House of Commons
Tuesday 20 April 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings continued (Order, 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—
Fragile and Conflict-affected Countries: Education
Covid-19 has deepened the crisis in access to education and learning that children face, especially girls and especially in conflict. That is why Britain is championing two global targets to get 40 million more girls back into school and 20 million more reading over the next five years.
One in four school-age children globally—over 500 million children—already lived in a country affected by conflicts or climate-related emergencies before the pandemic. Violence against children in conflict settings is on the rise. More and more children are at risk of recruitment, sexual violence and attacks on their schools and hospitals. Will the Government commit to including those children and addressing the barriers to their learning in a specific target as part of the ambition to ensure 12 years of quality education for every girl?
My hon. Friend is right to point to this specific problem within the wider challenge of covid and the compound impacts in conflict situations. The support to fragile and conflict-affected states accounts for over 50% of UK aid to education through our country-led programmes. In 2020, we provided over £10 million in new funding to support refugee and displaced children’s education in some of the toughest parts of the world.
I am enormously proud of and grateful for the UK aid that goes to support the poorest children in the world. However, since 31 March, children’s centres, education projects and health facilities have all been forced to close, as Ministers have not signed off on funding agreements. My question to the Foreign Secretary is simple: when will he come to the Chamber and tell the House which aid projects are safe, what is going to be cut, the associated risks and the timeline and criteria he is using? Lives are literally at stake, and jobs are definitely hanging in the balance.
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee on International Development for what she has set out. I know that she has a passionate interest in this. Of course, we have taken a very careful approach to the allocations this year. I will be laying them in the House of Commons in the usual way, and I look forward to answering questions in her Committee on Thursday.
Three weeks ago, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would endorse the safe schools declaration, which includes a commitment to the continuation of education in situations of armed conflict. This last year has seen the biggest global education emergency in our lifetime due to covid-19, and every other G7 member has responded to the pandemic by increasing aid. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the UK Government cutting aid to war-torn Syria and Yemen, described by UN Secretary-General António Guterres as a “death sentence”, and cutting spending on education by nearly 40% is undeniably a betrayal of the 75 million children in conflict-affected countries across the world who urgently require support to access education?
No, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s rather skewed caricature. We remain one of the biggest global donors of aid. In relation to the Global Partnership for Education, I can tell him that our commitment, which we will announce shortly, will increase.
Ethiopia: Human Rights
The UK has been at the forefront of the international effort to de-escalate the very grave humanitarian situation in Tigray. There can be no military solution; conflict can only be resolved through a political settlement. I saw that at first hand when I was in Ethiopia in January.
Credible media and NGO reports have found human rights abuses, crimes against humanity, massacres and atrocities by all parties to the conflict in Tigray. The UN states that the top public health official for the appointed interim administration in Tigray has reported the use of sexual slavery and grotesque acts of sexual gender-based violence by Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers, with more than 10,500 cases of rape being committed. When did the Foreign Secretary last speak to the Ethiopian Government to raise the humanitarian, security and human rights situations, and has the Prime Minister spoken to his Ethiopian counterpart?
I share the hon. Lady’s concerns about this, and I can reassure her that not only do we regularly raise this, but that is why I visited Ethiopia in January. I went up to Gondar to see for myself the humanitarian access. We have seen since then some improvements in humanitarian access. The Ethiopian Government have introduced a new system that requires notification rather than permission. That is a step forward, but we need further progress. In relation to those credible claims of human rights abuses that we and many have received, I note that Prime Minister Abiy has said that the perpetrators should face justice, and we certainly hold him to that assurance and support the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in the planned investigations that they are working on.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my concern and, frankly, horror at the ongoing reports of rape and sexual violence being used as weapons in the ongoing Tigray conflict, and joins the US Government in calling for a joint investigation by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission into such reports. Does he agree that, with the UK hosting the G7 this summer, this is the perfect opportunity to put preventing sexual violence in conflict on the agenda and to lead a global response to such heinous crimes?
I totally share my hon. Friend’s passion and outrage at the human rights violations we have seen—indeed, not just there, but in many other parts of the world—and I can reassure her in relation to the G7 presidency priorities that, along with tackling covid and climate change, pressing for human rights, freedom of speech and accountability for human rights violations are high up on the agenda.
I think there will be considerable unanimity, frankly, and concern across the House about the situation in Tigray. It is also a test for the UK Government’s integrated diplomacy and aid policies, in that the UK is not without arms in this discussion as a significant donor to the region. I am glad that the Foreign Secretary has been in the region, but is there scope for discussions, and what discussions has he had, with the European Union and the African Union, which are also trying to create a durable peace on this, and what part has the UK played in those efforts, because I think those would be the most productive?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Normally, in this kind of situation we would expect the African Union or other regional partners to be engaged in trying to find a diplomatic dialogue and a way forward. I spoke to President Kenyatta about this and I spoke to Prime Minister Hamdok in Sudan about this, and I have also spoken to the UN and the AU about this. It is absolutely clear, for the reasons he has described, that we need a widespread caucus of like-minded countries pushing for a political solution to this because, on top of humanitarian access and accountability for human rights abuses, we need to have political dialogue. One of the most important aspects of that will be to make sure that, as soon as possible, there are elections across Ethiopia, as Prime Minister Abiy is committed to, but also in the Tigray region.
Zimbabwe: Human Rights
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and her deep interest in human rights more broadly. We remain seriously concerned about human rights in Zimbabwe, including abductions, arrests and assaults on civil society. In fact, on 1 February, we used our new sanctions regime to hold to account four specific individuals responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses. We will continue to press for genuine political and economic reform, and for Zimbabwean laws to be upheld.
In recent weeks, I have received emails from constituents about the worsening and very serious political, economic and human rights situation in Zimbabwe, as the Minister has already outlined. My part of south Wales has a vibrant and thriving Zimbabwean community, and although I accept that the Minister has made an assessment of the situation, I would like to know what concrete steps this Government are taking with allies in the region, directly through Harare and through the community groups here in the UK, because enough is enough. There are children dying from malnutrition now, and we cannot simply sit by silently any more.
Like the hon. Lady, I have a Zimbabwean community in Southend, with which I engage, but we also engage with near partners, particularly South Africa and the African Union, that are very influential. Our ambassador maintains a dialogue across ZANU-PF, and following the death of Foreign Minister Moyo, with whom I had previously had very frank engagements, I am due to meet his replacement when he gets in role and starts making international engagements. I will continue to make these points; and actually this House making the points, as the hon. Lady is doing, is very helpful, because the eyes of the world are watching the Zimbabwean Government, as are the Zimbabwean people.
Climate Change: International Co-operation and the Global South
As COP hosts, we encourage all countries to make a step change in ambition. The success of COP26 is a top priority for the Government and the FCDO this year. It is prioritised by Ministers and it is prioritised across our diplomatic network.
We know that climate change threatens minority rights, especially in India, where minority and indigenous groups such as Sikhs, Muslims and Dalits have a close interaction with natural resources. Can the Minister therefore advise the House how the UK Government, in future trade talks in India, intend to seek to embed positive climate change outcomes not just for UK companies and UK citizens, but for those who are most marginalised in India due to climate change?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight marginal groups, specifically in India but also globally. We have pledged to work with young people, faith leaders, women and indigenous people to amplify the voices of the most marginalised and will do that not only through the narrow lens of climate change but also through our overall relationship with other countries, including trade policy.
A major hurdle in reducing world carbon emissions is our need to sustainably produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed almost 2 billion additional people. Can the Minister therefore reassure me that this vital issue of global food security will be kept at the forefront of Britain’s global climate and development strategies going forward?
I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend. In fact, the global transition to sustainable agriculture, and specifically key land use, is a key focus of our COP26 nature campaign, and we are seeking to make further international progress towards climate resilience and sustainable agriculture through the transition to sustainable agriculture dialogues, which will begin next week, so the question is very timely.
I have launched a survey to better understand what matters to my constituents in Wolverhampton in protecting our precious environment. What discussions has my hon. Friend had with international partners to ensure that everybody is included in the global effort to tackle climate change?
My hon. Friend is a dynamo on climate change in his constituency, and we in our own modest way hope to be dynamos at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. We will encourage climate ambition in this critical year of COP; through our presidency we will make an inclusive COP, listening to all parties. It is important that we engage here in the UK, but also that we engage throughout the G7 across communities that are not directly affected now but will be in the future and that need to embed the ideas of climate change and ambition for the future by driving forward Executives to do more. I thank my hon. Friend for his work, and we will work with him on the international stage.
It has been revealed that UK officials have said that
“greater levels of climate action are urgently needed”
“before COP26, partners must step up with more forward-looking commitments.”
I am sure such a statement would carry weight in the international community if it were not for the fact that the UK is simultaneously cutting its overseas spending, which would be helping developing economies to become greener and adapt to steps to address climate change. South Africa’s Environment Minister has called the aid cut “a concern”. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on climate change of the UK’s cuts to funds committed to the sustainable development goals, of which tackling climate change is a central priority?
As the hon. Lady can imagine, this is a very important issue, and I have asked the question internally within the Department and can assure her that we are doubling our international climate finance to £11.6 billion over the next five years and have committed to aligning all official development assistance with the Paris agreement, so actually there is a really positive story to tell.
A recent Cambridge Sustainability Commission on Scaling Behaviour Change report says the world’s wealthiest 1% need to emit 30 times less carbon than they currently do by 2030 if we are to have a fair transition to net zero and, according to the science, save the lives and livelihoods of millions, perhaps billions, of the world’s poorest from the worst effects of the climate emergency. Given the stakes and given the UK’s historical and disproportionate carbon emissions, will the Minister commit to ensuring that not a single penny from the public purse will be used to fund or subsidise the fossil fuel industry, including through development aid?
Certainly everybody, especially those emitting the most, needs to make those reductions. We are no longer investing in fossil fuels. Various organisations clearly have a historical book of fossil fuel investment that can be managed down over time, but we are very exercised to do the right thing as individuals and as Government, and, through COP26, to be leading and ambitious and ask others to be ambitious as well.
To galvanise global support to avert the climate catastrophe, tackle poverty and improve global health in a year when the UK will host the G7 and COP26, we must bring countries together. Instead, this Government are the only one in the G7 to have taken the callous decision to cut their aid budget, which weakens our ability to bring countries together to tackle the global challenges we face. The Government’s cuts to the aid budget will remove a lifeline from hundreds of thousands of people and damage our planet, leaving us all less safe. Rather than hiding behind written statements, will the Foreign Secretary face up to his decision, make a statement to the House on his spending plans for 2021 and put his Government’s cuts to a vote?
The Foreign Secretary is attending the International Development Committee on Thursday, which will allow for a forensic examination of everything that he says, but we are here at the Dispatch Box answering questions. I myself am answering seven or eight questions. Far from running away, we are engaging in this debate, and we have a good story to tell. We are one of the best contributors in the G7 in relation to our GNI. We have the pledge of 0.7%, and we will get back to that when the economy allows. We should be proud, but we need to live within our means.
Israel and the Palestinians: Supporting Peace
The UK is actively encouraging the parties back to dialogue. We support the decision of the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel to resume co-operation. We are now pushing for deeper co-operation on health and economic issues, including the re-establishment of the joint economic committee, to rebuild trust and move towards a lasting solution. We support the objectives of the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace and will continue to engage with the Alliance for Middle East Peace and President Biden’s Administration to identify further opportunities for collaboration. We are working with regional partners and the United States Administration to seize on the positive momentum of normalisation, alongside improving Israeli-Palestinian co-operation, to advance the prospects of a two-state solution.
I am pleased to hear what my right hon. Friend says. Does he agree, though, that a just and lasting peace must be built on the rule of law, with severe consequences for systematic breaches whoever commits them, and that all Palestinians, including those in East Jerusalem, must have the right to vote on 22 May?
We regularly call on Israel to abide by its obligations under international law, and we have regular conversations on this issue. We also encourage the Palestinian leadership to work towards democratic institutions based on the rule of law, and we welcome President Abbas’s announcement of dates for elections in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and will work closely with the Palestinian Authority to support that. We have called for elections in East Jerusalem; my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has done so, and I did so with the Israeli ambassador in a meeting that we had just yesterday.
Despite assurances that, after countless delays, the EU review of Palestinian textbooks would be published in March, there is still no sign of the report. UK taxpayers’ money pays the salaries of Palestinian teachers who use material inciting violence against Israel and Jews, making peace harder to achieve. What more will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that UK aid does not prolong the conflict?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I remind the House that the UK does not fund the textbooks used in Palestinian schools. We understand that the EU review is in its final stages. We are not able to comment on the content of that report until it is released. We regularly engage with the EU at senior level to push for timely publication, and we regularly liaise with the Palestinian Authority to try to bring about the improvements that my hon. Friend has highlighted.
It is now five months since the US Congress passed a $250 million Act to create the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the largest ever investment in peace building. In November, our Ministers promised to examine the feasibility of the UK taking up one of the international seats on the fund’s board. Will the Minister tell us the results of that assessment and confirm that the UK will use the G7 summit to step up and help to lead this exciting new project with the United States?
We always engage positively with any steps that push towards greater peace and reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and we have engaged with this process. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we are currently going through a programme of work assessing what we will do with our overseas development aid, but we will continue to engage with the Biden Administration, the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority to pursue what has been the long-standing UK goal: a peaceful, prosperous, meaningful two-state solution.
I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, because I have been to Israel with the Conservative Friends of Israel.
With the G7 coming to Cornwall, we should underline our commitment to international institutions and multilateral co-operation. We welcomed the US middle east partnership for peace Act in December, but does the Minister agree that it is now time for the UK to take a board seat on the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question, which I partially answered in my prior response to the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper). We have no current plans, but we always take a keen interest in any initiatives that encourage peace and co-operation between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority, and indeed, the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. We will continue to work along- side Governments in the region and the US Administration in pursuit of that objective.
The International Criminal Court has decided to conduct an investigation into alleged war crimes by Palestinian armed groups and Israeli forces in the occupied territories. The FCDO has stated that the UK respects the independence of the ICC. However, the Prime Minister said that the investigation is a “prejudicial attack”, so does the Minister believe that the court is independent or not?
Official Development Assistance
The Foreign Secretary and junior Ministers, including myself, speak regularly to counterparts in the G7 and other countries about official development assistance, including in supporting the response to and recovery from covid-19. The Foreign Secretary’s most recent bilateral conversations on international development with G7 partners were with French Foreign Minister Le Drian and Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi. As G7 president and host this year, we are strongly supporting work towards a sustainable, inclusive and resilient recovery, and the Foreign Secretary will host G7 Foreign and Development Ministers in May, when we will discuss sustainable recovery as an integral part of our agenda.
Are the Government not a little concerned that when they are chairing the G7 in a global pandemic, when international development has never been more important, the Germans have hit the 0.7%, the French have embraced the 0.7%, and the Americans have increased their international development spending by no less than $15 billion, whereas we in Britain are breaking our promise to the poorest, breaking our manifesto commitment on which we were all elected just over a year ago, and cutting humanitarian aid, leading directly to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths, particularly among women and children?
I do not accept what my right hon. Friend is saying. The UK remains a development superpower. Based on OECD data for 2020, the UK will be the third largest official development assistance donor in the G7 as a percentage of GNI in 2021. We will spend a greater percentage of our GNI than the US, Japan, Canada or Italy and, to be absolutely clear, we will still spend £10 billion on ODA in 2021. We have said that we will return to spending 0.7% on ODA as soon as the fiscal situation allows, but we have clear priorities and remain an active, confident, internationalist, burden-sharing and problem-solving nation.
Grand Challenges: International Collaboration
We are at the heart of discussions about global challenges and mega-trends, including through the UK’s G7 and COP26 presidencies. On clean growth, we will harness those presidencies to advance our climate agenda in the run-up to COP26. On artificial intelligence, in September, the UK signed a declaration with the US to drive technological breakthroughs in AI. This puts the UK at the forefront of the AI and data revolution. On science, the UK has strong science collaboration arrangements with more than 50 countries, from the research powerhouses of the US and Europe to emerging economies.
Through my work with the Prime Minister’s taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform, we are looking at how we can make Brexit a real opportunity for the UK as a global science and innovation superpower to better integrate our aid and trade and to boost R&D investment, inward investment, exports and sustainable global development. Does the Minister agree that, to help developing nations to confront the biggest global grand challenges of sustainable agriculture and development, as set out in the Foresight report, including the challenge of nearly doubling world food production on the same land area with half as much water and energy, we could use variable tariffs to incentivise high-quality production, and UK aid to support tech transfer of UK agritech and clean tech for sustainable growth?
I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he does in this area. Nowadays—and when he was an excellent Minister—we provide preferential tariffs for 70 developing countries through the generalised scheme of preferences. This includes a framework covering implementation and international environment conventions. We are supporting international research partnerships and the roll-out of agritech across the poorest and most climate-vulnerable countries. This is delivering crop varieties that are more productive, nutritious and resistant to drought and pests. Our clean tech investments are enabling UK battery pioneers to develop new technologies and business models to deliver clean energy in Africa.
Poverty and Inequality and UK Aid
The UK remains a global leader in international development and is committed to supporting the world’s poorest people. Based on current GNI forecasts, we will spend over £10 billion of ODA in 2021. The Foreign Secretary has set out seven priorities for the UK’s aid budget this year, all of which are in the overarching pursuit of poverty reduction. This new strategic approach will allow us to achieve greater impact from our aid budget, notwithstanding the difficult financial position that we face, and UK ODA continues to serve the primary aim of reducing poverty in developing countries.
I thank the Minister for her response. I am pleased that I am due to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), shortly to discuss development bonds and a specific opportunity that has arisen. What steps is the FCDO taking to embed innovative finance solutions within the Department’s work to ensure that the UK’s development approach is the most effective at combating poverty globally?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that this is something she takes an interest in. Aid alone cannot deliver the sustainable development goals. The $2.5 trillion annual financing gap for the SDGs means that we need creative solutions that engage the private sector to end global poverty, and the FCDO is testing innovative financing tools that will pull private finance towards sustainable development. We are currently running a pilot on development impact bonds that will draw in impact investment to achieve the SDG outcomes, such as helping 13,000 households living in extreme poverty in rural Kenya and Uganda to set up income-generating businesses.
This Government’s decision to cut the aid budget at a time of a global pandemic and economic crisis risks pushing millions of vulnerable people in developing countries into extreme poverty. Co-operative development in sectors such as farming is vital in reducing poverty, generating wealth and power fairly among producers. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the co-operative sectors will not be damaged by these cuts?
It is important to remind ourselves and recognise that we will still be spending £10 billion of ODA in 2021 and that the UK economy is 11.3% smaller than last year and undergoing the worst contraction for 300 years. That said, the Foreign Secretary set out clearly in his written ministerial statement on 26 January the conclusion of the cross-Government review on ODA. Driven by the integrated review, our process is really focusing on seven key priorities: climate and biodiversity; covid and global health security; girls’ education; science and research; open societies and conflict; humanitarian assistance; and trade.
UK Aid: Effect of Reductions
Since 2015, the UK has provided £11 billion in humanitarian funding. As the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), has just stated, despite this unprecedented economic contraction, we are still proud of our contribution. We remain, in both absolute terms and percentage terms, one of the most generous ODA-donating countries in the world.
I thank the Minister for that answer. While every other G7 member state has responded to the pandemic by increasing aid, the UK Government are out there alone in choosing to cut it by approximately £4 billion this year, after a cut of £2.9 billion last year. The pandemic should have been a rallying cry to this Government, encouraging more robust and urgent investment and prioritisation action to meet sustainable development goals. Instead, this Government chose a path of staggering and shocking betrayal, turning their back on the world’s poorest. Have any impact assessments been carried out on how these cuts will affect those in conflict zones? If not, how long will we have to wait for this Government to show a shred of compassion?
I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that the UK remains one of the largest donating countries in the G7 and indeed the world. Our commitment to that is undiminished, which is why I am very pleased that we have been able to strengthen our commitments to our headquarters in East Kilbride, in Abercrombie House. We are proud that, despite the fact that we have this economic contraction, we are still donating £10 billion in ODA.
The violent crackdown and killing of peaceful protesters in Myanmar are completely unacceptable and require a strong message from the international community. The UK secured G7 statements on 3 February and 23 February, as well as a United Nations Security Council presidential statement on 10 March. In response to the military’s appalling human rights violations, the UK has imposed sanctions on two key military-linked entities that fund the military’s actions and on nine senior military figures, including the commander-in-chief.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Can I impress upon him the plight of the people in Myanmar and the need to do all in the power of the Government to assist them? Do the Government intend to review the process of administering sanctions, which is often slow and difficult? Will he inform the House as to what talks are being held with other Governments, particularly those in Asia, to ensure a united approach is being taken to sanctions on the Myanmar regime?
I thank the hon. Member for her question. When we impose sanctions, we have to make sure that they are done on a properly solid legal basis. The Foreign Secretary recently travelled to Brunei and Indonesia and attended the second United Kingdom-Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting of Foreign Ministers. We made clear our views on the coup in Myanmar and the senseless violence against civilians. We welcome ASEAN’s unique role in addressing the crisis and support its call for an end to the violence and for restraint and a peaceful resolution.
The people of Myanmar desperately need help. Medical staff such as my constituent Dr Thomas Lamb have been actively persecuted—including through arbitrary detention, torture and death—simply for attempting to treat peaceful protesters. Following the coup d’état in February, my constituent saw at first hand the atrocities committed by the junta, such as the use of gunfire and the forcible removal of innocent civilians from their homes. During his meetings with the military junta’s Foreign Minister, has the Minister raised the killings of more than 700 innocent Burmese civilians? Will he now follow the lead of Canada and the Netherlands and formally join the Gambia’s genocide case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice?
We have been clear that we are completely steadfast in our opposition to the coup. What is happening to innocent civilians in Myanmar is obscene. We have demonstrated our strong international leadership, including at the UN Security Council and the G7. We are clear that there should be accountability for the military’s acts, both historic and recent, and that all options, including referral to the International Criminal Court, should be on the table.
The Labour party stands with the pro-democracy protesters in Myanmar, who have shown extraordinary courage in resisting the barbaric brutality of the military junta. The UK Government’s response has lacked both strength and urgency. The Minister mentioned the ASEAN conference, but the tweet put out by the Foreign Secretary shortly after that conference made no mention whatsoever of what has been happening in Myanmar; will the Minister say a little more about why? Also, 42 nations have an arms embargo against Myanmar; will the Government commit today to writing to every other UN nation asking them to join that arms embargo? Will the Foreign Secretary publicly call for the orchestrators of the atrocities that we are witnessing in Myanmar—
We are clear that countries should not sell arms to the Myanmar military. We played a key role in securing and strengthening an EU arms embargo following the 2017 Rohingya crisis. The Foreign Secretary welcomed ASEAN’s unique role in addressing the crisis, in line with the purpose and principles enshrined in the ASEAN charter.
Ukraine Border: Russian Forces
We have significant concerns about the recent Russian military build-up of forces on Ukraine’s border. We are working with our allies—I was at a NATO meeting of Foreign and Defence Ministers last week—and our objective is to deter Russia, reassure Ukraine and de-escalate the situation.
I am glad to hear that, but, in 1994, the UK, Russia and the United States of America signed the Budapest memorandum, which issued not exactly guarantees but assurances that we would respect the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine, in return for which Kiev surrendered 1,900 strategic nuclear warheads, which was vital to secure peace in the region. Is it not now all the more incumbent on us to make it very clear that we will continue to provide political, diplomatic, scientific, financial and, if necessary, military support to Kiev?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has long-standing experience of this issue; I agree with his level of concern. There are three things that we are doing right now that matter. The first is holding Russia to its international commitments, including not just the ones that he mentioned, but the OSCE principles of accountability for the build-up of troops. Russia has not responded to the calls for an explanation within the OSCE. We will continue our robust approach to sanctions. He is right that we will continue to provide diplomatic support, but we will also continue to provide military support: since 2015, through Operation Orbital, we have trained more than 20,000 Ukrainian armed forces personnel.
I very much welcome the words of the Foreign Secretary, but has he done an assessment in his Department about how Russia is reading the troop reductions in the British Army and the withdrawal from Afghanistan? Both will be seen from Moscow as a sign that, perhaps, NATO is not quite as serious as we are making out. What is he able to do diplomatically about that? While we do still carry a big stick, some elements seem to be looking a little weaker. Perhaps he can reinforce them by encouraging his partner in Cabinet to put more resources into the Army.
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee, but I am afraid that he is wrong. It is vital that, as well as increasing the defence and security budget in the ground-breaking way that the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary have done, we make sure that it is agile and fit to face the challenges of the future, including from not just conventional armed forces, but cyber and the other hostile state activity. I was in Brussels on 14 April and spoke to the US Defence Secretary and the Secretary of State along with other Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers from NATO. We are absolutely clear in condemning the build-up of troops. We are assuring Ukraine, as I have said, and we are working overall to de-escalate the situation.
Russia has amassed 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, Alexei Navalny lies deteriorating in a prison hospital, and a NATO ally has come under attack from the same hands as those who used chemical weapons on the streets of the UK. Yet in the 18 months since the Foreign Secretary was handed the Russia report, the UK has remained a safe haven for the dark money that helps to sustain the Putin regime, the Conservative party has taken £1 million in donations from Russian-linked sources, and oligarchs are welcomed with open arms. Seriously—I have asked him this before—what accounts for the delay in implementing the Russia report? Is it repercussions from Russia that he is worried about, or is it repercussions from his own party?
I thank the hon. Lady, but I have to say that that is a pretty weak attempt to weave in partisan political considerations in what is a very serious international issue. On the Intelligence and Security Committee report: we have already taken multiple actions against the Russian threat, exposing the reckless cyber activity—we have done that and she is aware of that; we have introduced a new power to stop individuals at UK ports to see whether they represent a threat as part of the hostile state activity; we are introducing new legislation to provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with additional tools to tackle the evolving threat from hostile states; and, as she knows, I will shortly be introducing an extension of the Magnitsky sanctions in relation to corruption.
Just in relation to Salisbury, it was not that long ago that the hon. Lady was campaigning for the leader of her party at the time to be Prime Minister—someone who backed the Russians against this Prime Minister who, as Foreign Secretary, galvanised the international response to the appalling attacks on the streets of Salisbury.
The difference between the right hon. Gentleman and me is that I stood up to my former party leadership when they got it wrong on this issue. It is pathetic that he cannot do the same given the gravity of the situation that this country currently faces. He has had 18 months since the publication of a report that his own Prime Minister tried to block. We have had no action on golden visas, no powers to sanction corrupt officials. Up to half of all the money that is laundered out of Russia comes through the United Kingdom and, in three years since the Salisbury attacks, it is still not illegal to be a foreign agent in this country. Meanwhile we have seen the oligarchs and kleptocrats who have profited from the Putin regime funnelling money to the Conservative party. [Interruption.] He shakes his head, but it is £5 million since David Cameron became leader. His own Minister, the Minister for Asia, has had multiple donations from a former Russian arms dealer who described himself as “untouchable” because of his links with the Kremlin. If the Foreign Secretary wants to clear this up, he can clear it up once and for all: implement those recommendations from the Russia report; defend the security, the democracy and the integrity of this country; stop the gross negligence; and give us a date by which all 23 recommendations will be implemented in full.
In relation to the registration of agents, all the hon. Lady has done is pick up on the action that the Home Secretary has already announced and proposed, and called for it; it is a classic action from the shadow Foreign Secretary. [Interruption.] She is talking over me because she does not like the response. The reality is that she did campaign for the former leader of the Labour party to be Prime Minister—a man who, in fact, backed Russia at the time when this Prime Minister, as Foreign Secretary, galvanised the international community in an unprecedented diplomatic reaction to President Putin. We will continue to stand up for the British national interest; the shadow Foreign Secretary will make her political points.
May I first pay tribute to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, whose life’s work was to serve our country, often on the world stage?
Since the last oral questions, I have attended the UK-Gibraltar joint ministerial council and reaffirmed our commitment to delivering a treaty with the EU that safeguards UK sovereignty and the prosperity of Gibraltar and the surrounding region. I have also visited Indonesia and Brunei to forge closer ties and to join the second UK Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministerial dialogue as the UK pursues ASEAN dialogue partner status.
My constituent David Cornock tragically lost his son in Thailand in 2019. Mr Cornock is adamant that his son did not commit suicide, but was murdered—and, after supporting him for 18 months in this case, I am inclined to agree with his assessment. The FCDO insists that in order to get Mr Cornock’s son’s case reopened and properly investigated, the only avenue for my constituent is personally to petition the Thai Attorney General, with no diplomatic support. The Department provided a list of 10 Thai lawyers to expedite this; six declined, two did not respond, one did not speak English and the other wanted £25,000 upfront.
Moreover, thanks to the Minister for Asia, the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams), I have since established that there is not a single instance where a UK citizen has successfully petitioned the Thai Attorney General in the way determined by the FCDO. Will the Secretary of State agree to take up this case with the Thai ambassador here in London, and, having due regard for diplomatic norms and the sovereignty of internal justice, review this wholly unrealistic protocol by the FCDO? Will he also meet me and my constituent to discuss the matter?
First of all, we at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office try to give the best advice that we can as to how such cases—I have dealt with a number of these difficult cases over the years—can be raised most effectively. If it is viewed that there is political interference, it is often counterproductive. Of course, we will take another look at the case to see whether there is anything more that we can do. We give advice in good faith as to the best and most effective means to try to secure the outcome that the hon. Gentleman wants for his constituents.
We will obviously attend the UN General Assembly in September. In relation to the Durban declaration and its anniversary, let me reassure my right hon. Friend that—as we demonstrated at the Human Rights Council recently on the approach that we took to items 7 and 2—we will not support any partisan or political attacks on Israel. I reassure her that the Government are absolutely crystal clear in our condemnation of and opposition to any and all forms of antisemitism.
As we have heard this morning, this year the UK hosts the global COP summit and the G7, which give us a wonderful opportunity to lay out our leadership and ambition on a world stage. If the Government are really serious about tackling the climate emergency, where is the leadership on the deforestation question in Brazil, where, under the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro, we have seen a rise up to the highest levels of deforestation and impact on indigenous communities in more than a decade? Has the Foreign Secretary raised this directly with Jair Bolsonaro? If not, in broad terms what is he doing at an institutional level to try to address that desperate issue?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Deforestation is a key plank of our agenda for COP26, and I have raised it in Indonesia, where it is obviously a big issue, and in parts of Asia. I also raised it recently in a virtual meeting I had with Foreign Minister Araújo of Brazil, although he is no longer in place. The key will be galvanising international support to make sure that the measures those countries take are not economically damaging to them, while at the same time being environmentally sustainable for the world. We have a key plank of work that is focused on that area, and I can reassure the hon. Lady that it is a major component of our approach to COP26.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. The Minister of State for South Asia and the Commonwealth, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, set out the UK’s serious concerns about human rights in Sri Lanka in a statement at the UN Human Rights Council on 25 February, and the UK has welcomed the adoption in March of a new UN Human Rights Council resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. That UK-led resolution enhances the UN’s role in monitoring the situation and collecting evidence of human rights violations that can be used in future accountability processes. Just quickly on the point about sanctions, though, it is important to recognise that it would not be appropriate to speculate on any further designation.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Czech explosion that led to the attribution was many years ago. The decision to attribute was the product of a long investigation by the Czech authorities, and he will have seen that we stood absolutely full square in solidarity with our Czech friends.
In the ways that I explained earlier to the shadow Foreign Minister, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), we have increased and continue to increase our measures for screening and for accountability, and of course, through the Magnitsky sanctions—which the hon. Gentleman himself has championed—we have a new means of targeting human rights abuses. To the extent that they also impinge on dirty money, which in fairness the hon. Member for Wigan spoke about, I have already made clear that we will shortly be introducing an extension to the Magnitsky sanctions to cover that.
Absolutely. We take the consular work that we do for citizens abroad exceptionally seriously. We deal with those cases day in, day out, often below the media or public radar. I am very happy for Ministers in the Department to look again at the case she has raised to see whether there is anything further we can do. That is very difficult and always very complex, even in European countries, but we must be able to satisfy ourselves that we are doing everything we can to provide closure and accountability for the families affected.
I know my hon. Friend has a strong vested interest in that conference, beyond her international interest. Ahead of the leaders summit—I let her and the House know—I will be convening the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers meeting from 3 to 5 May here in London. That will be a very important opportunity to build on and tee up our work on equitable access to vaccines in relation to the pandemic, our ambitious global girls education targets, the rigorous and ambitious approach we are taking to climate finance, and commitment to media freedoms, human rights and democracy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his engagement in this issue. We are already doing an awful lot on debt suspension, most importantly on the common framework and on those remaining countries such as Somalia and Sudan, which were left out of the HIPC—heavily indebted poor countries—process, but there are other parties and complexities, China’s sovereign debt being one of them and multilaterals another, as well as sovereign nations’ private sector debt, which we would encourage to participate where appropriate.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight this important issue. She takes a very keen interest in girls education and 2021 is a crucial year for it, with multiple opportunities for us to take co-ordinated action with our international partners to address the learning losses from covid-19. That is why the UK has put girls education at the heart of our G7 presidency. We are working with G7 members to champion two SDG 4 milestone targets: 40 million more girls in school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 in low and lower-middle income countries over the next five years. The UK with Kenya will also host the global education summit in July to mobilise much needed financing.
First, we really welcome the Colombian Government’s continuing commitment to the full implementation of the 2016 peace agreement with FARC. We will continue to support them in doing so. Colombia is an FCDO human rights priority country. We regularly raise concerns with the Colombian Government and at the UN. We will continue to do so. Our embassy will continue to support at-risk human rights defenders, social leaders and ex-combatants, and will work to tackle the root causes of the violence.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very topical question. We welcome the success of the Israeli vaccination programme, and the co-operation between the UK and Israel on covid continues throughout the pandemic. On 17 May, the Prime Minister will announce further travel measures and which countries will fit into which traffic-light categorisations. We are looking to see how we can share health data, and we are all looking forward to hearing from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster following his visit, to get some real-life examples on what we can do here in the UK.
Following the shocking attacks of September 11 2001, NATO allies invoked article 5 of the Washington treaty. An attack on one was an attack on us all. In Afghanistan over the two decades since, NATO has shown extraordinary resolve in a country where the soldiering is tough and operational success is very hard won. Some 150,610 UK service personnel have served in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. Hundreds of our troops have suffered life-changing injuries, and 457 of our young men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. I pay tribute to their service and their sacrifice. They will not be forgotten.
I served in Afghanistan on two tours—the first, to Kabul in 2005; and the second, to Sangin, in 2009. My battalion lost 13 men on that second tour, with many more killed in our wider battlegroup. I have friends who will walk on prosthetic limbs for the rest of their lives, and I know people who suffered severe mental pain that tragically caused them to subsequently take their own lives. Like every other Afghanistan veteran, when I heard NATO’s decision last week, I could not help but ask myself whether it was all worth it.
We went into Afghanistan to disrupt a global terrorist threat and to deny al-Qaeda the opportunity to use that nation as a base for mounting further international attacks. In that mission, we were successful. By fighting the insurgency in its heartlands in the south and east of the country, NATO created space for the machinery of the Afghan government to be established and strengthened. Afghan civil society flourished. Schools reopened and girls enjoyed education just as boys did. There is a vibrant and free media. Women are not only valued and respected but are working in Afghan academia, healthcare and politics. Over 20 years we have developed and then partnered the brave men and women of the Afghan national security forces. They are now a proud army with the capacity to keep the peace in Afghanistan if empowered to do so by future Governments in Kabul.
Those of us who have served very rarely get to reflect on an absolute victory; only in the most binary of state-on-state wars can the military instrument alone be decisive. But two generations of Afghan children have now grown up with access to education. The Afghan people have tasted freedom and democracy, and they have an expectation of what life in their country should be like in the future. The Taliban, apparently, have no appetite to be an international pariah like they were in the late ‘90s. Our endeavours over the past two decades have created those conditions and have given Afghanistan every chance of maintaining peace within its own borders. We will continue to support the Afghan Government in delivering that, but our military could not stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, and so we will leave, in line with NATO allies, by September. Nothing in the future of Afghanistan is guaranteed, but the bravery, determination and sacrifice of so many British soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen has given Afghanistan every possible chance of success.
Sending our troops into conflict is the biggest decision that any Prime Minister has to make. The strategic objective must be clear, yet we now withdraw from Afghanistan, after enormous cost and human sacrifice, with the country heading towards another civil war and the Taliban on the ascent. I have visited the country many times. This cannot be the exit strategy that we ever envisaged.
Our nation and our military deserve answers. I request a Chilcot-style inquiry so that we can learn the lessons of what went wrong. How did we squander the relative peace of the first four years? Why were the Taliban excluded from the peace talks in 2001—a fundamental error that could have brought stability early on? Why did we adopt an over-centralised western model of governance? Why were we too slow in building up Afghan security forces, up to a paltry 26,000 five years after the invasion? Why was Pakistan allowed to harbour and train the Taliban for so long? More widely, did the ease of the initial Afghan invasion lead to an over-confidence by the US for it to then invade Iraq, meaning that we had to fight on two fronts? Should we take responsibility for the Taliban’s emergence in the first place after the US abandoned Afghanistan once the Soviets had left? Where was the British thought leadership—our situational awareness that might have influenced US strategic thinking? As we have learned in Northern Ireland, you cannot defeat the enemy by military means alone.
If we depart completely, a dangerous part of the world becomes more dangerous as the Taliban assumes control of the bulk of the country and once again gives sanctuary to extremist groups. Our brave military served with honour, but they were let down by poor strategic judgments that if politicians today do not understand and learn from, will impede our confidence to step forward and stand up to extremism and authoritarianism in the future. There are so many questions and it is the Government’s duty to respond.
I thank my right hon. Friend for calling for this urgent question. I do not entirely share his analysis of what would have happened next. The relatively benign, by Afghan standards, security situation in the country at the moment is not the norm; it is the consequence of the accommodation that the US and the Taliban had come to last year. That means, in effect, that there are three options for the international community. One is to prepare for a fighting season this summer once the 1 May deadline expires. The second is to come to a new accommodation with the Taliban that effectively removes all of the political imperative to reaching a solution. The third is to agree that, effectively, the military mission is done and that what remains now is a political one, and the way to accelerate that is to force the hand and agree to leave as we have done.
My right hon. Friend asks some great questions about the route to being in Afghanistan and the prosecution of the campaign thereafter. I think that those of us who have served, as he has done, take some solace from the way that these things are considered deliberately after the event. It is not for me to agree to such an inquiry right now, but one would hope that the lessons would be learned. I do not necessarily accept all of his analysis of how the campaign has played out, but obviously we have reached the point where the military mission has effectively culminated and what remains is a requirement for politics. To keep our people there indefinitely with 1 May approaching does not seem to me to be the right use of the military instrument.
The House will appreciate the Minister wanting to respond to this question himself. He saw two tours in Afghanistan and I know that more than 50 from his regiment were among the 454 British personnel who lost their lives there. We honour their service and their sacrifice.
There certainly have been some gains in governance, economic development, rights for women, education for girls and in ending Afghanistan as a base for terrorism abroad, but Afghanistan is more failure than success for the British military. Now, with the full withdrawal of NATO troops, it is hard to see a future without bloodier conflict, wider Taliban control, and greater jeopardy for those Afghanis who worked with the west and for the women now in political, judicial, academic and business roles. The Chief of the Defence Staff has said that this was
“not a decision we hoped for”.
Did the UK Government argue against full withdrawal? What steps will NATO allies take now to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a breeding ground for terrorism directed towards our western democracies again? There is US talk of over-the-horizon operations and of building anti-terrorist infrastructure on the periphery of Afghanistan. Will Britain play any part in this, and where?
The Minister said that Britain’s remaining 750 troops will be out by September. When will their withdrawal begin? How many UK contractors helping Afghan forces to maintain equipment are in Afghanistan? Will they withdraw at the same time as UK troops? How many Afghanis who helped British troops are still in Afghanistan, in danger and in need of the special scheme to settle in the UK? Ending military deployment should mean expanding diplomatic and development support, yet Britain cut direct aid to Afghanistan last year by a quarter. This year, will the Government reverse that cut?
Finally, where does this withdrawal leave the Government’s strategy of forward deployment in a region that sits between the three main state threats identified in the integrated review? Does this cause the Secretary of State to reconsider his decision to cut Army numbers by another 10,000?
First, I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his reflections on the service and sacrifice of the UK armed forces. I am not sure that I accept his characterisation of the situation as defeat. Many members of the armed forces will reflect, as I do, on their tactical and operational successes in their individual tours and in the districts for which they were responsible. If they arrive in a district and the school is shut, but when they leave, it is open; or if they arrive in a district and the market has six stalls, but when they leave, it has 20—those are the sorts of successes that show them with their own eyes that their service has been worth it and they have done good.
The shadow Secretary of State picks up on what the Chief of the Defence Staff said in his interview on the “Today” programme last week, and I do not think that anybody in the UK Government would shy away from his very honest assessment of what happened. I think we should be clear that the disagreement, to the extent that there was one, was over a matter of months, rather than over staying there for four years more.
As I said, there is a logic to this, because we were at a decision point no matter what. On 1 May, the accommodation would run out and we would be preparing for a fighting season; or we would need a new political accommodation with the Taliban, and that would remove the political imperative altogether; or we would take the decision, as the President did, and with which NATO subsequently agreed unanimously, to leave and, in doing so, to force the pace of the political process. I think that is the right thing. The opportunity to prosecute counter-terrorism missions from the wider region into Afghanistan is something that we are working up with our NATO allies and the Americans at the moment. I am sure that the UK will have a role in that.
The exact withdrawal timeline is not one that I intend to share publicly—I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will understand the operational security reasons why that is the case—but a withdrawal from Afghanistan this year is not unexpected. It was completely within our planning last year and over the winter. We can achieve the timeline that is required without any cost to our other planned military activities this summer. I can reassure him that my right hon. Friends the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary are working with all appropriate haste to make sure that those who have served alongside us in Afghanistan are looked after in the future.
I was in Afghanistan with the Afghan resistance, and I know that when the foreigners leave, the theological justification for jihad finishes. The problem we have is that Afghanistan still faces attack from the Taliban, fully supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, with the simple aim of conquering the country. Given the success since 2015 when the coalition moved into an advisory CT mode, what is the coalition’s plan now to prevent even larger swathes of the country from falling to the Taliban—indeed, to prevent Kabul itself from falling? If it does, I would call that strategic failure.
I share my hon. Friend’s assessment of the requirement for regional partners not only to step up and take a stake in Afghanistan’s peace, but to behave responsibly in the way they go about their diplomatic affairs in the region. His characterisation of what remains of the coalition is, if he does not mind my saying so, somewhat out of date. We have been down to a residual counter-terrorism mission for some time. For five years or more, the coalition has not extended its writ across the whole country. Actually, the Afghan national security forces have done a good job of maintaining security within the borders of Afghanistan since the NATO mission stepped back towards the current CT mission. I am full of optimism for what the Afghan national security forces could achieve. It depends, of course, on their being empowered to do so by a future Government in Kabul.
Like the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State, I pay tribute on behalf of the Scottish National party to all those who served, and of course, we remember all those who sadly lost their lives in Afghanistan.
All of us want the Government to get this right. I accept that there are no easy, clearcut, black and white ways forward, but I share some of the concern at the somewhat over-optimistic assessment that the Minister comes to the House with today. There is no absolute victory, of course—there is victory of sorts—but the peace is unstable. Governance is better, but it is still unstable, and the Taliban are not the outfit they once were, but they still pose a threat. The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), made some excellent points on how lessons are learned about what went wrong, because some things did. I return to the question he asked, which the Minister was not quite clear on: what is the Government’s view of a Chilcot-style inquiry? If we are all committed to getting this right, that is the kind of thing that surely needs to happen.
This might be the end of one of America’s forever wars, as it is sometimes known, but for Afghanistan, it remains immensely uncertain. What does the post-September relationship look like with the Afghan Government? I say this to the Minister on foreign aid. We can either have peace and stability in countries such as Afghanistan, or we can have foreign aid cuts; we cannot have both. If the Government are committed to a stable future for Afghanistan—which, in fairness, I believe they are—they need to reverse not just the cut that the shadow Secretary of State mentioned but the cut in its entirety across the foreign aid field.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to ask what the mechanism is for solidifying the peace within Afghanistan, but I am not sure that I see what the international military presence would do to solidify that peace any further. What needs to happen now, as we have seen in Northern Ireland and many other conflicts in which we have been involved in the past, is this deeply imperfect and—for those of us who have served —uneasy reality that all parties, irrespective of the role they played in the conflict, need to come together and make the politics work. I think that the conditions are right for that to happen now.
I do not mean to sound over-optimistic. My eyes are wide open. I said in my answer that the future for Afghanistan is uncertain—of course it is. But there is a set of Afghan national security forces in place now that are capable of maintaining the peace, and I genuinely believe that there is a political will to achieve that and an expectation within the Afghan public that their politicians will achieve that.
How the lessons are learned from this campaign, as they were with Iraq, is for my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary to decide in due course. Of course, in everything we do in the Ministry of Defence, we look at what we have done, and where it worked, we reinforce, and where it did not work, we change. Within the integrated review, there is already a recognition that the way we have done our business in the last two decades may not be the way that we do it in the next.
On the hon. Gentleman’s final point about the relationship with the Afghan Government and the need to financially support them, as the Secretary-General of NATO said, this is not the end of our involvement in Afghanistan; it is just the start of a new chapter. That new chapter is one that remains every bit as committed to supporting the Afghan national Government, and this year alone the UK will spend up to £70 million on supporting the Afghan security forces. Such support—both diplomatic and financial—is key to ensuring the future that we envisage for Afghanistan in the absence of a military contribution.
Alongside its regular colleagues, the Territorial Army has served with distinction in Afghanistan, not least 21 Special Air Service Artists Rifles, which, as a formed unit, demonstrated its extreme gallantry by winning three Military Crosses in the fighting in Nad-e Ali in Helmand in 2008 as well as a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross at a later date. On the back of that highly distinguished record, will my hon. and gallant Friend retain the option to deploy the Army Reserve on live operations abroad, both as attachments to regular forces and in their own formed units?
Within the 150,000-plus service personnel who have served in Afghanistan, there will be many thousands of reservists who have mobilised and answered their nation’s call, and they have done so with great distinction, as my hon. Friend describes. He will be pleased to hear, I am sure, that the design of our armed forces for the next decades recognises absolutely the importance of the role that reservists play both as individuals, with the expertise that they bring to the force, and as formed units. There is every intention of building on their success in Iraq and Afghanistan as we look at how we use the reserves in the future.
Let us be quite honest about this: we are where we are today because the United States is going to do what it is going to do. Some of us will remember the scenes of Saigon in 1975, with people who had helped the US forces scrambling desperately to get on board the helicopters. Those who were left faced imprisonment and in some cases execution. So my question is very clear: the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State have touched on the fate of those Afghanis who have helped us—the translators and the like—but will we give them asylum and will we give them residency in the UK to thank them for what they have done? Let me go further: will we extend the same offer, because there is interchange, to those who helped the US forces if the United States refuses to do so?
The hon. Gentleman asks me a very straightforward question, and I hope I can give him a very straightforward answer. Between 1 May and the completion of the withdrawal in September, any attack on NATO troops will be responded to robustly. The withdrawal will happen in good order; there will be none of the scenes that he evokes from previous conflicts. The plans are well established, and I have every confidence in the ability of our military and the militaries of our allies to deliver them. He is quite right to raise our responsibility to those who have served alongside us. It is not for me to pre-empt the decision that is yet to be made by the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary, but I can reassure him that they are both seized of our responsibility, and I know they are working with all appropriate haste to make sure that a solution is put in place.
I pay tribute to the service of my hon. Friend the Minister, with whom I served a lot in Afghanistan and a lot in the Ministry of Defence. May I just say that the work the NATO troops are currently doing in Afghanistan is hugely important—not because they are in combat operations, as the Minister rightly says, but because they are enabling the Afghan troops and supporting them with medical aid, logistics and so on? So while I recognise that this withdrawal cannot be avoided by the UK, because fundamentally it is a US decision, what assessment have he and his Department made of the implications for the responses of others? He will know that the perception that we may not endure on an operation, even when we are no longer in combat, will weaken the way we are seen by our enemies and may lead our allies to doubt us.
I think that our resolve has been tested and demonstrated by the longevity of the mission. We could arbitrarily say, “Well, if we were to stay for another 10 years or 20 years, that would even further show our resolve”. I think the alliance set itself a set of military objectives, which were broadly achieved. It is clear that the politics must now take over. My hon. Friend is entirely right to point, however, to the wider range of effort that goes on and the degree to which that underpins the operational effectiveness of the Afghan national security forces. Clearly the military presence within Afghanistan itself will come to an end, but our ability to remain connected to the Afghan military academy remotely is undiminished, and likewise our ability to host Afghan officers and NCOs on military courses in the UK. All of that will I think, first, help to strengthen the connections between the Afghan and UK armed forces, but secondly, help to continue to develop their capacity so that they sustain their own operations and ensure that there is a lasting peace within Afghanistan.
I do believe that the decision by the United States, ourselves and NATO to pull out military personnel at this stage will be wrong. I think it only gives succour to the Taliban. We do not have a stable situation in Afghanistan yet. Can I ask the Minister what support is being given to women during the peace process? He knows the importance of women within Afghan society, and their advancement is so important. What is he doing to give support to women to ensure that they have a strong platform and to ensure that things such as girls’ education are protected?
The hon. Gentleman picks up on one of the great successes of the intervention in Afghanistan: for 20 years schools have been open to girls, and the education of girls remains one of the Government’s key foreign policy aims. Around the world seldom are those aims underpinned by military effort, however, and there are two things from which we should take heart. First, there are now so many women, relatively speaking, within the Afghan institutions—its Parliament, academia and media—that there is an expectation within Afghan civil society that women and girls will have more rights than what they had to endure under the previous Taliban Government. Secondly, the Taliban want legitimacy within the international community if or when they become a part of a future Afghanistan Government. Therefore it is reasonable to expect that they will not want to be the international pariah that they were, so they will be responsive to the diplomatic efforts to promote opportunities for women and girls that we are pursuing bilaterally and through the United Nations and our alliances. I wholly expect that future Afghan Governments would not want to reverse all the great progress that has been made in this important area over the past 20 years.
My hon. Friend speaks with great experience and knows of what he talks, but I am still struggling to understand precisely what the NATO strategy or plan is here. In addition to the great bravery and sacrifices of our own military, some very brave Afghan leaders, including women, believed that NATO would stay the course and will now feel very let down while the Taliban have little need to negotiate but increasingly will be in a very strong position. Does this not underline the very real limits of hard power and the importance of using soft power judiciously?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is of course correct that the military could underpin an accommodation of sorts almost indefinitely, but that is not an enduring solution for any country. The decision NATO took last week recognises that we are at a moment of decision. The accommodation with the Taliban is coming to an end, so the decision is to extend the deal, which removes the political imperative, to fight this summer, and who knows where that would have gone—and from a position of having far fewer troops in Afghanistan than has been the case since five years ago—or to force the pace of the political settlement. All those options are imperfect, but what matters now, exactly as my right hon. Friend says, is that the Governments who have formed the alliance now use their soft power to ensure that the parties come round the table and an enduring peace is found.
Our withdrawal from Afghanistan was announced without a peace-day deal in place and with the security situation continuing to deteriorate. Many who fought in, and are still affected by, the conflict are wondering just what it was all for. We cannot allow either the Afghan security forces to be completely overrun or terrorist groups to re-establish training camps, so what operational capability will the Government make available to prevent this from happening?
The decision to draw down our military presence within Afghanistan has been announced, and I know that the hon. and gallant Member will appreciate that we will need over the next couple of months to work through the intricacies of what capabilities may endure in Afghanistan. However, it is clear that the United Kingdom will not tolerate an ungoverned space in Afghanistan from which international terrorism can find a base and from which attacks on the UK homeland or those of our allies can be mounted. A CT effort within the wider region will be required to counter that, and of course the alliance reserves the right to go back in if the security situation deteriorates to such an extent that our national security is threatened.
As we have heard, 457 brave men and women of our armed forces have paid with their lives to protect us here at home, and countless others have been wounded. I sincerely hope that their sacrifice has not been in vain. I seek my hon. and gallant Friend’s assurance that this withdrawal will not see a reluctance on our part to combat terrorism in the future, for, as Edmund Burke said so succinctly, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. I should be clear that, as I hope the integrated review made clear, the UK has an ambition to be a force for good in the world and that where terrorism threatens the UK’s interests or those of our allies, we will be present, building the capacity of partner forces and helping to remove that instability and insecurity around the world. What we have learnt over the past 20 years is that there are ways of doing that, and the vision we have set out in the integrated review is for a far more intelligent way of doing that: developing capacity, tackling insecurity and being a force for good around the world.
I am sure that we all pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of all those who served and of those who, sadly, lost their life. General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, said in a recent interview that although he respects the decision of the Biden Administration, it was
“not a decision we hoped for”.
Will the Minister confirm whether the MOD feels confident in the ability of the Afghan national security forces to defend the Afghan Government and their people without the current NATO presence in Afghanistan?
I fear that that question invites a reprise for all the answers I have already given, but, yes, the Afghan national security forces have the capacity to maintain peace within Afghanistan. The key is whether they are empowered to do so by a future Government in Kabul.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the United States should be a global neighbourhood watch in the middle east, not just a superpower that draws down the blinds? Does he share my grave concern, and that of many colleagues, that the withdrawal of troops will boost Sunni extremism, not just in Afghanistan, but in Iraq, where the Sunni ISIS death cult threatens Iraq and Kurdistan? Will he consider gifting surplus military and medical kit to the Iraqi Kurds in Kurdistan, rather than leaving it in Afghanistan?
IS and the Taliban are no friends, and I suspect that that will moderate the march of IS in Afghanistan. My right hon. Friend invites me to set out how we might gift the equipment we have been using in Afghanistan. Some of it will be gifted to the Afghan national security forces. Where we have critical capabilities that we want to recover to the UK, we will of course do that. Whether or not those are in due course re-gifted in other theatres is a decision for us to take over the next few months, but I note his suggestion.
I think we are all aware that the risks in Afghanistan remain and are significant, and although over the past decade they have metastasised through different iterations and dispersed through the region, they still have significant roots in Afghan territories. So how will the Minister ensure that the strategic expertise brought by our armed forces’ soft power can be utilised to reduce the risk of the resurgence of violence and to support the Afghan security forces for as long as they require us?
The institutional connections between the UK Ministry of Defence and our armed forces, and the Afghan Ministry of Defence and armed forces are as strong as one would expect them to be, given that those relationships have been forged in combat over the past 20 years. As I said in response to an earlier question, there is every intent to continue to mentor the Afghan national security forces and MOD remotely, and to continue our involvement in the Afghan national military academy remotely, and of course to give the opportunity to Afghan officers and non-commissioned officers to attend courses in the UK that will maintain those connections and develop their capability.
I pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend for his service. Some three years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Kabul and seeing the Welsh Guards serve in Afghanistan and contribute to the building of a civic and civil society in the community. Given the fragility of that society, what tangible steps does my hon. Friend propose to take, as we leave Afghanistan by September, to ensure that the steps taken in recent years are not lost?
My right hon. Friend has seen with his own eyes the good work that has happened. As I said in response to the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), there are opportunities to maintain those connections even without a physical presence on the ground. I have every confidence that we will do so. This is not just about politics and ministerial decision making; there are friendships between our armed forces that mean that the UK armed forces and UK MOD want to see the Afghan army, the Afghan security forces and the Afghan MOD succeed in the future. We will do everything we can to maintain those connections and develop capabilities so that the green shoots that my right hon. Friend saw can grow.
May I add my tribute to all those who served and those who tragically lost their lives? I visited Helmand in 2009, when I believe the Minister was on his second tour, and I saw at first hand the bravery, dedication and professionalism of our armed forces and all those who worked with them in extraordinary circumstances. That will never be forgotten. They did make a difference.
The Minister mentioned those who are living with life-changing injuries, including some of those he served with. Of course, those injuries are not just physical; tragically, there are mental health consequences for many, and there are also issues with housing, access to public services and so on. Will he give a cast-iron guarantee that we will continue to meet our debt of obligation to all those who served in Afghanistan, whether it is with respect to their physical health, their mental health, their housing or other needs, for as long as that is necessary?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his question. Yes, the Ministry of Defence and Her Majesty’s Government will continue to meet that obligation. One of the things that came out of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan was huge public recognition of the debt that we owe to our armed forces, and a recognition of the sacrifice and the commitment that they make on behalf of our nation. It is absolutely incumbent on those of us who now have the honour of making policy in Government to ensure that we live up to those obligations and that our veterans of Afghanistan, Iraq and all other conflicts are properly looked after.
I pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend and, indeed, all those who served with distinction in Afghanistan. Clearly, the economy of Afghanistan—in particular the farming community—will be vital to preserving peace and security in the region. Will my hon. Friend update the House on what will be done to encourage farmers to develop products and crops rather than feeding the illegal drugs trade, which has caused so much damage not only to the region but to the rest of the world?
I, too, pay tribute to all the veterans of the Afghanistan conflict, a number of whom are residents at the Cranhill Scottish Veteran Residences complex in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) was right to link this issue back to the decision to cut foreign aid. The Minister should not just listen to him; James Cowan, the chief executive officer of the HALO Trust and a former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, said:
“I have seen first-hand the importance of foreign aid. But the prime minister has announced a £4 billion cut in UK aid – money that is vital not only to the wellbeing of vulnerable people worldwide, but also British national security”.
He is not wrong, is he?
This issue has been touched on in previous questions. There is a commitment to spend up to £70 million in Afghanistan this year alone in support of the Afghan security forces, and of course there is an aid package beyond that. Very obviously, the end of our military contribution in Afghanistan does not mean the end of our wider diplomatic and development agenda in the country, and I fully expect that the UK Government will maintain that commitment so that we can do our bit in helping Afghanistan to succeed in the future.
This nation has a proud record, as indeed do many Members of this House, of responding to need around the globe. Decisions to get involved are not taken lightly. Questions of purpose and measures of success are rarely clearcut, and they always come at a cost. We have already heard that, for 454 British troops in Afghanistan, it was the ultimate sacrifice. For many more, including veterans and families that I have met here in Aberconwy, it is something they continue to carry day by day. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan and their families? What assurance can he give them that their work and their sacrifices will be remembered?
This Government, and indeed our nation, place huge importance on our duty to remember the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in the service of our nation around the world. I have every confidence that we will continue to do so, and when we reach remembrance events in the autumn I think people will be particularly focused on the end of our military operations in Afghanistan and the sacrifice made there.
Beyond that, I hope that Afghanistan veterans such as myself and six other Members of the House will reflect on their personal experiences in that country and on the good that they know they did and that they saw with their own eyes. Cumulatively across the whole country over 20 years that amounted to an environment in which the Afghan Government could establish itself and grow and in which civil society could flourish. We have set the conditions within which Afghanistan has the chance of a peaceful and secure future.
I join the Minister in paying tribute to all those who were deployed to Afghanistan, and it is right that we remember today the 457 who paid the ultimate price, as well as those who are now living with life-changing injuries. I first visited Afghanistan in 2003, and then on numerous occasions up until 2010, and the Minister is correct to highlight the success stories. One of those is the Afghan security forces, and Britain can be quietly proud of the work it did at the Kabul officer academy in developing that force. However, operationally, the Afghan security forces are dependent on allied air power, so will Minister highlight whether there are any plans to give that air support once we withdraw?
Clearly, the announcement was that there will be no military presence in Afghanistan. Air support can come from outwith Afghanistan, and I suspect that decisions on that would be based on the security situation at the time. However, I think that the priority of all in NATO is to force the pace of a political settlement, which our departure does. What we should all hope for is a successful political outcome, where the capabilities that the right hon. Gentleman draws our attention to would not be required.
Will my hon. and gallant Friend tell the House how confident the Government are that the peace negotiations will bring the right governance and security to Afghanistan by September and, in particular, that women will continue to have rights under a future regime? Only in the last few months, several women have been targeted for assassination, apparently by the Taliban. The treatment of women under the Taliban was totally unacceptable, and as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on women, peace and security, I do not want to see any reversal of women’s rights in Afghanistan, but I am afraid I do not share the Minister’s optimistic outlook on this issue.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for her work in chairing the APPG, to which I think my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa and I will present the annual report in the coming weeks. The work on this issue is important and characterises so much of our contribution to conflicts. My hon. Friend will be aware that 3.7 million girls are now in school—a huge step forward from zero, which was previously the case. There is an expectation in Afghan society that is far more powerful than any military stick that may be wielded, and one can only hope that that is irreversible. The genie is out of the bottle, and once women and girls have that expectation and it becomes the norm in society, it is awfully hard—even for the Taliban—to reverse it.
The allies’ withdrawal from Afghanistan is causing deep concern for those who placed their lives on the line as invaluable interpreters for British forces. We know that the Taliban will exact revenge on those who supported the alliance, so what steps are Ministers taking now to fulfil our responsibility and our promises to ensure that the remaining interpreters and the families of those who are already here—I still have ongoing constituency cases where there are problems—are rescued? This is about honouring our promises.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the locally employed civilians throughout Afghanistan, who were a vital help during our deployments? Colleagues have asked questions about interpreters and their safety, and I was pleased by his answer that, during the drawdown, people who had helped our forces will not be abandoned. However, once we have left, will he give us some assurance that all the many hundreds of locally employed civilians and the interpreters—the people who have risked their lives, their family’s lives and their safety—will not be abandoned?
I refer my hon. Friend to my previous answer. I have seen with my own eyes just how integral those locally employed civilians were to the success of our mission. We owe them a debt. There is work going on in Government to make sure that that debt is paid.
There are no easy answers in Afghanistan and I pay tribute to the service of personnel who have worked so hard to bring peace to the country. I reiterate the SNP’s strong support for a Chilcot-style inquiry into our engagement in Afghanistan to learn the lessons. On aid, we regret deeply the cuts to the aid budget, but I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity and commitment to Afghanistan. Would he accept and agree with our call to exempt Afghanistan from any cuts to the wider aid budget, because now is precisely the time to step up that support, not scale it back?
I know that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I refrain from making policy on the hoof at the Dispatch Box, but the suggestion is noted, and, as I have made clear in previous answers, it is clear that the removal of the military instrument does not bring with it an end to our commitment in Afghanistan. I am confident that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary will be listening to the contributions about the importance of making sure that we continue to support an Afghan civil society and military to underpin the peace that we all hope for.
Improvements in Afghanistan’s society, such as to girls’ education, are welcome and, as the Minister said, show signs of an improved future for Afghanistan’s people. However, freedom of religion or belief remains severely curtailed. Does he share my concerns about that, and what can be done to address it?
Afghanistan is a deeply Islamic and conservative country. As my hon. Friend will know from the amazing work that she does as the Prime Minister’s special enjoy for freedom of religion or belief, those countries are hard ones in which to espouse the values that she so enthusiastically campaigns for. I know that she will keep all the pressure that she can on the Prime Minister and my colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. She is absolutely right that this is a very important hallmark of a free democracy, and we should have every expectation that the sort of things that she would want to see are things that we are comfortable and enthusiastic about discussing with Afghan Governments in future.
Can the Minister give specific examples of actions that the Government now intend to take as we withdraw from Afghanistan to support and ensure that all the improvements that have been taking place over the past 20 years in the human rights of women and girls, such as access to education and healthcare, will not be reduced or reversed?
I can. The bilateral relationship between the UK Government and the Afghan Government will endure, and so, too, will our engagement through multilateral forums such as the UN. These are hard-won steps that have made Afghanistan a better country. Our expectation must be that nobody involved in the peace process would want to row back from those, and the international community must be united in ensuring that they do not.
As we draw down our forces in Afghanistan, the United Kingdom can look proudly at the contribution that we have made to supporting and developing the local security forces. Because our military contribution ends, that training and assistance need not, so will my hon. and gallant Friend confirm that, moving forward, we will continue to offer support and training to the Afghan security forces, including, for example, by posting cadets at Sandhurst?
That is exactly the sort of support that we envisage. The agreement is that there will be no military presence within Afghanistan, but that does not diminish in the slightest our ability to continue to have a strong relationship with the Afghan national security forces and to develop their capability either from the outside in or by bringing them to study and train in the United Kingdom.
I congratulate the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), on securing this question and on his excellent contribution, because whatever way the British Government try to present it, the unconditional withdrawal from Afghanistan is a humiliation. No parliamentary vote was held to authorise the invasion 20 years ago, nor was democratic endorsement sought for the disastrous escalation of UK involvement in Helmand province. Is it not time that it was enshrined in law that major military engagements and significant escalations of conflict must be endorsed by this House and, I would argue, when Welsh troops are involved, by the Senedd as well?
That last point is clearly somewhat problematic. People from across the United Kingdom serve in our units and they serve as the UK’s armed forces. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman knows how impractical his suggestion is, but perhaps he is playing to an audience back home.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point, it would be impractical in the extreme for all operational decisions, some of which have to be taken with some haste, to be a matter for a vote in this House. The detail that underpins those decisions often cannot be fully shared at the Dispatch Box, for obvious reasons. The Government have, throughout, made every effort to be transparent about the way the Afghanistan campaign has been progressing. I remember there being regular updates to the House on it and the opportunity for Ministers to be held to account, but I am not sure that military planning by parliamentary vote is necessarily the way to show the coherence of the military instrument to our adversaries overseas.
I suspect that I have answered that question a few times over the last hour. This is simply the end of military operations in Afghanistan; it is not the end of the UK’s commitment to that country. Everybody is clear on that. So, too, are our partners and allies around NATO and beyond. The international effort to deliver peace and security within Afghanistan continues; it is just no longer appropriate to seek to achieve that through military means.
There are many who would say that the Taliban control a huge swathe of Afghanistan, and that this decision will mean that the Afghan security forces could be overrun. Will the Minister advise us, as an Afghan veteran? I pay tribute to that service, as I do to all the other veterans, including my own brother, Ronnie, who served two tours in Afghanistan. Can the Minister answer the question that many of them will be asking today: why oh why were they there in the first place, if we have not achieved what we intended to?
I do not accept that we have not achieved what we were there to do in the first place. We went into Afghanistan as a direct consequence of what happened on 11 September 2001. Article 5 was invoked because an attack on one was an attack on us all, and that attack originated in Afghanistan. Since then, there has been no international terrorist attack launched from Afghanistan on the UK, the US or, indeed, any other NATO ally, so in that sense the mission was achieved.
Actually, the mission has gone far further, as we have explored in our exchanges on the urgent question: in the 20 years that we have been there, we have given the opportunity for the Afghan Government to establish and strengthen and for an Afghan civil society to flourish. I truly believe that we have set the conditions within which a political process now has the best chances of success.
I know that the Minister will take back the very strong feelings expressed on both sides of the House that interpreters and other locally employed civilians must not be abandoned to a terrible fate at the hands of our enemies.
When the Minister says that the military process is over, does he not realise that the only thing that will prevent the Taliban from going back to the position they were in before we intervened 20 years will be the threat that if they try to overthrow the Government, they themselves will face a military consequence—if necessary, from outside the borders of the country? If he rules that out, he is basically giving them carte blanche.
As my right hon. Friend will know from his extensive experience of peace processes around the world, it is very likely—indeed, almost certain—that a lasting peace settlement in Afghanistan will involve the Taliban as part of the Afghan Government. It is in all our interests to support the political process as it plays out, but if there is a return to an ungoverned space that gives succour to international terrorism that is a threat to the UK homeland or the interests of our allies, we of course reserve the right to protect our interests, both unilaterally and multilaterally through NATO.
Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on our work to examine inequality across the population and set out a new, positive agenda for change.
The Government are committed to building a fairer Britain and taking the action needed to promote equality and opportunity for all. We do, however, recognise that serious disparities exist across our society, and are determined to take the action that is required to addressed them. Following the events of last summer, our nation has engaged in a serious examination of the issue of race inequality, and the Government have been determined to respond by carefully examining the evidence and data. We need to recognise progress where it has been made, but we also need to tackle barriers where they remain. That was why, last summer, the Prime Minister established the independent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. It was tasked with informing our national conversation on race by carrying out a deeper examination of why disparities exist and considering how we can reduce them.
After careful study, the commission made evidence-based recommendations for action across Government, the private sector and other public bodies. The commission was established with 10 experts drawn from a variety of fields, spanning science, education, economics, broadcasting, medicine and policing. With one exception, all are from ethnic minority backgrounds. The chair, Dr Sewell, has dedicated his life to education and to supporting young people from socially deprived backgrounds to reach their full potential. This distinguished group was tasked with reviewing inequality in the UK, and it focused on education, employment, crime and policing, and health.
As this House will be aware, on 31 March, the commission published its independent report. I will now turn to its findings. It is right to say that the picture painted by this report is complex, particularly in comparison with the way that issues of race are often presented. The report shows that disparities do persist, that racism and discrimination remain a factor in shaping people’s life outcomes, and it is clear about the fact that abhorrent racist attitudes continue in society, within institutions and increasingly online. It calls for action to tackle this.
However, the report also points out that, while disparities between ethnic groups exist across numerous areas, many factors other than racism are often the root cause. Among these are geography, deprivation and family structure. For example, a black Caribbean child is 10 times more likely than an Indian child to grow up in a lone parent household. Disparities exist in different directions. People from south Asian and Chinese ethnic groups have better outcomes than the white population in more than half of the top 25 causes of premature death.
The report also highlights the progress that Britain has made in tackling racism, and the report’s data reveal a range of success stories. For example, it underlines the significant progress achieved in educational attainment, with most ethnic minority groups now outperforming their white British peers at GCSE level. The report also delves into the causes and drivers of some of the most persistent and enduring issues. For example, the commission has identified the disproportionate rate of black men convicted of class B drug offences.
Let me be clear: the report does not deny that institutional racism exists in the UK. Rather the report did not find conclusive evidence of it in the specific areas it examined. It reaffirms the Macpherson report’s definition of the term, but argues that it should be applied more carefully and always based on evidence.
The commission made 24 evidence-based and practical recommendations. These have been grouped into four broad themes: to build trust; promote fairness; create agency; and achieve inclusivity.
There are many things that unite this House. A shared commitment to making Britain fairer for everyone is one of them. In the light of that fact, I urge right hon. and hon. Members to take the time to read the report’s 258 pages. There is also another thing that I am sure unites this House, which is abhorrence of the appalling abuse meted out to the commissioners and the false assertions made about their work in the past three weeks. It is true that this landmark analysis challenges a number of strongly held beliefs about the extent and influence of racism in Britain today. The commissioners have followed the evidence and drawn conclusions that challenge orthodoxy, and they were prepared for a robust and constructive debate. However, they were not prepared for the wilful misrepresentation of the report that occurred following its publication, such as false accusations that they denied racism exists, or that they wished to put a positive spin on the atrocities of slavery, or false statements that commissioners did not read or sign off their own report, or that they are breaking ranks. I have been informed by the chair and by individual members that the commission remains united and stands by its report.
This Government welcome legitimate disagreement and debate, but firmly reject bad-faith attempts to undermine the credibility of this report. Doing so risks undermining the vital work that we are trying to do to understand and address the causes of inequality in the UK, and any other positive work that results from it. For that reason it is necessary to set the record straight. This report makes it clear that the UK is not a post-racial society and that racism is still a real force that has the power to deny opportunity and painfully disrupt lives. That is why the first recommendation of the commission is to challenge racist and discriminatory actions. The report calls on the Government to increase funding to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to make greater use of
“its compliance, enforcement and litigation powers to challenge policies or practices that…cause…unjust racial disadvantage, or arise from racial discrimination.”
The Government even more firmly condemn the deeply personal and racialised attacks against the commissioners, which have included death threats. In fact, one Opposition Member presented commissioners as members of the Ku Klux Klan—an example of the very online racial hatred and abuse on which the report itself recommended more action be taken by the Government.
It is, of course, to be expected that Members will disagree about how to address racial inequality and the kinds of policies that the Government should enact. However, it is wrong to accuse those who argue for a different approach of being racism deniers or race traitors. It is even more irresponsible—dangerously so—to call ethnic minority people racial slurs like “Uncle Toms”, “coconuts”, “house slaves” or “house negroes” for daring to think differently.
Such deplorable tactics are designed to intimidate ethnic minority people away from their right to express legitimate views. This House depends on robust debate and diversity of thought. Too many ethnic minority people have to put up with this shameful treatment every day, as some of my fellow MPs and I know too well. The House should condemn it and reprimand those who continue with such behaviour.
The commissioners’ experience since publication only reinforces the need for informed debate on race based on mutual respect and a nuanced understanding of the evidence. The Government will now consider the report in detail and assess the next steps for future policy. In recognition of the extensive scope of recommendations, the Prime Minister has established a new inter-ministerial group to review the recommendations. It will ensure that action is taken to continue progress to create a fairer society. As sponsoring Minister, I will provide strategic direction with support from my officials in the Race Disparity Unit. The group will be chaired by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
On that note, on behalf of the Prime Minister, I would like to thank the commissioners once again for all that they have done. They have generously volunteered their time, unpaid, to lead this important piece of work, and the Government welcome their thoughtful, balanced and evidence-based findings and analysis.
The Government will now work at pace to produce a response to the report this summer. I assure the House that it will be ambitious about tackling negative disparities where they exist and building on successes. It will play a significant part in this Government’s mission to level up and unite the country, and ensure equality and opportunity for all, whatever their race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. It is only right that such a contentious report finally receives time for debate in this House. I have read the report, despite having to wait two weeks for an accessible version to arrive.
Following the Black Lives Matter movement, the commission had an opportunity meaningfully to engage with structural racism in the UK. Instead, it published incoherent, divisive and offensive materials that appear to glorify slavery, downplay the role of institutional and structural racism, and blame ethnic minorities for their own disadvantage. If left unchallenged, the report will undo decades of progress made towards race equality in the UK.
Since publication, the report has completely unravelled. Far from bad-faith actors, this report has been discredited by experts, including the British Medical Association, Professor Michael Marmot, trade unions representing over 5 million workers, human rights experts at the UN and Baroness Lawrence, who said it gives a “green light to racists”. Its cherry-picking of data is misleading and incoherent, and its conclusions are ideologically motivated and divisive.
It is absolutely clear to all Opposition Members and those across civil society that this report has no credibility, so I am disappointed to hear the Minister double down on it here today. How can she stand before us in this House and defend the indefensible? I want to ask one simple question to start: who wrote this report? Four weeks ago, she stood at the Dispatch Box and said:
“It is not the Prime Minister but an independent commission that will be publishing the report.”—[Official Report, 24 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 906.]
Despite what she says about unity, can she explain why multiple commissioners have disclosed that No. 10 rewrote parts of the report? What precedent does this cronyism set for future independent commissions? Furthermore, will the Minister explain how the Government came to publish claims that there is a “new story” to be told about slavery and empire, and will she distance herself from those abhorrent remarks?
The Minister says that commissioners followed the evidence, but this report marks a major shift away from the overwhelming body of data on institutional and structural racism. The Office for National Statistics finds that the unemployment rate for black people is now 13.8%—triple the rate for white people—so why does the report conclude that young black people should
“examine the subjects they are studying”,
instead of addressing the systemic inequalities within the labour market? Black women are four times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth, but the report says that these numbers are so low that it is “unfair” to focus on this disparity. Does the Minister agree with those findings? Even the example about class B drug use, which she repeated today, is inaccurate, with the Cabinet Office admitting that there was a mistake. I was especially interested to hear the Minister highlight the recommendation to increase funding to the EHRC, given that her Government have slashed its funding by £43 million since 2010.
This report is part of the story that Government Members would like to try to tell about fairness. They say that they are interested in addressing inequalities of geography and class, but the truth is that they are not interested in ending inequality at all. In stark contrast, the Labour party believes in ambition and potential for all, including black and ethnic minority people, but we recognise that we often start from a position of systemic disadvantage.
It is our job as elected representatives to level the playing field, so I want to end by giving the Minister the chance to reject this report and tell the House instead what she is doing to implement the 231 recommendations in the Timpson, McGregor-Smith, Williams, Angiolini and Lammy reviews. What is she doing to comply with the public sector equality duty, and why is she not publishing equality impact assessments? This is what her Government would be focused on if they were serious about ending structural racism. Instead, they have published a shoddy, point-scoring polemic which ignores evidence and does not represent the country that I know and love. It is reprehensible, and I hope the Minister will reject it today, so that we get on with the task of tackling institutional and structural racism, which is the lived experience of many.
It is quite clear that the hon. Lady did not read the statement, which I sent to her in advance, and she clearly did not listen to it as I read it out. She is clearly determined to create a divisive atmosphere around race in this House and this country, and we will not stand for it. We continue to push for a fairer Britain and for levelling up. Labour Members continue to look for division. They continue to stoke culture wars and then claim that we are the ones fighting them.
I completely reject all the assertions that the hon. Lady has made—many of them false and many of them hypocritical. Whose party has been determined to be institutionally racist by the Equality and Human Rights Commission? It is not my party; it is hers. She and many of her colleagues are the ones who are complaining about their party’s Forde inquiry and claiming that their party has anti-black racism. Why do they not look at resolving the problems in their own house, instead of trying to spread them around the rest of the country?
I will acknowledge some of the questions the hon. Lady has raised and seek to answer them. She asked who wrote the report. The commissioners wrote the report; that is because they were independent. It is simply not true to claim that other people wrote the report. The commissioners have put statements on the—[Interruption.] I am afraid I cannot hear myself speak because of the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). It would be nice if she stopped heckling from a sedentary position. Her mouth is covered, so I cannot even hear what she is saying.
If we look at the statements that the commissioners have made on the gov.uk website, they have been united. They have not broken ranks. They have not chosen to dissociate themselves from the report. The only thing that is happening is that Labour Members in particular continue to misrepresent what is happening. Why, for instance, will the shadow Minister not condemn the racist abuse faced by the commissioners? Why will she not condemn her own colleague, the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), who posted a picture of the KKK in response to the commissioners? Does she think that that is appropriate behaviour? It is the subject of a complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
We should go back to the substance of what this report is saying, rather than continuing to try to slander the people who have written it. These are professionals and distinguished individuals who gave up their time, and I commend them for their work. I am very proud of it, and of course we will not be withdrawing the report.
It is clear that today’s Labour party is functionally innumerate and does not like to see statistics and evidence, so rather than focus on the numbers and the data, they run away. They just want to continue having discussions on racism, which is where they think they are strong, but I am afraid that they are not strong on this issue. We will not sit back and allow divisive rhetoric and misrepresentation to be the story on race. We are determined to create a positive national conversation about this issue based on facts and evidence, fraternity and fairness, not on nonsensical accusations.
So I reject the hon. Member for Battersea’s assertions. We will not withdraw the report. We will look at what recommendations to take forward. The Government have still not provided a response, but there are many issues around that structural inequality that we want to have dealt with. However, I reiterate that, just because there is a disparity, it does not mean that discrimination is the cause. If we continue to identify discrimination right from the beginning without looking at the root cause, we will continue to offer solutions that do not improve the situation. I am very happy to commend the commissioners and I reject the hon. Lady’s very divisive rhetoric and assertions to the House today.
The House and the country will be glad that the Government have come forward with this positive statement in support of Tony Sewell’s and the other commissioners’ report.
The commission had to put out a statement on 2 April contradicting most of the ill-informed criticisms. At the end, it said:
“The 24 recommendations we have made will, in our view, greatly improve the lives of millions of people for the better if they are all implemented.”
The second sentence of the first paragraph said that the report
“stated categorically that ‘we take the reality of racism seriously and we do not deny that it is a real force in the UK.’”
That seems plain and clear.
I came into politics in 1971, when the ethnic minorities in the area where I lived in south London were denied the chance to take O-levels because left-wing goodies asked why people should be forced to take O-levels in the fifth form. I said it was so that they could go on to university. With two West Indian mothers on the governing body, within three years, the first of our black pupils went on to medical school. I think we can dedicate ourselves to making life better.
I say to the Minister that later—not today—I would like to come and talk to her about the treatment of Gurpal Virdi, a very good Sikh officer who four times was badly treated by the Metropolitan police. The fourth time, he was prosecuted for a week and a half for something that could not have happened, following an investigation that should not have happened.
That is one of the things that would help to give weight to the recommendations of the Sewell commission —if things are treated fairly, when they go wrong, they are investigated properly.
I thank the Father of the House for his question and for his comments, which I completely agree with. The issue he describes around education back in the day is actually something I experienced myself. There is still much to do, but we have come a long way from 25 years ago when I first immigrated to this country. On Gurpal Virdi, I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to fully understand what happened and to see what the Government can do.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of her statement. A United Nations working group strongly rejected this report, saying that it
“further distorted and falsified historic facts”,
could fuel racism and twists data, among other pointed criticisms. The Minister just spoke about the lack of evidence of institutional racism, but the Runnymede Trust rightly points out that evidence of institutional racism was submitted to the commission. Twenty thousand people joined the Runnymede Trust and Amnesty International in calling for the report’s withdrawal, and 36 trade union general secretaries have repudiated the report.
In contrast to the Prime Minister, who said that the report contains “interesting observations”, Scots campaigner Talat Yaqoob called the report a “whitewash of reality” produced only to let the UK Government abdicate responsibility for tackling institutional racism. How can the Minister justify a report that says policies such as the hostile environment were not deliberately targeted at the UK’s ethnic minorities? Leading clinicians have said the report will worsen systemic health inequalities. The NHS Race and Health Observatory has declared that institutional racism exists in the UK, the health and care system and across wider public bodies. In the light of those responses, will the Minister repudiate the report’s glossing over of the impact of covid on ethnic minority groups?
The SNP will always work hard for Scotland to be a global leader in diversity and inclusion. If re-elected, we will introduce a Scottish diversity and inclusion strategy, focusing on institutional barriers and providing education on colonial history. The Scottish Tory manifesto is silent on these issues, but in bringing forward this report, it certainly looks like the UK Government are going in the opposite direction. So can the Minister tell us specifically what the Tories are doing to tackle institutional inequality and to deal effectively with colonial history? Can she understand why so many people will be deeply disappointed with this response, which feels, at best, like a bunch of cans being kicked down the road?
Before I begin to answer the hon. Lady’s questions, I would like to point out that the PM wrote to devolved Administrations shortly after the commission was established to invite them to engage with this work. It is noticeable that Northern Ireland was keen to take part, and hosted the commission on crime and policing matters. However, the Scottish National party Administration did not engage, so I believe that the words the hon. Lady is now saying about how dedicated they are to fighting racial inequality are completely hollow. When the commission was set up, I am afraid that they did very little indeed to engage.
Regarding the statement by the UN experts, the group grossly misrepresented the commission’s report; the statement is clearly born of the divisive narratives perpetrated by certain media outlets and political groups that are seeking to sow division in our ethnic minority communities. It is also quite clear that the UN experts did not read the commission’s report, judging from some of their statements, which seem to have been cut and pasted from a Labour party press release. The obvious flaw in their critique is that there is no comparison to be drawn with peer countries in Europe, especially because they do not even collect data on race and ethnicity. As such, I share the commission’s disappointment in, and rejection of, yesterday’s statement by the working group of experts on people of African descent, and I will be writing back to them in the strongest of terms.
It is no surprise that the hon. Lady has listed a lot of left-wing groups that disagree with the report. Disagreement and debate is part of politics. We have no issues with people disagreeing with the substance of the report; what we do have an issue with is people misrepresenting it. This report was tasked with finding out why disparities exist. It was not supposed to define where exactly we are seeing institutional racism, but to call racism out where it exists, and it did that. Perhaps if the hon. Lady spent some time reading the report, rather than remarks on Twitter, she would be better informed about what it actually says.
The chief economist of the Bank of England has said that
“Published pay gaps are a starting point for corporate and national accountability”.
Business groups have called for mandatory reporting of ethnicity pay gaps. The commission recommended investigating the causes of pay disparities, but then did not recommend mandating the reporting that would identify those disparities, so will the Minister now commit to taking a different approach from the commission, and commit to mandatory reporting of ethnicity pay gaps?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question, and I pay tribute to her for setting up the Race Disparity Unit, which has allowed us to carry out so much forensic research.
On the issue of ethnicity pay reporting, the commission pointed to statistical and data issues that affect ethnicity pay reporting, and makes a recommendation as a way for employers to overcome these challenges and report ethnicity pay accurately. As I say, the Government will consider the report in detail, and we will work with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to assess the implications of this recommendation for future Government policy and respond in due course. However, I take my right hon. Friend’s comments into account, and will make sure that they are addressed in the Government response.
The Minister has accused people of criticising the report in bad faith. Is she really saying that Professor Michael Marmot, a world-renowned expert in public health, is acting out of bad faith? Is she really saying that the British Medical Association and other professional associations are speaking in bad faith? It would reflect better on the Minister if she were prepared to engage with genuine criticism by experts.
Nobody denies that there has been progress on racial justice in this country. My parents left school in rural Jamaica aged 14; I am a British Member of Parliament. However, this is widely seen—particularly by people who have been quoted and misquoted—as a shoddy, cynical report that, to quote the UN working group,
“repackages racist tropes and stereotypes into fact, twisting data”.
I say to the Minister that surely black and brown British people who have contributed so much to this country deserve better than this report.
What black and brown British people like myself deserve is better treatment from the Opposition Members who continue to stoke division. Of course I am not accusing Professor Sir Michael Marmot or the BMA of bad faith. The people I accuse of acting in bad faith are the right hon. Lady and her colleagues who are posting pictures of the KKK, and being advertised, as the shadow equalities Minister was, at an event preparing to denounce the report a week before it was even published.
On Professor Sir Michael Marmot and the British Medical Association, I have had meetings with them and we engage with them. We take criticism from them—they are not there to endorse every single thing the Government say; they are there to provide helpful criticism and suggestions where necessary. Sometimes we agree, and sometimes we disagree. Disagreement is not a problem. What we do not want is misrepresentation, which is what the right hon. Lady and her colleagues continue to do.
I thank my hon. Friend for her statement. She has focused a great deal on evidence. Does she agree that narrative is also important, and that when the Government respond, it is essential that they do so in full to the 24 recommendations and get the tone right? The Women and Equalities Committee has invited Tony Sewell to come and give evidence to us, alongside other commissioners. I hope my hon. Friend will encourage him to do so, so that the Committee can hear at first hand the evidence that was presented to him and how the report was written.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. I agree with her that narrative is important, not just evidence. We in this House have to ask ourselves what story we are trying to tell. In the case of Conservative Members, it is a story of a shared history, shared values, shared culture and a shared future. We want to make sure that we create a sense of belonging for young people in this country, not an environment where they believe they will never be able to succeed because other people continue to tell them so despite the evidence. I will find out about the request she has made to the commissioners, and I am sure that they will respond in due course.
This is gaslighting on a national scale.
“The New Age of Empire”, page 95, tells us exactly what is happening. On page 103, “This is Why I Resist”, by Dr Shola, explains about racial gatekeepers, which Musa Okwonga from Byline Times talks about. My question to the Minister is this. The Government briefed a clear message well in advance of this report landing. Why did they do that?
I think it is disgusting that a Member of this House will stand up and accuse people of being racial gatekeepers. This is the same nonsense we have heard time and time again—calling people Uncle Toms, calling them house negroes and house slaves, and calling them racial gatekeepers. The fact that the hon. Lady is able to stand here and use that phrase without any shame whatsoever just shows how far the Labour party has fallen.