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Topical Questions

Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 8 March 2022

Putin’s actions have shattered European security. In response, we have been at the forefront of providing support for Ukraine, stepping up sanctions to debilitate the Russian economy, which funds Putin’s war machine, isolating Russia on the world stage, and strengthening NATO’s eastern flank. We cannot have a world where might is right and sovereignty and territorial integrity are trampled. I am rallying our partners to boost support for Ukraine and strengthen our collective defence.

There have been reports of several actions by Russian forces in Ukraine that violate the laws of armed conflict, including reports today of the shelling of a hospital in Mariupol. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) in underlining how important it is to document these incidents, so that those responsible can eventually be held to account for their actions. Will the Government also do all they can to ensure the creation of a special tribunal to investigate the crime of aggression, because the Ukrainian people deserve justice?

I agree with the hon. Lady about the appalling atrocities that are taking place and the need to document those atrocities. That is why the UK with partners—38 states—put the referral to the International Criminal Court, and that is why we are working very hard with our partners to collect that important evidence.

T2. Putin’s Russia has been making aggressive statements towards Sweden and Finland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK should be very supportive of their application to NATO, and we should look to expedite that, should they decide to apply? (905947)

NATO has a strong partnership with Sweden and Finland. I assure my hon. Friend that our close co-ordination will continue. Our relationship with Sweden and Finland extends to our valued partnership in security and defence bilaterally and through regional groups, such as the joint expeditionary force and the northern group. I note closely what she said about future applications to join NATO from those states.

Vladimir Putin’s decision to severely restrict the BBC World Service in Russia is, I am sure all hon. Members agree, an attack on freedom of speech and on accurate, trustworthy, excellent journalism. The BBC has provided reliable information to the Russian people as Putin wages an illegal and unprovoked war, which he claims to do in their name. Will the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that the BBC World Service is not targeted further in Russia and across the rest of the world?

The Government are firm in their defence of media freedom. The conflict in Ukraine has reminded us, if we needed reminding, how important the job of independent, honest journalism is internationally. The BBC World Service is a jewel in the British crown and the Russian language output that it provides is incredibly important in allowing Russians to understand what is being done perversely in their name.

T4.   Russia’s invasion of Ukraine all too vividly demonstrates the dangers of autocratic regimes. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that the UK actively supports the right of people to determine their own future wherever they are in the world, not least in Taiwan? (905950)

The world, including China, is watching how we and our partners respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine. The reality is that the only thing that Putin and Xi understand is strength, which is why it is so important that we bring more countries into the positive orbit of democratic, free enterprise and freedom-loving economies. That is what we are working to do with our partners in the G7 and more broadly.

T3. It was reported today that the UK Government regard Ukrainian refugees entering Ireland—women and bairns fleeing Putin’s bombs—as a security threat. When will the Government cut the hyperbole and the bureaucracy and give those poor souls sanctuary in this country? (905949)

The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary have made it absolutely clear that we will open our arms to Ukrainian refugees. The Home Office is working to ensure that that is done promptly and we will continue to support the Home Office in its work in that area.

T6.   Putin has shown that he is prepared to attack nuclear power plants and has threatened to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the importance of maintaining the UK’s strategic deterrent as a NATO asset is all the more vital in these dangerous times? (905952)

My right hon. Friend is right about the reckless actions of President Putin and about the destabilisation and attempted destabilisation of nuclear facilities, which the United Kingdom called out at the UN Security Council. President Putin is trying to distract from his appalling invasion of Ukraine and the fact that it is not going according to plan by resorting to increased rhetoric. We simply should not respond to those threats.

T5. The Financial Times reported today that UK taxpayers may be forced to foot a £43-million bill for loans taken out by Russia’s biggest coal company and underwritten by the Government’s export agency. I ask the Foreign Secretary whether she knows who the Secretary of State for International Trade was at the time that the deal was agreed with one of Russia’s richest oligarchs and whether the Minister in question personally authorised the agreement? (905951)

I know from my time at the Department for International Trade that those agreements tend to be signed off by officials.

T7.   Earlier, Ministers mentioned humanitarian corridors. What is being done to ensure that they are safe, secure and appropriate? What are the UK Government doing to uphold international humanitarian laws? (905953)

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. As I said in response to an earlier question, Russia’s farcical claim that it is opening humanitarian corridors eastwards is, of course, a nonsense. The Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion are typically doing so westwards into the countries bordering Ukraine. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made the point that, in support of those people, the best thing the British people can do, wherever in the UK they are, is to make cash donations rather than donations in kind. We will ensure that that humanitarian support reaches the people it needs to, and we will continue supporting, both at the borders and here in the UK, those Ukrainian refugees as they flee conflict.

Despite our deep and historic ties both with Israel and with the Arab world, the UK was entirely absent from the process that led to the Abraham accords in the summer of 2020, and last year’s integrated review made no mention of them whatsoever. Does the Minister agree that if the rhetoric of global Britain is to mean anything, surely the UK should be central to encouraging more of our partners across the Arab world to normalise relations with Israel for the good of the whole middle east?

The Foreign Secretary made clear her commitment to the Abraham accords at the Gulf Co-operation Council and UK Foreign Ministers meeting on 20 December 2021. The UK warmly welcomes the historic steps taken to agree normalisation agreements between Israel, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan, and we will continue to work with the US and regional partners to actively encourage further dialogue between Israel and other countries in the region to work towards a more peaceful and prosperous future.

T8. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to deter foreign states from sponsoring or launching cyber-attacks on the United Kingdom, now is the time, especially considering the recent Russian aggression, to show the world that Britain is willing and able to retaliate? (905954)

The UK remains vigilant to cyber-threats and we are ready to defend against them, working closely with our allies to deter, mitigate and attribute malicious cyber-activity. We are being very active in calling out the terrible cyber-activity by the Russian Government, and of course we will consider all levers of power to protect the UK’s security.

A year ago, the former Foreign Secretary commissioned an equalities impact assessment of the Government’s aid cuts. We have been trying for almost that length of time to get the document into the public domain. Today is International Women’s Day. Will the Foreign Secretary publish the report by 4 pm today?

The hon. Lady knows that, in the Budget we are doing this year, we are restoring the aid budget for women and girls back to its previous levels and we are also restoring the humanitarian aid budget. However, it is a matter of policy that we do not publicly release equality impact assessments because they have a chilling effect and people cannot be honest internally. That is why we do not release them, but of course I am very happy to discuss the issue with her further.

I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for bringing us on to International Women’s Day. Today is obviously an important day for celebrating the actions of so many courageous women around the world. Will my right hon. Friend speak today about those who have been made particular victims, those who have been chased out of their homes, the young women who have been sold into trafficking and not supported as refugees, and those women who are even now being brutalised in north Africa as they are forced over the border as slaves into southern Europe? Will she please speak about the action that her Department is taking to defend those women and girls?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point about how many women and girls are suffering, and covid has made that situation worse. That is why we are restoring our humanitarian budget, why we are restoring the women and girls budget and why we are working on our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative to stop that happening, as well as increasing the amount of development spending we are using to tackle human trafficking, working with the Home Office. We are working on our international development budget, and we will be announcing it fairly shortly, along with our overall humanitarian strategy.

I think the importance of the international events the House is dealing with this morning is a clear demonstration that the Department is not ultimately the right place for the protocol to be dealt with. In that vein, can I ask that the Secretary of State recognise the huge damage being done by the protocol? It is costing businesses in Northern Ireland £100,000 per hour. It has damaged the sovereignty of Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. It is costing a 27% increase in haulage prices. Will the Secretary of State now set a deadline—an absolute deadline—to deal with this matter once and for all?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am dealing with this matter. I met various European countries last week to discuss reforming the Northern Ireland protocol, which simply is not working. Communities in Northern Ireland are being treated unfairly and there is an issue with getting goods from GB into Northern Ireland. We have put forward a concrete proposal that will also protect the EU single market and we need to see movement from the EU.

I have the honour of representing one of the largest Chagos islands communities anywhere in the world and the vast majority of them were absolutely appalled at the Mauritian Government’s recent publicity stunt in planting a flag on the outer islands of their archipelago. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that we support the UK sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and let me be absolutely clear that the UK is in no doubt about its sovereignty over BIOT. We were disappointed that Mauritius turned a scientific survey into a political stunt; the raising of Mauritian flags on outer islands of BIOT was an unhelpful way to approach a bilateral dispute. We removed the flags planted by Mauritius on BIOT. There certainly seems to be a range of reactions from Chagossians to this event; it is also very interesting to hear about my hon. Friend’s constituents, and I pay tribute to him for all his work representing Chagossians living in Crawley.

The Minister is cautioning against donations in kind to Ukraine because of the red tape our exports are tied up in as a result of the Brexit deal; I know that for a fact because I have explored it on behalf of a number of charities in my constituency. What action will the Department take to talk to EU counterparts and ensure the flow of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, given the complexity of sending second-hand goods and so forth abroad now?

What the hon. and learned Lady said is simply not true. The Polish Government, who the hon. and learned Lady should be listening to—and she should take responsibility here—have said that donations in kind generates

“disproportional amounts of additional work and cost, which proves ineffective and counterproductive”.

With all due respect to the hon. and learned Lady, I think the Polish Government know more about the situation on the border with Ukraine than she does.

What discussions are the Government having with our overseas territories and Crown dependencies to ensure that the measures we are taking on illicit finance are being supported by them—that those same rules are being introduced in their own territories as well?

The UK and the overseas territories stand united in condemning the Russian Government. The UK sanctions regimes apply to all overseas territories, which are completely in step with the UK and our international allies in implementing sanctions against Russia.

We know that the National Crime Agency is underpowered, but we also know we have a common interest with our European allies in the search for credible information about those oligarchs who should be sanctioned, so what steps are being taken to internationalise this search process to make sure we sanction those who should be sanctioned?

We are working with our international partners. I attended a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council along with the US and Canada. We are talking about enforcement and are sharing lists and information to make sure our crime agencies are able to tackle this illicit activity.

Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said that one of the things that pained her the most was the sale of embassy buildings over many years and she hoped no more of it would happen on her watch. Will she cancel the proposed sale of 45% of our Tokyo embassy estate, which would deeply dishearten one of our closest allies at a time when we are seeking to strengthen the western alliance?

I share my right hon. Friend’s deep attachment to our Tokyo facilities and am working very hard with our officials on what we can do to make sure we retain our terrific presence, which is just over the road from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, and any help my right hon. Friend would like to give me as chairman of the all-party group on Japan would be very welcome, including financial assistance and help with the Treasury.

What representations has the Minister made to our counterparts in Kazakhstan on the security forces’ use of force on people protesting against living standards and on the oppression of peaceful protest?

Following the outbreak of violence in Kazakhstan, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad met senior representatives of the Kazakh Government, including President Tokayev’s special representative. In those contacts, he underlined the need to ensure that law enforcement responses are proportionate and in accordance with Kazakhstan’s international obligations. He also stressed the importance of conducting the investigation into the unrest urgently, transparently and effectively.

While the world rightly focuses on the terrible events in Ukraine, I remind the House of the terrible ongoing conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where women in particular are suffering the most terrible attacks and there is also a potential famine. I know that the Minister is taking a deep interest in that, but can the Government do any more to help?

I thank my hon. Friend for continuing to shine a light on the terrible situation in Ethiopia. It is the world’s most severe humanitarian crisis. From north to south, 30 million people require life-saving aid, 5 million people have been displaced because of conflict and tens of millions of people are affected by the drought. Again, I urge all parties in the north of the country to lay down their arms and facilitate humanitarian access. Since December, one truck has got through, but 100 a day are needed. There is a high-scale risk of loss of life. We must continue to stand with the people of Ethiopia and, as my hon. Friend says, especially the women and girls on International Women’s Day.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Following the Foreign Secretary’s answer to me about the FCDO’s equalities impact assessment conducted in March 2021, I seek your advice on any other way to encourage her to fulfil her duty to the House, as is stated in the ministerial code, to be

“held to account, for…policies, decisions and actions”,

to be

“as open as possible with Parliament”

and to refuse to provide information

“only when disclosure would not be in the public interest”.

The Foreign Secretary said that the Government’s practice is not to formally publish equalities assessments and has added her view that that would have a “chilling effect” on the advice prepared by officials. However, that is confusing as a range of equalities impact assessments have been published in the past, such as for the Coronavirus Bill, and no one will be surprised that the former Department for International Development commissioned independent reviews of its assessment work and that the Independent Commission for Aid Impact also examined such issues. It is fundamentally deplorable that the Foreign Secretary has used the assessment to celebrate her Department but will not put the information into the public domain.

It is very important that scrutiny Committees have access to relevant papers and records to do the job that the House has delegated to them. The International Development Committee is best placed to assess what information is needed for its inquiries, and I trust that Members on the Government Front Bench have heard the hon. Member’s concerns and will respond to the Committee’s request in a timely manner and provide the papers.