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Arms Trade: Yemen

Volume 692: debated on Tuesday 20 April 2021

Order. I remind hon. Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of the debates in Westminster Hall. Members are also expected to remain for the entire debate. I remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room, and please take wipes with them and put them in the bin. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall. Members attending physically who are in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move to the horseshoe when a seat becomes available. Members can speak from the horseshoe only where there are microphones.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the arms trade and Yemen.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Ms McVey, and I am delighted to have secured this extremely urgent debate on the arms trade in Yemen. I thank hon. Members who are present here, and those attending virtually, for speaking today.

Liverpool is a proudly international city, and I am proud to have grown up in, and now to represent, such a diverse place, where there is a history of solidarity between our many communities. The Yemeni community in Liverpool, as with so many linked to our docks, has a long and rich history. It is often said in the city that Yemenis are the Scousers of the Arab world. Long before the war in Yemen started, Dr Najla Al-Sonboli came to Liverpool to complete her masters and PhD at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, alongside many other Yemeni medical students. She made Liverpool her home for many years, before returning to Yemen. When the war broke out in 2015 some Yemeni medics such as Najla were offered a chance to return to safety in the UK. However she, like the others, decided she had a duty to remain and help treat the sick and suffering in the dire humanitarian crisis brought on by the war.

The community in Liverpool sprang into action. A tiny Liverpool market stall based at Granby Street market in Liverpool 8, run by a small group of fantastic women from Toxteth, began fundraising for the al-Sabeen children’s hospital in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. Dr Najla is at the heart of that incredible, selfless work at the al-Sabeen hospital. Her work, supported by staff from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the women running the Habibti stall, has helped to meet the needs of one of Yemen’s only remaining free-to-access medical facilities that is still open. The staff there have had no salaries for more than five years. Many have suffered deeply, with some dying of cholera or covid, or from the bombings. They are doing everything they can to continue serving their patients. Some nurses even walk for two hours to reach the hospital, because they cannot afford the bus fare.

The money that the Habibti stall raises—even moving online to keep funds coming in during the pandemic—keeps the hospital going and ensures access to vital supplies, such as PPE, medicines, blankets and clothes. On top of the humanitarian crisis in hunger and war casualties, the conflict has resulted in a large-scale public health crisis. Severe, acute malnutrition has exacerbated a spiral of infectious diseases including the worst cholera outbreak ever recorded, with more than 2.5 million suspected cases since October 2016. Coronavirus cases are hard to track. Oxfam has reported that thousands of people are likely to be dying from undetected covid cases, as health facilities are overwhelmed and infrastructure is on its knees.

Nearly every patient who comes through the hospital’s doors, from neonatal babies in the intensive care unit to children as old as 15, and their families, are in desperate need. When Dr Najla was last asked what support she needed, the Liverpool fundraisers expected calls for PPE, extra antibiotics and perhaps an increase in expenses for the staff; but no, her answer was one word: food. I ask the Minister to take a moment to consider that devastating situation and the road that has led there, including many choices made by the present Government. The hospital has had a massive increase in patient numbers, having taken in people from all over the country, and has been targeted in air raids in which at least four people have died.

I tell this story not just because of the fierce pride that I have in my community and the actions that they have taken to support vulnerable people trapped in a hellish war, but because too often this conflict is reduced to numbers, framed in humanitarian crisis. That conceals the truth of the political decisions that created this catastrophe—political decisions in which our Government have a considerable amount of influence. I turn now to the crux of this debate: this Government’s unwavering commitment to keep supplying Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies with arms and training that have repeatedly been proven to violate international law and without a doubt are fuelling this invisible and protracted crisis.

Since the war began six years ago, nearly a quarter of a million people have been killed by the conflict, the blockades and the resulting disease and food shortage. The published value of UK arms export licences to Saudi since the war began is £6.8 billion, but the opaque and secretive open-licence system means that the true value is much higher, with some estimates as high as £18 billion. Research by Oxfam has shown that the medical and water infrastructure in Yemen has been hit hard during air raids—almost 200 times since 2015, equating to one raid every 10 days—affecting hospitals, clinics, ambulances and water drills, tanks and trucks. Dr Najla from the al-Sabeen children’s hospital has herself had to move home several times.

Figures from the Ministry of Defence’s own tracker database show that the Government are only too aware of these alleged instances of breaches or violations of international humanitarian law. I could take this opportunity to ask why—the evidence is laid bare—this Government continue to sell arms to members of the Saudi-led coalition even as the US and Italy have suspended their arms sales and several other countries have restricted them, but I have asked them that many times before, as have many of the hon. Members present at the debate today.

I could also ask why, despite the fact that 80% of the population in Yemen need humanitarian assistance, with 50,000 facing famine conditions and a further 5 million only one step away, the UK has taken steps to nearly halve the amount of aid that it has pledged to Yemen. Other G7 countries have increased their aid budgets. The UK Government, faced in Yemen with what they agree is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, have cut their aid budget by 60% this year to £87 million, and £43 million of that will go as cash for food to alleviate the famine and £22 million to address malnutrition. Children now have irreversible stunted development because of malnutrition. The cut in aid will impact seriously on this, with remaining funds going to prevent economic collapse and support the peace process.

The decision to cut 60% of aid was taken by all Ministers in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on the grounds that the UK needed the money to recover from covid expenditure—while the Government were handing out billions of pounds in contracts to Tory donors, family members and their mates. The announcement came mere weeks after they granted £1.35 billion-worth of arms licences to Saudi Arabia. I could ask the Minister whether he considers it the utmost hypocrisy that the UK is the penholder on Yemen at the United Nations Security Council. It has taken food from the mouths of starving children with one hand while, with the other, handing fighter jets, bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia and its allies—that has resulted in 60,000 airstrikes in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, and 30% have hit civilian targets—and profiting directly from the unimaginable suffering of the Yemeni people. I could ask the Minister how he sleeps at night, knowing that the Government could do so much more to alleviate the suffering of so many millions.

Funding of relief agencies’ work in Yemen ended on 31 March—a decision made in November—and agencies are still waiting to find out what support they will get. But we have asked these questions for years. We know their answers; they have become wearily familiar. Shrouded in spin, they are shameful excuses. The reality is that this Government have a choice—to be part of the problem or to be part of the solution. The fact that the Government continue to license billions of pounds-worth of military equipment and that they continue to cut aid are devastating symptoms of a deeper problem: their lack of interest in ending this conflict. That is what we have to challenge, and I welcome the fact that hon. Members from across the House are here today. That shows that there is a will, and where there’s a will there’s a way.

As the penholder on Yemen at the UN, the UK is a crucial player on the international stage. With the right political intent, we could make a major stride in ending the fuel blockade, improving the humanitarian situation and getting the key players around the negotiating table to agree the terms of a just, inclusive and sustainable ceasefire.

I want to end my contribution by turning to the escalating situation in Marib, which is teetering on the edge of a cliff and threatening to unleash yet another wave of unimaginable misery, death and protracted conflict. Two million internally displaced people, most living in refugee camps, are at risk. Hundreds of thousands will be forced to flee, with catastrophic humanitarian consequences. The community of Liverpool understands that. No more excuses. Will the Minister go back to his Government and ensure that they commit aid that will significantly alleviate the humanitarian crisis, and ban arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition?

Before we come to other Back Benchers, I remind everybody that we will start the Front-Bench speeches at 5.30 pm. We have an incredible number of Members who want to speak, so time will be limited in order to get everybody in. We will start with three-minute speeches, but they will probably have to reduce to two minutes.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) on securing this debate. As hon. Members know, I have always taken a close interest in Yemen. I was born there and, like many other Members, I have followed the progress of the civil war with horror. Like all civil wars, it is fought by a mix of combatants, following the 2011 Arab spring awakening, including the Houthis in the north, who are dissatisfied with the lack of investment in infrastructure in the north of Yemen.

The legitimacy of the official Yemeni Government response, led by President Hadi, is recognised by the UN under Security Council resolution 2216. The coalition forces of the Yemeni Government have been helped by Saudi Arabia and, previously, by the United Arab Emirates as Gulf Co-operation Council members.

As we move towards the peace process, the country has become increasingly complicated, with the Southern Transitional Council in Aden, another group led by Tareq Saleh, nephew of the ex-President Saleh, in the west, and various tribal militia, all looking for a voice in the peace process. At the same time, we have al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS, so it is not as two-sided as hon. Members may think. In fact, the attack on Marib is largely because the Houthis tried to increase their negotiating power in any future peace process. The Saudis are working with the existing Government to protect the citizens in Marib.

It is a complex situation, but one thing is clear: arms sales by the UK did not start the war, and the UK’s export regime is not preventing the Houthis or any other party from accepting a negotiated outcome to it. It is not in the interests of any of the outside powers that the war continues. Our exports to any destination are checked against the consolidation criteria, which are very clear about respect for human rights, preservation of regional peace, security and stability, and the existence of armed conflict.

The granting of licences resumed only after international humanitarian law analysis. Other countries, including the US, continue exports where they judge them legitimate. President Biden has recently reaffirmed US military exports to Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have been firing missiles into civilian areas in Saudi Arabia, which has every right to defend its country and borders.

We have to end this civil war now. Britain is the UN penholder and is leading on this. I salute the tireless work of Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy. We need a coherent strategy that aligns every interested party in Yemen. All parties must come to a ceasefire and work on a peace process. That is the only way to bring this conflict to an end and begin rebuilding Yemen.

The Saudi-led war in Yemen has been raging since 2015. Since the beginning of the conflict, more than 100,000 people have been killed, including about 20,000 civilians killed or injured in direct attacks. The war has also created one of the worst man-made humanitarian crises in the world today, with about 24 million people in severe need of humanitarian relief and 4 million people displaced from their homes.

Over the course of the conflict, many gross violations of human rights have been committed by both sides. In particular, the Saudi-led coalition continues to carry out indiscriminate attacks on civilians and bomb civilian infrastructure in Yemen. Homes, schools, markets, mosques, weddings and funerals have all been targets. Shamefully, they have been doing so using arms supplied to them by the UK.

As a major defence trade partner, the UK has sold to Saudi Arabia a range of aircraft missiles and bombs that have subsequently been used to attack and kill civilians in Yemen. It a source of immense shame that the UK has played such a fundamental part in the murder of civilians. That is why I, along with many others in this country, am calling for an immediate end to all arms sales to Saudi Arabia. We must do all in our power to bring this horrendous conflict to an end. Ceasing our arms trade with Saudi Arabia is an obvious and important starting point. The UK should play an active global role in upholding and protecting human rights, and work alongside international organisations to broker sustainable peace in Yemen.

The political and humanitarian situation in Yemen is intolerable for the civilian population, with multiple groups fighting for control of the country at the expense of civilians. That has resulted in serious human and civil rights abuses committed by Houthi groups as well as Saudi-backed forces. With no legitimate democratic solution in sight, it is essential that the United Nations and other international organisations help to build a lasting, peaceful and democratic transition.

It is in our interests to stop all arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately and unconditionally and, instead, work towards facilitating a negotiated peace between the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Saudi-backed coalition.

Where arms are sold, there will always be questions asked, and rightly so. But armaments and technologies are advancing at such a pace that once a country decides to tie itself to another for that supply, the supplying country can exert influence. We account for about 20% of Saudi arms imports. I submit to colleagues that it is far better for stability in the region and for jobs at home that it is the UK that has that influence.

I know Labour Members hate capitalism, but if we withdraw sales from Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia will simply seek suppliers from other countries—that could be Russia or even China. Do hon. Members really want Russia and China to fill that supply vacuum? We have seen their behaviour in Crimea and Xinjiang.

The middle east is a highly complex geopolitical arena that requires long-term solutions, not short-term political opportunism. The Government are using all their diplomatic and humanitarian expertise to bring an end to the conflict in Yemen and alleviate the humanitarian crisis. We do not ignore those in need, even when facing domestic financial pressures, with over €1 billion in aid committed to support affected rural households and individuals in Yemen.

The consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria are taken very seriously by the Government when assessing all export licence applications. Every application is assessed on a case-by-case basis, using a range of information, including reports from non-governmental organisations and our overseas network. Those original frameworks were set out in law through Acts of Parliament by the then Labour Government in 2002 and 2008, yet it is the Labour Opposition who now take issue with the frameworks and their application. Is it their own laws that they are unhappy with, or the application of those laws by highly trained civil servants?

Yemen has been and remains the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis. Millions have been forced to flee their homes, face severe malnutrition and need urgent assistance. On top of that, Yemen must face the coronavirus pandemic with a broken healthcare system. Far from being a helping hand, or even idly standing by, the UK Government have actively facilitated the conflict time and again by continuing to supply arms, training and technical support to Saudi-led forces perpetrating the Yemeni people’s ongoing suffering.

The Government have, on multiple occasions, faced honest and reasonable cause to end the arms trade to Saudi Arabia, they but have consistently failed to act. Last July’s decision to blankly dismiss any risk of Saudi Arabia committing war crimes as “isolated incidents”, and using such a judgment as a basis to resume selling arms, flew in the face of the comprehensive findings of the UN group of eminent international and regional experts on Yemen, who found consistent breaches of international law through the very real harm being caused to civilians.

With the US now having halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen, the UK is at risk not just of isolating itself internationally, but finding itself on the wrong side of a moral line. This is not a moral line with any ambiguity—there is no grey area here. The suffering in Yemen at the hands of British-provided Saudi arms is plain and clear for all to see.

Finally, halting arms to Saudi Arabia and its coalition allies is a step in the right direction. The UK has a responsibility to do everything it can to bring about a just and lasting peace in Yemen and the wider region.

Colleagues have rightly spoken about Saudi Arabia and the effects of arms sales on Yemen. I agree with the comments of my colleagues on restricting sales, but with time so short, I want to raise the role of the United Arab Emirates, which I do not want to be forgotten in this debate.

The UAE has recently concentrated its efforts in southern Yemen and the island of Socotra, establishing a military presence on Socotra and supplying arms to militias on the island. The Socotra archipelago has a population of 50,000 and an almost unique biodiversity —700 species found nowhere else on Earth. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. The UAE controls maritime access to the island and there are reports that UAE ships supplied military vehicles to local militias as recently as last month.

In the US, Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Dianne Feinstein have tabled a Bill that could block the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates due to their involvement in Yemen. The Bill targets a pending deal that includes 50 Lockheed Martin-made F-35s worth $10.4 billion. The UAE is one of the UK arms industry biggest customers. The UK’s 2015 national security strategy and strategic defence and security review made a commitment to establish a permanent British defence staff in the Gulf, which is based in Dubai. The UK sold £144 million-worth of arms involving 122 companies in the last three years. It would be remiss of the UK Government to consider restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, without also considering the UAE.

I beseech the Minister to reverse the decision to almost halve humanitarian aid to Yemen. If any country should be exempt from cuts to aid, it is Yemen, although I absolutely oppose abandoning our commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid. However, with UNICEF stating Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 24 million people— 80% of the population—needing humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children, it is up to us to act. Our country has a noble history of assisting people in countries ravished by famine and war. People in this country have voluntarily donated hundreds of millions of pounds in the past four years to save people from starvation. The Government should back the will of the British people and not cut a penny, especially as the UN penholder.

I thank my good friend and neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) for securing today’s debate on this hugely important matter. Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It is a human crisis that requires every bit of will and determination the international community can muster. We remember those who have been lost in the scourge of this war and redouble our efforts in the fight for the living.

For too long, a once proud people have been pummelled by fear in the form of bombs and pain; starvation and death. It is a real honour for me as a Liverpool MP to extend our solidarity and hand of friendship to the Yemeni people, especially the Yemeni community in my city of Liverpool. That community has a long and vibrant history in our great city, extending as far back as the 19th century. We recognise their contribution today and every day, as we take a moment to share the great pain they suffer.

As the conflict in Yemen enters its sixth year, I want to take a moment to reflect on the struggle to live a life free from fear, free from the fear of violence on the streets and destruction raining down from the air, and free from hunger, disease and death itself. As human beings, the common bonds that unite us cannot be denied. Whether in Yemen or anywhere else, we all aspire to live a fulfilled life based on love, compassion and family.

It is our responsibility as a former global power and current major player in the arms trade to step up and take our responsibility to preserve human life seriously. That means cancelling all arms sales to Saudi Arabia immediately. Even President Biden has ensured that the arms sales are suspended in America. It is time that we followed President Biden’s example on this issue. This country is becoming ever more isolated on the matter. I implore the Minister today to do the right thing and stop the arms sales.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Thank you, Ms McVey. As hon. Members have said, six long years of war have pushed Yemen into the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands have died, including nearly 10,000 killed by Saudi-led air strikes. Infrastructure has been crippled, and 50,000 people are living in near famine-like conditions while millions of others stand on the brink of starvation.

Since the Saudi bombardment began, the UK has approved £6.8 billion-worth of arms export licences to Saudi Arabia. Planes built in Britain have delivered death from the skies above Marib and Aden. Typhoon fighters, Paveway bombs and Brimstone missiles built here in the UK have all been brought into the service of Saudi Arabia’s brutal assault on Yemen, and all while private shareholders grow rich from the suffering of millions and the deaths of thousands.

I have spoken many times about the vital role that defence spending has to play in supporting domestic industries and improving defence capabilities, but this does not blind me to the importance of ensuring that the arms we manufacture should not be handed to the tyrants who have no regard for human life. British trade policy must have respect for human rights at its heart. Ministers can claim to champion international law and promote democracy abroad, but that does not seem to match their deeds. They seem desperate to abandon the UK’s long-standing humanitarian commitments. In the past year alone, the Department for International Development has been thrown on the scrapheap, the foreign aid budget slashed to a measly 0.5% of national income, and human rights concerns pushed aside, so that the UK can strike trade agreements with regimes that are responsible for brutal abuses. Of course, the greatest stain on our international reputation is our continued complicity in the war in Yemen while we are slashing financial aid to the war-torn hell on Earth.

I hope that the United States’s recent change in strategy regarding arms exports to Saudi Arabia will have caused our Government to rethink their callous policy on arms sales. Sadly, however, British firms are still allowed to export billions of pounds-worth of weapons for use in Yemen, so I join my hon. Friends in urging the Government to change course now. It is time for Britain to stop reaping profit from this human catastrophe, and to start bringing pressure on all parties involved to broker a just and lasting peace.

The ongoing war is intolerable. Although we know that almost £7 billion has been spent on arms sales, the figure is probably more like £20 billion, because many of those sales are not even recorded with the open licences. Even the lower figure means that, on a VAT rate of 20%, £1.3 billion has been gained for the Exchequer, and we have spent only £1 billion on aid. If it is the larger amount, £4 billion has been made by the Exchequer on tax from those deals. The taxpayer has profited directly from the misery and the deaths of people in Yemen, and we have not even bothered to give a scrap of that back, let alone the full amount.

Of course, we now know that many arms agreements were illegally made. The Court of Appeal said that those licences were illegal and required the Government to suspend them. The Government failed to suspend them and broke the court order, so the Court required the Government to go back and apologise. Now, rather than actually changing anything, the Government have found a loophole to continue arms sales, and another court case will have to progress. I am afraid that anyone who says that officials or the Government are following the consolidated criteria—those great criteria that were partly developed by Robin Cook—is delusional. They are on a different planet, because that is not what the courts, the researchers and the people on the ground in Yemen are saying.

Most importantly, our allies are begging us to withdraw. Germany has suspended arms sales, and we saw the disgraceful situation of our Foreign Secretary begging Germany to continue to allow arms sales where parts were made for Britain’s weapons. The Biden Administration have now done the right thing and suspended arms sales, but the fact is that we train many of the fighter pilots.

The Saudi-led war in Yemen has continued for more than six years, backed by the sale of British arms to Saudi Arabia. In 2016, my predecessor as MP for Cynon Valley, Ann Clwyd, said:

“Saudi Arabia—using British bombs and planes—may have committed war crimes on Yemeni civilians”

and here I am today in 2021 saying the same. Over the period, there has been much bloodshed. In December 2020, the UN estimated there had been 233,000 deaths in Yemen since the conflict started. Last month, a health emergency was declared in Yemen due to a second wave of covid-19 infections. Yemen is in no position to cope with a sudden rise in cases.

Yemen is experiencing the world’s worst food security crisis, with more than 20 million Yemenis, including 13 million children, facing starvation. Recently, fuel shortages have created difficulties in providing the humanitarian aid on which 80% of the population are dependent. Despite withdrawing many ground troops in 2019, Saudi Arabia has continued its use of airstrikes in Yemen; almost a third of those airstrikes hit civilian targets. In June 2020, the High Court issued a landmark ruling forcing officials to pause arms sales to Saudi Arabia due to concerns that the weapons would be used in violation of international humanitarian law. Despite that, the Government rushed out a report in a matter of months that absolved them of guilt. It seems implausible that the Government were satisfied with the findings and resumed arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In the three-month period following the resumption of sales, the Government authorised £1.4 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

On a global stage, the UK is isolated in its continued support for the Saudi regime while others such as America and Europe have suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The money gained through those arms sales has been dwarfed by the moral cost of their use. Until now, Britain has been complicit in the war crimes perpetrated in Yemen, but that does not need to, and must not, continue. The UK Government need to act urgently to end their support for Saudi airstrikes and suspend all sales of arms to the Saudi regime.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) for securing this important debate. I also acknowledge the vital work of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which has helped to shine a light on the UK Government’s central role in the conflict. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is a tragedy and a stain on the reputation of the UK due to the arms that flow continually from our shores and fuel the unrelenting and one-sided bombardment by the Saudi regime.

Instead of using their place on the world stage to stand up to the atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia, the UK Government have been complicit in those war crimes, all because they profit from every single bomb that is dropped in Sanaa and beyond. Britain’s largest arms company, BAE Systems, has a gruesome track record in the region. It has sold £17.6 billion-worth of aircraft, weapons and services to the Saudi military since 2015, when Riyadh first began bombing Yemen. Despite the UK Government’s posturing and pronouncements against Mohammed bin Salman following his orders to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the reality is that, just four weeks later, the International Trade Secretary met BAE Systems to discuss how to facilitate further arms sales to Riyadh.

I am sure that the Minister will refer to the temporary embargo that was in place last year on new arms licences. Despite that, a recent report by Declassified UK revealed that sales continued with renewed vigour and helped BAE earn a further £2.6 billion from the Saudi military last year alone—an increase on its morbid success in 2019. Furthermore, the Campaign Against Arms Trade believes that BAE’s total sales to Saudi Arabia over the six years of conflict could total £19 billion when cyber-security deals and the company’s share in missile manufacturer MBDA are included. At what point will the Government acknowledge their shameful role in the crisis and stop the relentless flow from British companies who are helping to arm the conflict? It is time for the Government to act. It cannot be left to bloodthirsty companies like BAE, which grow ever larger while supplying the Saudi air force. I urge the Government to take immediate action.

Instead of profiteering from the war in Yemen, the Government need to concentrate their efforts on diplomacy and aid. Instead, they have simultaneously continued to trade in arms and slashed their humanitarian aid spending in Yemen by 50%, despite international condemnation and the fact that 80% of Yemenis—24 million people—are in urgent need of food and healthcare. The Government are well aware that the cut in aid will undoubtedly cost Yemeni lives, and their unlawful arms sales to the Saudis continue.

More than 100,000 people have died in the conflict, including tens of thousands from disease and famine. The UN has already reported that the UK is “aiding and assisting” the catastrophe in Yemen. So much for the UK’s global sanctions regime when it knowingly arms slaughter.

The Government may feel a little bit like Macbeth: that they are

“in blood

Steeped in so far that, should I wade no more

Returning were as tedious as go o’er”.

But it is not too late. The Government could even now do the decent thing—the moral thing—and suspend all existing contracts and stop this trade in death and human suffering. No other course of action is morally justifiable. The Government should also restore all necessary aid to Yemen.

The Yemeni conflict is not only the world’s largest humanitarian crisis but one of the worst atrocities of the modern era. The conflict has displaced more than 4 million people, while 24 million people—a staggering 80% of the population—need aid and protection, 16.2 million people face severe food insecurity, and 20 million people lack reliable access to clean water, making disease prevention almost impossible. In November 2020, the United Nations found that more than a quarter of a million Yemeni people have died over the last six years. This is a disaster.

It is therefore shameful that Britain is complicit in this war crimes atrocity, especially as the UK is a penholder on Yemen at the UN Security Council, and should therefore be ensuring the country’s safety, not funding its misery. The UK has licensed at least £6.7 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2015, with Oxfam estimating the true value to be more than £15 billion. In contrast, at the recent UN high-level pledging event for the humanitarian situation in Yemen, the UK Government’s pledge of £87 million was almost half the £164 million pledged at the same funding conference last year, and a reduction of £131 million since 2019.

That is the real-world impact of cuts to the UK’s aid budget, which the UN Secretary-General described as a “death sentence” for Yemen. It comes just weeks after the UK Government announced £1.36 billion in new arms licences to Saudi Arabia. The Government’s duplicity is shameful. With one hand they sign resolutions and speak of their desire to end the conflict, yet with the other they continue to facilitate the suffering of the Yemeni people by providing the weapons that rain down on civilian houses. Now is the time for all of us in the UK to say, “Not in our name will the unimaginable suffering of the Yemeni people continue.”

The Government must accept their complicity in this humanitarian catastrophe. They must follow the lead of countries around the world, ensuring that no weapons made in our country are used in the conflict by doing all that they can on the international stage to bring an end to this horrific war.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) on securing this very important debate. The situation in Yemen is truly devastating. According to the UN, 233,000 people have been killed by the war, the blockade, and the resulting food shortages and disease. Estimates state that at least 8,759 civilians have been killed by Saudi-led forces in bombing attacks. The UK Government must recognise that they are contributing to this catastrophe. The Government licensed arms exports worth more than £1.65 billion to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the second half of 2020. That includes £1.4 billion in the ML4 category, covering bombs, missiles, grenades and countermeasures.

Alongside the UK’s arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition, the UK aid cuts have undermined the UK’s diplomatic efforts towards a political solution. The UK Government’s pledge of £87 million in aid at the UN high-level pledging event for the humanitarian situation in Yemen—almost half the funding pledged at last year’s conference—came just weeks after the UK Government announced £1.36 billion in new arms licences to Saudi Arabia. The decision to slash humanitarian aid to Yemen is disgraceful. In Yemen, 16 million people live in food insecurity and 20 million people lack reliable access to clean water. Nearly 50,000 already face famine conditions.

The UK is the penholder on Yemen at the UN Security Council. We should be showing global leadership by stepping up to tackle the humanitarian crisis and stopping arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition, as the US and Italy have done already. Will the Minister explain how the Government can justify cutting UK aid when they have issued at least £6.8 billion in arms export licences to Saudi Arabia, thereby directly profiting from this catastrophic war?

I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) for setting the scene so well. As we are all aware, the UK is not a member of the Saudi-led coalition. However, we are all equally aware that Saudi armed forces are using UK-built and licensed arms in Yemen, including Typhoon aircraft, missiles and bombs. It seems difficult to reconcile our obligations to Yemen, in terms of human rights aid, with the profit received from the arms trade. The licences include £1.4 billion in the ML4 category, which covers bombs, missiles, grenades and counter-measures—a 500% increase on the previous six months.

At the same time, 16 million Yemenis live in food insecurity, 50,000 are already facing famine and a further 5 million are only one step away from hunger. Two thirds of the population rely on food aid to survive. It is estimated that some 24 million Yemenis—80% of the population—need humanitarian assistance, which is being thwarted by the Saudi-led coalition’s air and naval blockade of the country. It is absolutely ridiculous what they are doing.

More than half of Yemen’s 30 million population is currently going hungry. UNICEF warned that the number of malnourished children in Yemen could rise by 20% to 2.4 million by the end of 2020 because of the shortfall in humanitarian funding. Some of the television programmes that I watch tell us about the famine and are looking for charitable help. When we see the pictures of those wee children who are on the verge of starvation and dying, we would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved. I want to make a plea today for all those young wee children—those 2.4 million.

Continuing to export arms to the Saudi-led coalition is a direct contradiction of the integrated review’s claim that the UK must be a force for good. To make that happen, we must support open societies and defend human rights. That means that steps must be taken to deliver humanitarian aid and stop this arms trade in the interim. I fully support the hon. Lady in what she said.

I want to take this opportunity to remind colleagues of the human consequences that the arms trade and conflict in Yemen can have on people. Four years ago, in April 2017, my constituent Luke Symons was stopped at a Houthi checkpoint in Sana’a and detained. He has been held in prison ever since for no reason other than that he holds a British passport.

Luke’s is a very typical Cardiff story in many ways. The rapid growth of Cardiff as a coal exporting port in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought many Yemeni and Somali sailors to the city. Luke comes from one of those Cardiff Yemeni families who still have relations in the country. On a visit to Yemen in 2014, he met his future wife and settled there before the conflict broke out. They desperately tried to leave, but were unsuccessful before Luke was detained.

I appeal to the UK Government to redouble the efforts they have already made to secure Luke’s release and secure safe passage for him and his wife and child to the UK. I thank the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), for their efforts so far.

I also appeal to Luke’s Houthi captors, during this holy month of Ramadan, to release him. His grandfather, Bob Cummings, who has a deep and abiding love for the people of Yemen and the middle east from his time as a merchant seaman, has campaigned tirelessly for Luke’s release. Luke’s grandmother, Sheila, who played a big part in his upbringing, is very ill and deeply worried about his welfare. It would be an act of mercy and compassion and would show the Houthi leadership in a good light if, after four years of this sad affair, that young man of 29 years, who is simply caught up in events and has committed no crime, could be reunited with his wife and child and wider family. That is the plea from the family to his Houthi captors, and I sincerely hope it will reach them and their hearts.

We have managed to get all the Back Benchers in, but the Front Benchers will have to shave down their time to four minutes and then eight minutes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I hope that, since my election to this place, I have demonstrated, particularly in foreign affairs, that where I agree with the UK Government’s position, I am vocal in that agreement. Equally, where I disagree with the UK Government’s position, I will be just as vocal. On arms sales to Yemen, the Scottish National party has a fundamentally different view of the policy being taken forward by the UK Government, and we oppose the direction that the UK is in.

I start by praising what the UK has been doing to foment efforts towards a just peace. I know that significant efforts are being made to try to broker a peace between the warring parties. The UK is a significant donor of aid and there are significant efforts going forward to ameliorate the situation. But that aid is being cut. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has confirmed that the aid is being cut from £164 million to £87 million this year. That is a 50% cut to one of the most war-torn and desperate situations in the world.

Yemen is a humanitarian disaster. According to Oxfam, in a full briefing received by all of us, 24 million people—80% of the population—need aid and protection, and 10 million people are facing severe food insecurity. The conflict has displaced over 4 million people, two thirds of the population are reliant on food aid to survive, 20 million people lack reliable access to clean water, making disease prevention almost impossible, and then there is covid on top of that. It is one of the most desperate situations in the world, and the UK has contributed to it.

The most significant export from the UK to Yemen is, sadly, arms, via Saudi Arabia. I am close to the region: I grew up in Riyadh and I know the region well. I carry no torch for anybody except for a just peace. The fact is that the UK has sent billions of munitions to the region, to a place in the world that has the least possible ability to withstand it. The UK is not a neutral, honest broker in trying to create a just peace. It is a partisan, actively contributing to the disaster. It is shameful that the issue has not been properly looked at in the round.

The UK is also behind the curve internationally on the matter, as several countries have stopped the arms trade to Saudi Arabia precisely because of humanitarian concerns. The US, Germany, Finland, Canada, Denmark, the UN and the European Parliament have all called for the trade to stop, but the UK stands almost alone in contributing. I take the point that other countries might fill that gap. Indeed they might, and we cannot stop them. But the UK is grossly hypocritical in its stance on Yemen. That is the fact of the matter. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. To my mind, the UK should institute an arms embargo to Saudi Arabia, pending these concerns. I disagree with the cut to aid full stop, but the UK should exempt Yemen from those cuts. It is one of the most benighted places in the world, it needs our support, and the UK has not been a force for good in Yemen.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) on securing the debate. She is already known in the House for strong and challenging interventions, and her speech today will only add to that reputation.

My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Hall Green (Tahir Ali), for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker), for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), and for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) all underlined in their contributions the fact that the humanitarian situation in Yemen is desperate. A decade of fighting has produced the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and over 230,000 people have already been killed by the war, and the resulting food shortages and disease. Millions of people are still at risk of starvation and disease.

If the situation in Yemen was not bad enough, covid and the failure thus far of ceasefire negotiations is quite clearly exacerbating the terrible crisis still further, particularly in the oil and gas region of Marib, where up to 2 million people are sheltering from the intensifying conflict. At this stage, I echo the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West that his 29-year-old constituent be released from prison and allowed to return home. I am sure the whole House supports his call for that to happen.

The failure in the beginning of March of the UN’s annual appeal for emergency funding to match last year’s pledges is deeply worrying. As Members have highlighted, the decisions of UK Ministers to impose an almost 50% cut in our aid to Yemen is striking. Many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world are in Yemen, and our country has a strong and long history with the people of Yemen.

As the House knows, the Government’s failure to implement their own laws relating to arms exports led eventually to the Court of Appeal ordering, in July two years ago, the Department to stop granting licences for exports of arms to Saudi Arabia. The Court of Appeal’s decision was based on a long catalogue of attacks on the civilian population since 2015. Thousands were killed in air strikes. Weddings, funerals and markets were all targeted. One year after the Court’s judgement against the Department, the Secretary of State published a new internal assessment of the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen. Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, it was claimed that despite “isolated incidents” where international humanitarian law may have been broken, there was no pattern of activity that would lead her to question the intent or the capacity of the coalition to comply with international humanitarian law.

It is striking that, despite our requests, the Secretary of State has still not published any of the analysis that she undertook on the Saudi bombing campaign. She has repeatedly refused to publish a list of allegations that her new analysis examined. She has also refused to disclose which incidents she classed as possible violations of international law. I urge the Minister to publish that evidence, even at this late stage.

Arms sales resumed very quickly, reaching their highest total compared with any of the previous 19 quarters put together, before the Court of Appeal’s decision. As other hon. Members have made clear, a series of countries—not least the United States—have taken the decision to suspend arms sales. It continues to be surprising that the UK has not followed suit. I look forward to hearing the Minister attempt to justify that decision.

May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey? I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) on securing the debate and, in particular, on her warm words about the Yemeni community in Liverpool, whom the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) also mentioned. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is nothing short of appalling. That is a matter on which all parts of the House will resoundingly agree. The situation was well described by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, as well as by others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). The number of civilians killed, and the cholera and covid situations, have piled misery upon misery.

Yemen is a beautiful country of proud people, a point that was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley, who grew up there. Yemen has contributed so much to the historical and cultural fabric of our global community. As all speakers have said, anyone who has heard or read about the harrowing plight of the people of Yemen cannot fail to be moved by the unimaginable suffering experienced there daily. Their dire struggle against a seemingly relentless charge of civil war, natural disaster, hunger and disease is truly unthinkable.

For there to be any prospect of peace or any notion of normality for the Yemeni people, it is clear that there must be a sustainable political settlement. That is the only way to address the worsening humanitarian situation and bring real long-term stability to the country. That is why the UK Government are straining every diplomatic sinew to help to bring an end to the conflict in Yemen. The increased engagement that we are seeing from the US and Oman is certainly timely and welcome, and the UK Government were pleased to see Saudi Arabia making clear its commitment to a peace deal in recent public comments. We continue to provide our full backing to Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy, in his laudable efforts to reach a peaceful settlement, a point that was well made by many others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley, and the hon. Members for Liverpool, Riverside and for Enfield North (Feryal Clark).

On overseas aid, despite financial pressures—not least from covid-19, which has stolen lives and livelihoods in this country and across the world—the United Kingdom has maintained its position as one of the leading aid donors to Yemen. In this financial year, UK Aid will feed 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month, support 400 healthcare clinics, and provide clean water for 1.6 million people.

We recognise the concerns about our arms sales policy, and I assure hon. Members that the Government take our arms export responsibilities very seriously indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) said. It must not be forgotten that the UK’s defence and security industries make an important contribution to the economy, enhancing our global competitiveness and boosting our economic growth, not to mention sustaining tens of thousands of highly-skilled manufacturing and engineering-based jobs across the UK. A lot of the speakers in this debate come from the north-west region, and many of those jobs are located there, in Lancashire, particularly around Preston, as well as in Cheshire and other areas in the north-west of this country.

Our policy on export control is not to frustrate or hamper the ability of those responsible companies to trade, but to make the world a safer place for us all by operating a clear, proportionate and robust system of export controls in the UK.

We rigorously assess every application on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, known as the consolidated criteria, first introduced by Robin Cook in 2002 under the last Labour Government and updated by Vince Cable in 2014. The consolidated criteria provide a thorough risk assessment framework for evaluating export licence applications and require us to think hard about the impact of providing equipment and its capabilities. As part of the assessment process, we draw on a range of sources and information. That includes insights from non-governmental organisations, international organisations and our overseas network. Decisions on export licences are not taken lightly, and we have been clear that we will not license the export of equipment where to do so would be inconsistent with the consolidated criteria. The Government’s position on arms exports to all countries remains that such exports require an export licence and that all export licence applications will continue to be carefully assessed against the consolidated criteria on a case-by-case basis.

On scrutiny, contrary to what the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said, the UK operates one of the most transparent export licensing systems in the world. We publish official statistics both quarterly and annually of all our export licensing decisions, including details of export licences granted, refused and revoked. UK export licensing is also accountable to Parliament through a statutory obligation to provide an annual report on strategic export controls. Parliamentary oversight is provided through the Committees on Arms Export Controls, which are made up of members of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and International Trade Committees, as well as members of the International Development Committee. That arrangement ensures that appropriate scrutiny from a range of perspectives can be applied.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) mentioned the case of Luke Symons. As he knows, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is in contact with the Symons family, and I am delighted that he has had the opportunity to meet the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), and the Foreign Secretary. We warmly endorse his words calling for Luke Symons’ release, particularly during this holy month of Ramadan.

I hope, Ms McVey, that I have impressed upon you that the Government take their export responsibilities seriously. The Export Control Act 2002 requires Government to give guidance about the general principles to be followed when exercising licensing powers, which we do through the consolidated criteria. We have been abundantly clear that we will not issue a licence where to do so would be inconsistent with the criteria. For the avoidance of any doubt, our assessment of licence applications also carefully considers our obligations under the United Nations arms trade treaty and other rules of international law.

The Government desperately want to see a long overdue end to the conflict in Yemen. We fully support Martin Griffiths and the United Nations in their efforts to broker a ceasefire and kick-start the political process to secure a pathway to peace. From the passionate contributions we have heard today, I know that Members from all parties across the House will echo that sentiment and share our high hopes that an end to the conflict in Yemen is on the horizon.

I thank all hon. Members for their impassioned contributions. I disagree with the Minister and the hon. Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) on continuing to support arms sales to the Saudis. The UK has a responsibility to do everything to bring about a ceasefire, and the escalating situation in Marib threatens another decade of destruction. The Government have the power to do the right thing, cease arms sales, increase aid to its full amount—the Minister did not mention that—and not make any more flimsy excuses. If we are not part of the solution, we are going to be part of the problem. We need to make those changes now to stop the destruction and the major humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the arms trade and Yemen.

Sitting adjourned.