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Topical Questions

Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2021

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.