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Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Volume 692: debated on Tuesday 20 April 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fragile and Conflict-affected Countries: Education

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure that children in fragile and conflict-affected countries can access education and learning. (914434)

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

What recent assessment he has made of the (a) humanitarian and (b) human rights situation in Tigray, Ethiopia. (914435)

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

What recent progress his Department has made through international co-operation on tackling climate change. (914450)

What recent progress the Government have made through international co-operation on tackling climate change. (914456)

What diplomatic steps his Department is taking ahead of COP26 to work with partners in the global south to tackle climate change. (914460)

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”

and that

“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

What steps his Department is taking to support the creation of the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. (914459)

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?

We absolutely respect the independence of the International Criminal Court. We do expect it to comply with its own mandate. The UK will remain a strong supporter of the ICC.

Official Development Assistance

What recent discussions he has had with his G7 counterparts on global flows of official development assistance. (914439)

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

What diplomatic steps he is taking to encourage international collaboration to tackle the UK Government’s grand challenges. (914440)

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

What steps he is taking to ensure that tackling poverty and inequality remains a focus of his Department. (914441)

What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of reductions in the UK aid budget on poverty in developing countries. (914463)

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

What assessment he has made of the potential effect of reductions in the UK aid budget on the UK’s humanitarian work overseas. (914442)

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.

Myanmar: Sanctions

What assessment he has made of the potential merits of using sanctions as part of the diplomatic response to the military coup in Myanmar. (914443)

What representations he has made to his counterpart in Myanmar on the reports of killings and excessive use of force by security forces against people protesting the recent military coup in that country. (914461)

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

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of increases in numbers of Russian forces at the border with Ukraine on peace and security in that region. (914447)

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.

Can I just tidy this up? If we are going to make allegations, they have to be made on a substantive motion; that must be done in the correct manner. Things are getting heated. Let us just calm it down.

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.

Topical Questions

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.

The 2001 UN conference against racism in Durban degenerated into hatred, antisemitism and criticism of Israel that was excessive, disproportionate and unfair, so will the UK Government boycott Durban IV, which marks the 20th anniversary of that disgraceful 2001 conference? (914495)

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.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, I thank the FCDO for its work in securing the new resolution on accountability in Sri Lanka at the recent UN Human Rights Council sessions. However, from speaking to Tamils in Carshalton and Wallington and across the UK, there is obviously still more to do, so could the Minister outline what steps the UK is taking to implement the UN high commissioner’s recommendations on applying sanctions and travel embargos and filing cases against alleged war crimes under universal jurisdiction? (914498)

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.

I agreed with the Prime Minister when he said that his greatest mistake when he was Foreign Secretary was in relation to Russia—that he had misplayed the relationship with Russia—and I want to return to that point. We now know for certain that the two men who were involved in the Skripal poisoning, or attempted poisoning and inadvertent successful poisoning, were GRU officers, almost certainly acting on the direct command of the Kremlin, and that those two officers were also involved in a murder and an explosion in the Czech Republic. It seems extraordinary to me that this has taken so many years to come out. Why has there been such a delay in this information coming to the public, and what are we going to do to make sure that murderers on Putin’s payroll are not strolling the streets of every capital in Europe? (914499)

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.

Eight years ago, my constituent Tyrell Matthews-Burton —a young man with a bright future ahead of him—was brutally murdered in Greece. His family have fought tirelessly to bring those responsible to justice, yet despite convictions, the Metropolitan Police tell us that the Greek authorities are the stumbling block. Will the Foreign Secretary meet me and Tyrell’s family, so that we can prove that it does not matter what colour a person’s skin, this country will always fight for justice for its citizens? (914503)

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.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking with his international counterparts to prepare for the G7 leaders’ summit this summer in Cornwall? (914504)

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.

On the G7, what are the Government doing to address the global debt crisis engulfing the world’s poorest countries? Might I suggest that one way to show leadership on that would be for this House to pass legislation to compel private creditors to participate in debt relief and to stop them suing for debt recovery under UK law? (914510)

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.

The covid-19 pandemic has shone a depressing light on the digital poverty that exists in developing countries. Without access to the internet, millions of children across the world have lost thousands of hours of education. Sadly, the problem is even more acute for girls. What action is being taken to ensure that the UK uses its presidency of the G7 and the Global Partnership for Education to enable the most marginalised children, in particular girls, to return to school and catch up with their lost learning? (914505)

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.

I would like to declare an interest: a visit to Colombia with Justice for Colombia. In February, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported on the alleged involvement of Colombian security forces in the deaths of at least 13 protestors last year. There have also been worrying reports of an increased number of protestors losing their sight after being hit with projectiles fired by police, including 19-year-old Yuri Camargo and 22-year-old Miguel Angel Linares, both in 2019. Will the Secretary of State raise the importance of full legal and disciplinary investigations of those cases with his Colombian counterparts? (914513)

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.

It is brilliant to see the UK and Israel working so closely together in the roll-out of our world- leading vaccination programmes. Israel has vaccinated almost half its population with both doses of the covid vaccine, so will the Minister provide an update on the status of discussions with Israel on establishing a travel corridor arrangement? (914507)

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.

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

Sitting suspended.