House of Commons
Tuesday 2 March 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Iran’s Regional Activities: Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
We have long condemned Iran’s regional destabilising activity, including its political, financial and military support to militant and proscribed groups including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is, in its entirety, subject to the UK’s autonomous sanctions. On 18 February, the Foreign Secretary, alongside his E3 and US counterparts, committed in a statement to working with regional parties to address their security concerns. We continue to support the security of our partners working to end the conflict in Yemen, and strengthen institutions in Iraq and Lebanon.
As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, it is not just activity in the middle east that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is responsible for; it is not just with Hezbollah. There have been incidents in France and other parts of Europe, and it has caused the United States to ban the Revolutionary Guard and make it a terror organisation. When will the United Kingdom do the same and designate it as a terrorist organisation?
We keep the list of proscribed organisations under review. As my hon. Friend knows, we do not routinely comment on whether organisations or individuals are under consideration for proscription. As I say, the IRGC is, in its entirety, subject to our autonomous sanctions regime. The UK, along with our European partners, wholeheartedly condemned the bomb plots in 2018 and 2019, including the one in Paris to which my hon. Friend referred.
Cameroon: English-speaking Minority
The situation in Cameroon’s anglophone region remains deeply concerning. We continue to call for an end to all violence and the restart of an inclusive dialogue that addresses the root cause of the crisis. When I spoke to Prime Minister Ngute in December, I reiterated the UK’s commitment to supporting a peaceful resolution to this issue.
The situation in southern Cameroon is indeed deeply concerning. What is happening there to the anglophone minority of some 5 million people is terrible. There are numerous human rights abuses. The francophone president—a corrupt dictator—has been in power since 1982, and is refusing to devolve any power at all to the English-speaking minority. Will the Government now act? Will the Foreign Secretary, at the highest level, take it up with our French allies, as they have enormous influence in francophone Africa? Will the Minister for Africa do the equivalent of old gunboat diplomacy in our soft-power age, and himself visit southern Cameroon to take up this issue, and try to help our English-speaking friends who we betrayed back in 1962?
I certainly will visit Cameroon at the earliest possible opportunity. I can reassure my right hon. Friend that we have worked very closely with our French and American partners, alongside other partners. We also do an awful lot of work through this House and through the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on bringing peace to that region and sharing experiences. I thank him for his interest and certainly will commit to further activity and a visit in due course.
The Minister for South Asia, Lord Ahmad, set out our serious concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka in a statement at the UN Human Rights Council on 25 February. On 22 February, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that the UK would lead a new resolution on post-conflict reconciliation, accountability and human rights. We continue to engage with Sri Lanka on these issues and on climate change, trade and the covid-19 response. UK-funded programmes in Sri Lanka support peacebuilding, resettlement, police reform and demining.
For decades, the UK has provided extensive military and police support to the Sri Lankan police and military, and this support has continued despite deeply troubling reports of the widespread use of torture by the Sri Lankan police, including the use of the death penalty for drugs charges. Will the Minister please explain why the UK has spent more than £7 million through its conflict, stability and security fund to assist the Sri Lankan police and military? More importantly, will he commit to publishing the full overseas security and justice assistance assessments for activities under this programme to reassure the House that the UK is not contributing to serious human rights violations?
I know the hon. Member takes a very keen interest in Sri Lanka. Our engagement with the military in Sri Lanka is designed to support the development of a modern, effective and human rights-compliant military. Engagement with the police is focused on community policing, increasing women’s representation, and improving responses to sexual and gender-based violence. Our engagement is subject to ongoing overseas security and justice assessments, as he says, to ensure that it supports UK values and is consistent with human rights obligations.
Many of my Slough constituents, especially those worshipping at Masjid Al-Jannah, were extremely distressed by the alarming reports of forced cremations of Sri Lankan coronavirus victims, including Muslims and Christians, for whom burial rights and traditions are sacred. As the country hopefully progresses with truth, justice and reconciliation after its devastating civil war, what representations has the Minister made to his Sri Lankan counterpart on respect for and the protection of everyone’s religious beliefs and freedoms?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this matter, which I know is of great concern to his constituents and to many other hon. Members’ constituents. My colleague, Lord Ahmad, who is the Minister responsible for Sri Lanka, has raised the important issue of human rights, accountability and reconciliation with his counterpart, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, and the UN high commissioner, but he also has deep concerns about the decision to mandate cremations for those deceased due to covid. The United Kingdom has shared guidance on how burials can happen within World Health Organisation guidelines to the Sri Lankan authorities.
With reference to the expiry of UN Human Rights Council resolution 40/1 this month, what success have the Government had in their role as leader of the core group on Sri Lanka at the UNHCR in drafting a new UN Human Rights Council resolution that secures international support and reflects the eight areas of focus set out by the UNHCR’s recent report?
We are very concerned by the recent UN report on human rights and accountability in Sri Lanka. As I have said previously, we have made our concerns about the human rights situation clear. The Foreign Secretary has confirmed that the United Kingdom would lead a new resolution on post-conflict reconciliation, accountability and human rights.
The UK will use its G7 presidency this year to advance equitable access to safe and effective vaccines through widespread international co-operation.
Having visited the Kingston vaccination centre recently, I have seen first-hand the fantastic work that our healthcare workers are doing to vaccinate my Stafford constituents, but in order to fully defeat covid-19 we must vaccinate people around the world. During my virtual visit to Kenya last week, there was much excitement about the upcoming delivery of some covid-19 vaccines. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that we not only allow countries to access our surplus capacity via COVAX but donate vaccines to the poorest countries in the world?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the great work she is doing locally but also for raising the issue of international access to the vaccine. She will know that the UK has contributed £548 million to COVAX AMC, which is the international mechanism that will secure over 1 billion doses. In relation to her virtual Kenya visit, the roll-out of the first deliveries under COVAX has now begun in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, and by the end of June, in 92 of these poorer countries, we want to see all the vulnerable receiving their vaccines. That is global Britain as a force for good.
I welcome the news that the Foreign Secretary has just outlined about the COVAX deliveries in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire; that is excellent. Tragically, we have seen 50,000 deaths in South Africa alone from covid-19, but we have also seen 409,000 deaths from malaria and 700,000 deaths from AIDS-related causes. An estimated 1.8 million could die from tuberculosis in 2020, and there are Ebola outbreaks in Africa at the moment. Vaccines, whether for covid or other diseases, only work when there are the strong public health systems to deliver them, with the nurses, doctors and cold chain and diagnostic capacity. We have a moral duty to do our fair share, and it is in our global common interest. Will the Foreign Secretary be maintaining our overall bilateral and multilateral health spending, or will it be cut?
The hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to the work that the UK has done internationally not just on COVAX and the vaccine for this pandemic but on TB, malaria, polio and a whole range of other areas. We have had to make the difficult decision on the 0.7%, and the allocations will be published in due course, but we have been very clear that public health is the No.1 priority to be safeguarded across the piece.
China: Human Rights
The Foreign Secretary announced targeted measures on 12 January to help ensure that no British organisations are complicit in the gross human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang. The United Kingdom continues to lead international action, including at the UN, to hold China to account. The Foreign Secretary made a robust intervention at the Human Rights Council on 22 February, calling out the systematic violation of the rights of people in Hong Kong and pressing China for unfettered access to Xinjiang for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Ahead of International Women’s Day, I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the recent report by the BBC, which highlighted the extensive use of sexual violence in Xinjiang. I am sure the Minister will agree that the report was incredibly troubling and details what can only be described as torture and abuse of human rights and dignity. Can he explain why it is taking the Government so long to sanction Chinese officials? In the light of recent Magnitsky sanctions in the case of Myanmar, can he explain why they have yet to be used in the case of Xinjiang?
The hon. Gentleman takes a keen interest in this subject, and I appreciate all the work he does on it. We are carefully considering further designations under our human rights sanctions regime, but he will appreciate that it is not appropriate to speculate on who may be designated in the future, as to do so could reduce the impact of such sanctions.
Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games: Team GB Boycott
The hon. Member will no doubt have heard the Prime Minister highlight that we are not normally in favour of sporting boycotts. Along with that, participation of the national team at the winter Olympics is a matter for the British Olympic Association, which is required to operate independently of the Government under International Olympic Committee regulations.
I am indeed aware of what the Prime Minister has said. Nevertheless, allies such as the United States and Canada have referred to what is going on in Xinjiang province as genocide. First, does the Minister agree that we should get international condemnation of these ghastly goings on in China? Secondly, in view of what the Prime Minister said, does the Minister agree that we should support those athletes who choose individually to boycott the winter Olympic and Paralympic games, as a demonstration of their opposition to this genocide?
We are leading international action, including at the UN, to hold China to account. We have led from the front. We have an increasing cohort of countries supporting our statements on the happenings in Xinjiang. This is a matter for the British Olympic Association and the individual sportsmen. The British Olympic Association is required to operate independently of Government, and rightly so, under the regulations set down by the International Olympic Committee. This is a matter for the Olympic organisations and individual sportsmen.
The malfeasance of the Chinese Government in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong is well documented, and my party supports the offer that has been made to the 5 million Hong Kong citizens of a route to citizenship. However, I would be grateful for an assurance from the Minister that proper preparations and proper funding for the integration of Hongkongers coming to the UK are actually in place, because I am not convinced they are. We cannot let this scheme just be a first-class lifeboat for the rich of Hong Kong; it does need to be properly run through for everybody. Can he commit to a statement to the House in due course explaining how the scheme is being worked through with the Home Office and the proper funding being allocated to make sure this is open to all Hongkongers?
That is a very sensible question from the hon. Gentleman. It is absolutely the case that we need to ensure that those British national overseas passport holders who arrive in the UK are treated and greeted well. We welcome the many applications that we have had thus far. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has met the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to discuss exactly the issue the hon. Gentleman raises. It is important that people are given the right support when they arrive in the United Kingdom, and I am sure that further information on such schemes and what has been organised for these people coming from Hong Kong will be announced very shortly.
I visited Iraq and the Kurdistan region of Iraq in December last year, meeting Iraq’s Prime Minister al-Kadhimi and the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Prime Minister Barzani. Recent attacks on coalition forces and civilians in Irbil are unacceptable. The UK stands fully behind Iraq and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. We welcome the Iraqi investigation to hold the perpetrators to account, and the UK encourages co-operation between Baghdad and Irbil to agree a sustainable budget, something I discussed with both the Iraqi Finance Minister and Prime Minister Barzani on that visit in December.
Official Development Assistance Budget
The Government remain firmly committed to helping the world’s poorest people. Our aid budget will continue to serve the primary aim of reducing poverty in developing countries, including in the global south.
The Government have made the appalling decision to slash life-saving support for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people in the middle of a pandemic, and an equally appalling announcement yesterday about Yemen highlighted a blatant disregard to fulfilling their moral duty. Will the Minister and the Foreign Secretary press the Chancellor to use this week’s Budget to rebuild Britain’s proud position as a country that supports those in need by reversing his decision to make the UK the only G7 nation to cut its aid budget?
I am sorry the hon. Gentleman thinks that £10 billion is a small sum of money. He mentions Yemen; we should be proud that, since the start of that conflict, we have contributed £1 billion, and at the pledging conference yesterday, a further £87 million. That is activity from this Government, and we are proud of that activity.
It is reported that cuts announced to international aid spending will not come in until after the G7 summit. This merely delays rather than avoids humiliation on the world stage, while the absence of a timetable for when the cuts will take place leaves charities trying to plan ahead in limbo. Does the Minister agree that this unsustainable position will be detrimental to project outcomes, and would it not be preferable to reverse this shameful decision now?
Britain holds the pen on Yemen, but as the senior country is it not our duty to lead by example, and is not cutting aid by 60% at a time of acute humanitarian crisis a terrible example? The UN Secretary-General said that reducing aid was a “death sentence”. Is he wrong?
Another person who does not think that £1 billion is a lot of money—[Interruption.] Well, £87 million is a lot of money. We are doing exactly what the hon. Gentleman is saying and we are standing up. This is the fifth largest pledge to Yemen, and he should be proud of that, not attacking it.
I am hearing a lot of bluff and bluster. This Government are pressing ahead with the deepest and most devastating cuts to the aid budget at the worst possible time, and in doing so they are reneging on the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid, which is enshrined in law. When I asked the Foreign Secretary about that, he said:
“We want to respect that legislation, and we will.”
With press reports speculating that cuts will take place from April, and that the legislation will not be amended until July, will the Foreign Secretary refuse to implement those cuts before the legislation is passed? Will he resign if he breaks the law—yes or no?
As the Foreign Secretary said earlier, we will look carefully at what is required by law, but the law envisages that 0.7% target potentially not being met in any given year, in view of the specific fiscal and economic circumstances. We will abide by that law. Furthermore, the legislation allows us to report to Parliament on what we are doing, and we will stick to that.
I was ashamed yesterday when this Government more than halved their contribution to the humanitarian support in Yemen—the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet. I hope that is not the global Britain we want. What consultation has the Minister had with non-governmental organisations, recipients, and partners in the global south, to minimise the impact of changes to the UK aid budget? When will the Government publish their forthcoming country allocations for official development assistance spending?
The process the hon. Lady mentions regarding the decisions on publication has not yet been met. Our focus has been on looking at country plans and the programmes centrally, and on doing that through countries. By extension, part of that will be looking through delivery partners, including the NGOs that play an excellent role. We are engaging with them as early as possible, including through embassies to where a lot of this relationship is devolved. That is essential, and we remain committed to doing that.
Girls’ Education: Covid-19
Over the past five years, UK aid has helped 8 million girls get a decent education, and, as the House knows, our global ambition is to ensure that 40 million girls have 12 years of quality education by 2026.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is “Choose to Challenge”, which serves as a reminder to us all to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality where we see them. According to UNICEF, only 66% of countries have achieved gender parity in primary education, falling to only 25% by upper secondary education. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that he will not only continue working with his international counterparts to ensure that girls do not fall further behind as a result of the pandemic, but that he will continue his vital work to break down the very real barriers to girls’ education?
I thank my hon. Friend, and reassure her that not only do we have a target of 40 million girls getting 12 years of education, but we want 20 million girls to become literate by the age of 10. With Kenya, we will be co-hosting a major summit in July this year to progress those goals. In January I was in Addis Ababa and had the chance to visit the Yeka Misrak Chora School, which showed me at first hand the incredible difference our aid budget makes.
I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said regarding the UK’s commitment to ensuring an education for girls. There is no doubt that the UK has world leadership on this issue, as we do on modern slavery and preventing gender-based violence, and of course it was the UK that worked to help stop Ebola becoming a global pandemic. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm his commitment not just to this area, but to maintaining overseas development spending on these very important issues?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of this issue. As we go through the difficult financial situation that we face, we have been very clear that girls’ education is a top priority to safeguard. On top of the money that we are putting in and the convening power that we are exercising with the joint summit we are hosting with Kenya, the Prime Minister has appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) as the special envoy on girls’ education.
I applaud the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister for making educating girls a foreign policy priority. As host of the G7, we have a critical opportunity to encourage others to do the same. Can my right hon. Friend tell me how much ODA spending he will commit to girls’ education this year to make sure that our manifesto commitment to ensuring that every girl gets 12 years of quality education has the funding that it needs?
I reassure my right hon. Friend, first of all, that the money is being safeguarded; of course, it is published in the normal way, through the formal channels, in the autumn. Through the appointment of the Prime Minister’s special envoy, the convening power that I have described and, as she quite rightly says, our presidency of the G7, we are making sure that this is at the very top of the international agenda.
The British people have a proud history of stepping up and supporting those in need, but the actions of this Government yesterday betrayed hundreds of thousands of Yemeni children, as the Foreign Secretary chose to leave them to starve. In November, he told the House that humanitarian crises were one of his priorities, yet he has cut funding to the largest humanitarian crisis in the world by 60%. Clearly, the Foreign Secretary’s commitments are worthless. Does he agree that his Government’s actions have shown our allies and our detractors that his word cannot be trusted?
I thank the hon. Lady, although the obvious point to make is that the last Labour Government never hit 0.7% and only hit 0.5% twice. In relation to Yemen, over the last five years, including for 2021, we have been between the third and the fifth highest donors. We will keep up that effort. We have provided more than £1 billion of funding to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen since the conflict began, and of course we fully support the efforts of Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy, to find peace there.
The Foreign Secretary is leading a hasty retreat from the world stage while others are stepping forward. We are the only G7 nation to cut aid. The United States has added billions to its development budget, and France has committed to increasing its support for the world’s poorest by reaching 0.7% by 2025. The Government cannot keep pretending that they can make cuts without risking millions of lives, so will the Foreign Secretary immediately publish all the details of the cuts made in 2020 and those projected for 2021? Will he also explain to the House what his priorities are? Clearly, preventing hundreds of thousands of Yemenis from going hungry and starving to death is not one of them.
Of course, the allocations are published formally in the normal way, as I have just described, in the autumn. In fact, the new UK aid pledge of £87 million, which the hon. Lady so blithely dismisses, will feed an additional 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month, support 400 health clinics and provide clean water for 1.6 million people. We are doing our bit. Of course these are very difficult financial circumstances. We remain, as we have over the last five years, between the third and the fifth highest donor into Yemen.
I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to women’s and girls’ education. Does he agree, however, that female genital mutilation, which sadly affects so many girls across the world, is one of the great hindrances to the education of girls in many parts of the world, including, sadly, Nigeria? I am sure he joins me in welcoming the release of the girls from Zamfara state only the other day, but will he raise with the Nigerian Government, when he next has the opportunity to do so, the likelihood that some 14 million will go through female genital mutilation between now and 2030? This is a crime, it is a sin, and it is against all justice.
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Select Committee. I join him in welcoming the release of the young girls who were kidnapped, which I am sure came as a huge relief to the whole House. He raises, in a passionate way, the issue of FGM. We have been leaders in calling that out, and also in trying to work with Governments around the world, in particular in Africa, to try to bring an end to this appalling practice. We will continue to do so, in Nigeria and elsewhere.
East Jerusalem: Forced Evictions and Dispossessions
The United Kingdom provides legal aid to vulnerable Palestinian communities at threat of demolition. In 96% of cases, those receiving UK-funded legal support have remained in their homes. The UK ambassador joined ambassadors of European states to urge the Government of Israel to cease demolitions. He attended a meeting with Israeli authorities on 25 February. At the United Nations Security Council on 26 February, the UK permanent representative called on Israel to end demolitions of Palestinian homes and allow the delivery of emergency humanitarian aid.
I, like many colleagues, have heard repeated stories from Palestinians who are facing forced eviction, dispossession and demolition of their homes in areas such as Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan and Issawiya in occupied East Jerusalem. I and many other people see that as a deliberate attempt to re-engineer the demographic make-up of occupied East Jerusalem. What more can the Government do, rather than just urge the Israeli Government to stop it? What more can the British Government do to bring an end to this unacceptable situation?
The United Kingdom has a close and productive working relationship with Israel. When we speak, the Israelis absolutely do listen. The hon. Lady dismisses our urgings, but I remind her that the UK’s voice has had an influence on decisions made by the Government of Israel. We will continue to engage, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did very recently with his counterpart Foreign Minister Ashkenazi and the Israeli ambassador to the Court of St James’s only last month.
Israel and the Palestinians: Support for Peace
The UK is actively encouraging both parties back to dialogue. As I just mentioned, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met his opposite number on 10 February. I spoke to the Palestinian head of mission here in the UK on 2 February. The UK has been working with both the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, alongside the United States and international key partners, to progress specific areas of co-operation, including water and gas provision, energy infrastructure and trade facilitation. We are also seeking to re-establish formal Israeli-Palestinian mechanisms, such as the joint economic committee and its relevant sub-committees.
The International Criminal Court’s controversial determination on jurisdiction relating to Israel and the Palestinians not only undermines the middle east peace process but heightens the exposure of our armed forces to vexatious claims by setting a precedent that non-state actors can initiate proceedings. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the UK is at the forefront of reforms of the ICC?
The UK respects the ICC’s independence, but we are working with other countries to bring about positive change within the court. The UK was instrumental in the establishment of the independent expert review, which reported in September, together with other state parties. Additionally, the UK is driving forward reforms to governance, prosecutorial excellence, and a more rigorous approach to budget control and value for money.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I do hope Madam Deputy Speaker will be pleased that I have a jacket accompanying my jumper today.
It has been almost a year since my right hon. Friend expressed his hopes that the European Union would produce a balanced and independent report into the Palestinian Authority’s school curriculum, which contains shocking material inciting violence against Israel and Jews. What steps will the Government take if the long-awaited report, due for publication this month, falls short of the required standard?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point and for the consistent approach that he has taken to this issue. We remain concerned about the allegations in Palestinian Authority textbooks and have lobbied European partners to bring forward their report in a timely manner. I have also discussed the issue directly with the Palestinian Authority’s representative in the UK, and we have regular discussions with the EU to encourage it to get this report into the public domain. In the interim, the UK will continue to raise our concerns bilaterally with the Palestinian Authority at the very highest levels.
Climate Change: International Co-operation
In December, the UK co-hosted the Climate Ambition summit, where 75 world leaders set out more ambitious climate commitments. Last week, the Prime Minister chaired the UN Security Council debate on this issue. In addition, the Foreign Secretary has discussed climate in his meetings with the US, Brazil and India, among other counterparts.
I welcome that question—it appears, Mr Speaker, that we are welcoming the whole family into the House. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the UK has a proud record of climate leadership. In 2019, we were the first major economy to legislate for net zero by 2050. We are also doubling our international climate finance facility to £11.6 billion in the 2021 to 2025 period and, this year, we are encouraging every country to make ambitious new pledges to fulfil the 2015 Paris agreement.
As a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, I am very interested in the international engagement in COP26. Will the Minister outline exactly what actions the Department is taking to help the President of COP26 to maximise the potential for a successful event in Glasgow?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. In every call that we make as Ministers, we raise this issue. My right hon. Friend the COP26 President designate has the full support of the diplomatic network. In fact, just last month, he met Ethiopian, Gabonese, Egyptian, Nigerian, Indian and Nepalese partners, and those are the only ones I know about. Later this month, we will convene international partners to help to identify practical solutions to the challenge that every country must face, particularly to help the most vulnerable on this really important issue of climate change.
Occupied Palestinian Territories: Humanitarian Situation
The UK remains concerned about the fragile humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, particularly in Gaza. The UK is providing £4.5 million in humanitarian assistance to the OPTs, including £1 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s emergency appeal and £2.5 million to the World Food Programme for cash assistance. The UK supports UNRWA as a vital humanitarian force in the region and the FCDO is running a prioritisation exercise across all its programmes to ensure that every pound goes as far as possible.
The Minister rightly highlights forced evictions and demolitions breaking international law, but none the less, Israel continues with its evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and Batan al-Hawa. The proposed construction of 1,200 houses at Givat HaMatos is out to tender at the moment. Action is needed, not just words, so when will the UK Government implement trade bans on goods from illegal settlements?
[Inaudible.]—aid budget implies the loss of a third in UNRWA funding, and there are rumours that the Government could be planning to cut twice that. UNRWA is responsible for almost 6 million Palestinian refugees, including the education of 500,000 children, the healthcare of 3 million and emergency food aid for over 1 million. Because of the occupation, Palestinians in Gaza, the west bank and surrounding countries rely on UNRWA for basic public services, so will the Minister give a clear and courageous answer and guarantee at least the current level of funding?
As schools around the world deal with the challenges of the covid pandemic, Palestinian schoolchildren face a further threat. According to the United Nations, 53 Palestinian schools in the occupied west bank are subject to Israeli Government demolition orders. Does the Minister agree that demolishing any school is wrong and that any such action should have consequences?
The Israeli covid-19 vaccination programme is the best in the world. However, the Minister has indicated that Israel has a legal responsibility to ensure the health and wellbeing of Palestinians on the west bank. Will he therefore join me in urging the Israeli Government to work with the Palestinian Authority to ensure that Palestinians are vaccinated, as well as Israelis?
The UK is justifiably proud of the work it is doing on the international stage with regard to vaccinations, including through Gavi and the COVAX scheme. We are pleased to see the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority co-ordinating their work with regard to vaccinations, and we look forward to that vaccination programme rolling out not just across Israel but to the people who are living in the OPTs.
Since the last oral questions, I have visited east Africa. I have also visited Cyprus, where I met President Anastasiades and the Turkish Cypriot leader in support of the peace initiative and the UN talks. On 18 February, I met our E3 partners in Paris and also the new Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, to co-ordinate our approach to Iran. Finally, I am sure the whole House will be pleased to hear that the international community has elected not just the first British female judge in the International Criminal Court but the first British chief prosecutor.
The Prime Minister has rightly condemned the UN’s Human Rights Council for its disproportionate focus on Israel, which he said was
“damaging to the cause of peace”.
As the UN Human Rights Council meets over the coming weeks, will the Government commit to voting against one-sided resolutions singling out Israel, including those outside permanent agenda item 7, in order to send a clear message that such blatant anti-Israel bias will not be tolerated?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have stood up for Israel when it has faced bias and, frankly, politicised attacks in the UN and other forums. We will continue to press for the abolition of item 7, because it is the only country-specific standalone agenda item and it focuses on Israel, and that cannot be right.
The US intelligence report released last Friday makes a clear and compelling case that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Last year, the Foreign Secretary said of those with “blood on their hands”:
“You cannot set foot in this country and we will seize your blood-drenched ill-gotten gains if you try.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 664.]
Can he confirm that he will be bringing forward sanctions against bin Salman following this report and that he now finally accepts that it is time to fundamentally reappraise our relationship with Saudi Arabia?
The hon. Lady is a bit behind the curve here. Of course, we have an important relationship with Saudi Arabia on security, on trade and on other things, but the reality is that it was this Government, and me, who introduced Magnitsky sanctions on 20 Saudis involved in the murder under our global human rights regime—[Interruption.] We did it last July. She ought to catch up.
I am, frankly, astonished; I genuinely expected a better response from the Foreign Secretary. He will not stand with the family of Jamal Khashoggi as they seek justice. He will not stand to lift a finger against the dirty money flowing into the City of London. He will not stand with our allies in ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He will not even defend the children of Yemen against brutal aid cuts by his own Department, even as his Government seek to sustain the conflict that they are party to. Last year, we heard him talk tough about standing up to despots and henchmen, but now he tells us that in response to this report he is not prepared to take a single action, will not stand up to corruption, will not stand against humanitarian catastrophe, will not stand up for press freedom and will not stand up for human rights. Is there a single thing that he will actually stand up for?
I again say to the hon. Lady that we were already right out in the lead in imposing asset freezes and visa bans on 20 of the most directly responsible. She refers to the US report. The US has not put sanctions on the Crown Prince, as she well knows. More generally, she will have seen the action that we have taken—[Interruption.] She ought to listen. On dirty money, we have already said, and I have committed to this House, that we will introduce an extension of the Magnitsky sanctions to cover corruption—[Interruption.] She is now going on to talk about Russia. The reality is that we will continue to support standing up for human rights, and I will be introducing to the House Magnitsky sanctions and extensions in the corruption space shortly.
I thank my hon. Friend. We have supported the normalisation of relations, which is a good step around the region. Of course, this also led to the suspension of the threat of annexation on the west bank, which was very important. As a result of that, I was able to go to talk to President Abbas and Prime Minister Shtayyeh and encourage them to resume dialogue on west bank issues, which is very important for security, and to make sure that Palestinian public servants are paid. Plans are at least mooted for elections on both sides—both in Israel and on the Palestinian side. Ultimately, we need leadership from both sides to secure the peace that my hon. Friend and other Members want. We need a two-state solution, and the UK will support all those efforts.
We are having discussions with the Biden Administration on the approach to the proposed US withdrawal or drawdown from Afghanistan. It has to be linked to violence on the ground and to the wider peace talks and the agreements that have been made in Afghanistan between all the local parties, and it has to be based on the delivery of those conditions.
My hon. Friend asks a very sensible question. The UK co-sponsored the World Health Assembly resolution in May 2020 that agreed an investigation into the origins of covid. It is important that that investigation is given the time it needs. The field mission to Wuhan was a key early step in the investigation. Of course we cannot pre-empt findings, but we will look closely at the field mission’s report when it is published. We have been clear that the investigation must be robust, open and scientifically rigorous.
We will of course continue to make sure that we provide vital humanitarian support. I agree with the hon. Lady that the ongoing crisis in Syria is appalling. I think she asked about the Home Office plans for a new global resettlement scheme; that is for the Home Secretary to talk about, but I will—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is right that it is a diplomatic issue, which is why I fully support it.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The truth is that I would not be here today if it was not for this country’s proud tradition of offering sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. Since 2015, we have resettled 25,000 refugees, with the support of brilliant charities—I always think of Elmbridge CAN in my constituency, which helps new families to settle in. We remain committed to discharging that historic role. The new global resettlement scheme will be developed and launched by the Home Office in due course.
I appreciate that there are concerns on this issue; we have a large Indian diaspora and have had lots of constituents writing in. I did raise the matter with Foreign Minister Jaishankar when I was in India and we discussed it. Ultimately, the situation is the result of a reform agenda that the elected Government are pressing through. It is of course contentious and we have discussed it, but ultimately it is for the Government of India to decide.
The PSVI remains a top priority for the UK Government. Since its launch in 2012 we have committed £48 million and funded 85 projects across 29 countries to prevent and respond to conflict-related sexual violence. Of course, the UK’s G7 presidency is an excellent opportunity for us to galvanise support for the PSVI.
I was out in Cyprus recently, as I have already discussed, and spoke to President Anastasiades and to Ersin Tatar, the new Turkish Cypriot leader. That is, of course, the starting point. The most important thing that we need to see right now is for both sides to go to those UN 5+1 talks without preconditions, so that we can re-engage in the kind of flexibility and pragmatism that can see lasting and enduring peace for the whole of Cyprus.
The UK Government have repeatedly asserted our long-held position that we respect the territorial integrity of Indonesia, including the provinces of Papua and West Papua. The UK Government categorically do not support the activities or views of Papuan separatist activists. The presence of some individuals in the UK, including Benny Wenda, in no way means that we support their position. We engage with a diverse range of cultural and political figures in the Papua region, and our ambassador made a visit to Papua in November, when he met environment, education and human rights experts, as well as the Governor of West Papua.
The hon. Lady takes a heartfelt interest in this matter. I have recently spoken to the families of all three British-Iranian dual nationals. Of course, we accept that there is a long-standing dispute in relation to the IMS debt that needs to be resolved, but that is separate from the arbitrary detention of British nationals. Frankly, we should not be giving succour to the idea that anything should happen other than their unconditional and immediate release.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Iran’s systemic non-compliance with its obligations under the joint comprehensive plan of action are rightly a concern of the whole international community, particularly the state parties to the JCPOA. Frankly, Iran has a clear choice: return to compliance or face increasing economic and diplomatic isolation. On 18 February in Paris, I joined my French and German counterparts and the new US Secretary of State Tony Blinken to reinforce the transatlantic alliance and concerted action to bring Iran back to full compliance, which is our overriding focus.
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the treatment of Palestinians. The reality is that I do not think there is a bar on the use of military systems of justice under international law—let alone under the International Criminal Court system. Indeed, we use a military justice system with some of the highest standards in the world. What is crucial is that there is adequate due process to ensure that people’s rights can be fairly and duly heard.
We are providing ongoing consular support to Mr Taylor. Consular staff have been in regular contact with him and his UK lawyer. The British ambassador in Zagreb met him in December to discuss his concerns and explain the FCDO’s consular functions. I spoke to the Monégasque Foreign Secretary and the Croatian Secretary of State for European Affairs in November and sought assurances that both authorities were giving full consideration to the fact that Mr Taylor is a whistleblower. The UK is a state party to a number of multilateral conventions that require adequate arrangements to be made for the protection of whistleblowers. The UK has made appropriate provisions to do so in our own law, demonstrating the seriousness with which we take our obligation, and we are encouraging our international partners to do likewise. We are, however, unable to protect whistleblowers in other jurisdictions that may not have the same law.
Yemen: Aid Funding
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for raising this urgent question. The situation in Yemen remains among the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Two thirds of the entire population—more than 20 million people—require some form of humanitarian assistance. The UN estimates that in the first half of this year, 47,000 people will be in famine conditions and 16.2 million will be at risk of starvation. Improving the dire circumstances faced by so many Yemenis continues to be a priority for this Government.
Yesterday, I attended the high-level pledging conference for the United Nations humanitarian appeal for Yemen. I announced that the UK will provide at least—I repeat, at least—£87 million in aid to Yemen over the course of financial year 2021-22. Our total aid contribution since the conflict began was already over £1 billion. This new pledge will feed an additional 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month, support 400 health clinics and provide clean water for 1.6 million people. We will also provide one-off cash support to 1.5 million of Yemen’s poorest households to help them buy food and basic supplies.
Alongside the money that the UK is spending to reduce humanitarian suffering in Yemen, we continue to play a leading diplomatic role in support of the UN’s efforts to end the conflict. Yesterday, I spoke to the United Nations special envoy, Martin Griffiths, and we discussed how the UK could assist him in ending this devastating war. Last week, the United Nations Security Council adopted a UK-drafted resolution that reiterated the Council’s support for the United Nations peace process, condemned the Houthi offensive in Marib and attacks on Saudi Arabia and sanctioned Houthi official Sultan Zabin for the use of sexual violence as a tool of war.
Just last night, a Houthi missile hit and injured five civilians in southern Saudi Arabia. I condemn that further attack by the Houthis on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and reiterate our commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend itself.
We are also working closely with our regional and international partners for peace. On 25 February, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, about the Yemen peace process, and he also recently discussed this with the US Secretary of State. I discussed Yemen with the Omani ambassador to the UK on 4 February and spoke to the Yemeni Foreign Minister on 20 January regarding the attack on Aden and the formation of a new Yemeni Cabinet.
The UK is also leading efforts to tackle covid-19 in Yemen and around the world. This month, as part of the UN Security Council presidency, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary called for a ceasefire across the globe to allow vulnerable people living in conflict zones to be vaccinated against covid-19. The UK, as one the biggest donors to the World Health Organisation and GAVI’s COVAX initiative, is helping ensure that millions of vaccine doses get through to people living in crises such as Yemen.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this question and thank hon. Members for their continued interest in Yemen. The conflict and humanitarian crisis deserves our attention, and the UK Government remain fully committed to doing what we can to help secure a better future for Yemenis.
The Minister is a decent fellow and will not have enjoyed what he announced yesterday. Last night, he will have heard the United Nations Secretary-General tell him that, for Yemen,
“cutting aid is a death sentence.”
Cutting it by 50% is unconscionable. As Sir Mark Lowcock, a senior and respected British official at the UN, said, millions of Yemeni children
“will continue the slow, agonising and obscene process of starving to death”.
I understand that I remain the only European politician who has recently been into Sa’dah in north Yemen to see an acute malnutrition ward in the hospital there, part-funded by the British taxpayer—life-saving work, which will now be halved. My right hon. Friend told the House just last month that
“Yemen will remain a UK priority”—[Official Report, 8 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 31.]
and yet the fifth richest country in the world is cutting support by more than half to one of the poorest countries in the world—and during a global pandemic.
Every single Member of this House was elected just over a year ago on a promise to maintain the 0.7%. Aid has already been cut under that formula because our economy has contracted, but the Government told the House that they would protect seven strategic priorities, including “human preparedness and response”. No one in this House believes that the Foreign Secretary wants to do this. It is a harbinger of terrible cuts to come. Everyone in this House knows that the cut to the 0.7% is not a result of tough choices; it is a strategic mistake with deadly consequences.
Mr Speaker, this is not who we are. This is not how global Britain acts. We are a generous, decent country. The 0.7% is enshrined in law. This House must surely have a vote. We must all search our consciences.
I genuinely thank my right hon. Friend. He speaks with authority and passion as an experienced Member of this House and as a former Secretary of State for International Development. I remind the House that the commitment we made at the pledging conference represents a floor, not a ceiling, and that the figures that we have ultimately distributed in previous years have, in every one of those years, exceeded the figure pledged. We are going through a process at the moment where we work out how we distribute our official development assistance. In whatever way that process concludes, we will remain, in both absolute and percentage terms, one of the most generous ODA-donating countries in the world, and to Yemen itself, we still remain one of the largest donors to that humanitarian crisis.
The Government’s announcement yesterday at the high pledging conference discarded the British people’s proud history of stepping up and supporting those in need. In the middle of a pandemic, when millions stand on the brink of famine, the Government slashed life-saving support to the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, halving direct aid to Yemen weeks after they announced £1.36 billion in new arms licences to Saudi Arabia. This is a devastating reminder of the real world impact that the Government’s choices to abandon their manifesto commitment on aid will have on the most vulnerable people and shows that this Government just cannot be trusted to keep their word.
After six years of brutal conflict, two thirds of the Yemeni population rely on food aid to survive and thousands of people in the country are at risk of famine. Cutting aid is a death sentence that this Government have chosen to make, so will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise? Alongside this cut in humanitarian support, the UK continues to sustain the war in Yemen. Will the Minister follow the lead set by President Biden by stopping all UK arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition, so that we can use our role as the penholder on Yemen to help bring this brutal conflict to an end?
If the Foreign Secretary is willing to brazenly slash support to people living in the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, despite claiming for months that humanitarian crises were a priority, then the question is, what is going to happen to the rest of the aid budget on other priorities? The Minister has refused
“to talk to the aid and development community about what will be cut”
because he is ashamed. He is ashamed that the Government’s cuts will put millions of people’s lives at risk. This Government cannot continue to pretend otherwise. So will they publish a full list of the cuts made in 2020 and of the cuts to be made in 2021 by the end of this week?
What we saw yesterday are not the actions of global Britain. That phrase rings hollow. Make no mistake: as the UK abandons its commitment to 0.7%, it is simultaneously undermining our global reputation. Does the Minister believe that he has the support of this House to make this appalling cut and, if so, will he bring forward a vote on the 0.7% commitment? Tomorrow, the Chancellor has a choice. He must reverse his decision to make the UK the only G7 nation to cut its aid budget. He must reverse his Government’s retreat from the world stage and celebrate Britain’s proud history as a country that stands up for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable in society. That is the true test of global Britain.
Our aid budget, our ODA spend, is incredibly important. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made it clear that, this year, that figure will remain at £10 billion. That £10 billion represents one of the largest aid budgets in both absolute terms and relative terms in the globe. The hon. Member speaks about the change from 0.7% to 0.5%. I remind the House that Labour politicians have been talking about 0.7% of GNI as an ODA budget for decades, yet they never once got near it. Even in years of benign economic circumstances, they never went above 0.51%. Under Conservative Prime Ministers, this country has spent 0.7% consistently, and we have done so even in difficult economic circumstances. As I am sure the Chancellor will outline tomorrow in the Budget, we are now presented with a unique set of economic circumstances that are unprecedented in our lifetime, representing a constriction of the UK economy unseen in centuries. And yet, against that backdrop, we maintain a commitment to spend £10 billion on the international stage.
Money is not the only thing that the UK can deploy in support of the people of Yemen. I outlined in departmental questions the work that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has done at the international level to bring about change in the UN Security Council. I spoke yesterday with Martin Griffiths, the UN special representative, about the diplomatic efforts the UK can bring to bear to bring about the end of the conflict, because that is the precursor to a truly sustainable improvement in the situation. That is why we condemn the continued attacks by the Houthis and those who support them. That is why we have sanctioned senior Houthi leaders for the use of sexual violence as a tool of war, and that is why we will continue working bilaterally and internationally to bring about a conclusion to this terrible conflict.
I welcome my right hon. Friend saying that this is a “floor, not a ceiling”; I hope that the ceiling will be somewhat greater than he has announced. Does he agree that the UK’s position, while generous, leaves a large gap if there is any cut, and the world’s poorest will be the ones to suffer? Has he reached out to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman to ask them to help fill the gap, or perhaps even Iran, which has used the Houthi people as its tools and instruments of violence in the region? Has he asked it to stop the instrumentalisation of terror and to perhaps fund the rebuilding after the destruction that it has caused?
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee makes a very good point about the convening power that the UK can exercise and the strong bilateral relations we have with countries in the region. I am pleased to see that a number of countries in the Gulf were very generous, even though they, like us, are suffering from economic difficulties. We will continue to lobby the international community for support. I have not had and, unfortunately, I do not think we currently enjoy, the bilateral relations with Iran to make credible requests, or to make requests that will be forthcoming, but we will continue to encourage and push Iran to be a better regional neighbour and a better regional partner. In the immediate term, we strongly encourage Iran to stop supporting the Houthis, and we encourage the Houthis to end their campaign of violence against Yemenis and Saudis alike.
Gosh, this Government should hang their head in shame. The UK cutting humanitarian aid to Yemen by 50% is confirmation that the UK Government are playing a pivotal role in the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. The UK has shamefully confirmed that it will continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, laying bare the reality of this Government’s vision for global Britain—profiteering from weapons without concern for the devastation they cause, and relinquishing its responsibility to those who are starving and to save lives. Let us be in no doubt: this is not global Britain—this is more like little Britain.
Indeed, the UK is actively adding to 16 million people being put into hunger, 5 million civilians facing starvation and more than 3 million people being displaced as a result of this conflict. As Mark Lowcock said at the UN,
“If you’re not feeding the people, you’re feeding the war.”
In response to continued SNP calls to halt UK arms sales to the Saudis, this Government have always stated that they are also the biggest aid contributor, in order to clear their conscience. So I ask the Minister: is his conscience still clear, and what is this Government’s response going to be following these death sentence cuts?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the United Kingdom remains one of the largest donor countries—not just to the Yemen humanitarian crisis appeal, but on the international stage. I also remind him that, just yesterday, Houthis sent missile attacks against civilians that injured Saudis and Yemenis alike. The best thing that can happen to secure a sustainable humanitarian improvement is the end of the conflict, and the UK is working hard to do that. However, countries have the right to defend themselves, and the consistent attacks—both within Yemen and into Saudi—must stop. Our support for the humanitarian situation in Yemen will remain. We remain one of the largest donors and, as I say, we are proud of the fact that we are helping to feed children, and to provide clean water and medical assistance.
My right hon. Friend will know that the UK is one of the biggest donors to the crisis in Yemen, committing well over £1 billion in UK aid since the conflict began back in 2015, but we all know that money alone is not enough. Does he agree that progress can be made only through international co-operation, with everyone playing their part to solve the crisis?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Money makes a difference. We recognise that, which is why we remain one of the most generous bilateral donors to the humanitarian appeal. But money itself will not bring about a positive conclusion to the situation in Yemen. That is the philosophy that underpinned the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department for International Development. To ensure that our diplomatic efforts and our development efforts go hand-in-hand, the Foreign Secretary and I regularly raise the issues of this conflict with regional partners and others, and work with the United Nations and Special Representative Martin Griffiths to bring about a permanent conclusion to the conflict in Yemen. We will continue to do so until that comes about.
Minister, what is the reason behind cutting the aid to Yemen by 60%? What impact assessment has been made of cutting aid to those who were previously supported? I am particularly thinking about the impact on women and girls, people with disabilities and internally displaced people.
I remind the hon. Lady, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, and the House that, as I said in my speech, this represents a floor, not a ceiling. In every year previously, we have exceeded our initial pledging total, and we hope to be able to do so again in this situation. However, I also remind the House that we face an unprecedented economic situation. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor have all made it clear that this is a temporary reduction and that we will seek to get back to the 0.7% as soon as the economic circumstances allow us to do so. We will continue our work on the international sphere to address what we hope to be the short-term issues of this humanitarian crisis, while putting in the full weight of UK diplomatic efforts to try to bring about a sustainable and peaceful solution to the conflict.
Our £214 million-worth of aid funding for Yemen this year will support at least 500,000 vulnerable people each month to help them buy them food and household essentials, treat 55,000 children for malnutrition, and provide 1 million people with improved water supply and basic sanitation. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he is stressing to the conflict parties that it is essential that they allow this aid to reach the areas that it is intended to help? Does he agree that, given these figures, now is not the time to be reducing aid to those whom we supply in Yemen who are most in need?
I recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes about the totality of our aid spending and my colleagues will have heard that. We also very much support his point about ensuring that the aid gets to the people who need it and that we maintain humanitarian corridors. That is why we have spoken with the Houthis and others about ensuring that those humanitarian corridors are maintained.
The crisis in Yemen is wholly human made. Thousands have died as a result of the war, thousands of children have lost homes and lost schools, and poverty and starvation are the order of the day. Britain’s record in this is appalling. Throughout this whole conflict, we have armed Saudi Arabia knowing full well that those missiles are killing people in Yemen, and at the same time claiming to be the harbingers of peace by organising a resolution at the United Nations. Will the Minister make it very clear that all arms sales to Saudi Arabia will stop and that Britain will be a determined partner in trying to bring about a peace process through a ceasefire as quickly as possible and to build good relations with all countries in the region? Too many people have died. The conflict has gone on too long and it simply has to stop. We should be a party to ending the war, not promoting the war.
The right hon. Gentleman speaks with an authoritative voice, particularly on Iran. Perhaps if he would also call upon the Iranian regime to no longer give lethal support to the Houthis, that might be a big step in the right direction to bring about sustainable peace in Yemen.
There is a strong convention that before a Government undertake a policy that puts lives at risk, they get prior approval from this House. We cannot make a 50% cut in this budget without cutting into crisis and healthcare support, thereby putting at least 100,000 children’s lives at risk. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee that before the Budget votes are held next week we can have a written statement giving a breakdown of the cuts made this year in the aid budget and undertaking that no more cuts will be undertaken unless and until this House approves it?
I am not completely sure that the convention my right hon. Friend refers to is relevant in this situation. As the Foreign Secretary has said before, we are looking very carefully at what is required by law. The legislation envisaged that the 0.7% target may not be met in a particular year in the light of economic and fiscal circumstances. The legislation provides for reporting to Parliament in the event that the target is not met. The Government obviously intend to abide by the legislation. The economic situation is difficult to predict, but we do wish to get back up to 0.7% as soon as the economic circumstances allow.
The Government’s appalling decision to cut aid to Yemen has been described as “a death sentence” by the UN Secretary-General, and he is right. This enormous cut, in a year when 400,000 children under five might starve to death, is not only heartless but, just like the cut to the 0.7%, damages the UK’s international reputation, and they are doing this just weeks after announcing £1.36 billion in new arms sales to Saudi Arabia—the exact opposite of what the United States is doing. Is this what we can now expect—the UK Government shrinking away from their commitments, leaving other, more compassionate countries to pick up the slack?
The hon. Lady implies that expenditure is the only appropriate measure for compassion. If that is the case, she should recognise that the UK is one of the most generous ODA-donating countries in the world, in both absolute terms and relative terms. I therefore remind her that she, and indeed the House, should remain proud of the position the UK takes. However, I also remind her, and the House, that we face unprecedented economic circumstances, and the quicker that those are resolved, the quicker we can get back to being the generous international aid donor that we all wish to be.
The legislation allows the Government to miss the 0.7% target by accident or in an emergency, but not to plan to miss it for an indefinite number of years ahead. Can my right hon. Friend give a commitment today that further cuts will not be made until the necessary legislation promised to this House by Ministers who announced this policy has been put to a vote so that this House can express a view?
I hear what my right hon. Friend says. The Foreign Secretary, as I said, is looking carefully at the requirements of the legislation. I can assure my right hon. Friend, from this position at the Dispatch Box, that the Government are well able to listen to the mood of the House without the need for legislation in this Session.
The Minister referred to the humanitarian aid that the UK has already given to Yemen, which we recognise, but I am afraid he has failed today to explain why the Government have now decided to cut that contribution by more than half. Doing the right thing in the past is not a justification for doing the wrong thing now. Yesterday, a Yemeni aid worker co-ordinating food aid distribution, said this:
“Children are dying every day here. It is not a moral decision to abandon Yemen.”
Why have the Government done this when for example Germany, which is also facing the same unprecedented economic situation—to use his own words—has managed to pledge twice as much as the United Kingdom?
Different countries at yesterday’s pledging events put forward their pledges. Some increased their pledges; some reduced their pledges. Each country is facing its own economic challenges. The UK remains, despite the unprecedented economic circumstances we face, one of the largest donors both in general terms and in terms of humanitarian support for Yemen. I would also make the point that while the money is of course incredibly important—that is why we have committed to at least £87 million this financial year—there are other resources we bring to bear to bring about an improvement in this situation, including our voice on the international stage, our lobbying power and our political power. We will continue to work to bring about an end to the conflict in Yemen.
The Minister started his remarks by saying that money matters. Yes it does, but what this cut represents is a cut to projects, a cut to aid and a cut to assistance that will put lives in jeopardy. If the Government are so reassured by their position, then I suggest that they bring a vote to the House on this issue and they can truly gauge the strength of feeling. We have a moral duty to lead on this issue and I hope he will consider bringing a vote before it is too late.
As I said previously, the Foreign Secretary is looking at the legal requirements around the situation. I completely understand my hon. Friend’s passion, but I remind him and the House that we remain one of the largest donors in this humanitarian crisis.
According to the report published yesterday by the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, the last remaining Jewish communities in Yemen were ordered to leave in 2020 and the Yemeni Christian community, which once numbered some 41,000, has now shrunk to just a few thousand. Moreover, the Yemeni Baha’i community faced increased persecution at the hands of Houthi authorities last year. Will the Minister share his views on how aid spending in Yemen can be better used to support religious and belief minority groups in Yemen?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The UK provides secondees to the office of Martin Griffiths, the UN special representative. A number of those secondees focus specifically on broad engagement with minorities within the peace process. I have spoken on a number of occasions about the importance of ensuring protection for minority communities and religious minorities in conflicts, and about getting an inclusive set of people around the negotiating table once peace negotiations are under way.
As chair of the all-party group for Yemen, yesterday I spoke to some very brave women from within Marib, which is under long-term siege from the Houthis. They told me that most of the Houthi forces are young men and teenage boys recruited from the most impoverished parts of Yemen. They also told me that Marib is now hosting over 2 million displaced people across 144 camps. Many children are not just suffering from famine and disease; they have been deeply traumatised after having been driven out by the Houthis. They all rely on generous UK aid and the example it sets to other countries who need to step up in the humanitarian aid effort and the subsequent reconstruction. How can indicating a cut in UK aid at this crucial time do anything but prolong this terrible conflict?
The situation my hon. Friend describes in Marib is deeply concerning. We have called on the Houthis to end their assault. Marib has become the temporary home for many internally displaced people, and the situation there is dire. A number of people have mentioned our support for, or our relationship with, neighbouring countries, and of course defending Marib against this Houthi assault is part of the conversations we have. But, ultimately, the best thing we can do is bring about a swift end to this conflict.
No matter how much the Minister attempts to hide behind how much the UK gives, it will not disguise the impact that this brutal 60% cut will have on the life chances of Yemenis. Save the Children says that already 400,000 children under the age of five are at risk of starving to death this year, so I ask the Minister: how many deaths are he and this Tory Government prepared to have on their conscience, because they certainly do not act in my name?
The UK has consistently been one of the largest donors to the humanitarian appeal, and our money is keeping people alive. We are very proud of that fact. The economic circumstances we are currently living through have meant that we have to temporarily reduce the amount of money we are spending in overseas development assistance, but as has been made clear by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and others, as soon as the economic circumstances allow us to get back to where we were, we will do so.
The humanitarian crisis is terrible, as has been said, and there are also more international terrorist attacks organised from Yemen than anywhere else in the world. The Biden Administration is rewriting their foreign policy towards Yemen. I cannot think of a better opportunity to end this tragic civil war, but I am not picking up a Yemen strategy that befits the strap line of global Britain. May I ask the Minister to match the political courage of our closest security ally in tackling the humanitarian crisis, cutting arms exports and being ready to lead any peacekeeping force, should the UN require it, once a ceasefire is agreed?
Yemen remains one of the priority areas for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. As I say, I spoke only yesterday to Martin Griffiths, and we discussed what further support the UK Government can provide for his work to bring about a sustainable ceasefire. The House will have heard, and indeed my Government colleagues will have heard, the suggestions my right hon. Friend has put forward. We will consider all suggestions to bring about an improvement in Yemen, but at this stage I cannot commit to the points he has made.
The world’s largest humanitarian crisis is getting worse. Blockades of ports and airports are restricting vital humanitarian aid getting to the 80% of the population who need it. This year alone, 2.3 million children under the age of five face acute malnutrition. Cutting support as the country battles coronavirus and faces a cholera outbreak is callous and heartless. Can the Minister explain how this fits into the Government’s pledge to build a global Britain?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point about access for humanitarian aid, and I am very proud of the fact that the UK Government have lobbied international partners to maintain those humanitarian access routes. We have also provided support in a technical manner to help assess the best way of distributing aid so that it gets to the people most in need. We will continue to provide not just financial support, but technical support to help the people of Yemen, while also working to bring about a conclusion to this conflict.
It is essential that our aid is effective in Yemen, so can I ask the Minister what recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts and the UN regarding the recent panel of experts report on Yemen, and whether he will agree to meet me and representatives of humanitarian organisations, local NGOs and the Yemeni private sector? Their vital role in providing essential food and commodities to Yemenis and supplying the humanitarian operation has been undermined by the serious shortcomings and factual inaccuracies contained within the panel’s report.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the point he has made today and also for the correspondence we have exchanged on this very important issue. We are well aware of the allegations made in the panel of experts’ most recent report, and they are significant and concerning. We share the panel’s vision for the Government of Yemen and the Yemen central bank to become more accountable. I am more than happy to ensure that he, I and people more knowledgeable about these issues are able to speak in the near future.
The Minister began his remarks by saying that improving the situation for Yemenis was
“a priority for this Government.”
How he can say that with a straight face I do not know. Not only has he announced a 50% cut in aid to Yemen, but since the Saudi-led war in Yemen began, his Government have licensed £6.7 billion-worth of arms sales to the Saudis. That is British-made bombs dropped from British-made jets flown by British-trained pilots. Instead of warm words and crocodile tears, will the Minister take the necessary action for peace and end arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
The hon. Lady raises this issue on the day after Houthi missiles were sent into civilian areas of Saudi. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seeks to defend itself against such aggression, as every country in the world has the right to do. Our arms export regime is robust, and the best thing that we can do, as I say, to help the people of Yemen is to encourage all the parties, both those in Yemen and regional partners, to bring this conflict to an end.
Today marks 12 weeks since Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to receive a clinically approved vaccine for covid-19. She has since been joined by over 20 million other citizens of this country in the biggest and fastest vaccination effort the world has ever seen.
This is a phenomenal achievement. Our vaccination programme is a national success story for the whole United Kingdom, and the reason it matters is that it allows us to replace the protection currently given by restrictions on our freedoms with the protection from science.
The data confirms that this strategy is working because the vaccines work. The number of hospital admissions is falling faster than the number of new cases, whereas in the first peak it fell more slowly, and the fall in hospitalisations is faster among the age groups vaccinated first than in younger age groups yet to get a jab.
I can tell the House about some further analysis that backs up this excellent news. The halving time of hospital admissions is now every 18 days. Over the past fortnight, it has fallen for those aged over 85 from 18 days to 15. This morning, the Office for National Statistics published data showing the number of deaths falling by over a quarter a week in mid-February. More than that, the number of deaths each day is not only falling faster than after the first peak, but it is falling faster in the over-80s, who got the jab first, compared with the under-80s. The number of daily deaths is halving every 12 days, but among the over-80s it is now halving every 10, so while the fall in cases is decelerating, the fall in the number of deaths is accelerating. What all this shows is that the vaccine is working, reducing the number of deaths among those who were vaccinated first and preventing hospital admissions. This is real-world evidence that the vaccine is protecting the NHS and saving lives, that the 12-week dosing regime is saving lives, and that this country’s strategy is working.
As well as this real-world data, I would like to update the House on two new pieces of analytical research published over the last 24 hours. First, this morning the Office for National Statistics published new data on the levels of protection people have. They show that up to 11 February, one in four people are estimated to have antibodies against coronavirus in England, up from one in five. The levels are highest in the over-80s, the first group to be vaccinated, showing again the protection from the vaccine across the country. The second piece of research, published last night, shows that a single dose of either the Oxford or the Pfizer vaccine delivers protection against severe infection in the over-70s, with a more than 80% reduction in hospitalisations. It is great news that both vaccines work so effectively. In fact, the protection from catching covid 35 days after the first jab is even slightly better for the Oxford jab than for the Pfizer, so people can have confidence that they will get protection, whichever jab they are offered.
I am grateful for the work of colleagues across the House in promoting vaccine take-up, which has helped to deliver some of the highest levels of enthusiasm for vaccination in the whole world, and I am pleased to inform the House that we are now inviting over-60s to be vaccinated too. Although the day-to-day figures for supply are lumpy, we have some bumper weeks ahead later this month. Given that our vaccination programme began 12 weeks ago today, from now we begin in earnest our programme of second vaccinations, which ramps up over the month of March. I can assure the House that we have factored these second jabs into our supply projections, and we are on track to meet our target of offering a vaccine to all priority groups 1 to 9 by 15 April and to all adults by the end of July.
Our vaccination programme means that we can set out our road map to freedom and put this pandemic behind us, but we must stay vigilant because covid-19, like all viruses, mutates over time. Part of controlling any virus is responding to new variants as they arise, just as we do with flu each year. Knowing this, we invested in genomic sequencing right at the start of the pandemic, giving the UK one of the biggest genomic sequencing capabilities in the world. Thanks to that, we have been able to spot variants here at home and support others to detect variants in other parts of the world.
I would like to update the House on the six cases of the variant of concern that was first identified in Manaus in Brazil and that we have now identified here in the UK. We know that five of those six people quarantined at home, as they were legally required to do. We have been in contact with them, and I would like to put on record my gratitude to them for doing their duty and following the rules. Whenever we identify cases of a new variant, we respond fast and come down hard by bringing in enhanced sequencing and testing, so we are stepping up our testing and sequencing in south Gloucestershire as a precaution. We have no information to suggest that the variant has spread further.
Unfortunately, one of the six cases completed a test but did not successfully complete the contact details. Incidents like this are rare and occur only in around 0.1% of tests. I can update the House with the latest information on identifying this case. We have identified the batch of home test kits in question, and our search has narrowed from the whole country down to 379 households in the south-east of England. We are contacting each one. We are grateful that a number of potential cases have come forward following the call that we put out over the weekend, and I would like to thank colleagues from across the House who have helped us to get the message out there.
Our current vaccines have not yet been studied against this variant. We are working to understand what impact it might have, but we do know that the variant has caused significant challenges in Brazil, so we are doing all we can to stop the spread of this new variant in the UK, to analyse its effects, to develop an updated vaccine that works on all these variants of concern, and to protect the progress that we have made as a nation. This country is on the road to recovery and we have freedom on the horizon. We must proceed with caution because although we are moving quickly, the virus moves quickly too. Let us not waver; let us do whatever it takes to keep this virus under control.
As always, I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. On the Brazilian variant, in January and February cases here were running at tens of thousands a day and we were in lockdown—we are still in lockdown—because of our own home-grown new infectious variant, yet people were allowed to fly in from abroad, bringing the P1 Brazilian mutation with them. Throughout history, epidemic after epidemic has exploited international travel. Surely it is obvious that tougher border controls should have been in place sooner.
I welcome the progress that the Secretary of State has made on identifying the batch, but how on earth can a test be processed that does not collect the contact details? What mechanisms will be put in place to fix that in the future? Twenty-two billion pounds has been allocated to this system, and it feels as though someone has vanished into thin air. Can he assure us that it will not happen again?
I note that the Secretary of State said that there is no information to suggest wider spread of this variant, but he will recall that John Edmunds from SAGE told the Home Affairs Committee in January that for every identified South African variant, there were probably another 30 unidentified. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether he has received any estimates of the number of unidentified cases in the wider community?
I welcome the tremendous progress that has been made on vaccination and driving infection rates down. It is a testament to the NHS and everybody involved in the vaccination programme, and to everybody who is playing their part in this lockdown. We also know that the virus can quickly rebound and that mutations could evade vaccination. We are in a race against evolution, so we have a long way to go. To be frank, nowhere is covid-safe until everywhere is covid-safe. None of us wants to yo-yo in and out of lockdowns, so will the Secretary of State guarantee that the lockdown easing will, as promised, absolutely be based on data, not dates, and that the assessment time between each step is not compromised? I welcome the extra surge testing, but what is the current timeframe for genetic sequencing? How can it be sped up?
Overall trends are coming down, and that is welcome, but infections in some areas remain stubbornly high. The national average is 100 cases per 100,000, but in Leicester, my city, the infection rate is one of the highest in the country at 222 per 100,000. In Ashfield, the infection rate is 246 per 100,000. In Hyndburn, the infection rate has increased to 162 per 100,000. In Oadby and Wigston, it has gone up. In Watford, it has gone up. In Worthing, it has gone up. What steps will be taken to ensure that areas such as Ashfield, Leicester, Watford, Worthing, Hyndburn and so on are not left behind when the national lockdown restrictions begin to lift, or will those places remain in localised lockdowns? Will the local authorities be given extra resources to do more door-to-door testing and retrospective tracing? Will workplaces in those areas be inspected by the Health and Safety Executive to ensure they are covid-secure? And of course, will people finally be given decent sick pay and isolation support?
Many areas such as Leicester are facing a double whammy of relatively high infection rates and relatively low vaccination rates. What further action will now be taken to drive up vaccination rates among hesitant communities? Will the Secretary of State fund faith groups, community groups and local public health teams to develop more targeted and tailored local vaccination campaigns?
Tomorrow’s Budget cannot be about the Chancellor’s Instagram account; it has to be about the NHS and social care accounts. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that tomorrow we will get an increase in public health allocations to help public health teams plan their local covid response over the next year? Will our NHS heroes get the pay rise they deserve? With 224,000 patients waiting more than 12 months for treatment, will our NHS get the resources it needs to deliver the patient care that patients and our constituents deserve?
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to thank all those who are responsible for the vaccine roll-out. It has been an absolutely remarkable effort. He is right to say that the NHS has played its part—it has played a central part—but it has been more than the NHS. It has been the brilliance of the logistics, in particular, of our armed services. It has been the volunteers who have come forward in their droves. It has been the regulator and the partnership with private industry, and I think that this model of a combination of academic excellence and partnership between Government, regulator and private industry is one on which we can build. I know it is a model that they do not like much on the Opposition side of the House—
The right hon. Gentleman says he likes it. We always knew that he was misplaced over there. His problem is that sometimes his rhetoric is aimed more at his Back Benchers than what he thinks is right. I urge him to listen to his conscience and to back us and the businesses that are making this vaccination roll-out happen, and to put that support into practice.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about sequencing—again, done by a brilliant combination of academics, Government and private businesses. We are now sequencing a third of the positive tests in this country. That is not yet a full survey of all the positives, although we are working towards that, but it does mean that we are able to spot the variants much more than anywhere else in the world. We currently provide around 40% of the total global sequences of this disease—this virus—and we are driving up that sequencing capacity.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about increasing the uptake of vaccination. He was quite right to, and we are working with faith groups and local directors of public health and others. Councils have a very important role to play alongside pharmacists and, of course, GPs in increasing the vaccination uptake. However, the vaccination uptake has been very, very high—higher than I expected—and I am really thrilled about that.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about making sure that the road map follows data, not dates. We have rigorously set out the gap between the steps to ensure that we can see the effect of one step before we take the other. That is with the goal of having this road map as a one-way route out of restrictions so that we can all get back to the freedom that we crave.
I congratulate the Health Secretary on the brilliant progress of the vaccine roll-out, which is a personal achievement for him as well as a collective achievement for the Government. I also thank him for transparency in that programme and the transparency on the risks of the new Brazilian variant.
I would like to ask about transparency in another area, which is the new integrated care systems that he is planning in his White Paper and the concerns expressed by the Nuffield Trust, the King’s Fund, the Health Foundation and NHS providers at this morning’s Health and Social Care Committee about the lack of detail on how the public will know how well their local ICS is doing. Sir Robert Francis told the Committee that he favoured asking the CQC to Ofsted-rate the new ICSs and I wonder whether my right hon. Friend thinks that that might be a solution to the accountability issue.
Transparency has played a vital role in our approach to responding to this virus, and I think that is an important lesson from it that should be heeded globally. In terms of the future of the NHS arranged around the ICSs, that transparency will be important, too. There will be a crucial role for the Care Quality Commission, which currently rates hospitals according to, as my right hon. Friend put it, an Ofsted-style rating. It is vital that the CQC has a similar role when it comes to ICSs, and I look forward to working with him and other members of his Committee to make sure that we get the details of that right.
Although the number of cases of the Brazilian variant is thankfully small, it is a warning that being tested in advance does not rule out travellers carrying covid. The South African variant is resistant to antibodies in previous covid patients, and there is concern that both variants may be resistant to vaccine-induced immunity and could therefore undermine the success of the vaccination programme.
The Brazilian variant has already been identified outside South America, and the South African strain is present in 35 countries not on the red list. The arrival of the Brazilian strain via both Switzerland and Paris demonstrates the various routes to the UK from high-risk countries and shows how a traveller can avoid the current hotel quarantine system by separating the legs of their journey. Those infected spent several hours in close quarters with other travellers, who would not be subject to hotel quarantine even now.
I assume that the Government are tracing the passengers from the flights, but with genomics taking some time, the window for worrying variants to get a foothold in the UK before they are discovered is significant. The situation would not have arisen with comprehensive hotel quarantine, as advised by SAGE, so why did the Secretary of State agree to such an inadequate system? Can he tell us the view of the Joint Biosecurity Centre? Does he recognise that quarantining just 1% of international arrivals does not protect the UK from these variants, or protect it from those that may evolve in other parts of the world? Will the Government now review their hotel quarantine policy and make it fit for purpose?
The hon. Lady is completely wrong, and she knows it. Quarantine is in place for 100% of passenger arrivals in this country. In fact, this episode, in which all those we have successfully contacted—all five—have fully isolated and quarantined at home as required, demonstrates that the policy is working. We have further strengthened it and introduced hotel quarantine, and that will no doubt give further reassurance. The hon. Lady’s characterisation is wrong, and some of the descriptions of the organisations involved are wrong as well. I am happy to ensure that she gets a private briefing so that she can understand the situation in future.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the vaccine roll-out and on the use of the SureScreen tests, which were bought local to me. The pressure on the NHS due to coronavirus has caused the cancellation of thousands of elective operations. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to ensure that hospitals catch up on cancer diagnosis and care and cardiothoracic diagnosis and surgery? How fast does he expect to progress that?
My hon. Friend makes two critical points. The first is that the manufacture and purchasing of British-made tests is an incredibly important project. I thank SureScreen in her constituency for working closely with us over several months. We now have a product that we can all be proud of and that will test people in Britain to help break chains of transmission and control this virus. I am grateful for her work in that regard.
I also agree with her second point. The spending review put aside £1 billion for the recovery of elective operations, as well as half a billion pounds for the recovery of mental health services. That is crucial for cancer and all the other elective areas, including cardiothoracic, and we will publish further details of the recovery programme soon. The NHS is just exiting a stage of significant pressure—more than 10,000 people are still in hospitals with covid—and we need to ensure that staff get some rest and recuperation, but next year will be all about the recovery my hon. Friend talks about. The money has been allocated, and we will need to get on with it.
The Brazil variant cases arrived a month after I raised this issue with the Prime Minister, and they show not only the problems of delays, but the limitations of the pre-travel tests that did not catch those cases. Even now, 99% of the 15,000 daily arrivals are not covered by hotel quarantine, and most people can still travel home from the airport by tube, train or even plane, mixing with others—as some of these travellers did—without being tested on arrival in the UK. Why are the Government still refusing to introduce additional tests on arrival, and still allowing international passengers to travel onwards on UK public transport? Does the Secretary of State recognise that those gaps in the system will let more new variant cases spread?
These cases would be caught by the new hotel quarantine policy. The right hon. Lady talks about the need for more testing, and we have introduced tests on day 2 and day 8, to ensure that we keep everybody who arrives as a passenger in the UK under the necessary level of surveillance.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that my constituency is extremely diverse in its racial and religious makeup, and our national health service staff have done a brilliant job in keeping up the fantastic vaccination rate during this period. However, we are still having to combat the anti-vaxx propaganda that is going out. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that people get the truth about the wisdom of taking the vaccine, regardless of what race, religion, and cultural background they come from?
That is an incredibly important question, and I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done in getting that message out. In Harrow we are vaccinating in mosques, temples, and GP surgeries. A critical part of the roll-out is to ensure that the message gets to everybody that this vaccine is safe and it works. It is no good just my saying that. We want to, and we are, engaging with leaders of all communities—faith leaders, and people who have strong voices in their community. Critically, we must ensure that people feel as much as possible that the vaccination effort is accessible to them. It is on us to ensure that the vaccines are easy to get hold of, and that people get answers to any reasonable questions they may have. I look forward to working further with my hon. Friend on delivering that across Harrow and the whole of the country.
I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that every hour is vital in tracking down new positive cases, particularly new cases of new variants. Will he explain why the eye-watering £22 billion that has been spent on the test and trace system does not track each and every test that is sent out, based on a unique code for every test? Surely that would help close the net on positive tests much quicker than the public calls for help that we have seen over the past few days, when that vital information is missing when each test is returned.
I am not sure you were in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I addressed that precise question in my statement. Not having the contact details happens in about 0.1% of tests. In this case, we think the test was done as part of a home test kit, when it is incumbent on the individual to set out those details. Home test kits can be sent to someone’s home, in which case of course we have the details of where it was sent. Alternatively, in response to surges, tests can be taken round by local authority teams and dropped off. We therefore need to find out exactly where this test was dropped off. What the hon. Lady omitted to say is that the team has done a good job of narrowing down where that may be to 379 households. The call-out at the weekend was answered with a number of leads, and we are working hard to make sure we find the individual concerned.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Both the scientific news and the progress of our vaccine roll-out suggest that we are well on the way to getting back to normal. In particular, I was delighted to learn about the fantastic new data showing that both the Oxford and Pfizer vaccines are effective in hugely reducing hospitalisations and deaths from covid and, indeed, that the Oxford jab, which is being manufactured here in Newcastle-under-Lyme, may even be the more effective of the two. Will he join me in welcoming the fact that our European neighbours, such as France, have recognised that fact and are moving to allow this terrific vaccine to protect the lives of older people there, just as it has done in the UK?
I am delighted to see any country recognise the life-saving value of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, as we recognise the life-saving value of all that have passed assessment by our regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. We know that this vaccine is not only safe but is saving lives and stopping hospitalisations right across this country right now. I pay tribute to the scientists behind it, who have done so much work to get it to this place, and it is simply fantastic to see in the data with the naked eye that these vaccines are saving lives.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on having the temerity and leadership to identify early on that vaccination and getting a good vaccine was the way ahead. Here we are, leading the way for not only Europe but the world. Indeed, a few weeks ago, the Irish Government and Europe tried to steal vaccines out of the arms of people in Northern Ireland because they were so jealous of how well the United Kingdom was doing. With that in mind, what will the Secretary of State do in late summer, given the fact that we have eight times the amount of vaccine that the United Kingdom will need? Is a list being compiled of needy countries where the United Kingdom can help people with vaccination?
Yes, absolutely. While I am so proud of the work that we have done in this United Kingdom to develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and to buy vaccines from around the world that are safe and effective, so that we are able to vaccinate everybody here at home, I am also cognisant of the fact that vaccination around the world will be necessary. I was very pleased to see that COVAX started vaccinating in Ghana last week. It currently looks as if we may have excess vaccines in the future, and we have clearly committed that we will make them available around the world.
We know for sure that we seek to vaccinate with two doses every adult in the UK. There may well be a need for a third vaccination over the autumn against variants, and there is currently a clinical trial considering the vaccination of under-18s. So the exact number of vaccines that we will need for the UK population is not yet known, but we are keen to ensure that we then go on to support, with vaccines and with the money that we have already pledged, the vaccination of the most underdeveloped parts of the world.
The Secretary of State knows how well the vaccination programme is going here in Warwickshire, and his remarks at Friday’s national briefing were greatly appreciated here. Many of the residents being vaccinated at Locke House in Rugby have asked me about the road back to normality, and some have asked about getting some sun on a foreign holiday. Could he say something about any plans the Government are considering for people wishing to travel both at home and abroad to be able to demonstrate that they have received their vaccination through some form of certification?
Coventry and Warwickshire have done an amazing job, and I was very pleased to see them top the ranks published on Thursday of the areas of England that have vaccinated the most. I congratulate my hon. Friend and his team.
On foreign holidays, we said in the road map that international holidays will not be allowed before 17 May. We are working with the global travel taskforce, which met this lunchtime, just before I came to the House. It is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary. I am on it, along with Home Office and Foreign Office colleagues and representatives from the travel industry—from the airlines, cruise ships and others. That will report by 12 April. Last year, international travel restrictions were about restricting the number of cases due to high prevalence elsewhere when the prevalence here was low. The challenge now is that we have to take into consideration the risks from variants of concern, which means that more understanding about the impact of vaccines on variants of concern, such as the one first discovered in Manaus in Brazil that we were talking about earlier, is critical to answering the question of when we will be able safely to reopen international travel.
I received some welcome news this morning that Lambeth’s local covid vaccination team is one of the highest performing teams in the country. Our local clinical commissioning group reports that 85% of people over 75 and 89% of residents in care homes have now been vaccinated. Here in Vauxhall, we have had to implement the surge testing operation in the past few days because a case of the South African variant was discovered locally. This is all down to the tireless efforts of our primary care workers, nurses, GPs, pharmacies and an army of volunteers. I am concerned, though, that despite this heroic effort, there is still some misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. Does the Secretary of State agree that more needs to be done to counter this misinformation and to support the vaccine roll-out and take-up among our black, Asian and ethnic minority communities?
Yes, I do. I want to add one more person to the long list of people whom the hon. Lady rightly thanked for their incredible work of getting take-up in Lambeth to as high as 85% among the over-75s, and that is her. She has played a personal leadership role, and I thank her and pay tribute to her for that. There is still much more work to do, and I hope that we can keep working together on it.
The pace and scale of the vaccination programme has been incredible, and we owe a debt of thanks to everyone involved. In Wolverhampton, we have kept pace by using a variety of locations, including our leisure and community centres. As we all look forward to restrictions ending, I hope that these public buildings will be returned for leisure and community use. For how long does the Secretary of State predict that we will need a mass vaccination programme? With the potential need for a rolling programme of booster injections or vaccination against new variants, what infrastructure is being planned so that we can protect our entire population for as long as is necessary without overburdening our NHS?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point: free the leisure centres! Many are being used as vaccination centres now, but, like her, I look forward to the day when they can be used for the purpose for which they were built—as leisure centres. It is important that, should we need a continued vaccination programme, for instance, over the summer and into the autumn, as seems likely, we will have to move to more permanent places or places that are free to be used as vaccination centres over that period. In fact, that has already started to happen. We have already started to move some of our testing and vaccination centres to more semi-permanent sites to free up the original sites that we started with, because we needed things to move incredibly quickly. That is an important consideration. Frankly, it is best done as close to the local area as possible, so it is right that I do not get involved in each individual one. I am absolutely certain that the NHS in Wolverhampton is far better placed to make those sorts of decisions than I am from this Dispatch Box, but I hope that it will keep my hon. Friend informed.
I am afraid that “data not dates” clearly has not worked, because people have quite understandably just focused on the dates. The spring sunshine at the weekend meant that in lovely places such as Cambridge it was very busy. Are the Government now going to make a precautionary adjustment or, with hospital numbers still so high, take a chance and risk running the NHS into the ground?