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Topical Questions

Volume 704: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2021

Since the last oral questions the Foreign Secretary has launched a campaign to stop sexual violence in conflicts. Last week she launched the British international investment, which will invest billions in honest and reliable infrastructure and technology in low and middle-income countries. She has visited south-east Asia to deepen our economic, tech and security ties with partners including Indonesia, and yesterday she hosted the first UK-Israel strategic dialogue with her Israel counterpart Yair Lapid in London. Today she is meeting NATO allies in Riga, delivering the message that we must act together to stand up against Russia’s malign activity. Obviously, two of my other colleagues are unable to be here today, for reasons that have already been set out.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I want to put on record my personal thanks to the Foreign Secretary for her strong personal support for freedom of religion or belief. Do Ministers agree that FORB for all is a fundamental strand of the network of liberty that the Foreign Secretary has so powerfully spoken of recently, integrally connected as it is with so many other freedoms, such as speech, association and even life itself? Where FORB is violated, we see a whole range of abuses, such as racism, gender inequality and societies that are more prone to violent extremism.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is a real passionate champion. Promoting freedom of religion or belief for all is one of the UK’s long-standing human rights priorities and a key pillar of the integrated review. Where FORB is under attack, other human rights are often threatened too. We used our G7 presidency to defend and advance these fundamental freedoms, and next year’s international ministerial conference, to be hosted in London on 5 and 6 July, will play a key role in shaping the network of liberty.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

The deaths of 27 people should have acted as a sobering moment for the British and French Governments. These were human beings, not migrants, but instead both Governments have engaged in a petty public spat. This incompetence is costing lives. How can the Government hope to maintain good relations around the world with a Prime Minister who is more interested in burning bridges than building them?

I welcome the shadow Foreign Secretary to his place.

It was a tragic incident that happened in the channel last week. I extend my condolences, as I am sure everyone in the House does, to the families of those people who lost their lives while trying to get across to the UK. As the Prime Minister said, this was a shocking, appalling and deeply saddening loss of life.

The Prime Minister spoke to French President Macron on 24 November, and they agreed on the urgency of stepping up joint efforts to prevent these deadly crossings and to stop the gangs responsible for putting people’s lives at risk. The Prime Minister, as we know, wrote to President Macron on this issue.

UK and French Ministers discuss issues in the UK-France bilateral relationship. That includes the Home Secretary, who is working closely with her French counterpart on the issue of small boats and is in regular contact with him.

Three months ago, the Prime Minister promised to “shift heaven and earth” to help evacuate Afghans in danger, yet many have been left behind, including female judges, as I first raised on 16 August. The perception is that we have turned our back on those who champion the rule of law and democratic freedom, and who stand up to oppression. What impression does the Minister think this gives to our allies across the globe? When will the resettlement scheme actually be up and running?

When we look back at what happened with Operation Pitting, we have to remember the sheer scale of the evacuation from Afghanistan: the number of British nationals who were evacuated, the 5,000 locally employed Afghan staff and the 500 special cases of particularly vulnerable Afghans, including Chevening scholars, journalists, human rights defenders and judges.

The resettlement scheme will provide protection for the most vulnerable who are identified as at risk, and it will be announced by the Home Office in due course.

T2. I welcomed the Government’s decision in 2019 to proscribe the Hezbollah terror group in its entirety, and I welcomed their decision to proscribe the Hamas terror group earlier this month, yet the sanctions lifted under the joint comprehensive plan of action nuclear deal have allowed Iran to provide even greater financial assistance to terrorist proxies and regimes in the region through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Does my right hon. Friend share my view that the IRGC is the nexus of Iran’s malign activities around the world? What steps are the Government taking to tackle this problem? (904465)

Iran’s destabilising activity risks regional peace and prosperity, and we regularly raise Iran’s destabilising role in the region at the UN Security Council. We have more than 200 UK sanctions designations in place against Iran under various UK sanctions regimes, including against the IRGC in its entirety. We continue to support our allies’ security, including through close defence partnerships across the middle east. We work to strengthen institutions and build capacity in more vulnerable countries.

T5. Last Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the Colombian peace agreement, but human rights abuses continue at an appalling rate. Particularly worrying are the more than 100 instances of eye trauma, mostly people being blinded as a result of police firing projectiles at protestors during the national strikes earlier this year. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the Colombian Government’s investigations into this brutal police strategy against people who were exercising their democratic rights? (904469)

Colombia is an FCDO human rights priority country. We regularly raise human rights concerns with the Colombian Government and in multilateral fora. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), visited Colombia last week and spoke to Vice President Ramírez about the human rights situation.

T3. There are significant science and tech superpowers around the world, so I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has agreed a new strategic approach with friendly countries spanning cyber, tech, trade and defence, especially if these are delivered through Government-to-Government agreements. Does the Minister agree that this will help to create high-quality jobs in Dudley, the UK and elsewhere? (904467)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his passion for high-quality jobs in Dudley. We are building a network of liberty with our friends and allies. It will include new technological partnerships to embrace the opportunities of a global economy shaped on innovations in tech. In June, the Prime Minister agreed to develop a new, landmark bilateral technology partnership with President Biden to enable a new era of strategic co-operation between our countries. The AUKUS alliance will deepen security and defence-related science and technology with the US and Australia.

T6. Further to the Minister’s reply on the question of Afghanistan, Afghan residents in my constituency and elsewhere are watching the slide of that country into starvation with absolute horror and they contact my office every day to ask when people they know, including family members, who are trapped in Afghanistan and on the borders will be able to apply for the citizenship resettlement scheme. Saying that this will be “in due course” is simply not acceptable. It is three months since the collapse of Afghanistan and we need to know now when people will be able to apply under that scheme. (904470)

On the points about humanitarian aid, we are doubling our assistance for Afghanistan, taking it to £286 million in this financial year. At the end of October, the Prime Minister announced an allocation of a further £50 million to provide more than 2.5 million Afghans with food, health, shelter and warm clothing.

T4. Although everyone would like to see our borders open for travel as normal, my constituents understand that decisions have to be made putting restrictions on some international travel. Will the Minister confirm that her Department will provide whatever support is needed to British nationals currently travelling abroad in those countries where restrictions have become necessary? (904468)

British people who are currently in red list countries should check the Department’s travel advice for the latest rules on returning to the UK. If they need to change their travel plans, they should speak to their airline or travel agent. Consular staff are available 24/7 to provide assistance to any British national who needs help overseas, through a call to their local consulate, embassy or high commission.

The Government promised that they would not abandon the Afghan people, yet millions are teetering on the edge of famine, with winter fast approaching. Will the Minister stop with the meaningless pledges and start with meaningful action? She will have seen the harrowing report from John Simpson and the powerful words of David Beasley, from the World Food Programme, who said:

“imagine that this was your little girl or your little boy, or your grandchild about to starve to death…We let any child die from hunger. Shame on us. I don’t care where that child is.”

A failure to act is a betrayal of those people. So will the funds be disbursed to save lives in Afghanistan today?

Afghanistan faces one of the largest food security crises in the world. We are aware that the crisis is approaching levels where there is severe, acute malnutrition, which is why we have doubled UK aid for Afghanistan to £286 million this year. In addition, between April and November this year we have disbursed more than £55 million, including life-saving humanitarian support for emergency food, health, nutrition, shelter and water sanitation. We are providing a lot of support.

As well as the Prime Minister’s promise to bring vulnerable Afghans to refuge in this country, other Ministers suggested that they travel to neighbouring countries as the first step. I have constituents who took those Ministers at their word, but the Afghanistan resettlement scheme is not open, as we have noted, and those who fled are told to apply for expensive visas, with prohibitive salary requirements. Will the Minister at least agree to speak to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister and urge them to fulfil their promises without delay?

The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme will welcome up to 5,000 vulnerable Afghans in its first year and up to 20,000 over a five-year period. As I have set out previously, the Home Office will make an announcement in due course.

T7. Thousands of my Bury North constituents have concerns about repeated human rights violations in Indian-administered Kashmir. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support the victims of brutality and human rights abuses in IAK? (904471)

My hon. Friend is a passionate voice for his constituents in Bury North. We recognise the human rights concerns in Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, including the continuation of some temporary restrictions in Indian-administered Kashmir. We encourage all states to ensure that their domestic laws are in line with international standards. Any allegation of human rights violations or abuse is deeply concerning and must be investigated thoroughly and transparently. We have raised our concerns with the Governments of India and Pakistan.

In the run-up to the winter Olympics, the Chinese Government have made clear their international standing in terms of their attitude in the South China sea and their attitude to Taiwan, the Uyghur Muslims and Members of this House. Internationally, China should be a pariah; why are we not joining an international approach to ensure that it is regarded as such?

The hon. Gentleman raised several different issues. As I set out in earlier answers, the Government are leading international action and taking robust action in respect of some serious concerns about a number of different areas relating to China. As I said earlier, in particular we have imposed sanctions in relation to those responsible for the atrocities in Xinjiang.

T8. Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction tests can remain positive for up to 90 days post infection, which can create problems for those who have recovered and wish to travel abroad. What conversations is my right hon. Friend having with our international friends to ensure that there is a consistent and accepted form of proof of recovery for British citizens in that situation? (904472)

Officials are in regular contact with host Governments in order to understand their requirements and update FCDO travel advice, so travellers should always consult that advice for the latest covid-19 restrictions. Covid certification is a devolved competency; Welsh residents can use the NHS covid pass to evidence their vaccine status but cannot use it to evidence proof of recovery.

On genocide, when we say, “Never again”, we must mean it. Will the Minister commit to introducing an atrocity-prevention strategy for every country—the countries-at-risk-of-instability process just does not go far enough—and specifically to support civil society peacebuilding in Republika Srpska to prevent future conflict and atrocities in Bosnia?

Most atrocities sadly occur in and around armed conflict and the Government have dedicated significant resources to the prevention of conflict. We do not believe we have to have a separate strategy for atrocity prevention because we are committed to a more integrated approach to Government work on conflict and instability that places greater emphasis on addressing the drivers of conflict, on atrocity prevention and on the strengthening of fragile countries’ resilience to external influence.

Further to my constructive Adjournment debate on the British Council with the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), and given the fact that the FCDO’s overall budget is to increase by 21% over the coming three-year spending review period, I seek clarity from those on the Front Bench as to whether the Government still intend to cut funding to the British Council, which will mean it will have to close a further 20 overseas offices on top of the 20 that it is already having to close.

Let me be clear: the British Council’s budget has not been cut. We agreed in the spending review settlement an amount of £189 million, which is a 27% increase in funding on the previous year. While we had to make difficult decisions on cuts in other areas, we actually increased the money that we are providing to the British Council. We have reviewed the physical Council presence in countries as part of a wider modernisation process. I visited the British Council in Senegal last week, and its work was outstanding.

I have a wonderful Tamil community in Croydon, and they still feel the devastating impacts of the civil war. May I add my voice to those from across this House for sanctions against General Silva who has been accused of great crimes? Does the Minister have some words of comfort on this point for my constituents?

On a recent visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina with the all-party group for the armed forces, which was duly declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, our overall impression was one of hope for the best, hope that the Republika Srpska will recognise the genocide, hope that the geography of Bosnia and Herzegovina will hold together, and hope that the whole thing will survive, but, none the less, fear that it might not. Does the Minister not agree that of incredible importance right now are messages from this place—particularly messages to the Bosnian Serbs—to say that we are watching what is happening in Bosnia very closely indeed and that the questions that we are asking today and in the debate on Thursday are of immense importance, as they say to the Bosnian Serbs that we care, that we will not allow a return to what happened all those years ago and that we support the Dayton agreement?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: voices in this House matter. It is excellent that the serious situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been raised by colleagues a number of times today and that it will be debated on Thursday, but it is also important that our Foreign Secretary is in Riga with her NATO counterparts, and that she will be focusing her attention on the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Is the Minister aware of the drastic shortages of drugs being faced by hospitals in Malawi, not least anaesthetics, which is having an impact on the treatment of women, particularly those trying to give birth. What discussions will she have with counterparts in the country to try to address these shortages, and what impact does she think that the proposed 50% cut in the UK’s aid budget to Malawi will have on its ability to respond to this kind of crisis?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising access to women’s health in Malawi, and I will write to him on that specific issue. However, one of the announcements that we made at the time of the Budget was that, thanks to increased funding, we are able to restore funding to girls’ education and to humanitarian aid.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to John and Ceri Channon from my constituency who, following the tragic death of their son, Tom, in Majorca in the summer of 2018, have worked tirelessly with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Minister for Europe, and the embassy in Spain to enhance the various authorities’ response to tragic accidents overseas, resulting in Tom’s Check, which was reported in the news today?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I know that he has met my ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), and also the family. Consular staff have been providing support and advice to Tom’s family following his really sad death in Magaluf in July 2018. As well as the virtual meeting that he has held, consular officials in Spain have had meetings with local authorities to understand the procedural investigations that have taken place to ask whether they can do more for the family.

The Government’s response on Afghanistan is simply not good enough. Yesterday, I met with a democratically elected Member of Parliament from Afghanistan who set out the escalating human rights atrocities as well as the humanitarian situation. Will the Minister urgently meet with MPs from Afghanistan to talk about the situation and put aid in the right places to stop this crisis from getting worse?

As I have mentioned in a number of answers, we have doubled aid for Afghanistan. This is being provided via UN agencies and non-governmental organisations—not directly to the Taliban—to ensure that it is reaching the people who really need it, and helping those who are most vulnerable and for whom it is intended.

There is a huge global appetite for Government-to-Government partnerships with the UK, with significant commercial benefits to be unlocked. Will the Minister undertake to work with the Department for International Trade to build UK Government-to-Government capability, so that we cease to lag behind our competitors?

We are absolutely committed to deepening our economic partnerships across the world, because they bring jobs and investment home to every region and nation of the UK, as well as helping other countries.

That is the end of questions. I let them run on a little because there were long answers and we did get confused—not to worry.