the other prisoners, because I understand that many of them are escaping? (911038)

I must say that my hon. Friend dresses better at home than he does in the House of Commons.

Travel advice has always been against all travel to Syria. There is no consular support. We do not have a diplomatic presence. For those reasons, sadly, we do not have a firm number. However, I invite my hon. Friend to discuss privately the security issues and very difficult situation of some of these cases—as he very well knows—with the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa to try to carve out a better solution to the problems that he quite rightly and so eloquently and visually addresses.

The official end of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s five-year detention is less than 50 days away, but despite this, she continues to live under the threat of a further prison sentence. In 2017, when the current Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary, he promised to “leave no stone unturned” to bring Nazanin home. Can the current Foreign Secretary also make this commitment, and will he, unlike his predecessor, actually make good on this promise? (911040)

We are leaving no stone unturned to secure the release of Nazanin, but also all the other dual nationals arbitrarily detained. I have spoken to Nazanin—she is subject to furlough at the moment—a number of times over recent months. We are doing everything we can. The fact that she is on furlough and not in Evin prison is a sign that we have made some progress, although not enough, in securing her release and return back to her loved ones at home.

I welcome the Government’s strong condemnation of anti-Israel bias at the UN Human Rights Council recently, but the robust stance that we have taken there conflicts with our voting at the United Nations General Assembly, where we have supported dozens of resolutions hostile to Israel, even one erasing the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. Will my right hon. Friend commit to ensure that, going forward, our actions will better reflect our words? (911039)

My hon. Friend is always a great champion for all the different community groups in his constituency. He is right to talk about the importance of balance in these UN resolutions. In fact, our record has not changed in recent years; it has been consistent. We support the Palestinian right to self-determination consistent with a two-state solution. We support the work of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. We have called out illegal Israeli settlements. In relation to Jerusalem, what he says is not quite correct, because the resolution explicitly notes its importance as a holy site for the three monotheistic religions. We have also voted against one resolution and abstained on three precisely because we did not feel they were balanced.

Oxfam has said that the US designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organisation has already meant that banks are refusing to facilitate vital commercial wheat and rice imports to Yemen. What specific conversations have the UK Government had with the banks on that matter? (911041)

We can talk to the banks, but of course they will follow the designation made by the US. As the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), said earlier, we are concerned that those sanctions and that designation will not allow for the humanitarian aid that we, the hon. Lady and others across the House feel is absolutely essential to alleviate the blight of the conflict in Yemen. It is also right to say that the effort has to be on bringing that conflict to resolution, which can happen only through Martin Griffiths and the UN-sponsored plan.

I recently received letters from a year 4 class at Seaton Delaval First School in my constituency, who are very concerned about climate change and the various challenges facing our planet. Does my right hon. Friend agree that progress can be made on this matter through international co-operation on tackling climate change, and that we must embrace the views of the youngsters of today to look after the future of tomorrow? (911042)

I could not agree more, and I am more than happy to visit Blyth Valley to talk to my hon. Friend’s constituents of all ages. Young constituents, in particular, are a powerful catalyst for change. As COP26 hosts, we will work with all international partners, including young people across the globe. I am particularly interested in talking to them about the fact that the Italian Government are having a pre-COP26 youth event in Milan, bringing together 400 youth delegates. It will make a final declaration, which will be submitted to COP26. I look forward to returning to my office soon and seeing the invitation on my desk.

The Foreign Secretary will know that tripartite talks are taking place today between Bangladesh, China and Myanmar regarding Rohingya repatriation. The process has been slow, as the Rohingya refugees, after fleeing horrific genocidal violence, remain understandably distrustful of the Myanmar Government. Can he say what representations he has made to his counterparts involved in today’s talks, and what involvement the UK currently has in the Rohingya crisis? (911044)

I thank the hon. Lady for her interest and passion. What has happened to the Rohingya is a heartbreaking story. Not only has the United Kingdom supported the diplomatic efforts, and not only is it a major provider of aid to deal with the refugee crisis, but, as she may be aware, it has imposed travel bans and asset freezes through our Magnitsky sanctions on those responsible for the persecution of the Rohingya.

I welcome the recent appointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on girls’ education, and ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to reassure the House that vital work in this area to tackle poverty and create opportunity across the world will continue to be a key priority for this Government, and that the issue will be raised with the incoming Biden Administration at the earliest opportunity, so that further progress can be made to ensure that every girl gets a decent education. (911048)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I join him in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), who will do a fantastic job in this crucial area. On the UK’s approach to girls’ education, we have a global target of getting 40 million more girls into education, and ensuring that they can have at least 12 years’ quality education. We want to get 12 million young girls literate by the age of 20. We will be discussing that with the new Administration, and I have already discussed it with leading members of Congress, including Speaker Pelosi.

More than 100 Members of this House signed a cross-party letter to the Prime Minister about our anxieties for the peacefully protesting farmers in India, and we eagerly await his response. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is extremely concerning to hear alarming reports of harassment and intimidation by the authorities there, which have started issuing notices to peaceful protesters, union leaders and human rights activists? (911045)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I discussed the protests with Foreign Minister Jaishankar when I visited India in December. Of course, this is a major, Government-led reform that reduces subsidies as part of the liberalisation process, but the hon. Gentleman makes some important points about freedom of protest and sensitivity. Of course, India’s politics is very much our politics, but we need to respect its democratic process.

It is obviously crucial for both scientific understanding and global security that we understand the origins of the covid-19 outbreak. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the US State Department’s factsheet, published on 15 January, which details that the US Government have reason to believe that several researchers inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses? (911049)

We are aware of the factsheet. I have had discussions with Secretary of State Pompeo about this, and will continue to discuss it, I am sure, with the new Administration. Our focus has been on the World Health Organisation review, making sure that the WHO can access the area to conduct the review, and that it has proper access, so that it can come up with the answers that people want. WHO officers and the review team were given access last Thursday, and that is a first step. We need to ensure that they can proceed through that inquiry in order to give the proper, clear and fact-based answers to the questions that my hon. Friend rightly poses.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on the situation regarding the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang province of China? (911047)

I gave an update to the House on the situation recently, just a few days ago. We regard the reports of forced labour, the conditions of detention and the forced sterilisation of women as grave violations of human rights, which is why we have introduced new measures to prevent any British businesses from feeding into the supply chains, or any businesses in China from profiting in the UK from this gruesome trade.

Charities are working harder than ever, both at home and abroad, including, of course, the wonderful World Vision, based in Milton Keynes. Can my hon. Friend the Minister update the House on what support the UK Government are giving to charities that are providing aid to some of the most vulnerable people in the poorest countries in the world? Will my hon. Friend undertake to meet World Vision to discuss their work? (911050)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for this question, and for highlighting the work that so many civil society organisations do. They are key partners for the FCDO in delivering the response to the covid-19 pandemic. They work as critical delivery partners with other donors and with international organisations, such as the UN, that are active in responding to the crisis. We have allocated almost £67 million directly to international and UK-based charities, so that they can play their critical role in supporting vulnerable communities with the humanitarian impact of this virus. I thank World Vision for the work they do, and if they contact me, I will happily arrange a meeting.

I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.