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Middle East Peace, Security and Development and UNRWA

Volume 716: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2022

I will call Sarah Champion to move the motion and I will then call the Minister to respond. There will be no opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention in 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered peace, security and development in the Middle East and the role of the UN Relief and Works Agency.

Thank you for chairing this session, Ms McVey; it is always a pleasure to serve under your guidance.

At the end of last year, I met the commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Philippe Lazzarini, who was in London for his first official UK visit. UNRWA is the UN agency that helps millions of Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the west bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, providing them with humanitarian and developmental services. I have seen at first hand its work helping Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I am hugely grateful for what it does, and I do not doubt that it is a good example of Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office money being well spent.

My hon. Friend is making an extremely good point. Although I have not had the privilege of meeting the commissioner-general of UNRWA recently, I know that it does hugely important work in helping to reduce poverty and to prevent, as much as it can, hunger and joblessness in the Palestinian territories. Does she agree that UNRWA’s finances should be a continuing source of worry? It often struggles to get the funding it needs, so would it not be good to hear the Minister say that she and the Foreign Secretary will lead an international process to try to ensure that UNRWA has the resources it needs?

I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention, which pre-empts what I am about to say. I completely agree that a stable funding base is needed, and let us hope that he has also predicted what the Minister will say, because he is absolutely right: this requires ministerial leadership. I know the Minister well, and I know that if she is able to give that, then she will, so let us keep that hope for the next 20 minutes.

There is no doubt that the plight of Palestinian refugees is both tragic and a recurring obstacle in the search for a two-state solution. Established in 1949, UNRWA has an important role to play in providing much needed education, healthcare and social services for the Palestinian people. Its original mandate—to provide humanitarian and development goals, pending a just and lasting solution—clearly still remains unfulfilled. In order to meet its goals and support two states for two people, which is the UK’s and the international community’s long-standing position, UNRWA must receive the funds it needs.

UNRWA is unique, in that it effectively offers state-like services in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, but relies on voluntary contributions, including donations by the UK, to educate hundreds of thousands of children, support the poorest, and take care of the sick and injured. Throughout 2021, despite the challenges presented by covid, UNRWA managed to maintain quality primary healthcare services for 1.9 million Palestinian refugees, which included over 7 million in-person and telemedicine consultations, as well as further care at UNRWA-contracted hospitals. UNRWA provides essential healthcare, particularly for the 87,000 pregnant women relying on antenatal care, which is critical for the safe delivery of newborn babies and the health of their mothers. UNRWA delivers its services at the maximum of its available budget, but because of understaffing, doctors can spend only three minutes with each patient, and after two years of covid, health services are severely strained.

In 2021, UNRWA provided education for over half a million children, nearly 400,000 people benefitted from social safety net assistance, including cash and food, and 8,000 young people accessed technical and vocational education and training. On his visit to the UK, Mr Lazzarini explained to me how he believes his organisation is providing hope in a region beleaguered by conflict. What he told me about the work of UNRWA was sometimes harrowing, but he also shared many inspiring examples, such as Loay Elbasyouni, who attended UNRWA schools and was part of the master team that developed the Mars rover, Perseverance.

Following years of cuts to its funding, the financial crisis faced by UNRWA means not only that it runs the risk of not being able to pay salaries, but that its installations, car fleet and computers are in such a state of disarray that its delivery of services is put at risk and the integrity of its staffing threatened. That is despite reforms promoted by Governments, including the UK Government, in exchange for financial support that has made UNRWA more efficient.

Since 2018, the UK’s support for UNRWA has decreased by nearly 60% from approximately £70.3 million to £28.6 million. In the last year alone, UK-funded support for UNRWA’s core budget has been cut in half, from approximately £42.5 million in 2020 to £20.8 million in 2021, while the UK’s funding for UNRWA’s emergency humanitarian work in Syria was cut from £7 million in 2020 to zero in 2021. The UK has yet to make any contribution to UNRWA for 2022.

The hon. Member is talking about education and bringing hope to the region. She will be aware that in its education work and the schools it runs in the west bank and Gaza, UNRWA uses the official Palestinian Authority curriculum. Does she share my concerns that the European Union review found that textbooks on that curriculum contain a number of examples of extensive antisemitism and incitement to violence? Does she agree that the Government are right to take a position of zero tolerance on antisemitism?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on some of that, and I will go into a little detail. Of course we should have zero tolerance of antisemitism. We should have zero tolerance of any form of hate crime. I have no reason to doubt the criticism contained in the Georg Eckert Institute review of the Palestinian Authority textbooks, and I believe action has been taken as a result of the report.

To quote the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) said in response to a written question last January:

“UNRWA has a robust review system of each host country’s textbooks to ensure education in its schools reflects the values and principles of the UN.”

I am sure that the hon. Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) reads the House of Commons Library’s updates on international news. Today it published that the EU has resumed funding UNRWA in full, based on its research on the textbooks he mentioned. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but the evidence points to that issue having now been resolved. Of course, no agency is perfect, and I will come on to that.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her tenacity and all she does speaking for those who are oppressed and disadvantaged. Does she agree that the role of the UN as an impartial agency is vital and that all steps must be taken to ensure its neutrality from top to toe? Does she agree that its staff should be careful about the expression of their personal opinions, which can be detrimental to those who need help but feel excluded by UN workers because of a perceived bias?

My friend, the hon. Gentleman has wise words. I am proud to be the MP for Rotherham and to be the Chair of the Select Committee on International Development. We have done a lot of inquiries on the subject of UN practice—on sexual exploitation by its staff, on misuse of funds and on racism in the sector. In such a vast organisation, of course there will be some rotten apples, but when those failings are highlighted it is inexcusable that they are not rooted out and safety measures put in so that such issues never happen again. As the hon. Member rightly says, one rotten apple taints the whole barrel. The UN does amazing work, but it is a big organisation and some people feel emboldened to make ridiculous personal comments that damage everybody.

The British Council, which recently signed a co-operation agreement with UNRWA, has granted the British Council’s international school awards to 80 UNRWA schools during the past two years, with many others having gained this recognition previously. The World Bank has confirmed that UNRWA students are on average one year ahead of their peers in public schools in the region. MOPAN—the Multilateral Organisation Performance Assessment Network—of which the UK is a member, recognises that UNRWA is a “competent, resilient and resolute” organisation.

UNRWA was created more than 70 years ago by the United Nations General Assembly. The UK voted in favour of its formation and has since approved the renewal of UNRWA’s mandate every three years. In establishing UNRWA, the UN General Assembly recognised that continued assistance for the relief of the Palestinian refugees was necessary

“to further conditions of peace and stability”.

UNRWA has carried out multitudes of positive work in the middle east in the absence of a political solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It has already educated more than 2 million children, and today creates significant livelihood opportunities through its construction projects throughout the middle east. UNRWA’s provision of human development services and humanitarian relief provides an anchor of stability in a troubled region.

Of the nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees living in the middle east, more than 2.6 million live in poverty. As the number of refugees falling into poverty continues to rise, UNRWA faces increased demands on its services. Refugees are increasingly reliant on UNRWA for the education of their children, their health and their livelihood.

As the hon. Lady highlights, we on the International Development Committee have investigated these issues. She has rightly highlighted key problems in Palestine, but, more generally, some of the cuts to the aid budget, particularly to health and education, were arbitrary and have had a real impact on people’s lives. Can we urge the Minister to look again at some of those decisions?

I fully support my fellow Committee member and thank him for repeatedly raising his concerns about this issue. The forthcoming budget that goes alongside the development strategy is due in the next month, and it very much seems that global health will be the biggest casualty. The concerns that he raises are right. There does not seem to be a joined-up strategy on the impact of the cuts. If the Minister could outline that, it would help us all to understand the Government’s logic.

The impact of UNRWA breaking down because of donors such as the UK continuing to significantly decrease or stop its funding is unimaginable. Have the Government considered the consequences for millions of people in the middle east if the cuts cause significant reductions in UNRWA’s services? UNRWA has the expertise; it has proven effectiveness and can provide its services much cheaper than any other UN agency. Let me be frank: if people are left with no healthcare, no education and no job, what does the Minister think will happen to them?

The world already has a formidable tool to provide support to people in the form of UNRWA. Why would we want to weaken our own investment in it to the point of hundreds of thousands of people feeling they have no future? More needs to be done to work with the organisation. Of course, as we have outlined, UNRWA is not perfect—nothing is—but the Government’s cuts are threatening its capability to deliver support to a vulnerable population in the middle east. We need to maintain trusted relations with the people of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon. Palestinian refugees are a key constituency for peace in the region in terms of their number, socio-political relevance, and the refugees’ personal stake in the search for a lasting solution.

Without UNRWA, we risk destabilising the region further and emboldening those who do not share our belief that the best way to bring peace and stability to the region is through a political resolution to the conflict. The millions of people who access UNRWA’s services would be forced to turn elsewhere to survive. If we are to remain committed to our vision of two states, surely we should provide support to UNRWA, which has proved itself a reliable partner by which the international community can address the refugee constituency. Although it is non-political, UNRWA’s presence and role have been recognised as having significant implications for regional security and stability.

The Prime Minister has consistently highlighted that girls’ education is his top priority for UK aid. UNRWA directly supports that objective by operating one of the largest school systems in the middle east and providing primary education to over a half a million students, 50% of whom are girls. Gender parity in school enrolment was obtained in the early 1960s at UNRWA schools—long before any other country in the region. UNRWA is providing government-like services such as elementary and preparatory education, and, through that commitment to sustainable development goal 4, is playing its role as a major contributor to the 2030 SDG agenda.

It is clear that UNRWA is essential for the stability of that volatile and fragile region, so will the Minister explain the substantial cuts in UK funding to UNRWA, despite Ministers telling the House for years how excellent UNRWA’s services are? Why are the Government slashing funding to this essential and efficient organisation? Will the Government carry out an analysis of the impact of the funding cuts on UNRWA? Is there any plan to reinstate our financial support to previous levels, and what discussions has the Minister had with other potential donors to encourage them to back UNRWA? If the UK cannot or will not sufficiently support UNRWA, we have to ask: do we not have a responsibility towards these people? Is not stability in the middle east what we are aiming for, and why are we not doing all we can to achieve it?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing the debate, and for the work that she does as Chair of her important Committee. I thank her and other hon. Members, who have made insightful contributions. I will try to respond to as many of the points raised as possible.

The UK and the Government are long-standing supporters of UNRWA, and value the vital role it plays as a humanitarian service and a stabilising force in the region. In 2021, we provided the agency with over £27 million of support, including £4.9 million to the flash appeal that it launched following the Gaza conflict in May. Our annual contribution helps UNRWA to provide education to more than 530,000 children every year, and helps 3.5 million Palestinian refugees to access critical health services. Our support to the flash appeal for Gaza helped to promote life-saving aid in the aftermath of the conflict. We recognise that UNRWA needs to be on a more secure financial footing to ensure that Palestinian refugees’ basic needs continue to be met, and that it can play a full role in supporting regional stability. We are working with UNRWA, other donors and host countries to help ensure its sustainability in the years to come.

The hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) asked whether there would be a pledging conference. The UK will be supporting and attending the pledging conference in New York on 23 June, which is a week tomorrow. I cannot say any more in advance of that, but I know that hon. Members will all be pleased to hear that we will be there, and we are encouraging other donors to step up.

I will take questions at the end, because there is quite a lot that I would like to say. If I have time, I will take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention later.

UNRWA’s essential work is focused not only on the Occupied Palestinian Territories; it also supports vulnerable Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and across the region with essential services, including basic education and healthcare. Some £7 million of our UNRWA contribution in the 2020-21 financial year went to UNRWA’s regional emergency appeal in Syria and Jordan, which has helped to provide humanitarian assistance to more than 450,000 vulnerable Palestinian refugees in those countries. The final status of Palestinian refugees must be agreed as part of wider peace negotiations. Until that time, I confirm that the UK remains firmly committed to supporting Palestinian refugees through UNRWA, and the other valuable work that UNRWA does in the region.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) asked how aid is being allocated post the decision to reduce official development assistance from 0.7% to 0.5%. It was a challenging decision to make, but we must recall the massive impact the global pandemic has had on the UK’s own finances. It is a temporary decision, and the Chancellor has set out the methodology by which we would return to 0.7%. I suggest my hon. Friend looks at the international development strategy that we published a few weeks ago, which brings together our key global priorities for the allocation of ODA, in particular bringing back humanitarian aid and girls’ education—both of which, as the hon. Member for Rotherham pointed out, are key for UNRWA.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) for provoking the Minister to giving way to me. It is good to hear that a pledging conference is taking place and that Britain continues to work with other nations to help secure longer-term funding for UNRWA. Can the Minister say specifically whether there will be ministerial representation from the UK at that pledging conference, as that might give our nations some confidence to pledge significant sums of money, given Britain’s record of support to UNRWA?

I cannot confirm that at this stage, but I can confirm that my right hon. Friend, the Minister for Asia and the Middle East, who covers this territory, is very focused on the issue.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I think we all accept the challenges the pandemic has caused for finances in this country and more generally. The Committee recently heard from the Foreign Secretary and some of the permanent secretaries, who were unable to provide details on reductions to in-year funding. It would be helpful if the Minister could confirm that education and healthcare funding will be prioritised.

As I said, the international development strategy talks clearly about our key priorities. One priority is women and girls, within which is girls’ education, which is key to driving development and change. There is also access to women’s healthcare, which is a key part of the women and girls strategy. I spend a lot of my time travelling around different countries and looking at some of the amazing work we have done to support access to women’s healthcare and humanitarian aid.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is dire. Alongside our support of UNRWA and our bilateral programmes, the UK provided £2 million to UNICEF in 2021 to help feed and clothe vulnerable people and ensure that children can continue their education, keeping the hope of a better life alive.

We continue to stress to the Israeli authorities that restrictions on movement, access and trade for the people of Gaza are damaging the lives of ordinary Palestinians. As I will say again and again, we urge all parties to drive for a durable solution for Gaza and take the necessary practical steps to ensure Gaza’s reconstruction and economic recovery. We welcome the continued engagement between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority on economic matters, but urge more rapid progress.

Improving the economic situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories remains a priority for the UK, so in addition to our support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UK Government have funded a number of development programmes in the occupied territories that work to preserve the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution, as the hon. Member for Rotherham pointed out, and to improve the lives of Palestinians throughout the west bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. A key part of this work is building the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to provide essential services, and the basis for a future Palestinian state.

We continue to work with the Palestinian Authority to reform its security sector, and strengthen its financial management, including revenue collection and enhancing transparency and accountability. Through our programmes, we are improving electricity and water infrastructure across the west bank and Gaza, and helping to improve conditions for trade and exports; there is a wide variety of issues.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) mentioned the issue of educational textbooks. We urge the Palestinian Authority to remove problematic content from its textbooks. We have robust conversations with the highest levels of the Palestinian leadership, challenging them on the need to prepare their population for peace, including by promoting a positive portrayal of others. We have zero tolerance for all forms of incitement to violence or antisemitism. It is worth pointing out that the UK does not fund textbooks in the OPTs.

The situation on the ground demonstrates the need to accelerate progress towards peace, which is one of the reasons that the conference has been called next week. We remain committed to the two-state solution as the best way to bring peace and stability to the region. We support a negotiated settlement, leading to a safe and secure Israel living alongside a viable and sovereign Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital of both sides, and a just, fair, agreed and realistic settlement for refugees.

We firmly believe in a just and lasting resolution that ends the occupation and delivers peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. It is long overdue. We will continue to press both parties on the need to refrain from taking actions that make peace more difficult to attain. We call on all parties to abide by international humanitarian law and to promote peace, stability and security.

We are deeply concerned about the fragile security situation in the west bank and Jerusalem, and look to all parties to take urgent steps to de-escalate tensions.

I am grateful for all the Minister is saying. I know she is going as far as she can today. I hope that whoever goes to the pledging conference will take their chequebook with them because, to be honest, money counts. I hear what she is saying about stability and the robust conversations she is having with all sides. Will the Government go as far as they have gone with regard to the Russian invasion and start imposing sanctions, if they see international law being broken?

The hon. Lady raises a number of questions. On going with our chequebook, it is important to say that we remain key supporters of UNRWA. I cannot say any more at this time. We have limited amounts of money. We set out in the international development strategy how we want to prioritise. That will mean difficult decisions—we cannot do everything—but it is vital that we continue to try to prioritise as best as we can, and that we continue to support the UK economy in its recovery so that we get back to 0.7%.

We believe that honest and open discussions, rather than imposing sanctions or supporting anti-Israeli boycotts, best support our efforts to get progress on peace and on getting a negotiated solution. We were totally appalled by the recent terror attacks in Israel. We condemn them in the strongest possible terms, and reaffirm that our thoughts are with the victims and their families. We will engage with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to support co-operation on building stability and economic development. I look forward to any news coming out of New York next Thursday.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).