House of Commons
Tuesday 26 April 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Rwanda: Human Rights
Rwanda is fundamentally a safe and secure country with low crime rates. Homicide rates, for example, are well below the average rate across Africa and are lower than the European average. Rwanda respects the rule of law, and has a strong record on economic and social rights and the rights of migrants. However, we are concerned about the restrictions on political opposition, civil society and media freedom, and we regularly express those concerns to members of the Rwandan Government.
Disturbing reports have emerged in Rwanda of adults who were orphaned during the Rwandan genocide being told to leave the hostel they have lived in for years to make room for UK asylum seekers. How does the Minister square that information with her Government’s commitment to being a force for good in the world?
Rwanda has a strong history of welcoming refugees and protecting their rights. Since 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the African Union have been sending refugees and asylum seekers to Rwanda. Last month, the UN sent 119 asylum seekers to Rwanda, which it described as a very safe country. I will take the hon. Gentleman’s points on board.
According to the Foreign Office’s own website, homosexuality remains frowned upon by many in Rwanda, and LGBTQ+ people can experience discrimination and abuse, including from local authorities. LGBTQ+ Rwandan refugees have been forced to flee the hostility and dangers they have faced there. What account will the UK Government take of that before deporting vulnerable LGBTQ+ refugees there?
I thank the hon. Member for her interest. She will know that, unlike most countries in the region, Rwanda has no laws against homosexuality, and its constitution also prohibits all forms of discrimination based on identity. When it comes to women’s equality, Rwanda is one of the top countries in the world. We know that LGBT individuals may still encounter discrimination, and we continue to work with the Rwandan Government and the LGBT community in Rwanda to improve their situation.
Exactly. Last year, Human Rights Watch published a report with evidence that Rwandan authorities had arbitrarily detained more than a dozen gay and transgender people—in some cases, violently assaulting them—ahead of a June 2021 conference, accusing them of “not representing Rwandan values”. Is the Minister seriously saying that LGBTQ+ refugees are safe in Rwanda?
Let me be clear: our agreement with the Rwandans ensures that people will be kept safe, but let me also say this about Rwanda. It is one of the top countries in the world for economic growth and for women’s equality. Its health service has ensured that a greater proportion of its people are vaccinated against covid than people in any other African country bar one. It outperforms the UK when it comes to organised crime. Rwanda has entered into this partnership willingly because its Government, like us, do not want to see people drowning in the channel.
We hear a lot about human rights on this issue, but does my hon. Friend agree that by far the worst thing for human rights has been the rise of organised criminal gangs trafficking people by encouraging them to make perilous journeys across the channel? Does she also agree that our plan is the only plan on the table to break that business model?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We have been honest about the fact that this is an innovative approach; as with all new approaches, there is, of course, uncertainty, but doing nothing is not an option when people are putting their lives at risk by crossing the channel in small boats. We need new innovative solutions and partnerships to put an end to this deadly trade and break the model of the people traffickers.
Will the Minister join me in welcoming the Government’s landmark Rwanda deal, which is already acting as a strong deterrent to those who might cross the channel dangerously? Zero boats have been detected over the last few days.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I point out that our £120 million investment will help the Rwandans to surmount further barriers to growth and create jobs and opportunities, both for the people of Rwanda and for any asylum seekers who want to settle there.
We now come to shadow Minister Lyn Brown.
This policy will do nothing to stop the boats. The Minister has spent the last few days talking up the human rights record of the Rwandan Government, yet the previous Minister expressed concerns around “civil and political rights” in Rwanda. In 2018, 12 refugees were shot dead during protests about cuts to food allowances, and last month, the current Minister said that the UK was raising the latest of many cases of Government critics ending up dead. Is that hypocrisy the reason why the Daily Mirror, The Guardian and the Financial Times were blocked from joining the Home Secretary’s trip to Rwanda—because they would call it out?
I have been very consistent. We do have concerns about restrictions on political freedom, civil society and media freedom, and regularly express them to the Government of Rwanda. However, they also have a strong record on protecting refugees. I know the hon. Lady cares about Afghans, especially women, and she will know that Afghanistan’s only girls’ school recently relocated all its staff, its students and their families to Rwanda. The headteacher herself has described their reception in Rwanda as one of
“kindness, and sensitivity, and humanity”.
Those are her words, not mine.
I call SNP spokesperson Alyn Smith.
I really am troubled by this. We think this is a disastrous policy that will not do anything about small boats in the channel, but let us put that to one side. The Minister and the Foreign Secretary must be aware of the grave misgivings among Foreign Office officials about this policy. Can they name a single non-governmental organisation that is in favour of it? Are they just glossing over the human rights concerns about the Rwandan Government? An international development partnership with Rwanda is one thing, but this is entirely different. Are they glossing over concerns in the cynical expectation that the policy will come to nothing? That is the only thing I can think of that would allow them to lend credence to this disastrous policy.
We are absolutely not glossing over our concerns about rights when it comes to, for example, space for political opposition, civil rights and media freedom. Indeed, I met the permanent secretary of the Rwandan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation in London earlier this year and made those points to her. However, to break the people trafficking model that is causing lives to be put at risk in our channel, things need to be done; doing nothing is not an option. That is why the Government of Rwanda have willingly entered into this partnership; they too want to stop lives being put at risk.
Sexual Violence in Conflict
The use of rape and sexual violence in conflict is a war crime. The UK is determined to tackle this scourge, which devastates lives. That is why we are campaigning for it to be a red line, on a par with the use of chemical weapons.
The reports of appalling, widespread sexual violence being used by Russian soldiers in Ukraine are deeply disturbing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Murad code is a vital step to ensuring justice for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence, and that we must send a strong message to Russia and to Putin that rape as a weapon of war is evil and we must stamp it out?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is evil, and we have seen horrific sights in towns such as Bucha, where rape and sexual violence were used to terrorise women and children. The UK is leading the charge on the need to collect evidence of those crimes, and under our presidency of the United Nations Security Council we have launched the Murad code, which sets global standards for effective evidence-gathering on sexual violence.
Today’s Daily Telegraph includes the testimony of Anna, a 41-year-old woman from Ukraine who says she was raped by a 19-year-old soldier. I note that the UN Secretary-General is meeting Mr Putin today to discuss humanitarian aid, and I hope he will bring up the use of rape as a weapon of war—a weapon that the Russians seem to be using. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that, as the UN charter mandate is to maintain international peace and security, perhaps it is time the international community questioned whether Russia should remain a permanent member of the Security Council?
My hon. Friend is right about the appalling reports that we have seen in the Telegraph and other newspapers of the use of rape in Ukraine. The Security Council has a role to play. Under our presidency of the Security Council, we have used it to call out Russia’s lies. We have also hosted President Zelensky, who has spoken to the Security Council. My hon. Friend is also right that we have concerns about an international security architecture that has Russia as one of the permanent members of the Security Council, where it has used its veto as a green light for barbarism. Part of our response has been working more closely with allies such as the G7 and NATO, because we simply have not seen enough taking place at a UN level.
I call the Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to the Murad code for survivors, but the Foreign Secretary knows that my commitment is to prevention. Women and girls in conflict zones are subjected to particular sexual violence. Rape continues, without apparent consequence, in Ukraine, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Myanmar—I could go on. What plans does the Foreign Secretary have to make tackling sexual violence a part of a broader cross-Government atrocity prevention programme?
The hon. Lady is right that we are seeing appalling cases not just in Ukraine but in countries such as Ethiopia. Later this year, in November, the UK will host an international conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict. We are working with counterparts such as the Canadians on the idea of a new convention that puts sexual violence on the same level in war as the use of chemical weapons. We are also working across Government with our domestic programme to prevent sexual violence. We are restoring our budget for women and girls, one of the key parts of which is for work on preventing sexual violence. We will shortly release our new international development budget for 2022-23.
We are hearing heartbreaking stories of children being forced to watch their mothers being raped and then murdered in Ukraine. We are hearing of rape being used as a weapon of war across conflicts, including in Tigray in Ethiopia. International Rescue Committee analysis reveals that women and girls across conflicts are experiencing widespread abuse and exploitation, including rape. What are the Government doing not only to stop this being used as a weapon of war but to challenge the way that women are used and exploited in conflicts across the world?
The hon. Lady is right: this abhorrent policy is being used to terrorise women and children. It is being used to destroy communities and destroy their spirit. It is a deliberate act. We know that; it is what the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe report on what is happening in Ukraine shows. First, we are working to collect the evidence through a number of bodies, including the Metropolitan police. We are funding the International Criminal Court to collect evidence. We will make sure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. More than that, we need new international agreement on making the use of sexual violence in war a red line. It needs to be regarded on the same level as the use of chemical weapons. That has not yet happened. That is why the UK is hosting a conference on this later this year, and we are working with international partners on this. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: it is appalling and abhorrent.
I call the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat.
I welcome enormously my right hon. Friend’s words on sexual violence in conflict. We have seen the rape of Bucha, sadly, and the rape of so many other towns and cities around the world, most notably in places such as Ethiopia and Mali. However, will my right hon. Friend also talk about sexual violence not in conflict? There is forced genital mutilation of young women and girls around the world, and an extraordinary level of violence in ordinary life outside conflict. The work that her Department can do in helping communities to defend themselves is not just transforming them, but transforming countries’ economies and futures.
That is why it is so important to restore the women and girls budget, as we will in our new announcement on international development. Key focuses will be girls’ education, ending the use of female genital mutilation, and preventing sexual violence in conflict but also more broadly. My hon. Friend is right. If women do not have this basic security, they will not be able to achieve their full potential, or have the opportunities they should. That is of course appalling for them, but also appalling for the societies they live in. That is why, in our international development policy, we absolutely must start with the most vulnerable, who are women and children.
Sexual violence and rape are abhorrent anyway, but their use in conflict is a crime against humanity. I very much welcome what the Secretary of State has said about trying to get a convention in place that puts their use on the same level as the use of chemical weapons. On the women and children who are victims now, what work is she doing with our allies to ensure that the perpetrators of these vile crimes are brought to account, and that authorities go after the generals in charge of those soldiers, because these are war crimes?
They are war crimes. We are collecting the evidence, and we have British people currently working with the Ukrainian Government in Ukraine collecting that evidence. We are working with the International Criminal Court. If the ICC mechanisms are not enough, we will find other ways of getting to the people—not just those who perpetrated the crimes, but those who ordered them to be perpetrated. Also, through the aid budget that we have allocated to Ukraine, we are helping the victims. We are helping the survivors of sexual violence, and we are allocating money to local organisations to help those who have gone through the appalling trauma of being raped and sexually abused in conflict.
Democracy: Eastern Europe
We have made it clear that we, the UK, will defend democracy at the frontier of freedom in eastern Europe as part of a network of liberty. We are strengthening our partnerships in the region, including on: countering disinformation and propaganda; advancing trade and technology; and supporting transparent, accountable political processes through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other institutions. On 7 April, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met NATO Foreign Ministers and affirmed our commitment to defending, and deterring threats to, the alliance members in eastern Europe.
Without doubt, the UK is leading the way in providing military support to eastern Europe. We are doing everything from sending manned Challenger 2 tanks to Poland to doubling the size of our deployment in Estonia. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the UK is working closely with NATO allies to provide all the support required to defend democracy in eastern Europe?
I assure my hon. Friend that the UK will continue to play a leading role in NATO to respond to Putin’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. I fly out to NATO tomorrow to meet our new permanent representative and our allies in that alliance. NATO has also announced the establishment of four additional multilateral battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. As I say, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and NATO Foreign Ministers have agreed increased support to regional partners to strengthen their resilience and their ability to defend themselves against cyber-attacks, disinformation, political interference and other physical and political threats to them.
I thank the Minister for his answer. We are all moved by the Ukrainian people’s fight to defend their hard-won democratic freedoms, but several countries in the region are still in transition, including Moldova, Georgia, and NATO allies such as Albania and North Macedonia. What work is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office engaged in to support reform, so that all peoples in eastern Europe can experience the same democratic freedoms that we have in the UK?
My hon. Friend is right that many countries in the immediate vicinity of Ukraine are suffering oppression. The UK is supporting democratic reform across the south Caucasus, in Moldova and in the western Balkans, including through programmes that support the strengthening of democratic freedoms to deliver the reform programmes and reduce corruption. We are also working with partners in the western Balkans to support their Euro-Atlantic integration, which is in itself a stimulus to reform.
Britain’s Army is smaller than it has been at any time for 200 years and we currently have plans to reduce personnel in our armed forces by a further 20,000 individuals. Does the Minister agree that if we are to stand by our allies in central and eastern Europe, we need to be in a position where we are militarily strong enough to do so?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that, ultimately, his question would be more properly answered by Defence Ministers. I can assure him, however, that the close working between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Ministry of Defence and our international partners will ensure that the UK absolutely remains a top-tier defence country within NATO. We will continue to support our NATO allies and countries in the region to defend themselves against physical and digital threats.
Many countries of eastern Europe chose to join NATO as soon as they were free to do so, because they regard membership of the defensive alliance as essential to their security and democracy. As a result of Russia’s invasion, Finland and Sweden are considering whether to make such an application; the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the UK would support an application if it was forthcoming. Is the Minister confident that, in that event, NATO would agree to admit Finland and Sweden to the alliance?
The phrase that comes to mind is, “When people are free to choose, they choose freedom.” In this instance, a number of countries are seriously considering joining NATO—as the hon. Gentleman says, predominantly Finland and Sweden. I have no doubt that their application will be considered seriously by NATO member states. They are both serious defence players in their own right. Our view is that they would be an asset to NATO. Ultimately, the choice is for the people of those countries, but as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, we would look favourably on that application.
I call the shadow Minister, Stephen Doughty.
It was good to hear the Minister mention the situation in the western Balkans where, of course, democracy and stability are under threat not just from Putin’s Russia but from those who seek to generate chaos locally. I therefore welcome the sanctions that the Government have announced against the Republika Srpska leader Dodik and others. That is an issue that we raised back in March. Can the Minister say what wider discussions he is having with our allies and special representatives in the region, and with Serbia, to maintain peace, democracy and stability in Bosnia, Kosovo and beyond and to counter Russian and domestic threats to undermine all those?
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points about the fragility of countries in that region. The Prime Minister recently appointed Stuart Peach, who is very experienced and highly regarded. He has been active already in his engagement with the region. I have met him already and intend to do so again. On my visits to eastern Europe, I have discussed some of the challenges with regard to the western Balkans. As he said, we recently imposed a series of sanctions against the leadership of Republika Srpska, who need to be reminded that the best way forward for that country is through democracy and support for the rule of law.
Democracy is ultimately built on hope. In response to a recent question to the Prime Minister about my suggestion that we fund a new Marshall plan for Ukraine from seized Russian assets, he said that that is something that his Government are working on. Can the Minister update the House as to what work is taking place in his Department?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We are currently supporting Ukraine and eastern European countries through our humanitarian support to deal with the initial and immediate pressures. What we can do in terms of reparations is ultimately a matter that will need to be done at Foreign Minister level within the UK and internationally, but I, and I am sure the Government, take his suggestion very seriously.
International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace
We welcome the US’s Middle East Partnership for Peace Act and the proposals for increased international funding for Israeli-Palestinian peace. We share the objective of advancing economic, social and political connections, and peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. We stand ready to co-ordinate and collaborate further.
The recent attacks in Israel and the violence in Jerusalem and Gaza are a reminder of how urgent it is to support projects that bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Can the Minister now confirm to the House when the UK will join the board of the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. UK officials remain in close contact with the US Government about how our existing peace-building projects and funding can better support the goals of the Act. We stand ready to co-ordinate and collaborate further, including regarding the advisory board, as additional information about their plans and priorities become available.
Recent violence in the west bank and in Israel itself underlines the need for an international fund for Israeli and Palestinian peace, but such a fund will not just happen. It actually requires positive support from Governments around the world, including and especially this Government, yet the truth is that our Government are paying only lip service to it. When will the Government remember the success of the International Fund for Ireland and learn the lessons of that success?
As I say, what we all want to see is a safe and secure Israel, and we want to have a two-state solution that enables us to do that and also delivers Palestinian self-determination. We are working with the US Government on these projects and the funding that can support the Act, and as and when we have more information about the plans and the priorities, we will co-ordinate with them.
I call the shadow Foreign Secretary.
The last few weeks have seen spiralling tension and violence in Israel and Palestine, with a dozen Israelis killed in a spate of horrific terrorist attacks and more than 20 Palestinians killed in response, including the senseless killing of a teenager and a human rights lawyer. We remain resolutely committed to the goal of a two-state solution, but it feels a very distant prize at present. Can I ask the Minister what she is doing to try to remove the barriers to peace, including ensuring respect of holy sites such as the al-Aqsa mosque, preventing Hamas rocket attacks, ending the expansion of illegal settlements and finally recognising Palestine as a state?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and we are deeply concerned about the very fragile security situation. We are working actively with key partners, including members of the UN Security Council, and both parties to encourage de-escalation of tensions. As he says, there have been some horrific attacks, and we do want to see the situation de-escalated. We are having those conversations to ensure that we play our part in preventing further escalation.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
The UK’s funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees was cut by more than 50% last year. UNRWA provides essential services to Palestinian refugees in the west bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but it has been described as “close to collapse” due to funding shortfalls. Can we truly say, as Ambassador Allen stated to the UN Security Council in 2018, that
“the United Kingdom strongly supports peace”
between Israelis and Palestinians when it simultaneously sells arms to one side and cuts humanitarian aid to the other?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I have said, we are committed to a two-state solution as the best way to deliver Palestinian self-determination and a safe and secure Israel. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and North America announced last year that we are providing £27 million to support UNRWA, including £4.9 million for its flash appeal following the Gaza conflicts in May.
India: Economic and Security Relationship
India is the world’s largest democracy and a key partner of the United Kingdom. We are deepening our defence and security ties, as well as securing a trade deal by the end of the year.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer, and for the tremendous work she has been doing since she became Foreign Secretary to deepen the relationship with India. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s visit last week built on that relationship. Clearly there is a need for defence, trade and other opportunities, but there is also a requirement to move India away from its relationship with Russia. What will my right hon. Friend do to ensure that our friendship continues with India, and that it is moved back towards the west?
My hon. Friend is a huge champion for the Indian community in Harrow East, and he is right: India is a democracy. We want to work more closely with India and other democracies to reduce dependence on authoritarian regimes such as Russia. We can do that by working more closely with India on defence, which is what the Prime Minister was doing on his visit to India last week, and more closely on trade and investment, so that democracies are working with each other and we are less dependent on regimes such as Russia that have ill intent.
Following on from that, will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the progress made by the Prime Minister last week to boost security in the Indo-Pacific? Will she confirm that following his trip, the UK will continue to work closely with our friends in India to deliver a more secure and prosperous future for both our peoples in the UK and in India?
That is right. First, we are working more closely with India on defence, to benefit industries in both our countries and make our countries more secure and less dependent on authoritarian regimes. At the same time, we will be delivering more commercial benefits. When the Prime Minister was in India he confirmed deals of more than £1 billion, creating almost 11,000 new jobs in the United Kingdom. There are huge opportunities for more jobs in India and the United Kingdom, and more security for both our countries.
Last week before his visit to India, I wrote to the Prime Minister, urging him to raise the human rights abuses against Kashmiris, and the increasingly Islamophobic direction of the Modi Government and the persecution of minorities. It seems, however, that the Prime Minister did not even think those grave human rights abuses worth a mention. That is frankly disgraceful. The Government cannot pick and choose the human rights abuses around the world that favour them. When will this Government fulfil their international obligation to the Kashmiris, and to those persecuted by the right-wing Modi Government in India?
On Kashmir, we encourage both sides to engage in dialogue and find lasting diplomatic solutions to maintain regional stability. We raise our concerns with the Governments of both India and Pakistan.
Following the question from the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), it is important that we strengthen the UK’s economic and security relationships with India. It is equally important that we address the issue of human rights abuses, and the persecution of Christians and Muslims. What discussions have taken place to ensure that when it comes to addressing the persecution of Christians and Muslims, and the abuse of human rights in India, something is being done and India listens?
Of course we raise the issue of human rights with the Indian Government. Indeed, later this summer we will host a conference in London on the subject of religious freedom, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). This is an important issue for us. Looking at the big picture, there is a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom to work more closely with India in the face of some appalling authoritarian regimes, particularly Russia, which has staged an unwarranted, unjustified invasion of Ukraine. It is important that leading democracies across the world stand up for freedom and democracy and work together.
I call the shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy.
To isolate Putin on the global stage, we must build the largest possible coalition against his illegal war. India is one country that has so far stayed neutral. The Prime Minister spent last week in India, but No. 10 admitted that he failed even to mention India’s neutrality in his meeting with Prime Minister Modi. That follows the Foreign Secretary’s own failed trip to India where she failed to demonstrate any progress in bringing India into the international coalition condemning Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. Will the Foreign Secretary explain that failure and commit to asking her counterparts in India to oppose Putin’s barbaric war?
Of course, I have discussed the issue of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine with the Indian Government, but the right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong if he thinks that the right approach for Britain is to go around finger-wagging to the rest of the world rather than working to build strong relationships and partnerships to attract India and others to work more closely with us. On both my visit and the Prime Minister’s visit, we succeeded in moving forward our relationships on trade, investment and defence, generating jobs in Britain and in India with the ultimate goal of working more closely together as fellow democracies and moving away from dependence on authoritarian regimes. The fact is that the right hon. Gentleman prefers gesture politics to getting things done. [Interruption.]
Order. Can somebody on the Front Bench please answer the question?
I am terribly sorry, Mr Speaker; I could not hear my colleague over the noise in the House. The UK has been an energetic Commonwealth chair in office, working to strengthen collaboration and co-ordination right across our Commonwealth family, including on recovery from covid, trade, investment and climate. Last week, as we have been discussing, the Prime Minister visited India. The Foreign Secretary has also visited India as well as Australia. I have visited South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho and Eswatini, and if I were to tell hon. Members where Lord Ahmad has been, we would be here until tomorrow.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer—I am normally heard wherever I go. With the recent royal tour of the Caribbean and the Prime Minister’s visit to India in mind, does she agree that, in this post-Brexit world, we should make the strengthening of the Commonwealth—that great family of democracies—a top priority?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and Essex neighbour about the importance of the Commonwealth. We are committed to deepening our ties with all Commonwealth countries, including on trade. We have already signed free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand and we look forward to concluding one with India this year. We have got economic partnerships with 27 Commonwealth countries. We are working closely with many Commonwealth partners on global challenges such as climate and health, underpinned by over half a billion pounds of international investment. Members of the Government are deeply looking forward to attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali, Rwanda, in June.
In February 2022, to mark a year since the coup, the UK co-ordinated a joint statement agreed by 36 countries and secured a strong UN Security Council press statement that called for a return to democracy. We also sanctioned three individuals for undermining democracy and the rule of law.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but, since the military coup on 1 February 2021, the Myanmar military has carried out brutal crackdowns aimed at suppressing widespread public opposition to its rule, and almost half a million people have been displaced, partly due to airstrikes or the threat of them. Will the Government introduce sanctions on Burmese companies that supply aviation to the military and British companies involved in any aspect of the supply of aviation fuel, including shipping and insurance services?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, for everything that she does on Myanmar and for ensuring that we are having this discussion, because it is really important that we keep a focus on the situation in Myanmar. I reassure her that I have many conversations with counterparts on visits. We work closely with partners to put pressure on the regime to de-escalate the crisis, including through targeted sanctions against individuals and entities who are providing support for the military. Obviously, I cannot talk about future sanctions.
Freedom of Religion or Belief
Promoting freedom of religion or belief is one of the UK’s longest-standing human rights priorities. We are making good progress on implementing the Bishop of Truro’s recommendations to support everyone persecuted for their religion or belief. We are looking forward to hosting an international ministerial conference on freedom of religion or belief in July to drive forward international efforts to promote openness and freedom.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for her strong support for the international conference on freedom of religion or belief, which the UK Government will host in July. Do Ministers agree that that would be an excellent opportunity to showcase how FORB is a priority for the UK Government to many Government Ministers from across the world, whom we hope to welcome to that event, which we expect will be the largest UK-hosted international event of 2022?
I thank my hon. Friend for her outstanding work across the world on the Prime Minister’s behalf as his envoy on freedom of religion or belief. She is right to be really concerned about the increasing attacks and the increased severity of attacks on freedom of religion or belief. The conference that the UK is going to lead in July will be enormously important; we will welcome partner countries and stakeholders from all across the world. The Foreign Secretary is very much looking forward to attending it and taking part.
Thank you for your tolerance of me this morning, Mr Speaker.
Will the Minister meet the Christians in Parliament to discuss this subject? An earlier question was about links with the Commonwealth, and children and adults in certain Commonwealth countries are persecuted for their faith. Can we do something about that? Good communication between those of us who are active Christians in this House and the Minister would be most appreciated.
I would be very happy, as a Christian, to meet the Christians in Parliament and to meet other faith groups and those who hold no faith. I thank the hon. Member for that invitation.
Despite having failed in his initial aims, Putin continues his barbaric war in Ukraine. The United Kingdom, together with our allies, has stepped up sanctions and lethal aid. We have put more sanctions on than any other nation, including on oligarchs and banks, and we have supplied everything from hundreds of Starstreak anti-air missiles to ammunition. This week, our ambassador, Melinda Simmons, is returning to our reopened embassy in Kyiv. We will continue to back Ukraine until it prevails and Putin fails.
In addition to the devastating impact of the conflict in Ukraine itself, the International Monetary Fund report shows that this is now having an impact on world food prices, particularly affecting some of the world’s poorest communities. In Yemen alone, there is evidence that food prices have increased by 150%. Will the Secretary of State tell us what assessment her Department has made of the impact of rising food prices in some of the world’s conflict zones and what the Government’s response will be?
I call the Foreign Secretary—speed it up, please.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: we are working closely with our international allies. We committed extra billions at the spring meetings last week to help to provide food aid to the rest of the world. We are also restoring our humanitarian budget, as part of our aid budget in the United Kingdom, to help to deal with the crisis.
I am working very closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who is our religious freedom envoy. I am pleased to be hosting and attending the global summit to promote the freedom of religion in July, and we continue to make progress on implementing all the recommendations of the Truro review.
Wars rage in Africa, the middle east and now Ukraine. There is a growing climate crisis, food prices are surging and 300,000 children face death by starvation in Somalia. Britain’s reputation is in tatters after two years of callous aid cuts, having shut down the world-renowned Department for International Development. It is clear that Britain needs a strategy for long-term development to stop lurching from crisis to crisis. Can the Secretary of State confirm today exactly when the new strategy will be published? Will it be backed with the funding, focus, ambition and expertise needed to make a lasting difference in the world?
We will be publishing our new development strategy this spring. There are some key elements to the strategy: first, we will restore the budget for women and girls and restore the budget for humanitarian aid. In the face of the appalling crisis in Ukraine, we have already committed £220 million of development funding, and we are one of the largest donors.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fantastic work that he is doing with the local community in Keighley and Ilkley. We are seeing people across Britain really contributing to the effort to support the people of Ukraine. We have now issued more than 70,000 visas to Ukrainians. We are working with Foreign Ministers right across Europe to ensure that we are completely co-ordinated, particularly with those Governments that are close by, like the Poles.
We are now three weeks into the UN-sponsored truce in Yemen, which has resulted in the release of 14 foreign captives including UK national Luke Symons and his family. It is also intended to open roads, allow fuel through the port of Hodeida and allow commercial flights from Sanaa to Jordan and Egypt. But it is a fragile truce that could collapse at any minute, so can the Minister tell me what steps the UK is taking to support Hans Grundberg, the UN special envoy for Yemen, to keep the peace and to prevent a return to conflict and a re-escalation of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen?
The UK welcomes the two-month truce announcement in Yemen. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we continue to support the UN special envoy and co-ordinate closely with international and regional partners.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for being such a strong voice for the Chagossian community; I know that he has a large Chagossian community in his constituency of Crawley. We have gone to great lengths to find projects for that money that will benefit the Chagossian community. I would like to meet my hon. Friend to discuss what more we can do.
I make it very clear that there is an agreement between the Government of Rwanda and the Government of the UK: they have agreed with the Home Office to make sure that the rights of those who go from the UK to Rwanda are protected. May I point out to the hon. Gentleman that just last month, the UN Refugee Agency sent 119 refugees to Rwanda, and the UN itself described it as a very safe country? In December, the UN said that Rwanda had done an excellent job on integrated refugees. Will he please look at what is being said right now about how Rwanda is caring for these people with kindness?
Exmouth has welcomed Afghan refugees and their families while the Government work hard to find them long-term accommodation around the UK, but sadly some of their friends and family members have stayed behind. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give that UK aid reaches those who need it most in Afghanistan, not the Taliban?
Last month the UK co-hosted a donor conference with the United Nations, Qatar and Germany which raised more than £2.4 billion. We work through international agencies to ensure that the money reaches the people who need it, and that half of it reaches women and girls, who are particularly vulnerable in Afghanistan at the moment. We will continue to press the Taliban to adhere to their international commitments, and to press our international friends to ensure that the money is received by the appropriate people.
That fire was devastating. The UK is leading diplomatic and development response efforts on the ground, which include chairing an international co-ordination group that has visited the site and is assessing potential response options. This week our ambassador met the President of Somaliland, senior Cabinet members, the mayor of Hargeisa and the fire service commander to help shape our response. We are leading the international community, but also working with the locals on the ground.
The Taliban’s decision to suspend secondary school classes for girls in Afghanistan was deeply disappointing. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are working with our international allies in continuing to pressurise the Taliban to allow equal access to all levels of education?
My hon. Friend has made a valuable point about the importance, internationally, of education for girls and support for women. I can assure him that the UK will always push to increase the availability of education for girls, particularly in Afghanistan, and will also push to ensure that our money, and international money, reaches the people who are most in need and is not siphoned off by the Taliban regime.
I will happily follow up that case after this questions session.
The people of both Myanmar and Ukraine are risking their lives to continue fighting for freedoms that have been taken away. In both those countries, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy was running projects that were making a real difference in bolstering their democracies until the men with guns moved in. Today is the 30th anniversary of the foundation, of which you, Mr Speaker, are a patron, and many Members on both sides of the House have played an active role for a generation in promoting peace and democracy around the world, currently in about 30 countries. The Foreign Secretary has recently resolved our funding issues. Will she agree to play a leading role in events celebrating this anniversary, and ensure that her Department continues to give its own in-house open societies champion every chance to do even more good work?
I am pleased that we were able to resolve the funding issues so that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy could continue its excellent work. What we are learning about as a result of the Ukraine crisis is the strength of democracies in fighting back and fighting for what they believe in, and it is organisations such as the foundation that help to provide the intellectual ballast for them to do so.
The Spanish Government stand accused of using Pegasus, the controversial Israeli spyware, to hack into the phone of a Scottish solicitor who was representing Professor Clara Ponsati, Catalonia’s former Education Minister and now a Member of the European Parliament. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that if this occurred, it would constitute a disgraceful breach of solicitor-client privilege and a direct attack on a democratically elected politician, and will she take the matter up with the Spanish ambassador next time she meets him?
I can assure the hon. and learned Lady and the House that we have a strong international relationship with Spain and we are able to raise all kinds of issues. I am not going to speculate or comment on the details that she has raised, as I have no way of corroborating them, but I can assure her that this Government will always stand up for the rule of law and our willingness to support it.
The Minister will be aware that next Tuesday is World Press Freedom Day, yet free media are under greater pressure than ever before, particularly in Russia where independent journalism has been ruthlessly suppressed. Does she agree that the need for independent news providers such as the BBC World Service is greater than ever, and will she ensure that they continue to receive all the funding they need?
My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is absolutely correct. We totally condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the lies it is using to promote it. It is seeking to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty, to obscure the truth and to hide war crimes. An independent media, including the World Service, is vital. We are providing the World Service with over £90 million this year, but we have also created a Government information cell to counter Russian information and ensure that the people of Russia can access the truth.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are clear on our position on the settlements: they are illegal under international law and we urge Israel to end settlement expansion. This is something that we raise with our counterparts.
Has my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had an opportunity to raise the cases of my constituent Aiden Aslin and of Shaun Pinner with her Ukrainian and Russian counterparts? These two British citizens continue to be held in captivity and to be tortured and abused for propaganda purposes by the Russian military, which I hope all of us in this House will uniformly condemn. We want to see those individuals released as soon as possible.
I have discussed the issue of foreign volunteer fighters with the Ukrainian Government. They are clear, and we are clear, that those fighting under the Ukrainian flag for the Ukrainian armed forces in the defence of Ukraine should be treated as Ukrainian military and as prisoners of war, with all the protections that the international humanitarian law affords to those individuals.
My hon. Friend the Minister in the other place, Lord Ahmad, discusses these issues with regional partners regularly. The UK remains committed to ensuring the protection of minorities. We will hold the Taliban to the commitments they have made and ensure that where possible we work with international partners to push them to the protection of ethnic minorities, religious minorities and other vulnerable people in Afghanistan.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s work on combating sexual violence in conflict and the fact that the Government have upgraded the money for this area. If she recognises that the International Criminal Court and the United Nations do not bring better outcomes for survivors of sexual violence or bring perpetrators to justice, does she agree that we need to look at a new international mechanism that the UK could lead?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that we need to bring these perpetrators to justice. That is why we are funding the ICC to do more, as well as collecting our own evidence and working with the Ukrainians, but if a new mechanism is needed, we would be prepared to lead the work on that. The conference later this year on the prevention of sexual violence is a good opportunity to do that.
Prime Minister’s Visit to India
(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on his recent visit to India. [Hon. Members: “Where is he?”]
I thought we treated women with respect in this place.
The Prime Minister visited New Delhi and Gujarat on 21 and 22 April to deepen our comprehensive strategic partnership with India. The relationship between the UK and India is one of friends, partners and equals. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown the importance of greater and deeper partnerships between democracies. This visit enhanced our objectives on green growth, security and defence, as well as trade.
Security and defence are a vital element of our growing partnership, and the Prime Minister discussed next-generation defence and security collaboration, including through supporting the “make in India” approach to security and defence. A commitment was outlined in a joint cyber statement to deepen co-operation across cyber-governance, deterrence and strengthening cyber-resilience. The UK also issued an open general export licence to India, reducing bureaucracy and shortening delivery times for defence procurement. This is the first for a country in the Indo-Pacific.
Another priority is our trade and prosperity relationship, and the Prime Minister agreed with Prime Minister Modi to conclude the majority of talks on a comprehensive and balanced free trade agreement by the end of October 2022. UK businesses also confirmed more than £1 billion of new investments and export deals, creating almost 11,000 jobs here in the UK.
The Prime Minister and Prime Minister Modi discussed co-operation on clean and renewable energy, aimed at supporting India’s energy transition away from imported oil and increasing its energy security. We launched a hydrogen science and innovation hub to accelerate affordable green hydrogen, as well as committing new funding for the green grids initiative announced at COP26. The Prime Minister also confirmed a major new collaboration on science and technology.
I call Ian Blackford, who has two minutes.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to the Minister for being here but, of course, this was a question to the Prime Minister. There is a clear convention that Prime Ministers have a duty to update this House following their attendance at major summits or following significant visits. This convention has been respected and followed by all Prime Ministers in recent years and, as on so many other matters, the only exception to that rule is the current Prime Minister.
Following the Prime Minister’s visit last week, he should have come to this House to give an update. He has once again failed to do so. Instead, he chose to go campaigning for his party in the local elections, although I suspect that will not do his party much good.
The Prime Minister’s failure to come before the House is by no means a one-off, as he failed to come before the House after the extraordinary NATO summit in March. There is a very clear pattern. This is a Prime Minister who has no respect for the office he occupies, and even less respect for this House.
Now the Minister has fronted up for her boss, I will ask her a number of questions. Can she provide an update on what discussions were had with Prime Minister Modi regarding the deteriorating situation in Kashmir? We all know how difficult and delicate this region is, and it requires constant vigilance and attention. Putin’s war in Europe is rightly our collective focus, but we must not lose sight of other countries and regions where conflict and violence are a constant threat.
Can the Minister also give more details on any progress towards a free trade deal? Reports suggest that October is the timeline for completion. Is that accurate?
What reassurance can she give to our farming and crofting communities, which have already been badly undercut by the post-Brexit trade deals this Government have negotiated? Given the many concerns about ongoing human rights violations in India, what provisions will be made in any free trade deal to promote and protect our values?
Finally, can the Minister guarantee that, whoever happens to be Prime Minister in the next few months, they will again follow convention and come before this House to make statements on significant visits?
The right hon. Gentleman should be congratulating the Prime Minister on going to visit one of the world’s largest and oldest democracies, with which we have a deep and broad relationship. India is the world’s sixth largest economy and is set to be the third largest by 2050. Its population is bigger than those of the United States and European Union combined. The relationship between democracies, especially at this time, with democracies under threat, is vital. He asked about the current trade deal. It would supercharge the growth of our trading relationship. Products such as Scotch whisky, let alone cars, currently face tariffs of more than 100%, so there could be particular benefits for the people of Scotland in agreeing this trade deal. If he had been here to listen to the Foreign Secretary earlier, he would know that she answered questions on the relationship with Kashmir, which I am sure we will come to later in this session.
Does the Minister share my frustration that so often India’s reputation on human rights is traduced in this place unreasonably? Of course, the long-standing dispute in Kashmir gives rise to complexities and suffering, but we must always remember that India is a democracy that respects the rule of law and is doing its best to deal with a very difficult security situation in Kashmir.
My right hon. Friend speaks so eloquently on this subject. India is one of the world’s oldest democracies and there is a unique living bridge, including a 1.6 million-strong Indian diaspora in the UK, that connects our countries in so many ways. We must continue to have close, honest and open friendships with countries, such as with Rwanda, because it is important to have these friendships so that we can raise issues that concern us, such as on human rights, when they come up.
Conservative Prime Ministers being abroad when their leadership is under threat is not something new in our politics, but a Conservative Prime Minister abroad seeking to negotiate binding legal commitments from other world leaders when they have themselves broken the law is new, and the Prime Minister should be here giving a statement. Instead, we have a Prime Minister whose moral authority is so sullied, whose political authority is so weak, that he did not challenge India to change its official stance of neutrality on the appalling, illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine. India has a right to remain neutral, but why would a UK Prime Minister waste such an opportunity to at least try to convince our Indian friends to join us in standing up to Putin’s aggression? This sends out a worrying message that our Prime Minister lacks both the ambition and the ability to effectively use Britain’s diplomatic clout to influence others.
Questions were also raised when the Prime Minister visited a JCB factory owned by a Conservative donor, when bulldozers are being used on properties owned by Muslim people, yet the issues of communal violence and human rights breaches were not even raised by the Prime Minister, despite his promising to do so. That is not standing up for Britain and our values on the world stage; that is a moral failure from a Prime Minister too distracted by trying to save his own job. On trade specifically, the Prime Minister spoke about a deal by October. Labour values the historic link with India and the growth of trade, but we must set the standard high, not engage in a race to the bottom. So will the Minister confirm what the Prime Minister said to Prime Minister Modi about human rights, about binding commitments on climate change, about what he expects on labour standards and trade union rights, on gender equality and on protecting our public services, and about how he will prevent the outsourcing of UK jobs to India? What will the Prime Minister do to support exporters to take advantage of trade opportunities? The Minister mentioned Scotch whisky—is the negotiating aim for the removal of tariffs altogether? Finally, what will the Prime Minister do to meaningfully involve business, trade unions and civil society in the negotiating process itself, so that they are not presented with a “take it or leave it” deal at the end of the negotiations?
On Ukraine, the British Prime Minister and Prime Minister Modi released a statement immediately after their meeting which unequivocally condemned civilian deaths and reiterated the need for an immediate cessation of hostilities and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The right hon. Gentleman might like to take a look at that statement.
We are aware of recent reports that properties were demolished in New Delhi and other states. We condemn any instance of discrimination because of freedom of religion or belief, regardless of the country or the faith involved. If we have concerns, we raise them directly with the Government of India. Our network of deputy high commissions will continue to follow the reports closely, while also recognising that it is a matter for India.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the free trade agreement. It could supercharge the growth of our trading relationship, which already totalled more than £23 billion in 2019. There is a great opportunity to forge a new economic partnership to the benefit of both countries. The information published at the time of the launch provides detailed information on what the UK seeks from a deal and the reasons for that, but we are just at the start of talks. We need to make sure that the final deal is mutually beneficial and acceptable to both countries, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. As is normal, more information on the shape and scope of the FTA will be made available at an appropriate time as negotiations progress.
You and I, Mr Speaker, were looking forward to a visit to India during the Easter recess, but we have witnessed the Prime Minister’s groundbreaking visit. He is the first Prime Minister to visit the state of Gujarat, which is where Shri Narendra Modi was Chief Minister and is the powerhouse of the Indian economy. Many Gujaratis live in the UK, and wherever they have come they have brought with them economic power and the ability to contribute directly to our economy. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the plan is to conclude the free trade talks by Diwali? We will then be able to have a double celebration of Diwali—the Hindu new year—and a new opportunity for a free trade deal between our two great countries.
My hon. Friend is a great supporter of the people of India. Many members of the Indian diaspora live in his constituency and he is always incredibly good at standing up for them and wanting closer ties between our countries. The two Prime Ministers agreed that they want to conclude the majority of the talks on the comprehensive and balanced free trade agreement by the end of October. I hope that will give us all something to celebrate in the autumn.
The Minister said that we are at the start of the negotiations; will she confirm that the trade unions, business and civil society will be included in any discussions in both countries?
I am afraid the right hon. Lady will have to discuss the details of the negotiations with my counterparts in the Department for International Trade. There has been a public consultation, which showed that a significant number of barriers prevent UK companies from trading and investing in India. We want to reduce barriers but must also listen to those who are involved throughout the UK. The right hon. Lady really needs to raise the matter with a trade Minister.
The partnership between the UK and India is not only vital to both our nations but important for global peace and security. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the UK Government will continue to discuss global security matters with India?
Absolutely—my hon. Friend is spot on. It is vital, at this time, that countries that believe in democracy come together and work more closely against authoritarian regimes, against aggression and in favour of global security.
Had the Prime Minister been here today, I would have inquired of him whether, while he was in India, he impressed on the Indian Prime Minister the fact that the £2 billion increase in trade with Russia at a time when we had sanctioned it in respect of Ukraine potentially undermined our position, and whether he tried to persuade the Prime Minister of India that that was not an acceptable route for a UK trading partner. Notwithstanding the statement that the Minister read out, will she assure us that the Prime Minister made the case to the Indian Government for sanctions against Russia?
I thank the hon. Lady for her point. Again, the two Prime Ministers made a joint statement condemning the civilian deaths that have occurred during the Russian invasion, and called for an end to all hostilities. One of the key issues was increasing our defence and security partnership with India. That is about helping India to become more self-reliant and less reliant on imports from other countries.
I very much welcome the strengthening of relations between the UK and India, two great democracies. In that vein, what discussions did the Prime Minister have with his Indian counterparts on the defence of democracy against growing threats from autocracies, not only in the Indian Ocean region but in Europe?
An absolutely key part of the visit was about great democracies coming together to stand against aggressive states. The Prime Minister discussed India’s commitment to transforming defence and security co-operation and enhancing engagement in support of a free, open and secure Indo-Pacific. That whole part of the region, and its security, was a key part of the discussions between the Prime Ministers.
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister could not make himself available for this urgent question—an important part of the work that he should be doing. We know that this Prime Minister does not want the duties that he is assigned.
The Minister said that India is the oldest democracy, but it was founded in 1948; that does not make it the oldest democracy. India is a human rights abuser across all its country—for the Sikh community, for the Muslim community, for the Christian community and particularly strongly for the Kashmiri community. The Minister talks about signing an agreement in the run-up to Diwali, but that would be dancing on the human rights and civil liberties of all those people who have been persecuted in India. Does she accept that that is not acceptable to us as a democracy?
We do not pursue trade at the exclusion of human rights. We regard both as an important part of a deep, mature and wide-ranging relationship with our partners. The partnership with India is very important for both our countries.
East Lancashire has a wide diaspora community, not just from India but from the wider region, including Pakistan and Bangladesh. Will the Minister illuminate the House on what steps her Department will take to engage that diaspora when it comes to negotiating a free trade deal, not just in India, but in the wider region? I suggest to her that entrepreneurs in east Lancashire who go to work every day know better what supercharges the economy than civil servants who work from home.
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point. It is businesses and entrepreneurs who create jobs and employ people; it is not Governments, and we should always remember that. It is important therefore that we listen to the voices of businesses and entrepreneurs while we seek to negotiate trade deals. Trade deals are there to tear down the barriers that they often face when trying to free up business opportunities. Their voices must be listened to as part of the negotiations.
Three British citizens—Saeed and Sakil Dawood and Mohammed Aswad—were murdered in the communal violence in India 20 years ago. Their families have been asking that the remains of the bodies, which are held by the authorities, be returned to them in this country. The Prime Minister knows of the issue and has been asked to do something about it. Did he raise it when he spoke with Prime Minister Modi?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious case. I am not aware of the details, but I will follow up with my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, who leads for us on Indian matters in this case. I know that the Prime Minister raised a number of different consular cases with the Prime Minister of India, and handed over a note on various other consular cases, but I will ask Lord Ahmad to get back to the hon. Gentleman on the issue that he has raised.
India has been dependent on Russian defence equipment for a very long time. It is therefore vital, in the process of our closer alignment and partnership with India, that we do all we can to discuss and take forward a defence relationship that includes equipment and manufacturing. Does my hon. Friend agree that that security reason above all makes it vital that the Prime Minister—whoever the Prime Minister of the day is—visits India and takes forward that relationship?
I agree that it is important to have a very strong UK-India defence relationship. That is why we work together as trusted partners in the India-UK defence and international security partnership framework. As I said in my opening statement, part of that is about supporting the Government of India’s “made in India” approach to security and defence. The two Prime Ministers noted the importance of robust defence industrial collaboration for manufacturing and key capabilities. It is absolutely correct that, at this time of global insecurity, we work with partners such as India to make sure that they are more self-reliant in their security.
Does the Minister agree that, although we all want an improved trading and diplomatic relationship with India, it should be on the basis of shared values, including religious tolerance and respect for minorities? As the Prime Minister is not here to answer for himself, can she tell us what representations he made to Narendra Modi about the concerns of British Muslims—including in my constituency of Batley and Spen—that Islamophobia and attacks on religious minorities are on the increase in India?
The UK is absolutely committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all, and to promoting respect and tolerance between different religions and indeed between religious and non-religious communities. We condemn any incidences of discrimination because of religion. Our high commissioner in Delhi, and our network of deputy high commissioners across India, regularly meet religious representatives, and have run projects to help support minority rights. The Indian constitution protects all communities, but we will always raise human rights issues with countries across the world where we have concerns.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that, as the UK holds the COP presidency, the Government are working to support India’s energy transition away from imported oil and towards a more sustainable energy source, to address both energy security and climate change?
Yes. As president of COP, the UK is absolutely focused on ensuring that the promises made in Glasgow are delivered. I was really pleased to hear that during the Prime Minister’s visit we launched the hydrogen and science innovation hub to accelerate affordable green hydrogen; we committed new funding for the green grids initiative that we announced in Glasgow; and there was collaboration on the public transport electrification. Globally, we also committed up to £75 million to rolling out adaptable clean tech innovations from India to the wider Indo-Pacific and to Africa. That benefits not only India but the Indo-Pacific, Africa, the UK and, indeed, the planet.
I wish every Sikh on these islands a happy Vaisakhi, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on securing the urgent question.
The Minister mentioned Scotch whisky but not the Scot Jagtar Singh Johal; she noted a list of priorities, but not Jagtar Singh Johal. Can the Minister advise on whether, in discussions with Prime Minister Modi, the Prime Minister—not civil servants, not with a note—directly challenged the arbitrary detention of Jagtar Singh Johal, who now faces a death penalty, and question the trial-by-media that my constituent has faced since 2017? If not, why not?
The Prime Minister did raise Mr Johal’s case and handed over a note on consular cases. The 2030 roadmap for India-UK future relations, which was agreed by the UK and Indian Governments, includes a commitment
“to resolve long-running or complex consular cases.”
The Foreign Secretary has agreed to meet the hon. Gentleman and for Mr Johal’s brother and wife to join the meeting. I know officials are in contact to schedule that meeting.
Just last week, the Opposition parties were having a go at Rwanda; this week it appears to be India, and goodness knows what country it will be next week. Can the Minister confirm that it is vital to have a good relationship with India that benefits not only the UK, but Scotland?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as ever. India is the world’s sixth largest economy, a member of the Commonwealth, a long-standing democracy and a good friend of the UK. We must continue to keep our good relations with India going.
In recent months, there have been reports that prominent Muslim women in India have appeared on unsanctioned apps listing them for auction, and leading public figures have openly called for Muslims to be killed. In Karnataka, a court passed a ruling banning schoolgirls from exercising their religious beliefs by wearing the hijab in class. Did the Prime Minister raise concerns about human rights violations by the Indian Government, including the anti-Muslim violence that many feel is being whipped up by Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP?
It is a shocking story that the hon. Lady tells, but we do engage with India on a range of human rights matters. We work with both union and state governments and with non-governmental organisations to help to build capacity and share expertise to promote human rights for all. As she knows, supporting women and girls is a top priority for this Government and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Where we have concerns, we raise them directly with the Government of India, including at ministerial level.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being at the opening of the next round of trade talks between the UK and the United States in Aberdeenshire. There was genuine excitement, particularly from the businesses represented in the room, at the prospect of a deal by Diwali with India. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) has said, given the situation in the world right now, of more immediate concern is our security and defence relationship. Can my hon. Friend the Minister expand on what was discussed by the Prime Minister and Narendra Modi about how we can improve our defence and security relationship with India?
I know my hon. Friend, as a former member of the Royal Navy, cares passionately about our defence. The leaders agreed to intensify co-operation as trusted partners under the India-UK defence and international security partnership framework. They noted the importance of robust defence industrial collaboration and worked specifically on the issue of cyber-security in a joint cyber statement. The aim is to deepen co-operation across cyber-governance, deterrence and strengthening cyber-resilience. The open general export licence will also reduce bureaucracy and shorten delivery times for defence procurements. This is the first time we have signed such a deal with any country in the Indo-Pacific.
Mr Modi has the right to set India’s own foreign policy, of course, but did the Prime Minister specifically raise India’s continuing trade with Russia and Mr Modi’s decision to abstain on the UN motion condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
It is right that every country in the world has the right to make its own decisions. The UK should not go finger-pointing at our friends and partners every time we decide to do something different from them. I know the two Prime Ministers discussed the situation in Ukraine. This is a time when it is really important that democracies stand together and deepen the way they work together to prevent aggression and to strengthen global security. That is why the two Prime Ministers released a statement immediately after their meeting in which they both unequivocally condemned the civilian deaths that have been happening in Ukraine and reiterated the need for an immediate ending of hostilities.
A trade deal with India is incredibly important. It is extraordinary that the Prime Minister has not come here to make a statement and that the Government have had to be dragged here by an urgent question titled “Prime Minister’s Visit to India”. We want to raise issues with the Prime Minister about human rights, religious tolerance, the impact on jobs both here and in India, women in particular and peace across the world, particularly in the light of India’s failure to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. That shows that we have a Prime Minister who is not capable of doing his job. He is avoiding scrutiny in this House because of the troubles he has created for himself. It is an absolute disgrace. What does the Minister think that having her, who was not even on the delegation, at the Dispatch Box answering for the Prime Minister says to the Indian Government?
It is really important that the Prime Minister of our country goes to visit other major Prime Ministers and to make deals that are good for our security, our defence and jobs in this country. Our Prime Minister answers questions from MPs in this House every week on Wednesday, and they will get to question him tomorrow.
Subject to being on the Order Paper and being taken, I must admit, because otherwise everybody will think they have an entitlement.
While the Prime Minister was away in India, the London School of Economics published research showing that our trading relationships with the EU have plummeted by one third since the Prime Minister signed that trade deal and it came into effect. Will the Minister tell the Prime Minister when she sees him after this UQ that no free trade deal he could ever achieve with India will replace the damage done to Britain’s international trade by Brexit?
I know the Prime Minister keeps a close eye on trade and economic numbers and on the prosperity of this country at a very difficult time for world prosperity.
The Prime Minister began his trip to India with a visit to a JCB factory, just one day after the company was embroiled in controversy after its bulldozers were used to illegally demolish Muslim homes and businesses in Delhi, and following widespread anti-Muslim violence in India, which is widely seen as being whipped up by Modi and the ruling BJP. I ask the Minister again, since she has failed to answer the question: did the Prime Minister challenge Modi on the BJP’s role in anti-Muslim violence in India, or did he again disregard human rights abuses? Does the Minister acknowledge that the visit to the JCB factory was a mistake?
We condemn any instance of discrimination because of religion or belief. I will say it again and again: protecting freedom of religion or belief is one of the top human rights priorities for this country. Where we have concerns, we raise them, including at ministerial level.
If I heard the Minister correctly earlier, she said that we do not pursue trade agreements to the exclusion of human rights. In the Prime Minister’s attempt to escape the consequences and publicity surrounding breaking his own laws by very quickly announcing this trade agreement, can the Minister confirm whether he raised any red lines on human rights at all that would stop this deal’s proceeding?
We regard both trade and human rights as important parts of a deep, mature and wide-ranging relationship with our partners. India is one of the largest and fastest-growing economies in the world, and it is absolutely right that we work with it as a partner, both raising issues of concern and trying to increase economic ties to the benefit of all our constituents and the people of India.
I am going to try again, since the Minister did not answer my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) when she asked. We know that during the Prime Minister’s visit he was photographed leaning out of a digger in a JCB factory. Just days before, the BJP had used JCB diggers to bulldoze Muslim shops and homes and the gate of a mosque in New Delhi. Local governments in a number of other Indian states have carried out similar demolitions. I ask again: did the Prime Minister raise that with Modi? If not, why not? Does the Minister accept that the Prime Minister’s visit to India has helped to legitimise the actions of Modi’s far-right Government?
We condemn any instance of discrimination.
When the Prime Minister raised the case of Jagtar Singh Johal, did he do so on the basis that for the past four years Mr Johal has been the victim of arbitrary detention?
I know that the Prime Minister raised his case, I know that he handed over a note on consular cases, and I know that the Foreign Secretary has agreed to meet with the hon. Member who represents Mr Johal’s constituency and with Mr Johal’s brother and wife. We deplore and condemn the use of arbitrary detention in all circumstances.
We should be concerned about human rights abuses of religious minorities across India. We should be concerned about the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir by the Indian Government. We should be concerned about the military lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir and the resulting human rights issues. I really do wish the Prime Minister was here to answer. The Minister said earlier that we do not pursue trade at the cost of human rights. If that is correct, what clauses to protect human rights do the Government intend to put into any trade deal with India?
As regards Kashmir, any allegation of human rights violation or abuse is deeply concerning and needs to be investigated thoroughly and transparently. We have raised our concerns about Kashmir with the Governments of both India and Pakistan. We are very clear on the importance of rights being respected. We continue to call for all remaining restrictions imposed since the constitutional changes in August 2019 to be lifted as soon as possible and for any remaining political detainees to be released. It is for India and Kashmir to find a long-lasting political resolution on Kashmir, but that also needs to take into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
My constituent Syed has been in touch regarding persecution of Muslims in India. Because the Minister has not answered anybody else’s question on this issue, let me specifically ask her: what did the Prime Minister say to Prime Minister Modi about the persecution of Muslims and those of other faiths in India?
As I have said again and again, we engage with India on a range of human rights matters, working with the union and state governments, and where we have concerns we raise them directly with the Government of India, including at ministerial level.
It is incredibly important that we increase co-operation, ties and trade with allies across the globe, including India, but it is extremely discourteous that the Prime Minister could not even update the House about his visit, as is convention. Why could he not be bothered to raise at the highest level the much publicised issues of human rights of minorities and the detention of British citizens, and why did he not convince his Indian counterpart to show support and solidarity with the people of Ukraine, as is our collective effort?
The Prime Minister was on a mission looking at increasing trade between our countries, increasing security and defence at a time of global interest in security and defence, and addressing the issues of climate change and making sure that we help India to deliver on the important promises that it made at COP. I have already told the House that we raise issues of human rights in India at ministerial level, and that we raise consular cases. I think that the hon. Gentleman should welcome that. On Ukraine, I point again to the joint statement that the two Prime Ministers made immediately after their meeting.
Through the European Scrutiny Committee, on which I served for a number of years, when the United Kingdom was a member of the European Union, this House had sight of every trade deal before it was signed. Every trade deal the UK entered into as a member of the EU was subject to the consent of this House. Given that Brexit was about taking back control to this Parliament, can we assume that the Minister will commit that any trade deal with India will be brought back to this House for consideration before it is signed?
I can confirm that information on the shape and scope of the free trade agreement will be made available at an appropriate time as negotiations progress.
I start by wishing all my constituents in Warwick and Leamington a happy Vaisakhi. The trade deal would have been an extremely important matter for the Prime Minister to take questions on, particularly as it relates to my constituency, where Tata is very much represented; it is a major part of our regional, if not the UK, economy. The much-respected Jonathan Powell said that at all meetings, it was normal for a Prime Minister to be attended, on a one-plus-one basis, by the opposing Prime Minister or President. Will the Minister confirm that that happened on this trip? Will she also specify whether the Prime Minister raised the issue of joint sanctions, or of India reducing its dependency on Russian energy?
The entire point of this trip was to increase co-operation between the UK and India, to increase trade deals between ourselves, and to make sure that India can become more self-reliant. On energy, as I have updated the House, we made progress in a number of areas on the move towards clean energy. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, moving towards the use of more renewables and clean energy is a key part of our domestic strategy to help reduce reliance on fossil fuels. As regards one-on-one meetings with leaders, a number of times, on recent visits to countries, I have met one on one, as opposed to one plus and one plus, as occasionally people may want to discuss things directly. I cannot confirm who was in the room, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman can ask the Prime Minister tomorrow.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on bringing forward this urgent question. I have respect for the Minister, but it is a matter of fact, at this late stage, that she has been unable to answer many of the questions asked. I do not criticise her for that; I criticise the Prime Minister for putting her in this position and for the discourtesy shown to the House. I will ask an easy one: can she tell us, for the record, about the Government’s best-case scenario of a boost to UK-India trade from this agreement, and does it come anywhere near to touching the sides of the proven—as calculated by the London School of Economics and published this morning—decline of 25% in UK exports to the EU relative to the rest of the world?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, when it comes to trade deals, we need to look at what is negotiated in the final partnership to see which sectors will benefit most, and it is important to have a trade deal that benefits both partners. We believe that this could significantly increase, and indeed supercharge, the trade between our two countries, which already totals over £23 billion. There are various sectors in which there are significant barriers. I mentioned that Scotch whisky has a tariff of over 100%, and cars do as well. I am sure that as these negotiations progress, further analysis will be looked at.
This too might be a tough question for the Minister to answer, but has the Prime Minister insisted on specialists in human rights and environmental matters being included on trade delegations to India during the ongoing free trade negotiations?
As I have said, we are just at the start of talks. The final deal would need to be mutually beneficial and acceptable to both countries. I am sure that the hon. Lady can ask questions about who takes part in which delegations in International Trade questions.
Let me return once again to defence. At the G7 last year, considerable mention was made of the new D-10 grouping, which includes India and is against the autocracies of the world. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has the Prime Minister taken the D-10 forward, because it could be extremely useful to this country in terms of our future stance, and if not, could the Minister encourage him to do so?
I have heard the hon. Member’s comments. More widely, it is absolutely key that we continue to work with democracies to counter aggressors and strengthen global security. India is one of those countries that it is really important to work with at this time.
The Prime Minister secured no new commitments on human rights and no immediate concessions on Scottish whisky, and did not change the Indian Government’s stance on the war in Ukraine. Is it not safe to say that the only thing he succeeded in last week was getting 4,000 miles away from his Back-Benchers?
During the meeting, UK and Indian businesses confirmed more than £1 billion in new investments and export deals, creating more than 11,000 jobs in the United Kingdom. I suggest that the hon. Member talks to one of the individuals taking up one of those jobs and tells them that there was no worth in this visit.
During talks with Prime Minister Modi, did the Prime Minister discuss India’s relationship with China and how pressure from China could slow or hinder trade deals?
I have given a great deal of detail on what was discussed about trade and security; security in defence, including cyber-security; and climate change. I cannot go into further detail at this time.
I thank the Minister for the details of the visit to India. There is a strong and growing evidential base showing high levels of persecution of Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Kashmiris and other ethnic and religious groups. Can the Minister say what talks about persecution and human rights abuses took place? Are the Indian Government committed to allowing the freedom of expression that we have in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I know that my hon. Friend was born in Omagh, as I was. It is a part of our country where differences in religious views have led to violence. I know that he cares about that as passionately as I do. We engage with India on a wide range of human rights matters, including issues relating to freedom of religion and belief, and we will continue to do so. We are working with non-governmental organisations to build capacity and promote human rights, and where we have concerns, we raise them with the Government of India, including at ministerial level, because friends should be able to have difficult conversations when there are differences of opinion, and should stand up for those whose human rights are threatened.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have a constituent whose father-in-law has been detained in a country where there are known human rights abuses. My constituent’s father-in-law is a British citizen with no family history in, or previous ties to, the country where he is being held. He faces imminent trial on a charge that carries the death penalty, and he is due to appear in court this week. I have been told by my constituent that his father-in-law’s lawyer believes that intervention from the British Government will make a difference in his case.
I contacted the private office of the Minister for Asia and the Middle East before the Easter weekend, stressing the urgency of my constituent’s case and requesting that she meet me. It is unacceptable that in this most urgent case, my office did not receive so much as a holding response from the Minister’s private office until yesterday afternoon. Mr Speaker, can you advise me on how to draw the Government’s attention to this incredibly serious and timely issue?
I thank the hon. Member for giving notice of her point of order. I expect Ministers to respond in a timely way when a matter is urgent, as in this case. The Member has put her point on the record, and it will have been heard by those on the Government Benches. I am sure that Ministers will now engage with the issue, and I hope it can be speedily resolved. Especially in the case of a crisis such as this, we need Ministers to react more quickly. We certainly need to get Departments to act, too.
I put on record that it is unhelpful when we write to Departments and they do not answer letters in a timely way. It is also unhelpful when, having been contacted by constituents—for example on the matter of Ukraine—Departments say, “Do not ring us directly. You need to get on to your MP,” and then the MP gets a holding letter that says, “Do not contact us. We are trying to deal with this quickly.” We need a joined-up Government that supports Members of Parliament. Come on—let us all work together.
Ministers (Tax Residency Status and Trusts) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Christine Jardine presented a Bill to require Ministers of the Crown to disclose their tax residency status and that of members of their household, and to disclose whether they and members of their household are beneficiaries of trusts held abroad; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 May, and to be printed (Bill 306).
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)