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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2022

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Ukraine: British Diplomatic Support

2. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of British diplomatic support for Ukraine. (900620)

The UK has been steadfast in its diplomatic support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister travelled to Kyiv on 17 June to meet once again with President Zelensky. They discussed the situation on the ground, and the Prime Minister announced a major training programme for the Ukrainian armed forces to help sustain them in their heroic defence of their people and their homeland. The United Kingdom will continue to strengthen the hand of our Ukrainian friends to finish the war on terms that President Zelensky has laid out.

I commend the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and the entire team for all their work on diplomacy in Ukraine. We can all be very proud of it. I was pleased to see that the leaders discussed ending the blockade of grain in the south. Will the Minister update the House on how those discussions went?

The House, and indeed the whole world, should be under no illusion: it is Russia that is blocking Ukraine’s grain exports in an attempt to cripple Ukraine’s economy and use hunger as political leverage. We support the United Nations’ efforts to negotiate a safe corridor for exports by sea and we are engaging internationally to call on Russia to end the blockade. Only Russia can lift the blockade. Ukraine’s ports are vital for global food supplies, and we will keep supplying the weapons that Ukraine needs to bring the war to a successful conclusion.

Last Sunday afternoon, I spent a couple of hours meeting a Ukrainian family who have moved to the Worth valley in my constituency under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. They are so incredibly grateful for the work that the Government are doing, but they did reiterate that we cannot rest until full Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity is restored in Ukraine and until Putin fails. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on recent conversations that he has had with global allies on how we can take a co-operative approach with international partners to ensure that that happens?

I thank my hon. Friend and his community for hosting Ukrainian refugees. Praise is due in every corner of the House for our constituents doing just that. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and other Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Departments, as well as officials at every level, are engaging with our international friends and allies on this issue. It will be raised at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, the G7, the G20 and the NATO meeting in Madrid. I also assure him that the UK will not rest in its support of the Ukrainian Government and the Ukrainian people, and we will not rest in advocating on their behalf with the international community.

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I will reassert the position that the Ukrainian Government have confirmed. Foreign nationals fighting as members of their armed forces must be treated as prisoners of war—that includes the British nationals captured by the Russian forces—and all prisoners of war should be treated in accordance with international humanitarian law, including the Geneva convention. We will of course continue liaising with the Ukrainian Government on the treatment of prisoners of war and any negotiations they might have with Russian forces on the issue.

I thank the Minister for the responses he has given to hon. Members. We as a House of Commons stand united with the people of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. May I ask the Minister sincerely what assistance the British Government and NATO allies are giving to the people and Government of Ukraine to tackle Russian disinformation?

The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. When I speak to my Ukrainian counterpart and others facing direct or indirect Russian aggression, they often bring up disinformation and cyber-attacks. This is a theatre of war, and the integrated review, which was published last year, recognises that. I assure him that we will continue working closely with our friends and allies to counter disinformation and to help them defend themselves against cyber-attack as well as physical attack.

All our hearts and support are with the people of Ukraine, but the conflict is having a significant impact worldwide. Particularly affected are people in east Africa, where grain shortages have coincided with the most dangerous drought in 40 years, cuts to aid and covid-19. Save the Children and Oxfam report that one person is dying of hunger every 48 seconds in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Will the Minister commit to front-loading future resilience funding to bring forward funds now to prevent a famine?

The hon. Lady makes an incredibly important point. As I said in my earlier answer, Vladimir Putin is using hunger in the global south as a weapon of war and as a point of leverage. It should be noted that the 25 million tonnes of grain currently stuck in Ukraine is equivalent to the yearly consumption of the least developed countries in the world. She is absolutely right to be focused on this issue. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said that we will prioritise our humanitarian response in future funding for the Department, but I can assure her and the House that it will remain a priority for the Government.

It is very clear that Putin is indeed the using the starvation of the world’s poorest people as a tool of war. As we seek to fight back against Putin and use all diplomatic powers, does the Minister agree that it would be easier to build a coalition against Putin across the developing world in particular, and of course morally right, if we reversed the cuts to international aid or kept them?

The hon. Gentleman is conflating two fundamentally different issues. The world should be clear that it is Vladimir Putin alone who is creating these problems with his blockade of grain exports from Ukraine. He could turn on the tap of food to the global south tomorrow, and we demand that he does. We will continue to work with our international partners, including the United Nations, to try to facilitate those grain exports, but the world should be clear that it is down to him and that the Russian blockade of the Black sea and Sea of Azov ports is creating that hunger. He should be held accountable for it.

I agree with much of what the Minister has had to say. The shadow Foreign Secretary and I met a delegation of Ukrainian MPs last week and heard at first hand the devastating impact Russia’s illegal actions are having on civilians across Ukraine. May I bring the Minister back to a point I have raised with him a number of times? We need to stay the course in our support for Ukraine, and the whole world needs to stay the course with Ukraine. That will involve substantial costs. Will he look again at not only freezing Russian assets but their seizure and repurposing to ensure that we can support humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Ukraine?

The hon. Gentleman and I often disagree—that is the nature of being in different parties—but on this issue he is absolutely right that there is a unanimity of voice across the House. I can assure him that we are looking at the issue he raises on seizures and repurposing the value of those seizures. Nothing is off the table. The pain and suffering being inflicted on the Ukrainian people by Putin and his faction must be paid for, and paid for by them.

I echo the comments that Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff and the diplomatic core worldwide do a great job under difficult circumstances, but they are being undermined by talk of politically motivated appointments at home, job losses across the civil service as a whole, and the cut to the 0.7% commitment on aid, a manifesto commitment now betrayed. Surely now is the time to reverse all that talk and actually support civil servants doing tough jobs in tough times?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the praise he gives to our civil servants both here in the UK and across the world. He is absolutely right: they are doing a fantastic job. I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my ministerial colleagues across Government Departments liaise with them regularly. They are highly focused, highly motivated and absolutely determined to help deliver the UK’s Government priority, which is to support the Ukrainian people and support the people across the world who are being impacted by the food shortages Vladimir Putin is creating. They are doing so in a way that makes me and the whole House proud. I have no doubt that they will continue to do so.

Asadollah Assadi

3. If she will make representations to her Iranian counterpart on the case of Iranian diplomat, Asadollah Assadi. (900621)

The UK condemns in the strongest terms the targeting of civilians and regularly raises this issue with the Government of Iran. We welcome the fact that those responsible for the plot against the conference in Paris in 2018 have been held to account. The Belgian courts have convicted four individuals, including Asadollah Assadi, who received a 20-year sentence. We continue to work with the international community to ensure that all countries, including Iran, abide by international rules and norms.

I am trying to hide my disappointment in the answer. Asadollah Assadi orchestrated a planned terrorist attack in mainland Europe that would have resulted in mass casualties, including five Members of the British Parliament, including me. At the Munich security conference earlier this year, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, met his Belgian and Swedish counterparts for private talks, which included seeking a petition for the release of Assadi and others through prisoner swaps. It would have been ironic if those of us who oppose the joint comprehensive plan of action had been victims, as the terrorists were using resources that came from the sanctions. May I ask the Secretary of State again to meet with her Iranian counterpart to make it clear that any future JCPOA must ensure human rights in Iran and must ensure that terrorism activities are relinquished across the region, including those aimed at mainland Europe?

I am not able to speculate on the context of bilateral talks between Iran and other countries. The UK’s position is absolutely clear: the behaviour of Iran in a whole number of areas is unacceptable. We raise this regularly, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised our concerns about the Iranian Government’s behaviour on numerous occasions. We will ensure that we continue to call on the Iranian Government to abide by international rules and laws and to respect human rights at every level, including the right of criticism on the international stage.

Colombia: Human Rights

4. What recent discussions she has had with her Colombian counterpart on human rights in that country. (900622)

Colombia is an FCDO human rights priority country and UK Ministers and senior officials regularly raise human rights issue as well as specific cases of concern with the Colombian Government. Most recently, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad discussed human rights and the security situation in Colombia in his meeting with President Duque on 12 April, and I raised it with Vice-President Ramírez in February.

I am sure that the Minister will join me in congratulating Colombia on electing a new Administration committed to peace and human rights under Gustavo Petro.

According to human rights groups, on 28 March the army killed several civilians in the village of Remanso, in Putumayo, with outgoing President Iván Duque later praising the attack and describing the victims as armed dissidents. Given that the Colombian military has a history of killing civilians then falsifying the record, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that a proper investigation is carried out?

We congratulate Gustavo Petro on his election as President. We look forward to working with him on many shared priorities after his inauguration in August. He has made it very clear that he is committed to the peace process with the FARC. I also congratulate Colombia on a peaceful election.

Bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Colombia have gone from strength to strength in recent years, particularly in areas of mutual concern such as trade and investment, tackling drug crime and the environment. Will my hon. Friend assure me that we will continue that same high-level engagement with the new Colombian Administration?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have very many areas of shared interest with Colombia, such as trade and the environment. Tackling drug crime is also a major issue. Colombia is a key partner to the UK and Latin America. We will continue to work closely together on a broad range of issues, and we look forward to working with the new President Petro after his inauguration in early August.

Colombia is once again the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist, so when the Minister and the Government engage with President-elect Petro and his new Government will they ensure that the peace process, which is focused on the Government and the FARC, also includes the civil society and trade union groups on which we have perhaps taken our eye off the ball?

The hon. Member makes an important point about protecting civil society. Peace in Colombia was always going to be a difficult challenge, but we have been a leading advocate of that peace process. We will continue to prioritise support for the Colombian Government, and the new President has made it clear that he is committed to the peace process with the FARC, so we will continue to work with them.

I have just returned from Colombia as part of a delegation funded by Justice for Colombia, details of which will shortly be declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Gustavo Petro’s victory in Colombia’s presidential election should provide new impetus towards the full implementation of the peace agreement in that divided country, but the UK Government have sat idly by as violence against social activists and indigenous peoples has raged on across the country. As the penholder for Colombia at the United Nations, the UK has a responsibility to play its part, so will the Minister commit to changing course and working with the new Administration to finally bring this appalling violence to an end?

I absolutely refute the idea that the UK has been standing by. To date, we have spent more than £69 million through the conflict, stability and security fund. This is supporting the implementation of the peace agreement, and it has been supporting the Government’s rural developments, reintegration programmes and transitional justice mechanisms and strengthening the security and participation of communities in conflict-affected areas. We have also put in over £240 million of international climate funding in the past decade. That is helping to stabilise particularly vulnerable environmental areas by tackling environmental crime and the issues that affect local people. We will continue to prioritise that work, because stability in Colombia is vital for the whole of Latin America.

Ukraine: International Support

5. What recent discussions she has had with her international counterparts on support for Ukraine. (900623)

It is vital that we continue to back Ukraine. This is about freedom and democracy in Ukraine, and it is also about freedom and democracy in Europe and across the world. That is why we are determined to provide more weapons, impose more sanctions and back Ukraine in pushing Russia out of its territory.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend mentioned sanctions. Last week she announced a new wave of sanctions, including against Patriarch Kirill, a very public and vocal supporter of Putin’s war. Can she confirm that we will continue to put pressure not just on Putin but on his supporters until Putin fails and Ukraine succeeds?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am proud that the United Kingdom has sanctioned more individuals than any other nation. We have to keep increasing that pressure. Last week we sanctioned Patriarch Kirill, and we also sanctioned the Russian children’s rights commissioner, who has been involved in the barbaric treatment of Ukrainian children. We will continue to impose sanctions and to stop importing goods from Russia until we see Russia fully withdraw from Ukraine.

The new head of the Army was very clear this week when he said that the UK must be

“capable of fighting alongside our allies and defeating Russia in battle.”

Does the Foreign Secretary believe that our defence capability, which is a key arm of UK foreign policy, has all the resources it needs to do that?

It is very true that we face a much more insecure Europe and a much more insecure world, and it is right that we are increasing defence spending. We are increasing our capabilities, particularly in areas such as cyber, but we are also making sure that we have fully trained and efficient armed services, not just to be ready but to ensure that we are training up Ukrainians, for example, and helping our allies, particularly on the eastern flank, who face that direct threat from Russia.

The harvest in Ukraine is going to have to start in the next few weeks. The problem is that there are 25 million tonnes of old crop filling up all the stores, so there will be nowhere to put the new crop. It will have to be piled on the fields, and the Russians will seize it and use it as a weapon of war to buy influence around the world. What more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that there is international passage for that grain out of Odesa and other ports?

We are doing all we can to secure the export of that very important grain from Ukraine. My hon. Friend is right to say that we have only a number of weeks to be able to achieve that. We are backing the UN plan, but we are also doing what we can with our allies to provide safe passage and to make sure that Odesa is fully defended. Tomorrow, I will be travelling to Turkey to talk to people there about how we could do more to get the grain out of Odesa.

Part of any diplomatic support for Ukraine must include a strategic diplomatic support package for Ukraine’s neighbours in Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. When I spoke to the Polish Defence Secretary a couple of months ago, he detailed what he felt was a very lonely station on the frontline beside Ukraine. Will the Foreign Secretary update us on how he may not feel that way now?

We are working very closely with Poland on our joint defence support, and we are working with Poland and Ukraine on helping Ukraine get NATO-standard weapons. We are also backing Poland, our Baltic state friends and others, including Moldova, particularly through NATO and the bolstering of the eastern flank. We have the NATO summit coming up next week and the UK is pushing hard for more support in the eastern area of Europe.

Sri Lanka: Human Rights

We are closely monitoring the difficult human rights situation and the lack of progress towards post-conflict accountability in Sri Lanka. It is important that the current economic situation does not distract from human rights. We urge the Sri Lankan Government to engage meaningfully with United Nations Human Rights Council resolution 46/1. We continue to raise our concerns in international forums, including by doing so at the UNHRC on 4 June.

The economic crisis on the island has indeed led to increased militarisation in Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksa Government are falling apart and, as we speak, a draft bail-out is being asked for from the International Monetary Fund. As chair of the all-party group on Tamils, and on behalf of Tamils in Carshalton and Wallington and around the world, may I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that the UK does what it can at the IMF to ensure that any bail-out is attached to human rights conditions, similar to the GSP Plus—generalised scheme of preferences plus—arrangement, so that Tamils can have the peace and justice they have been waiting so long for?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work he does in this area. I reiterate that it is really important that the current very challenging economic situation does not distract from efforts to improve human rights. Although the articles of the IMF do allow for conditionality linked to economic policy or to tackling the balance of payments, there is no provision to impose political-linked or human rights-linked conditionality in the IMF process. Therefore, we will work with fellow members on international debt forums on a solution to the country’s debt problem, as well as continuing to lobby the Sri Lankan Government and working in other international forums on human rights.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Later this week, Commonwealth leaders will meet in Kigali for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, and this will include Sri Lanka. We expect the Government to voice their concerns about the long-term peace and justice issues, but pressing economic matters will also threaten stability, both within Sri Lanka and in the region. Will the Government go above and beyond what the IMF is offering and recognise the role of the Commonwealth now to step into the leadership gap and support Sri Lanka’s people with access to food and medicines, by helping to bring economic stability as soon as possible to this great friend of the UK?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that Sri Lanka is a great friend of the UK. Indeed, our Prime Minister spoke to his Sri Lankan counterpart on 30 May and has underlined the UK’s continuing support for the people of Sri Lanka during their economic difficulties. He has offered UK support through multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and IMF, and international forums such as the Paris Club. We have a very significant voice on international debt forums and we are working closely with Paris Club members and multilateral organisations to find solutions to the debt crisis.

Northern Ireland Protocol

7. What recent discussions she has with EU representatives on the adequacy of the Northern Ireland protocol. (900625)

17. What recent discussions she has had with (a) EU representatives and (b) the US Administration on the Northern Ireland protocol. (900636)

We have been clear with the EU that the Northern Ireland protocol needs to change in order to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, ensure that we have a free flow of goods from east to west, and protect the north-south relationship. Our preference is for a negotiated solution, but in the absence of the EU being willing to change the protocol, we are pressing ahead with legislation.

I am grateful for that reply, but on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill—which, we note with interest, has not yet found a date for its Second Reading—is there any precedent where the United Kingdom has cited the legal concept of necessity for overriding a treaty that it has freely entered into? We should bear in mind that in this case not only did the Government negotiate and sign the Northern Ireland protocol, but the Prime Minister at the time described it as being

“in perfect conformity with the Good Friday agreement”—[Official Report, 19 October 2019; Vol. 666, c. 583.]

We are clear that our legislation is both necessary and lawful, and have published a Government legal statement laying out exactly why that is. Our priority as the United Kingdom Government is the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and we know that the Northern Ireland protocol is undermining that agreement. We have not seen the institutions in Northern Ireland functioning since February, and we know that the issues caused are baked into the protocol—namely the customs provisions and the VAT provisions—so we do need to change that.

As I have said, we remain open to negotiations with the EU. That is our preferred course, but they have to be willing to change the issues that are causing real problems for the people of Northern Ireland.

The business community in Northern Ireland is clear that they want to see mutually agreed solutions, and that those are the only way in which they can protect their access to the EU single market. The key ingredient in all this is trust and partnership. The Minister’s Bill is entirely counterproductive in that respect, so what is her strategy for getting back around the negotiating table with the European Union to find those mutually agreed outcomes?

We are very open to negotiations with the European Union, but they have to be prepared to change the protocol itself. The problems we have with customs and people in Northern Ireland not being able to access the same VAT benefits as people in Great Britain are baked into the protocol itself, and the legislation we have introduced, with green lanes and red lanes, protects the EU single market. It does not make the EU any worse off, while at the same time enabling free-flowing trade from east to west.

We need to achieve both of those things. I want to do so through negotiations, but we have been trying for 18 months; as yet, the EU have refused to change the protocol itself, and we simply cannot allow the situation to drift. We cannot allow more trade diversion, and we cannot allow the undermining of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says about negotiating. We all agree that a negotiated settlement would be the best solution, but there is no point in negotiating with somebody who does not have a mandate to agree with any of the negotiation points being put to them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is up to the European Commission to change the mandate of its negotiator, Commissioner Šefčovič, so we can have those negotiations and come to an agreement, and so that the people of Northern Ireland can live safe and secure in the knowledge that we are coming to an agreement on this issue?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want a negotiated solution. We have been part of those negotiations for 18 months, but fundamentally the mandate does not allow for the solutions that will help restore the primacy of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and get rid of the unacceptable frictions that we are seeing in east-west trade. I suggest that Opposition Members direct their calls for negotiations towards the European Union and the goal of securing a new mandate. I think that would be a better use of their time.

The protocol Bill introduced to this House last week breaks international law. It risks the integrity of the Good Friday agreement. It divides the UK and the European Union at a time when we should be pulling together against Putin’s war on our continent, and it risks causing new trade barriers during a cost of living crisis. It is not even enough to get the Democratic Unionist party to commit to return to Stormont. Will the Foreign Secretary now quit posturing for Back Benchers who have lost confidence in the Prime Minister, and get back to the hard work and graft of negotiating a practical way forward?

I am afraid to say that nothing the right hon. Gentleman has just said is accurate. The fact is that our Bill is legal, and we have laid it out in a legal statement. We are putting forward solutions—a green lane and a red lane—that protect the EU single market as well as allowing goods to flow freely around the United Kingdom.

We are very prepared to have those negotiations with the EU, but, at present, we have a negotiating partner that is unwilling to change the issues that are causing the problem in Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman should go to Northern Ireland to see the impact that is having on businesses, hauliers and traders who are facing this customs bureaucracy. It is fundamentally undermining the Good Friday agreement.

I will confess some puzzlement over this. The EU has negotiated a variety of changes to refine the protocol. There are dispute resolution mechanisms within the protocol. There has been a number of opportunities for talks. I have read this idea that the Government need to invoke necessity when there are already other ways of fixing this. That is garbage from start to finish.

In what possible sense can the Government claim that this illegal Bill, which they have brought forward but not scheduled, is a sensible way to resolve the situation when the EU is ready and open for talks? Most people in the Northern Ireland Assembly support the protocol. I counsel the Foreign Secretary that this is also a grievous miscalculation, because it has massively undermined trust at a point when trust is utterly fundamental to resolving this matter.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. We have been very open to negotiations for the past 18 months, but the EU has been unwilling to change the protocol. He can read last week’s comments of Vice-President Šefčovič that these customs procedures have to remain in place. The fact is that it is the customs procedures—the bureaucracy—that is preventing trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We are seeing trade diversion towards north-south trade and away from east-west trade, and it is undermining the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is why it is necessary that the UK Government act. The hon. Gentleman should focus his effort on getting the EU to change its negotiating mandate so that we can have a real negotiation.

Brazil: Violence against Journalists and Activists

8. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the level of violence against journalists, environmental campaigners and indigenous activists in Brazil. (900626)

I start by reflecting on the very sad disappearance of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira in the Amazon region of Brazil. Our thoughts are with their families. I offer thanks to all those involved in the search and rescue operation that was trying to find them. I pay tribute to both men and their commitment to improving our understanding of the Amazon, to its peoples and to the challenges currently faced there. Both men have left a strong legacy of defending and supporting the rights of indigenous peoples in Brazil.

Attacks on environmental activists and indigenous rights defenders in Brazil have increased in recent years, and we raise that regularly with the Government.

I thank the Minister for that response and I echo her comments about the tragic killings of Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira, but they are not alone. In 2020, at least 182 indigenous activists and 20 environmental campaigners were killed in Brazil. It is the relentless drive to develop the Amazon rainforest that is behind these murders. What are the Government doing to put maximum pressure on the Bolsonaro Government to reverse that trend, but also to reduce our complicity in this through our supply chains and the involvement of British companies in financing this?

We regularly engage with indigenous leaders and civil society organisations. We are in regular contact with Brazil’s national foundation for indigenous people. We are absolutely committed to defending and promoting the human rights of all and we continue to monitor very closely developments around indigenous rights in Brazil and raise concerns with the Government. We have already committed £259 million to help protect the Amazon, with £3 billion more of further funding committed at COP. We have also made it clear that trade should not be at the expense of the environment, climate commitments or, indeed, the concerns that the hon. Lady raises.

It is thanks to journalists and environmentalists such as Dom Phillips and Bruno Pereira that record deforestation, mining and logging, predatory fishing and drug trafficking have been exposed. Dom and Bruno were not on some travel adventure in Brazil, as has been suggested; like others who have been killed over the years, they were doing their job to report on the environmental damage taking place in Brazil that ultimately impacts on us all.

Will the Government work with other international authorities to have the case investigated in a swift, transparent and independent manner, without any interference—not just to seek justice for the families of Dom and Bruno, but to protect future journalists and environmentalists in their important work?

My hon. Friend is right that the case should be investigated. We are grateful to the Brazilian authorities for their help and engagement to date. There has been very close contact between, for example, the local and national police with our embassy team on the ground. It is really important that those who committed this heinous crime are held to account.

I put on the record my condolences to the family of Lancaster-born Dom Phillips. What steps is the Department taking to support Dom’s family through diplomatic means at this difficult time?

We have been in close contact with members of Dom’s family. We will continue to give consular support to them at this time and through the next processes related to this tragic event.

Rape and Sexual Violence in Conflict

9. What steps her Department is taking to help protect women and girls from the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict. (900628)

The use of rape and sexual violence in conflict is a war crime, and I have made tackling it a top priority. The UK is campaigning for it to be treated as a red line on a par with the use of chemical weapons. We will host a conference against sexual violence in November.

We have had terrible reports of rape and sexual assault by Russian troops in Ukraine. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure safe and effective evidence collection, so that those responsible can be held to account?

We have seen appalling reports of atrocities and the use of rape and sexual violence. We launched the Murad code earlier this year, which sets the global standard for safe evidence collecting. We have dispatched a team from the United Kingdom to the region to help with that evidence collection—by interviewing witnesses and survivors and preserving and collecting images and videos, for example.

Near Upper Committee Corridor there has been an exhibition in the last few days showing the experiences of young women and girls who have been raped and sexually abused in Myanmar, Syria and Nigeria. What the perpetrators of those awful crimes need is accountability. Can there be someone who will take the evidence and ensure those people know that some day they will go to prison, or even worse? They will receive that in the next world, but let us make sure they get it in this world.

Through the International Criminal Court and the work we are doing on evidence collecting, we are working to make sure that the people committing those appalling crimes are held to account—not just in Ukraine, but more widely around the world. That is one of the key aims of the conference we are hosting in November. We are also increasing our budget for women and girls development aid, specifically to tackle sexual violence.

I place on the record my deepest respect for and thanks to our wonderful development and diplomatic staff, who do a fantastic job in very difficult circumstances. I visited Afghanistan this month, which was truly heart-rending. It appears that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and I are the only British MPs to have visited. I wonder why the Foreign Secretary has failed to visit, one year since the fall of Kabul. She knows that protecting development gains for women in Afghanistan is fundamental, given that millions are facing starvation, new restrictions and the loss of livelihoods.

Rather than hosting a summit, maybe the Foreign Secretary can explain what she meant when she said that

“we are restoring the aid budget for women and girls back to its previous levels and we are also restoring the humanitarian aid budget.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 191.]

Given that she failed to give an oral statement to the House on her 10-year international development strategy, will she make a statement to the House on when she plans to reverse the £1.9 billion in aid cuts to women’s programming that have proven so damaging to women and girls and to our reputation abroad—or is she following the Prime Minister’s lead of chasing headlines and not delivering?

I utterly condemn the appalling actions of the Taliban in reversing women’s and girls’ rights. We are doing all we can together with our international counterparts, including hosting a pledging conference to secure more support for the people of Afghanistan. As I have said, we are restoring the women’s and girls’ budget back to £745 million a year, and we are also ensuring that the humanitarian budget is greater so that we can tackle these issues around the world.

Topical Questions

This Thursday I will be heading to Kigali for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. In a world where freedom and sovereignty are being threatened by aggressors, the Commonwealth is more important than ever. It represents a third of the world’s population and about 30% of the votes at the United Nations. The British Government will be backing Kamina Johnson Smith, the Jamaican Foreign Minister, as the new Secretary-General to ensure that the Commonwealth delivers for all its members in areas such as trade, investment and defending democracy.

In answer to an earlier question about Sri Lanka, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), said that she would continue to lobby the Sri Lankan Government, but that Government, and their military, are populated in part by people who are credibly accused of war crimes in a civil war that ended more than 10 years ago. The Americans thought that there was enough evidence to impose economic sanctions on some of those individuals. Is lobbying really the best that she can do?

On Sri Lanka, let me start by absolutely emphasising again that violence against peaceful protesters is unacceptable. We absolutely condemn the violence we see happening at the moment and we are urging everybody towards calm. We will continue to work to make sure that we support the country through funding from our conflict, stability and security fund, which has supported peacebuilding, and we continue to respect the independence of the prosecutor when it comes to investigating war crimes of the past.

T3. The world-class and well-respected Rwanda plan was designed to save lives in the channel, but the European Court of Human Rights is making a mockery of our attempts to protect our borders. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is now time to distance ourselves from the ECHR? (900611)

We were disappointed that last week’s flight was unable to depart, but we are not deterred from doing the right thing in delivering on our plans to control our nation’s borders. We are providing further information to the Court. It would not be appropriate to comment on individual cases at this time. However, we strongly believe that this project meets our obligations under both national and international law, and the Home Secretary has made it very clear that we will do what it takes to deliver this new partnership.

As the Secretary of State knows, 10 days ago I visited Afghanistan. Millions face starvation. One widow whose husband was murdered during the Taliban takeover explained that she was so desperate for money that she had considered selling her kidneys so that she could eat. Meanwhile, conflict continues to rage across the world in Yemen, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Mali and of course Ukraine. Given the scale of the conflicts across the world and the hunger crisis being driven across the world, why is humanitarian aid down by 35% on pre-cut levels? Why are we the only member of the G7 cutting foreign aid, and what impact will this have on our national interests and reputation abroad?

We are a major donor of humanitarian aid. On the Ukraine crisis, we are the third largest donor in the world. Through our international development strategy, we are committing £3 billion-worth of humanitarian aid over the next three years.

T4.   Chevening scholarships enable exceptional students from around the world to come and study here in the United Kingdom. What is being done to make sure that Ukrainian students can take advantage of this excellent programme despite the horrific war in their homeland? (900612)

Prior to Russia’s terrible invasion, 68 Ukrainian candidates were shortlisted for interviews for those really special Chevening scholarships. Obviously, those interviews could not take place, but I am absolutely delighted to give those brilliant, talented and often young people some good news: they will all be offered scholarships. That will treble the number of Chevening scholarships offered to Ukraine. For those who are unable to take up their scholarships, if, for example, they are defending their country, they will be able to defer.

T2. Alaa Abdel Fattah is a British national currently imprisoned in Egypt. He is on day 81 of his hunger strike. He is an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience who has been imprisoned for his pro-democracy views for eight of the nine years since Sisi took power. His family will be outside the FCDO today between 5 and 7 o’clock to ask, “Where is the Foreign Secretary?” Will she consider meeting them to discuss how we can ensure his release? (900610)

I assure the hon. Lady that we are working hard to secure Alaa Abdel Fattah’s release. Lord Ahmad has met the family and I am seeking a meeting with the Egyptian Foreign Minister who is due to visit the United Kingdom shortly, where I will raise this case.

T6. Last year, I visited Bosnia to understand first hand the situation in the country. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure peace and stability in the western Balkans? (900615)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that is a vital issue. We are seeing attempts by Russia to destabilise the western Balkans. I recently visited Sarajevo, as has the Minister for Europe and North America, to do what we can to support the country through greater investment, so that there are alternatives to malign investment, and to make clear our support for security in the nation.

T5. Last week marked the 15th anniversary of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which has caused a humanitarian crisis in the region. Will the Minister condemn the ongoing blockade and outline what steps the UK is taking to try to bring it to an end? (900614)

As it happens, after this session I will be travelling to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which will obviously be a good opportunity to explore a number of different issues and our bilateral relationship with Israel.

T7. Across the horn of Africa, we are seeing one of the worst droughts in 40 years. Coupled with the tragedy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that is pushing millions of people into starvation. What more can we do to help on the ground and save lives? [R] (900617)

This is a terrible tragedy. So far this year, we have provided more than £72 million of additional support to countries in the region, which is helping about 8 million people. We played a vital role in convening a roundtable in Geneva that raised about $400 million. Last week, I wrote to the president of the World Bank to urge it to mobilise further funding urgently. I will meet representatives of the Disasters Emergency Committee later this week to discuss further steps.

My constituent Godwin Suh from Bafut in Cameroon, who now lives in Nottingham, came to see me. He described the political violence that, as anglophones, he and his family have suffered. His brother is missing, his nieces and nephews have been hospitalised, and lately his house there has been badly damaged by Government forces. Will the Minister for Africa meet me and Godwin to hear more about the human rights challenges that many face in north-west and south-west Cameroon?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; the human rights situation in north-west and south-west Cameroon is really concerning. There have been recent incidents with tragic civilian casualties. I would be happy to meet and discuss it with him.

I welcome the statement last week that we are talking to our international partners about a Marshall fund for Ukraine. I previously suggested that we should consider not only seizing the assets of sanctioned Russians, but monetising them, either by putting a lien on them or by outright sale. Clearly, that would need to be done in conjunction with partners. Has my right hon. Friend considered that?

We are working with our allies and Ukraine on a new Marshall plan to help reconstruct Ukraine after the appalling war. There will be a Ukraine recovery conference in Lugano in the coming weeks, at which the United Kingdom will put forward our offer. We are looking at how we can seize Russian assets to help fund the rebuilding of Ukraine, which is something we are working on across Government and with our G7 partners.

A recent report by the Hong Kong Watch non-governmental organisation found that five Hong Kong officials and six lawmakers complicit in the ongoing human rights crackdown currently own property in the UK, so will the Government now commit to using the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 to sanction these Hong Kong and Chinese officials?

We remain deeply concerned about the appalling human rights violations in China and about the deterioration of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. We keep all evidence on potential designations under close review, guided by the objectives of the relevant sanctions regime, but it is not appropriate to speculate about future sanctions and designations as to do so would reduce their impact.

It is vital that we do not forget the painful lessons we learned in the wake of Hurricane Irma in 2017, a key component of which is always to have a naval presence in the region ahead of hurricane season. Will the Minister please assure me those preparations are already being made?

The Department co-ordinated a cross-Government hurricane exercise earlier this month as part of its review of plans to ensure the UK provides a rapid and effective response this year. Officials also hosted a pre-hurricane season conference in May. Having visited Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, I totally understand the importance of hurricane preparedness. I reassure my hon. Friend that I met the Minister for the Armed Forces last week to discuss how our Departments can work together on an effective and appropriate response in the event of a major disaster.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the FCDO has set an annual budget limit for the Independent Commission for Aid Impact that will prevent it from carrying out the workplan to scrutinise UK aid that it previously agreed with my Select Committee? Will she look into this, please?

I recently took over as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Latvia, and it was a pleasure to meet my opposite number from the Latvian Parliament, Rihards Kols, last week to discuss the importance of our future work together. Does the Minister agree that, now more than ever, it is important that we strengthen even further our long-standing relationship with countries such as Latvia that share a common set of values and principles with the UK?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking up his position. The UK enjoys close diplomatic, security and economic relations with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I recently went to Estonia, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has also been to the region and taken part in the three seas initiative that co-ordinates a number of workstreams in the Baltic and other parts of eastern Europe.

Since the illegal revocation of articles 370 and 35a, it has become absolutely clear that the right-wing Modi Government are bolder than ever before in their persecution of Kashmiris and minority groups in India. Most worrying, however, is the acceleration in their use of arbitrary arrest and detention of political and human rights activists, including Yasin Malik and hundreds of others, under the illegal Public Safety Act, which takes away any right to due process, yet the UK Government remain silent once more. Does the Foreign Secretary think it is right to continue negotiating a trade deal with the right-wing Modi Government, even at the expense of the blood of innocent men, women and children?

We are very clear that it is for the Indian and Pakistani Governments to find a long-term solution to Kashmir.

Canada is a key partner, and this morning I met the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, Nathan Cooper, who is keen to emphasise the potential for Alberta to help the UK through its present energy crisis. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to further deepen our relationship with Canada?

Canada is one of our closest allies. It is a fellow member of the G7, NATO and the Commonwealth, and we will shortly be joining it in the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. I speak regularly to my Canadian counterpart, and we are looking together at how we can bolster our energy security, in areas such as the one that my hon. Friend mentioned but also in the area of nuclear co-operation.

On Sunday, Francia Márquez, an internationally recognised environmental and human rights campaigner, made history by becoming the first black woman to be elected Vice-President of Colombia. Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be an environmental activist. Will the Minister commit herself to working with Francia Márquez and her new colleagues to ensure that the social and environmental rights of Colombia’s indigenous population are protected, and that UK aid for environmental programmes prioritises the protection of activists?

We work in Colombia on projects to promote peace and stability and also on projects to promote the environment and tackle climate change, and we will continue to do so.

The solution to the inflationary crisis that we face, driven by high energy prices and a lack of supply, is primarily international. What is my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary doing to challenge OPEC’s position of not intending to take action to increase supply? That strikes me as the single most important thing that the British Government could do to tackle the crisis internationally.

As my right hon. Friend says, we need to tackle energy supply. In the long term, that means more renewables and more use of nuclear energy, but in the short term, it does involve looking at oil and gas. My colleague the Energy Secretary is working closely with his counterparts, particularly in the Gulf region, and I also have frequent conversations with them. We do need to see supply increase in order to lower global process.

Will the Minister please update the House on the cases of the British citizens Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, who are still in Evin prison in Iran?

I can assure the House that the UK Government remain completely committed to securing the full release of British dual nationals held in Iran. That passion has not been diminished. I assure the right hon. Lady and the House that we will continue to work on this with as much alacrity and passion as ever we have.

On the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, can the Foreign Secretary give an assurance to businesses in Northern Ireland that are adversely affected by the east-west trade to which she has alluded that that problem will be solved as a result of her Bill, along with other political problems that will also be resolved as long as she proceeds with the Bill?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are proceeding with the Bill. We are also proceeding with close consultations with business on the precise design of the red and green lanes to ensure that it works for companies in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and also in the Republic of Ireland and the European Union, so that we can deliver the Bill as intended, freeing up east-west trade but also protecting that very important north-south relationship.

Bangladesh and northern India are facing some of the worst floods for 100 years. Many of my constituents are extremely worried about family and friends, especially in the Sylhet area. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will take action in respect of humanitarian aid, particularly when it comes to food, water and sanitation?

When I led the Joint Committee on Human Rights delegation to Strasbourg last week, we were repeatedly told that threats made by the United Kingdom to withdraw, or even just disengage, from the European convention on human rights risked giving succour to eastern European states, including Russia, which do not have the same respect for human rights and the rule of law that the United Kingdom has historically had. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the Prime Minister to tone down his veiled threats to leave the convention, and tell her more excitable Back Benchers to back off?

I honestly thought that the hon. and learned Lady would welcome the fact that the UK led in kicking Russia out of the Council of Europe and holding it to account.

Bills Presented

War Pension Scheme and Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (Public Inquiry) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Owen Thompson presented a Bill to establish an independent public inquiry into the administration of the War Pension Scheme and of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme by Veterans UK; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 September, and to be printed (Bill 51).

Ministerial Code (Enforcement) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Owen Thompson presented a Bill to make provision about the enforcement of the Ministerial Code; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 September, and to be printed (Bill 112).

Ministerial Interests (Public Appointments) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Owen Thompson presented a Bill to require a Minister to make an oral statement to Parliament if a person is appointed to a paid post by them, in whom, or a company in which, that Minister has a personal, political or financial interest.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 September, and to be printed (Bill 113).