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Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What diplomatic steps his Department is taking to help support the re-opening of the Lachin corridor and alleviation of the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh. (903363)

We seek a return to negotiation and a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. I spoke to Armenian Foreign Minister Mirzoyan on 18 January regarding the humanitarian situation there, and I met the Azerbaijani ambassador yesterday and noted the urgent need to reopen the Lachin corridor immediately. The Start Fund, to which the United Kingdom is a significant donor, has activated a £350,000 response to support those affected by the developing situation.

This blockade has now run for 50 days and is placing children at risk of malnutrition because of the lack of food and medicine getting through. We have also seen human rights organisations making claims of extrajudicial killings and abuse of prisoners in Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet, when the Minister wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) to answer her concerns, he bafflingly talked about an expectation that the internal investigation by the Azerbaijan Prosecutor’s Office would produce meaningful results. Surely it cannot be right for the same judge and jury to be marking their own homework? Why can we not press for international, independent solutions to this terrible tragedy?

What we are pressing for is a return to negotiations and a peaceful settlement to this conflict; I will travel to the region in the coming months and I will make that point.

Is the Minister aware that last week at the Council of Europe we held a debate on this very subject? The benefit of that debate was that both the Azeris and the Armenians were present and participating. It was a tense diplomatic stand-off, because there are other, bigger powers involved in the situation. Does he agree that the situation must be approached very carefully?

Indeed I do. I am aware of that debate and I applaud my hon. Friend’s work on the Council of Europe. We hope that both sides will return to the negotiating table and we will use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that there are no destabilising influences from outside the region.

Iran: Nuclear Capability

2. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of Iran's nuclear capabilities. (903364)

Iran’s nuclear programme has, sadly, never been more advanced than it is today. Iran continues to escalate its nuclear activities and in doing so threatens international peace and security. We continue to work closely with our international friends and allies to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The option of engaging more usefully with the joint comprehensive plan of action is in the hands of the Iranians, but they have spectacularly failed to grasp that opportunity.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that clear and helpful answer. As he rightly says, Iran is deliberately seeking to breach the JCPOA agreement by enriching uranium. Just as we have led the world in helping Ukraine, I ask that we be the main country now to initiate the snapback, to use the technical term, of the JCPOA agreement, to show that Iran cannot get away without having sanctions applied.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The future of Iran is in the hands of the Iranians, but the leadership of that country, on this as in so many areas, has demonstrated a spectacular failure of judgment. It is in their gift to alleviate the sanctions imposed upon them through their actions, but they have spectacularly failed to do so. We reserve the right to take further such actions if they do not desist from their attempt to acquire nuclear weapons.

Can the Foreign Secretary explain how the Government are dealing with the military threat to our allies from Iran through its proxies and through its arms trade and arms sales? What are the Government doing to counter the flow of Iranian drones to Russia to support its illegal war against Ukraine?

Iran’s actions, both through militia proxies in the region and through the supply of military weapons to Russia that are then used in Ukraine, are completely unacceptable. We have implemented more than 50 new sanctions designations in recent months in response to Iranian human rights abuses and its military support to Russia. We will continue to work closely with our international partners to take further actions to make it clear that that behaviour is unacceptable.

Access to Education for Women

Britain is leading the campaign to secure education for girls and women across the developing world. This is not, of course, just about the numbers entering school, but about ratcheting up the quality of education overall.

I very much welcome the support that my right hon. Friend’s Department continues to provide to educate women around the world, but can he confirm that he will continue to work with our G7 allies to ensure that they play their part in helping us to get an additional 40 million girls into school by 2026?

I hardly dare answer my right hon. Friend’s question such is her expertise in this matter. I can tell her that the UK has committed to tackling the global education crisis through the girls’ education action plan, which was set up in 2021, and through two G7-endorsed global objectives to get 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 by 2026.

In Afghanistan, women are locked out of learning and girls are shut out of school, and the recent ban on aid workers has made the situation much worse. I think that we should stand with women and girls in Afghanistan, so will the Minister confirm that there will not be any cuts to the official development assistance going to Afghanistan?

The hon. and gallant Gentleman knows a great deal about Afghanistan from his deep experience. He is absolutely right to say that the violation of women’s rights in Afghanistan—particularly girls’ schooling—is absolutely outrageous. We are doing everything that we can in terms of expertise, money and influence around the world to ensure that we stop it.


4. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the time taken by his Department to impose sanctions on the Myanmar military regime. (903366)

The human rights situation in Myanmar is appalling. The regime has cracked down on any dissent. The security forces continue to commit atrocities, including acts of sexual violence and village burnings. The UK has worked quickly, in close co-ordination with partners, to impose 13 tranches of sanctions to target the regime’s credibility and its access to finance, weapons and equipment.

This week marks the second anniversary of the military coup against Myanmar’s civilian Government, who were internationally recognised. There remain many sources of revenue for the military, such as the No. 1 Mining Enterprise and the No. 2 Mining Enterprise. Many Russian and Burmese companies continue to supply arms and equipment to the military but are yet to be sanctioned. Although I welcome the actions that the Government have taken, can the Minister assure us that the Government will put in the resources needed by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to ensure that those companies are sanctioned, and that consideration will be given to sanctioning aviation fuel, which is being used for airstrikes by the regime in Myanmar, killing civilians in that country?

The UK Government continue to condemn the military coup in Myanmar, the violence against the people, and the arbitrary detention of members of the Government and civil society. In 2021-22, we provided £49.4 million in aid to Myanmar, including £24 million of lifesaving assistance for 600,000 people. We are committed to preventing the flow of arms to Myanmar, so we continue to impose targeted sanctions to undermine the regime’s credibility and to target its access to finance and arms. As the hon. Lady knows, we continue to monitor all issues around future sanctions.

Two years on from the military coup, and despite the implementation of an arms embargo and targeted sanctions, components for weapons are still getting to Myanmar. What steps are the Government taking with regional partners to crack down on that?

As I have said, we are committed to preventing the flow of arms to Myanmar, and we continue to impose those targeted sanctions. We can use those tools to undermine the regime’s credibility and to target its access to finance and arms. Most recently, we issued a new suite of sanctions to mark Human Rights Day in December 2022.

Can my right hon. Friend tell me what we are doing to support those highlighting the atrocious actions of the Myanmar junta?

The challenge of being able to know what those atrocities are is difficult, and we rely on those who are brave enough to share their information. We established the Myanmar Witness programme, run by the Centre for Information Resilience, which gathers and reports on open-source information on serious human rights violations. Incredibly brave people are working with our teams to make sure that we understand more of what is going on.

Burma is ranked No. 14 on the Open Doors “World watch list” for countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. Only a matter of weeks ago, Myanmar’s military destroyed the 129-year-old Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in the village of Chan Thar. It is considered one of the most historic Christian sites in the country and is where the first Bishop of Burma was baptised. The military gave no explanation for this assault. With Christians making up about 8% of the population of Burma, what are the Government doing to ensure that Christians are protected and allowed to thrive?

My hon. Friend knows that the UK is committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all, and we absolutely condemn any instances of discrimination or attempts to destroy places of worship. We continue to work with our international partners to make those points, and we continue to review sanctions on those causing that sort of destruction.

As we all know, the UK is the penholder on Myanmar at the United Nations. Which members of British industry has the Minister met to discuss the inadvertent use of shipping or other forms of industry to allow or somehow facilitate the Tatmadaw to get components, fuel or weapons to persecute its dreadful crimes? Which members of British industry has she met to challenge them and to ask whether there are perhaps inadvertent ways that those components are getting through?

I will be visiting the region next week, and I will be meeting a number of organisations to hear some of the issues they are concerned about. The hon. Lady raises the important question of those businesses that are still supporting, and there are some things we need to look at closely. We use our sanctions where we can, but I will be continuing to meet and hear from all those who can help us to understand how we can most effectively use our tools to stop anything that supports the junta.

Pakistan: Flooding

UK aid continues to save lives in Pakistan. The UK has pledged a total of £36 million of aid for flood relief efforts in Pakistan. More than £25 million of that has been disbursed, supporting aid agencies to meet the immediate needs of those affected through the provision of water, sanitation, shelter and protection services for women and girls. The impact of that was seen at first hand by Lord Ahmad when he visited at the end of last year.

Many people in my constituency have family and friends in Pakistan, and I know that, like me, they welcome the continued support my hon. Friend’s Department has provided to help Pakistan recover from the recent terrible floods. They were a dreadful natural disaster, but yesterday we saw the most appalling outrage at human hands in Pakistan with the grotesque terrorist attack on a mosque in Peshawar. Can he assure me and my constituents that the UK is doing everything we can to support Pakistan in the face of both natural disasters and human atrocities?

I can assure my hon. Friend that that is the case. Our thoughts are of course with the families and friends of those tragically killed and injured in yesterday’s abhorrent attack. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon passed on his condolences yesterday to Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights, Mian Riaz Hussain Pirzada, and the UK continues to work closely with the Government of Pakistan to tackle the many security challenges facing that country.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

7. What recent assessment he has made of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ role in Iran’s activities in the region. (903370)

The Government wholly condemn the destabilising activity of the IRGC in the region and beyond. That includes support for military proxies and attacks and threats against Iran’s regional neighbours. We have put in place more than 300 sanctions against Iranian individuals and entities, including the sanctioning of the IRGC in its entirety.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s answer, but there has been a major groundswell in calls for the UK to proscribe the IRGC in recent months. This terror organisation’s record speaks for itself, whether that is arming and financing its terror proxies, assisting Putin’s murderous assault on Ukraine, intensifying involvement in the international drugs trade and now brazenly increasing its activities right here in the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend heed these urgent calls for proscription and commit to curtailing the IRGC’s ever-growing threat?

My hon. Friend speaks with accuracy and passion about the malign impact of the IRGC around the world and in the region, and its attempts to intimidate and injure journalists here in the UK. I will not comment specifically on what further actions we might take—he will understand the reasons we choose not to do so—but I can assure him that we do not limit ourselves to the actions that I have announced when it comes to ensuring that the IRGC’s regional and international activities are curtailed.

My constituent Hamid Bahrami is one of a number of Iranian constituents who are deeply frightened by the activities of the IRGC here in the UK. Can the Secretary of State tell me more about what he is doing to protect Iranians who have come here for sanctuary but find themselves still threatened by IRGC agents?

My Department works closely with the Home Office to ensure that people who live here in the UK, irrespective of their heritage or birthplace, feel the umbrella of protection that they deserve. We will continue to work closely on threats against Iranians here in the UK.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is responsible for 10 kidnap and death plots on British soil, the execution of Alireza Akbari, the unjust imprisonment of British nationals, supporting violent militia across the middle east and the brutal crackdown on courageous Iranian protesters. Labour has been clear, and I wonder if we might get clarity from the Foreign Secretary. We would proscribe the IRGC, either by using existing terrorism legislation or by creating a new process of proscription for hostile state actors. When will the Foreign Secretary act?

I am tempted to refer the right hon. Gentleman to my previous answer. We have already sanctioned more than 300 individuals and entities because of the crackdown on protesters and the brave women in Iran standing up for their rights. We have sanctioned members of the judiciary who have abused their own legal system to persecute those women. We have sanctioned individuals and entities who have been involved in supplying drones that Russia uses to attack Ukraine. We have sanctioned the prosecutor general, who was responsible for passing down the judgment on Mr Akbari. We will continue to take action to curtail the IRGC’s ability to do those things. As I have said, we do not limit ourselves to the responses that I have announced. We always keep our options under review.

Palestinian Territories: Israeli Settlements

8. Whether it remains the Government’s policy that Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories are illegal. (903371)

If the Israeli Government settlements are illegal, why did the UK Government vote against referring them to the International Court of Justice at the United Nations? What sanctions are being applied to Israel for supplying arms and trading with illegally produced settlement products? If those settlements are completely illegal, as the Government say, why are we having anything to do with them at all? Why did we change our stance at the United Nations?

The United Kingdom opposes unilateral resolutions that damage efforts to advance dialogue and therefore damage the prospects of a two-state solution. The UK’s position on settlements has been clear, consistent and unambiguous. We continue to work towards a negotiated two-state solution. We strongly believe that that is in the best interests of Israelis and Palestinians. That will remain our policy.

Having recently had the opportunity to visit the west bank with the International Development Committee, I was able to understand just how much worse conditions have become in the past 10 years or so for Palestinian families wishing to see one another within the west bank. What steps have the Government taken to impress upon the Israeli Government how poorly we regard moves to balkanise the west bank itself? What further can be done?

We enjoy a close and professional working relationship with the Government of Israel, which allows us to raise areas of co-ordination and co-operation but also issues where we disagree. Our position on the west bank and settlements is clear, and we have highlighted the importance for not just the Palestinian people but for Israel and Israelis of maintaining a credible route to a viable Palestinian state. We strongly believe that is in Israel’s best interests, and therefore we do speak out—we have done in the past, and we will do again—if decisions are made that we believe jeopardise the credible option of a viable two-state solution.

We are deeply concerned by the escalating violence in Israel and the west bank, and Labour joins the international community in condemning the recent attacks and deploring the deaths of civilians. In response to my letter about forced evictions and demolitions in Masafer Yatta, the Minister for the Middle East said that the Government were

“clear that in all but the most exceptional of circumstances, demolitions and forced evictions are contrary to International Humanitarian Law… and harmful to efforts to promote peace.”

Can the Secretary of State tell us what steps are being taken to ensure that Israel stops the eviction of Palestinians from their homes and what efforts are being made to support negotiations to keep alive the prospect of a two-state solution, with a safe and secure Israel alongside a viable and sovereign Palestine?

I had a telephone conversation with the recently appointed Israeli Foreign Minister, in which I congratulated him on his appointment and also made it clear that the UK’s long-standing position on peace in the region remains as passionate now as it ever was. We always encourage calm responses by the Israeli Government and restraint and professionalism while they pursue their own legitimate attempts at self-defence. We look at the deaths that are happening in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which of course are deeply distressing. We will continue working directly with the Israeli Government, partners in the region and other interested countries around the world to pursue peace and de-escalation and to try to make real our collective desire for a peaceful, sustainable two-state solution.

The Arctic

We are looking to publish a refreshed UK Arctic policy framework in the coming weeks. It will be an evolution of the existing 2018 framework, “Beyond the Ice”, integrated with the UK’s contribution to Arctic security, as set out in the Ministry of Defence’s “The UK’s Defence Contribution in the High North”, published in March 2022.

A glance at the retreating ice in the Arctic amply demonstrates the realities of climate change. When this report comes out, which I very much hope it will, will it highlight the outstanding excellence of British science and the contribution that British science—both the British Antarctic Survey and the superb university scientific departments—can make to halting and reversing climate change?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend, who is the esteemed chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions and sits on the Environmental Audit Committee, which held an inquiry into this area, that the refreshed UK Arctic policy will showcase the UK’s significant contribution to Arctic science, with a particular focus on understanding the implications of climate change, where we have a leading position.

The Minister will be acutely aware that Russia poses a huge threat, and Norway, in particular, is in tune with what that threat might mean. What co-operation is taking place between Norway and the United Kingdom to ensure that the Russian threat is not made a reality?

We work very closely with Norway, not through the report that we are talking about but through other bodies, and we will continue to do so because, as the hon. Member says—it is a very important point—Russia is increasingly militarising its Arctic territory. We expect Russia to comply with international law, and we will collaborate with our partners and allies to protect our interests and theirs.

I am glad to hear that the report is forthcoming, and I hope it takes good note of the Scottish Government’s 2019 Arctic strategy. For the reasons we have heard from Members on both sides of the House—there is a lot of agreement on this—the Scottish Government recognise the significance of the High North and the Arctic to us; it is our backyard, and we are a willing partner to work with the UK. We have different views on Scotland’s best constitutional future, but it is our High North, it is our backyard, and it needs a lot more attention. The Scottish Government are working on it, and I urge the Minister to redouble his efforts.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his points, of which we will of course take note. I reassure him that the Foreign Secretary for the United Kingdom—the whole of the United Kingdom—is taking an active interest in that subject.

UK Pensioners: Commonwealth Countries

10. What steps he is taking to provide consular support for UK pensioners in Commonwealth countries. (903373)

We provide support to British pensioners in Commonwealth countries on the same basis as we do for any British national in foreign or Commonwealth countries. Our consular staff are contactable 24/7, 365 days a year and strive to provide the right tailored assistance to those who request our help, doing more for those who need more help.

Newport West is home to people from across the globe, many of whom have family living in other parts of the world. Those relatives are some of the 1.2 million UK pensioners living abroad, about half of whom do not receive the annual increases in their pensions related to inflation. Will the Minister answer Labour’s call to right that wrong?

I will take note of the particular issues and raise them with the Department for Work and Pensions, which is responsible for those policy areas.

Co-ordination on all Commonwealth issues is assisted by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s international branch, which is located in London. It is about to move, because the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is not bringing forward legislation to change its status. Will my right hon. Friend speak to other Ministers to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, before we lose that important asset?

My hon. Friend will, I hope, be aware that there was a meeting a couple of weeks ago with my fellow Minister Lord Goldsmith to discuss the issue in more detail. Officials are working closely with him to find a resolution.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: Women and Girls

11. What recent steps his Department has taken to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene for women and girls across the world. (903374)

I refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. A third of women around the world do not have access to clean water. In December, I visited Ghana and saw how water, sanitation and hygiene projects funded by UK aid can be life-changing for women and girls. The Government’s international development strategy commits to “empowering women and girls” around the world, but it does not go far enough. Can the Minister assure me that his Department will prioritise funding for WASH projects for women and girls?

I thank the hon. Lady, my constituency neighbour, for flagging up an extremely important area of development policy. Over the last three years, Britain has trained 460,000 health and other key workers in the science of hygiene, and has supported 14,800 healthcare facilities. As she will have seen from her visit to Ghana, that is highly prioritised by the British Government.

Research by Open Doors for its world watch list indicates that there is a worrying tendency for Christian communities to be deprived of access to vital aid programmes. Will the Minister ensure that all UK-funded aid programmes are open to Christians, where needed, and other ethnic minorities?

We have now passed the halfway mark to the 2030 deadline for meeting the sustainable development goals that we and 192 UN countries signed up to. On our current trajectory, however, we are set to miss every single one. Does the Minister agree that WASH is a cornerstone of the global goals and, to meet his targets on girls’ education and ending preventable deaths, schools and hospitals need clean water and sanitation? Will he restore the official development assistance for WASH, which has dropped by two thirds, as part of the women and girls strategy?

The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. Since the programmes were renewed in 2015, 63 million people in the poorest countries now have access to clean water and a lavatory, thanks to the UK taxpayer. Specifically, support for the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, which promotes access to sustainable water resources, is a high priority for the Government.

Alaa Abd El-Fattah

We are deeply concerned about the continued detention of Alaa Abd El-Fattah and are committed to supporting Mr El-Fattah and his family. Since Mr El-Fattah’s sentencing in December 2021, His Majesty’s Government have made numerous representations concerning his imprisonment, welfare and lack of consular access. This includes through successive interventions by Prime Ministers with President Sisi and engagement with senior Egyptian Government figures led by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers.

We know from the Minister and the Prime Minister that the Government have been in discussions with Egypt about ensuring the release of British national Alaa Abd El-Fattah from prison, but little progress seems to have been made. Members of Alaa’s family are in the Gallery today hoping for good news, so will the Minister commit to a meeting with Alaa’s family to discuss at greater length what the UK Government are doing to place diplomatic pressure on Egypt on this matter?

I thank the hon. Member for her follow-up question, and I know through my conversations with her that she feels very strongly about this. We have been providing regular consular support to Mr El-Fattah’s family and recognise that they are here today, but my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, the Minister for the Middle East, has met family members previously. He will continue to closely engage with the family, keep them informed of developments and work with the Egyptian authorities on this case. It is an important case for us, absolutely.

Alaa Abd El-Fattah is a British citizen, as we know, and one of Egypt’s leading democracy campaigners who still remains in jail. The Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have previously raised his case on numerous occasions, but Egypt still continues to prevent consular access and Alaa is no closer to being released. What is the diplomatic cost to that Government for denying consular access to a British citizen, and what precedent does it set when that access is denied without consequence?

As I said previously, the FCDO has been supporting Mr El-Fattah and his family, and it is a case that we have been supporting. We have long advocated for the release of Mr El-Fattah and other defendants, along with international partners. The issue is that, as the Egyptian authorities have not recognised his dual nationality, consular staff have been unable to visit him in prison. However, we are in regular contact through his lawyer and his family, and we are continuing to press for action in this case, including his release.

UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement

13. What recent discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the implementation of the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement. (903376)

The UK is fully committed to implementing the TCA for the benefit of all UK citizens and businesses. Specifically on engagement, I have had calls or meetings with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič since being appointed in September, including on 30 September, 17 and 27 October, 1 December 2022, and 9 and 16 January 2023, and I will be having further such meetings in due course.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but it is quite remarkable, is it not, that three years after the exit from the European Union, this Government are still in protracted negotiations—not just with the EU, but with themselves—about the terms on which we are finally going to get Brexit done. With today’s publication of a report by the International Monetary Fund showing not only that the size of the UK economy will shrink over the coming 12 months, but that it will perform more poorly than major competitor economies, can the Secretary of State tell us whether there is a single aspect of prosperity or standing in the world he can think of that has been enhanced in any way by the terms on which we have left?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if he is suggesting our exit from the European Union has been tricky, I think that is probably a fair assessment. I would just mildly make the point that if he thinks that is tough, imagine what extricating Scotland from one of the longest and most successful Unions in human history would be like. I have absolutely no doubt that our good, professional and strong working relationship with Maroš Šefčovič and his officials and other members of the European Commission will ultimately be successfully. However, I would strongly urge him to learn lessons when it comes to the ease with which one can extricate oneself from Unions, whether they be European or—

Thank you, Mr Speaker—a well-timed riposte if ever I heard one. The difference between the UK leaving the European Union and Scotland leaving the UK and joining the EU is that we are clear about what we want and how to do it. Within the trade and co-operation agreement, UK in a Changing Europe did us all a favour by highlighting the various deadlines that exist for further clarity for further sectors. I would offer my support. Brexit has happened. I am not interested in fighting old battles, and I want to get a result for us all. On 31 December this year, arrangements for financial services passporting will come to an end. How is progress going on ensuring that that industry, which is vital for us all, has clarity going forward?

We want to provide clarity for all UK industries, and ensure that we have a good and close economic relationship, as well as a social relationship with our near neighbours and good partners. Reinforcing the point I made to the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), I think that the pipe dream about the ease with which a Scotland separated from the UK could join the EU requires a bit closer analysis, and what Scotland would do for money, and to bring the budget deficit in line with the membership criteria of the EU, would be interesting. We will, of course, ensure that the UK financial services sector remains internationally competitive.

Ukraine: Humanitarian Support

16. What assessment he has made of the impact of his Department’s humanitarian support for Ukraine. (903379)

21. What diplomatic steps his Department is taking to strengthen the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (903384)

The UK has committed £220 million of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and the region, enabling the provision of essential services and protection for the most vulnerable. A review of humanitarian spend will be published later this year. The UK is working closely with our international partners, including those in the G7, to accelerate efforts to secure a just and sustainable peace for the people of Ukraine.

Britain continues to be united in providing support to Ukraine, and the generosity shown up and down the country has been inspiring, particularly in my constituency where the wonderful charity SHARE—Supporting Homeless, Assisting Refugees Everywhere—was instrumental in supplying hundreds of lorryloads of support to the frontline. Sadly, the illegal war continues, and key areas of infrastructure in Ukraine have been decimated. What long-term commercial links are the Government building with Ukraine, to ensure that reconstruction efforts are successful and sustainable?

The hon. Lady makes an incredibly important point. We are proud of the role that the UK has played in helping Ukraine to defend itself against the initial attack by Russia, and increasingly it is pushing Russian forces back in the east and south of the country as it successfully repulses the illegal invasion. She is right to say that we should be thinking about what happens next, and the reconstruction and reform programme. We will be hosting an event in June this year where the international community will come together to discuss the long-term relationship with Ukraine, to ensure its safety and economic rebound.

It is vital that we continue to support the people of Ukraine. I would have liked to reiterate my call to proscribe the evil Wagner group, but I know the Foreign Secretary cannot answer that question. I therefore ask him for an update on what is being done to ensure that Russia pays for the damage it is causing, and specifically for his thoughts on the Canadian model that is targeting frozen assets of oligarchs. I encourage him to consider whether income generated by frozen Russian state assets could be deployed urgently.

It is the most obvious tenet of natural justice that those individuals and entities who funded the brutality that is being directed at Ukraine and the Ukrainian people are ultimately those who should go on to carry the heaviest burden for the payment, and the cost of the reconstruction and rebuilding of that country. We work closely with our Canadian allies. I discussed this matter with the Canadian Prime Minister on my recent visit to Canada, and we will look closely and learn lessons from their activities on this issue.

North Staffordshire MPs recently held an event at Alton Towers to welcome all the new Ukrainian refugees in the area and their host families. We were addressed very movingly by the Ukrainian MP Olga Stefanishyna, who lost her husband in the early stages of the war, as the Foreign Secretary may know. Her children are in London on the Homes for Ukraine scheme, and she addressed us so movingly. She stressed the importance of the international community getting aid and military equipment to the frontline as quickly as possible, because every day is costing more and more Ukrainian lives. What diplomatic steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that our allies also hear that message?

My hon. Friend speaks about the compassion and support of his constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme for Ukrainian refugees. Other families in the region and across the UK have offered that, too. That is their important contribution to Ukraine’s war effort. Our contribution is that military aid, the economic aid and reconstruction aid, but also to ensure that we rouse our friends in the international community to provide the Ukrainians with the tools that they need to liberate themselves from Russian aggression. We were there at the start and will be there at the finish. We will continue to support the Ukrainians in their self-defence.

Russia is seeking to expand its sphere of influence in Africa and Asia. Ukraine is seeking for partners such as the UK to persuade other Governments of the justice of Ukraine’s course. How much more difficult is it for the British Government to exercise such influence since their decision to cut total international development spending?

The hon. and gallant Gentleman is right to say that Russia has made a concerted effort to fracture the international coalition of condemnation, particularly in the global south and in Africa. My ministerial colleagues and I, and in particular the Development Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), have been doing very focused work on countering Russian disinformation in the global south about the war in Ukraine, highlighting that it is Russian aggression that is limiting food supplies to the global south. We know that will be an enduring piece of work, and I assure him and the House that we will continue to make people understand who is genuinely at fault in this.

Iran: Human Rights and Other International Obligations

18. What diplomatic steps he is taking to encourage the Iranian Government to comply with its (a) human rights and (b) other obligations under international law. (903381)

The brutal repression of protests in Iran shows the regime’s systematic disregard for human rights. Since October 2022, the UK has implemented 50 new sanctions for human rights violations in Iran. I have summoned Iran’s most senior diplomat in the UK five times to highlight the UK’s opposition to the actions that it is taking. With partners, we have expelled Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and we will not rest in our endeavours to hold the Iranian regime to account.

Where human rights abuses are rife, such as in Iran right now, maintaining access to an independent media is vital. Last year, the Government rightly provided emergency funding for the BBC World Service in Ukraine. Will the Secretary of State commit to providing similar funding to BBC Persian radio to save it from closure at the very moment when it is most needed?

The funding arrangements for the BBC World Service are held jointly between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Ultimately, the funding is through the BBC licence fee. I have spoken with the leadership of the BBC about the importance of maintaining foreign language services such as BBC Persian. Ultimately, the decisions on its structures are for the BBC, but of course we have an input. The hon. Member makes the incredibly important point that we maintain support to independent voices in Iran and elsewhere. One of the functions of the British embassy in Iran is to ensure that those Iranians who are standing up and shouting loud about the abuses of their Government are listened to on the international stage.

Since September, the Iranian regime has murdered 700 of its own citizens, gunning them down in the streets, arrested and imprisoned 30,000—many of them were tortured in prison—executed two, with another 57 due to be executed, and carried out acts of terror, including in this country, through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Is it not time that the Government made it clear to the Iranian regime that, first, we will not negotiate any deals with them—nuclear or otherwise—to lift sanctions; secondly, we will refer members of the regime to the International Court of Justice; and, thirdly, we will proscribe the IRGC?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the scale of the abuses the Iranian regime is perpetrating against its own people, purely in response to their demands for the freedoms we enjoy in other parts of the world. As I said, we have sanctioned entities and individuals, including members of the judiciary and the Prosecutor General, specifically in response to death penalties they have handed out. It is incredibly important that those involved in those atrocities are held to account. I can assure him that we work with our international friends and partners to pursue that aim.

Reports suggest that 56 people have been executed in Tehran for the mere crime of protesting against the regime. Yesterday, the Azerbaijan embassy was attacked and one security guard was murdered. So will my right hon. Friend examine the security for our embassy over there, encourage our nationals to leave Iran as quickly as possible, close our embassy down, and close down the Iranian embassy in London and all the other facilities it runs?

I have expressed condolences directly to the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry for the loss of one of its employees in the attack in Tehran. I spoke recently with His Majesty’s ambassador to Iran when I temporarily recalled him a couple of weeks ago. We discussed the security of the embassy and the people working on that platform. However, I believe it is incredibly important that we maintain our embassy in Tehran. The House should understand that diplomatic relations are not some bonus, prize or award to the host nation; they are to protect our people and our interests. But we always keep a very close eye on the security of the embassy and those members of staff working within it.

Western Balkans

We continue to work for peace and stability in the western Balkans. The Foreign Secretary and I are in regular contact with our counterparts in the region to encourage steps that promote peace and stability, to support Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territorial integrity and to encourage progress towards normalised relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

I am gravely concerned by Franco-German proposals to create a Republika Srpska-style enclave in Kosovo. Can the Government confirm that they have objected to this entrenchment of ethno-nationalism in the Balkans? Will we block Republika Srpska from raising money on the London stock exchange because it is solely to fund its secessionist plans and ambitions?

We share my hon. Friend’s concern. There can be no question of a Serbian enclave in north Kosovo. We continue to work closely with partners to support the normalisation of relations. I made that point in Belgrade and in Kosovo when I visited at the end of last year. The Financial Conduct Authority regulates the London stock exchange, but we are happy to correspond on that issue.

Topical Questions

Since the last oral questions, I have hosted my German counterpart in London, travelled to the United States and Canada, and hosted the Georgian Foreign Minister for bilateral meetings. In those meetings, I discussed the UK’s contributions to Ukraine’s war effort, including the decision to send tanks. Consequently, I am delighted that the US, Germany and others have now committed to send tanks to Ukraine.

Last December, I set out my vision for a far-sighted strategic approach to UK foreign policy. Over the next 25 years, we will invest even more in our relationships with the world’s rising powers. We will continue with our Indo-Pacific tilt. On Wednesday and Thursday this week, the Defence Secretary and I will be hosting our Australian counterparts at the AUKMIN meetings.

The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is heavily backlogged. Just four people have been resettled under pathway 2 and no one under pathway 3. The schemes do not even support female NGO workers who are banned from working in Afghanistan. What are the Government doing to support these women in desperate need who seek refuge in the UK?

The plight of women in Afghanistan and the reprisal attacks the Taliban are perpetrating are disturbing to us all. We are very proud of the fact that we evacuated 15,000 people during Operation Pitting and a further 6,000 since. The administration of the schemes the hon. Member has raised is a matter for the Home Office, but we continue to liaise very closely on operationalising the commitments we have made to the Afghan people.

T2. We all condemn the violence that has led to the death of so many Palestinians and Israelis this month. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the UK still regards Israeli settlements as a flagrant breach of international law, as specified in Security Council resolution 2334, which I understand was largely written by the United Kingdom? If that remains the case, what is the penalty for those continued breaches? (903389)

I can assure my hon. Friend that our position on the illegality of those settlements remains unchanged. We raise the matter with Israel. As I have said, in my initial call with the Israeli Foreign Minister, I raised our desire for a meaningful, peaceful two-state solution. We will always speak out when we believe that something is happening with which we disagree, but we will always seek to provide a route to reconciliation, to dialogue, to de-escalation and ultimately to the delivery of that peaceful, sustainable two-state solution.

Last week, in response to my urgent question, the Government admitted that there was no ministerial oversight when they granted a sanctions waiver to Putin warlord Yevgeny Prigozhin enabling him to launch a legal attack on a British journalist. The Treasury conceded that it would consider changing the rules. What is the Foreign Office doing to ensure that the sanctions regime is never undermined in that way again?

The House will understand why I do not speak in detail about that specific case, but I know that a Treasury Minister responded to the right hon. Gentleman’s urgent question. More broadly, the whole point of sanctions is that they deter and change behaviour. That is why the enforcement of sanctions is so important. It is done predominantly through the Treasury, working very closely with my Department and in close co-ordination with our international partners. Enforcing sanctions is just as important as issuing them, so we will continue to work closely internationally to ensure that they are robust.

T8. Last month, the Prime Minister heralded the international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace as an exciting new way of empowering peaceful co-existence. Does the Foreign Secretary share my passionate support for this groundbreaking initiative? Will he commit the UK to being at the heart of the effort to prepare for the much sought-after two-state solution as we deepen the Abraham accords? (903395)

The Abraham accords were groundbreaking. The UK supported them at the time, and we continue to support them. We will explore opportunities to make the most of that normalisation of relationships, particularly at the moment, when there is a real desire to de-escalate the current tensions that we are seeing in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I can assure my hon. Friend that I personally and the ministerial team put a huge amount of effort into ensuring that.

T3.   Foreign Governments are requiring British workers to certify their covid status before taking employment in their countries. That leaves people who are medically exempt from vaccination, like my constituent Mr Hussain-Khan, in limbo. Without any formal documentation, their employment is at risk. Will the Foreign Secretary explain exactly what is being done to ensure that medically exempt people can get their status certified so that they can take employment? (903390)

If I have understood the hon. Lady’s question correctly, it is about the employment of British nationals in other countries. Obviously, each country is responsible for its own employment practices, rules and regulations. I was not aware of the circumstances of the case that she raises, but if she writes to me I will be more than happy to look into the details and see whether there is something we can do domestically, within the UK, to facilitate the actions of other Governments in relation to employment.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the glorification of martyrdom within Palestinian society remains a key obstacle to any future lasting peace agreements? That includes the payment of salaries to convicted terrorists by the Palestinian Authority, with higher salaries going to those who have killed more Israelis.

If there is to be any chance of a sustainable peace in Israel and the OPTs, it is incredibly important that people recognise the importance of tolerance and of working and living together. When I first became a Minister in the Department, I raised with the then Palestinian Education Minister the situation relating to textbooks being used in Palestinian schools. We will continue to work to encourage greater understanding and co-operation, rather than allowing this divisive narrative to be imposed on young Palestinian children.

T4. Most people and businesses in Northern Ireland accept the need for the Northern Ireland protocol, but they want to see pragmatic solutions to the various challenges involved, and I am therefore encouraged by the progress that is being made in negotiations with the European Union. However, while I am conscious of the sensitivities, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to deepen his engagement with the Northern Ireland business community, particularly the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group, in order to better road-test emerging solutions to ensure that whatever comes out of the talks will work on the ground? (903391)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s positive comments about the tone of the current conversations with the EU: I feel vindicated in my belief that professional but discreet negotiations are the route to success. As for Northern Ireland businesses, I met a group of them during my trip to Northern Ireland at the beginning of the year, when they raised a series of specific concerns that they wanted to be addressed. We took careful note of those concerns, and I assure the hon. Gentleman, the House and those businesses that we have them at the forefront of our minds during our negotiations with European Commission.

The Monserrat port development project, which is being funded by the UK, is essential to the driving of Montserrat’s economic development following the devastation caused by volcanic eruptions and hurricanes in recent decades. Will my hon. Friend confirm the Government’s commitment to funding this much-needed project until its completion, and does he agree that it is a tangible demonstration of the UK’s commitment to the overseas territories and, more specifically, to Montserrat?

I recognise my right hon. Friend’s sterling work for overseas territories when she served in the FCDO. We are absolutely committed to supporting economic development in Montserrat, and we are providing £28.3 million for the new port. I am pleased to say that construction work is due to begin shortly.

T5. The Foreign Secretary spoke earlier about the malign impact of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, and said that we were not limited to the current sanctions. However, he did not answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) about when we might see some action. What more will it take—this is, perhaps, a more important question—to persuade the Government to prescribe the IRGC? (903392)

I do not know whether my microphone is not working properly, but I listed the actions that we have taken. We have imposed a series of new sanctions in the last couple of months, specifically in response to the Iranian regime’s persecution of its own people and in response to its supply of drone weapons to Russia for use against Ukraine, and in relation to the executions of protesters, the execution of Mr Akbari, and to the regime’s malign activities in the region. I am willing to do more, but what I have said is that I will not speculate about what that might be. I can put something in the Library if it will help, just to make sure that the actions we have taken are fully understood by the House.

Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the Government remain fully committed to deploying £11.6 billion of international climate finance up to March 2026? Will he also commit to setting out the annual projections for ICF spending over the next three years and, if possible, a breakdown between mitigation and adaptation finance?

My right hon. Friend knows a great deal about this subject, and has done an enormous amount. The Prime Minister announced at COP that Britain would stand by the commitment to spend £11,600 million on climate finance through the ICF, and yesterday there was a cross-Whitehall meeting with Ministers involved in the programme to discuss how that would be done. I will try to establish how much we can put into the public domain about those plans, as my right hon. Friend suggests, but I should emphasise that the pipeline of high-quality eligible projects is extremely important.

T6. Thousands remain unjustly imprisoned in Egypt, including many lawyers. As well as doing all that it can to secure the release of the British-Egyptian dual national Alaa Abd el-Fattah, will the FCDO ensure that it continues to make representations for the release of Alaa’s lawyer and human rights defender, Mohamed el-Baqer? (903393)

As I said earlier, we are working closely on this particular case. I will ensure that the hon. Lady’s views are relayed to Lord Ahmad, and we will continue to work on those issues.

A recent poll of 33 countries found that people around the world are now more likely to believe that the UK is a positive influence than in 2016. Given our fantastic soft power and our fantastic global presence around the world, does my right hon. Friend agree that Opposition claims of reputational decline might be premature?

It is noteworthy that 92% of Ukrainians believe that the UK has had a positive influence on world affairs, second only to Canada, that 86% of Americans have a favourable opinion of the UK and that 34% of Americans have a very favourable opinion of the UK, which is up 4% since Labour left power. My hon. Friend is right to say that 69% of the 33 countries surveyed in the poll he mentioned said that they had an improved opinion of the UK. I suspect that the criticisms the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) deploys indicate that he spends a little too long on Twitter and radio phone-ins and not quite long enough going around the world listening to people what actually think about our fantastic country.

Order. Can I just say, we are going to be here a while because although these are topical questions, they are not being treated as topical questions in the answers. If the Foreign Secretary does not want to be here a long time, he needs to look at the length of his answers.

T7. [R] As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for crypto and digital assets, I have been reading about the success of Oxfam’s UnBlocked Cash project. It uses blockchain technology to ensure the digital identity of recipients, and it has won the European Horizon prize and the World Summit award. What progress has the Department made on maximising UK aid reaching the most vulnerable via blockchain and distributed ledger technology? (903394)

Just a minute, Minister. When I said to the Foreign Secretary that he was taking too long, that did not mean that Back Benchers could take up all the time instead.

The hon. Lady raises an important point, and she specifically mentions Oxfam. Anything that Oxfam is involved with is well worth pursuing and I will look into it.

FSO Safer, the oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, continues to deteriorate. Funding has been raised, so can my right hon. Friend update the House on when the oil will be offloaded and the tanker made safe?

The Safer oil tanker has been an issue of international concern for quite some time and I am glad that funds have now been made available. I have spoken to the Yemeni Government, the Saudi Government and even representatives of the Houthis about this to try to get the matter resolved, and we will continue to push to prevent what would be an ecological disaster on an unprecedented scale if that tanker were breached.

T9. Four million Yemeni people have been forced from their homes, thousands have died and Britain has sold billions of pounds-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, which have been used to bomb Yemen. When will we stop supplying Saudi Arabia in order to bring about peace in Yemen? (903396)

When will the right hon. Gentleman condemn Iran for providing weapons to the Houthis that have been used against both Saudi and the United Arab Emirates? We have been instrumental in facilitating talks, which have brought temporary periods of peace, and we will continue to work with the Yemeni Government and with the other countries in the region to bring about a sustainable peace in Yemen. That should be our aim, and that is what we will continue to do.

In the horn of Africa, millions of people are facing starvation due to the worst drought in 40 years. We know that local non-governmental organisations can play a vital role in reaching the local groups of people affected, so what proportion of our £156 million of promised aid is going to people through local NGOs?

We take an absolutely pragmatic approach to this and we use the best possible vehicle for getting the humanitarian aid through. I can tell my right hon. Friend that we will meet the target of £156 million that we budgeted for by the end of the financial year.

T10. A UK Treasury official recently said of Japan’s attempt to co-ordinate a G7 response to China’s economic coercion that it is “more words than results”. Does the Minister agree with Japan’s Economy, Trade and Industry Minister that effective responses to economic coercion should be a major focus of this year’s G7 summit? (903397)

I was in Japan just a couple of weeks ago, and I spoke to Foreign Ministers. The focus they are bringing to their G7 presidency will ensure that economic security and all that falls from it are at the heart of discussions.

Following the anti-India propaganda recently broadcast by the BBC, there were widespread protests outside the BBC’s headquarters on Sunday. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Indian high commissioner to reassure our Commonwealth partner that this propaganda is not the policy of this Government?

I recently had the opportunity to speak to the Indian high commissioner on this and a number of other issues. We recognise how this portrayal of the Indian Government has played out in India. I made it clear that the BBC is independent in its output, that the UK regards India as an incredibly important international partner and that we will be investing heavily in that relationship in the coming decades.

During Colombia’s national strike and protests of 2021, gender-based violence was used as a tool of repression by the national police to punish those who dared to speak out. This included the rape and torture of girls who were detained and the targeting of LGBTQ people. With a new Government in Colombia who are committed to the peace process, will the Minister do everything he can to support them to ensure the police never again use these tactics?

The short answer is, yes, we are working very hard on that issue, which I know is important to the hon. Lady. We are committed to working to tackle these atrocities, particularly against women. When I went to Colombia, I was privileged to meet victims of sexual violence. Our recent conference on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative illustrates our commitment to tackling this horrendous crime.

Can the Minister explain why the percentage of UK official development assistance marked as significant against the OECD Development Assistance Committee’s disability marker fell by 10% between 2019 and 2021? What steps is he taking to reverse that?

I thank the Chair of the International Development Committee for raising this important point. We have put disability at the centre of what we do. I met the Bond Disability and Development Group, a group of experts, yesterday to consider what more we can do on education, climate and humanitarian crises. More than a third of all development programmes now contain disability-inclusive activities.

My constituent Daniel Gadsden is in prison in the Philippines, facing drugs charges that he strenuously denies. After 17 months in custody, in appalling conditions, his mental and physical health is very poor. He has an untreated eye condition and is now almost blind. His parents, Helen and Nick, are terrified that they will never see their son again. Will the Foreign Secretary meet me and them to discuss what more can be done to ensure that Daniel is treated with decency and humanity, and that he receives a fair trial?

We regularly raise the poor prison conditions of British nationals detained in the Philippines, and we appreciate how difficult and distressing the situation is for Daniel. Officials are working very closely with his family, and I am happy to meet the hon. Lady and her constituents if that would be useful.

Contrary to the Foreign Secretary’s response to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), the Government’s website says that pathway 3 of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme is administered by the Foreign Office. Will he correct the record and say exactly what he is doing to support women whose lives are at risk, including 70 female judges, or are we going to see more cases like that of Mursal Nabizada, the former MP who was murdered?

The scheme is administered across a range of Departments, including the FCDO, which identified the initial list of individuals who are eligible. We work closely with the Home Office to ensure that all the relevant checks and administration are done so that those people can come to the UK. As I said, I am very pleased that we were able to resettle so many people so quickly through Operation Pitting, and we have resettled 6,000 people since Operation Pitting. We will continue to ensure we do right by the people who supported us in Afghanistan.