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Topical Questions

Volume 724: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2022

Since being appointed, this ministerial team and I have criss-crossed the globe on behalf of the British people, including making visits to Somalia, Australia and Colombia. The Minister for Europe has visited more than half a dozen European capitals, I have been to multilateral events such as NATO, the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting and COP27 in Egypt. We do so to strengthen our bilateral and multilateral relationships so that we can address pressing issues such as illicit migration, climate change and the pressures being felt around the globe as a result of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but I am disappointed that he failed to mention the news this weekend that more than 11,000 children have been killed or maimed in the war in Yemen. As he knows, the truce has collapsed, escalation is feared and the humanitarian situation is desperate. In the past he has defended UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia on the basis of the UK’s strict arms export licensing criteria. Since the Government watered down those criteria—

I can inform the hon. Lady that I had a meeting with my Yemeni counterpart at COP27 in Egypt. I know that the plight of the Yemeni people is close to the hearts of many Members of the House. It remains a focus of the UK Government. We call on all sides involved in the conflict, especially the Houthis, to abide by the ceasefire agreement, but of course Saudi Arabia has, as all countries have, a legitimate right to self-defence.

T3. Carshalton and Wallington is home to many Ahmadiyya Muslims, who remain concerned about the continued persecution, especially by the Pakistani Government, of the Ahmadiyya community. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to raise the matter with the Government of Pakistan? [R] (902784)

My hon. Friend has a long track record of pursuing these important matters. We are raising this matter with the Government of Pakistan, and we will make sure he hears the outcome of those representations in due course.

Last week, the courageous Dunn family finally secured some justice for Harry, but the disrespect that they received from Ministers at the FCDO was a disgrace. Given the latest allegations that a bullying Tory Minister caused delays to Afghan evacuations, does the Foreign Secretary accept the need for an independent review of whether there has been a toxic culture at the FCDO that is undermining Britain on the global stage?

I completely reject the points the right hon. Gentleman has made. I pay tribute to my predecessor, the former Foreign Secretary, for the work that he did pursuing justice for the Dunn family, and I think it is completely inappropriate for the right hon. Gentleman to suggest anything otherwise.

T6.   The response of the Iranian regime to political process has been judicial murder. Two young men were reported to have been executed yesterday, and there is a list of 41 executions rumoured to be happening before the weekend. Will my right hon. Friend call in the Iranian ambassador and express our revulsion, and will he also introduce immediate sanctions against the Iranian regime? (902788)

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We have summoned senior Iranian diplomats to make clear the UK’s position on the brutality they are meting out on their own people, we have sanctioned judges involved in the secret courts that have imposed the death sentence on Iranian protesters, and we will continue to push the Iranian regime to do better.

T2. Is the Secretary of State aware of the abusive hate speech issued by Ken Mifsud-Bonnici, who works in the office of President Ursula von der Leyen, and his comments about Northern Ireland, which matched indeed the equivalent to a goose-step across Ireland by President Ursula von der Leyen herself when she spoke from Dublin? Could the Foreign Secretary indicate if he has spoken to those in the President’s office and asked them to disassociate themselves from those abusive comments about Northern Ireland? (902783)

I think it is incredibly important when we discuss issues as serious as this that everybody is cautious and thoughtful in their language. I had seen those comments, which were inappropriate.

T9. Notwith-standing the answer my right hon. Friend gave earlier, given that Germany now believes that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was behind several terror attacks against synagogues, that our own security services have revealed at least 10 attempted killings by the IRGC in the UK this year alone, and as the threat it poses looms ever closer to home, does the Foreign Secretary agree with me that now is the time to proscribe the IRGC? (902791)

My hon. Friend, who speaks with great passion and authority on this issue, knows that it is a long-standing Government policy that we do not speculate on future proscriptions. He will know that we have sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety, and we have brought specific actions against individuals who we know to be involved either with arms distributions or violations of international humanitarian law.

T4.   Does the Foreign Secretary or the Minister for Development believe that there should be an upper limit on the amount of the aid budget that can be spent in the UK? (902785)

All British aid must be spent in accordance with the OECD Development Assistance Committee rules governing its spending. The hon. Member is talking about the expenditure on the first year of a refugee’s time in the United Kingdom, and that is absolutely legitimate expenditure under the official development assistance rules.

Last week, G7 nations imposed a cap on the price of Russian oil exports in an attempt to limit the revenue fuelling Putin’s war in Ukraine. As G7 nations have already largely ceased purchasing oil from Russia, can my right hon. Friend explain to the House how this measure will be effective?

We are working alongside the G7 to end that reliance on Russian energy and with the international community to open up alternative sources of energy, ensuring market stability. We introduced an oil price cap designed to enable countries to access the oil they need at affordable prices while undermining Russia’s ability to profit from inflated prices.

T5.   Does the Minister agree that unjustifiable Iranian bombardments on Iraqi Kurdistan and other attacks require resolving disputes between Baghdad and Irbil plus accelerating economic and political reform, and that these should continue to be key themes for our excellent diplomats there? (902786)

I met the President and Foreign Minister of the newly installed Iraqi Government when I was in Egypt, and we of course have a very good working relationship with both Irbil and Baghdad. It is in the interests of all Iraqis that the relationship between Irbil and Baghdad is fruitful and we will continue to invest diplomatic effort to ensure that continues.

We have heard how Putin’s henchmen in the Wagner Group are implicated in many barbaric war crimes in Ukraine, including a brutal assassination of a defector, and how they are sending Russian prisoners to their deaths as cannon fodder, and a massacre in Mali. Do we let this evil continue or should the UK proscribe the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation?

My right hon. Friend rightly speaks with great passion about this as there has been terrible behaviour by members of the Wagner Group. She has been in my position so will recognise that we do not speculate on future proscription, but the actions of the Wagner Group are being watched by this Government and other Governments around the world.

T7. Why did the UK Government withdraw at the very last minute, on 10 December last year, from sanctioning the torturous and barbarous members of the Bangladesh rapid action battalion and then invite them to be trained in the UK in surveillance technology? (902789)

Understandably, the process by which sanctions are applied needs to be done discreetly. I am not able to discuss in detail how sanctions are processed, but I will ensure we get details to the hon. Gentleman on this issue.

In the south-east corner of Europe, Azerbaijan is again waging a human rights abuse against the people of Armenia. Today it has cut off the Lachin corridor, cutting off the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, on top of the continued detention of prisoners of war, their torture, and lobbing shells into Armenian sovereign territory. Will the Foreign Secretary haul in the Azerbaijan ambassador, read him the riot act and take a delegation of the all-party group on Armenia—I declare an interest as its chair—to put a stop to this continued attempt at genocide and ethnic cleansing?

My hon. Friend takes a keen interest in this issue. I spoke with the Azerbaijan ambassador yesterday on a range of issues, and I will reiterate a point I have always called for: de-escalation in that area.

T8.   Yesterday Reuters reported on a massacre by Nigerian Government forces that included at least 10 children who were allegedly unarmed and shot while lying down. Reports said children, some born from rape by Jihadist fighters, are being viewed as tainted. Treating children like that is abhorrent, so what action has the Secretary of State taken to raise these issues with the Nigerian Government and ensure accountability for alleged war crimes even during operations against jihadist armed groups? (902790)

The hon. Lady is right to raise this matter, which is of immense concern, and we will be raising all the issues she has set out through our high commissioner in Abuja.

The management of the official development assistance budget has been chaotic, leading to a freeze in so called non-essential spending. Can the Minister tell us what the impacts have been and will he publish any impact assessment that has been done?

The first thing to say is that the pause has now been lifted. I know there is some concern in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency about the R&D spend, and I am very pleased to tell him that, despite the extremely difficult circumstances of the ODA budget, we do not expect there to be a reduction in that level of spend.

The backlog of academic technology approval scheme certifications means that many research projects at Durham University are being delayed. What actions are being taken to ensure that any cases my office raises with the Department are investigated and responded to immediately?

We have received more than 49,000 ATAS applications, of which only 824 remain beyond the target processing time. I am happy to pick up with the hon. Lady any specific cases that she wishes me to look at.

What is the Foreign Office going to do about the significant delays in the academic technology approval scheme, which is preventing professors at Edinburgh University and Heriot-Watt University from getting the top PhD candidates?

ATAS continues to be an essential tool to prevent sensitive UK technologies from reaching military programmes of concern, so we are proud of the work done by our incredible team to monitor and manage every single case. I am happy to sit down with the hon. and learned Lady if there are specific cases that she wishes me to look at.

Yesterday, I learned that I was to be sanctioned by the Iranian regime for my support for human rights and freedom in Iran. I assure the House that that support will continue unabated. What support are the Government giving to the BBC Persian service?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wear that sanction designation as a badge of honour, because the point that he has made in standing up for the voice of the Iranian people who are being oppressed by their own regime is an important one. We take the protection of people here in the UK, whether British nationals or Iranians, incredibly seriously, and I will work with the Home Office to ensure that that protection is meaningful and strong.

We know about the draconian restrictions faced by women and girls in Afghanistan. The new all-party parliamentary group for Afghan women and girls, which I co-chair, has written to the Foreign Secretary and looks forward to his response. Will he commit that in any conversations or negotiations that he has with the Taliban, the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan will be prioritised?

The protection of women and girls remains an absolute foundation stone of Britain’s foreign policy. We look upon the images we see coming out of Afghanistan, with humiliation and abuse meted out against Afghan women, and take our response incredibly seriously. I assure her that that will always be a firm point when we raise things with the Afghanistan Government.