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Topical Questions

Volume 697: debated on Tuesday 15 June 2021

Since the last oral questions I have visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to discuss how to reinforce the ceasefire. I also visited Saudi Arabia and saw at first hand the changes under Saudi Vision 2030, including greater rights for women, which we have been very much supporting; visited Iraq to support free and fair elections in October; and, of course, joined the Prime Minister in Carbis Bay for the G7 summit, which under his presidency delivered groundbreaking pledges on international vaccines, decisive action on climate change and G7 commitments to get 40 million more girls into 12 years of quality education.

Nepal is in a deep covid crisis, with thousands of people dying each week because of the lack of oxygen supply and ventilators, and the severe lack of vaccines. Without urgent help from the UK Government, more lives will be lost. Can the Secretary of State outline what additional support the UK Government are providing following the visit last month by medical advisers to Nepal?

I am very concerned about the situation in Nepal. The UK announced very recently an additional support package, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman to set out the full details, so that he has all of that to hand.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments about the workers serving so bravely in the HALO Trust in Afghanistan. He knows as well as I do that many other people are serving the Afghan community, and indeed the international community, by seeking to assist women and girls in education, to help farmers, and to fight the corruption in various institutions—and, indeed, the drugs business that has blighted so many lives.

Can the Secretary of State, today at the Dispatch Box, redouble his commitment to the Afghan National Defence and Security Force and to supporting all those institutions that made such a difference in protecting the Afghan population, and that really are the legacy of the British Army and many other armies’ continuous operations in Afghanistan over much of the last 20 years? Will he ensure that the sacrifice of all those who fought in Afghanistan, and all those who have given so much to rebuilding it, will not go to waste in aid cuts that are so unnecessary?

My hon. Friend is right to point to the precarious situation in Afghanistan. We had long, detailed talks not just with the United States at Carbis Bay but with other allies. We had the NATO summit as well, which has been an opportunity to reinforce the need to stand by those who have stood by us in the way that my hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee described, and to ensure that we encourage a political dialogue to avoid the spectre, or the risk, of civil war and that we bank not just the security gains from all the blood, sweat and tears that have been spent in Afghanistan, but a more inclusive Government.

I associate myself with the tributes paid to the brave workers of the HALO Trust and put on record our unequivocal condemnation of the targeting of a BBC journalist outside Parliament yesterday. Press freedom is under attack around the world; we must defend it here.

Yesterday, NATO recognised China as a systemic challenge to our security and the values that underpin it for the first time. While we welcome the reference to forced labour in the G7 communiqué, the failure to agree concrete measures in relation to Xinjiang was a missed opportunity to send a clear message that the world stands against genocide and anyone who seeks to profit from it. Can the Secretary of State assure us that he and the Prime Minister supported the stronger language and tougher measures that President Biden made it clear were needed, and that, despite the failure of the G7 to agree them, he will continue to do so?

I agree with much of what the hon. Lady said. Of course, she will know that there are varied views at the G7, including among our European partners, about quite how robust to be with China on some of these issues. She will know, because of the stance that the United Kingdom has taken in the Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly, the United Nations and other forums, and indeed from the statements that we have put out and the sanctions that we have imposed in relation to Xinjiang, how importantly we take the issue, but the reality is that in relation to China, on this and many other issues, we need to be able to carry a broader group of like-minded countries with us. That is why the Prime Minister invited India, South Korea and Australia to join the G7 as guests, and why it is important to engage with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the way that we have been doing.

While I welcome that, if we want to carry a broader group of like-minded countries with us we need to lead by example. Does the Secretary of State regret whipping his MPs to support preferential trade deals with countries that commit genocide? Can he tell us why, last week, his Government turned down almost every single recommendation made by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee to get tough with China over forced labour in Xinjiang, and why the Minister for Exports, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), told parliamentarians last week:

“China offers more opportunity for the UK economy than perhaps any other market”?

The sheer incoherence of that approach is what, time and again, causes the Government to come up short. It gives us the absurd spectacle of Ministers standing up for human rights in the morning and then defending trade deals with countries that commit genocide in the afternoon. Will he please get a grip on that across Government, because who in the world could rely on a Government who cannot even rely on themselves?

I think the hon. Lady is a bit confused. Can she name a single country with which the United Kingdom under this Government is engaged on FTA negotiations that has committed anything close to genocide? Of course it is unthinkable; of course we would not do it. [Interruption.] Incorrect. What we have done—[Interruption.] She is chuntering from a sedentary position because she knows what she is saying is bereft of substance. We have imposed—we led the way in imposing—sanctions on Xinjiang. We have raised it at the G7 level. It is absolutely inconceivable that the UK would do a trade deal with any country that has engaged in genocide. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady is chuntering again. It is absolute nonsense.

It is right, though, to say that we want a constructive and positive relationship, where that is possible, with China across the piece. In areas such as climate change, the hon. Lady talks a good game but does not seem to understand the elbow grease that needs to go into it. We need to have a conversation with China, because it is the biggest emitter and the biggest investor in renewable technologies, but we have demonstrated time and again that we never shrink from standing up for our values. She talks a good game; we do the business.

My right hon. Friend knows my concern about the impact of deforestation around the world. At the moment I am particularly concerned about what is happening in Brazil, where, far from giving greater protection to the Amazon rainforest, the Brazilian Government appear to be moving in a direction that will allow greater deforestation. Please will he take every step possible to put pressure on the Brazilian Government to ensure that that does not happen, and that protections for the Amazon are increased, not reduced? (901276)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. On the positive side, we welcome President Bolsonaro’s commitment to reach zero illegal deforestation by 2030, and we are working with the Brazilian Government to address some of the underlying factors that fuel deforestation, including trying to get sustainable production of agricultural commodities—an issue not just in Brazil but around the world. Through international finance programmes, we have committed £259 million to help protect the Amazon, which has already enabled clearance of 430,000 acres to be avoided.

The Government are fully aware that my constituent, Mr Anoosheh Ashoori, has been detained as hostage in Iran because of his British citizenship, with declining health and no contact with his family. Does the Secretary of State agree that Anoosheh should receive the benefit of every tool the Government have to secure his release, including diplomatic protection? If he does, will he update us on Anoosheh’s diplomatic status, and confirm whether dual nationals being held in Iran were discussed at the G7 summit? (901277)

I have had long conversations with the families of Anoosheh Ashoori and all the other dual nationals who have been detained. Nothing is more moving or heartbreaking in this job than seeing the situation of dual nationals in Iran and, indeed, of nationals and dual nationals around the world, and I have been intensively engaged in trying to resolve this. With other issues, it was something I discussed with our US friends at Carbis Bay. I am doing absolutely everything I can to secure the release and return home of all our detained dual nationals in Iran and, indeed, around the world.

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary and his whole team on delivering such a successful G7 summit in Carbis Bay. I welcome the generous contribution to the replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education. May I ask for an assurance that as our economy recovers, we will revert to 0.7% of GNP for overseas development assistance, and that our contribution represents merely the foundation of our ambition to ensure that every child in the world gets 12 years of quality education? (901282)

I thank my hon. Friend for making those points. I can assure her that in all the conversations we have about our commitment to Africa and to the broader world, ensuring 12 years of quality education for girls remains the top priority. We recognise that, as the Prime Minister has said on many occasions, it is the Swiss Army knife for global problems, and it will remain a high priority for us, both in this part of the world and more broadly.

While the Foreign Secretary was in Cornwall over the weekend, I was out knocking on doors in Chesham and Amersham. I spoke to lifelong Conservative voters, who told me that they were angry that the Government have broken their promises to them and the world’s poorest by cutting the aid budget. They said that they were planning to stay at home or vote Lib Dem for the very first time. Does the Secretary of State agree with them that, if someone wants to send a message to the Government on cuts to the aid budget, they should vote Lib Dem? (901278)

I am glad that the folk of Chesham and Amersham managed to have a rare sighting of a Lib Dem. I went to school in Amersham, and I can tell the hon. Lady that I do not think that they will be that daft come election day.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a successful G7 conference in Conservative Cornwall. During my time at the Royal College of Defence Studies, I led a seminar on the South China sea, and through my interest in fisheries I have gained knowledge on the UN convention on the law of the sea. Could he tell me what his Department is doing to encourage a code of conduct for the area that reflects UNCLOS? (901284)

I started life as a maritime lawyer, so I can geek on UNCLOS with the best of them. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s expertise in this area. We welcome the negotiations between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on a code of conduct relating to UNCLOS. What is really important is that that reflects and is faithful to the international obligations in one of the world’s most widely ratified international treaties that is widely regarded as reflective of custom in international law. A code of conduct should not be used by China to unpick the obligations under UNCLOS.

Can I just say that I am very disappointed that lots of Members have not got in? Those who asked questions and those who responded to them should consider others because, unfortunately, I am now ending questions and suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.