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Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Volume 729: debated on Tuesday 14 March 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Israel and Palestine

1. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the security and human rights situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (904049)

11. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of recent violence in Israel and Palestine. (904059)

14. Whether his Department is taking steps to support the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. (904062)

15. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of recent violence in Israel and Palestine. (904063)

24. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the security and human rights situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (904072)

The security situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories remains fragile. Last week I spoke with my Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, and urged both sides to take steps to de-escalate and avoid a cycle of violence. We welcome the United States’ Middle East Partnership for Peace Act and the proposals for increased international funding for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Let me begin by condemning the recent spike in violence and bloodshed in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and on behalf of us all I pay respect to all Palestinian and Israeli victims of conflict. The Secretary of State’s Department has acknowledged that there is a culture of impunity when it comes to crimes committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, and the SNP wholeheartedly agrees. What are the Government doing to encourage Israel to end the widespread and systematic discrimination against Palestinian populations? Will he outline any of the concrete steps that have been taken to deter land seizures, home demolitions, and the forced evictions of Palestinian people and their communities?

The UK enjoys a strong bilateral relationship with Israel, which allows us to raise issues where we disagree. We have disagreed with settlement expansion, which we have raised directly, and we also disagree with the demolition of Palestinian homes. Our position on that is long standing and consistent. In my most recent conversations with the Israeli Foreign Minister, I raised our concerns about the speculation of settlement building on the E1 territories in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I am pleased that there has now been a moratorium on such expansions, because to do so would be damaging to the prospects of a sustainable two-state solution.

In February I visited Masafer Yatta in the south Hebron hills, where the Israeli Government are planning to evict more than 1,000 Palestinians from their homes. That sits alongside Prime Minister Netanyahu’s election pledge to annex west bank settlements, amounting to 30% of the territory, while Finance Minister Smotrich recently said that the village of Huwara should be “wiped out”. Has the Foreign Secretary raised those matters with his Israeli counterpart, and how does he intend to ensure that the new Israeli Government abide by their obligations under international law?

We raise issues of settlement expansion with the Government of Israel, and I have raised with my Israeli counterpart the need for a careful use of language. I have raised with both my Palestinian and Israeli counterparts the need for all of us to try to find ways of de-escalating the tensions. At this stage, that must rightly be the priority for us all, while we continue to work with the Israeli Government on ensuring that we keep a sustainable two-state solution alive.

Five years ago, the British Government became the first in the world to endorse a concept of an international fund for Israeli and Palestinian peace. Since then, warm words have followed, but very little action. Given the desperate need for that fund right now, with the deterioration of the situation in Israel and Palestine, will the UK Government commit again to leading on that fund? Will the Foreign Secretary use the opportunity of the G7 summit in May to get other international partners lined up as well?

People-to-people links between Israelis and Palestinians are incredibly important, and we fund projects to build co-operation, whether at Government-to-Government level, or people to people. We remain in close contact with our US counterparts about the international fund for peace. We want to ensure that it is the most effective use of funding allocated towards people-to-people links, and we will always look favourably at projects to build greater peace and co-operation. We want to ensure that anything we subscribe to, or any funding we commit, is allocated to the most effective way of bringing about that reconciliation.

In the west bank town of Huwara, over 400 settlers, backed by Israeli soldiers, torched Palestinian homes, businesses and vehicles, and killed 37-year-old Sameh Aqtash, in what senior Israel Defense Forces commanders have called a pogrom. Israel’s Finance Minister Smotrich, who describes himself as a fascist homophobe, openly said Huwara should be wiped out. Such extremism is given licence by a lack of international accountability, so will the Foreign Secretary, if he agrees with the rule of international law, commit to banning all goods sourced from Israeli settlements illegally built on occupied Palestinian land?

As I have said in answer to other questions, we have made it clear that the language used with regard to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories needs to be de-escalatory. It needs to be carefully thought through. Inflammatory language, as we have seen, is unacceptable. The behaviour of those settlers is unacceptable. That has been recognised by the Israeli authorities and we want to make sure that those people are held to account for the actions they have taken. We will always seek to reinforce the viability of a future Palestinian state as part of a sustainable two-state solution. The decision with regard to settlement goods is long standing and we do not speculate about any changes to those positions.

I welcomed the recent joint commitment by the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority to reduce the surge in violence, and the Israeli Government’s pledge to halt new settlement constructions, but on the very day that commitment was signed, Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted:

“Contrary to tweets, construction and regulation in Judea and Samaria”—

the west bank—

“will continue according to the original planning and construction schedule, without any changes. There is and will not be any freeze.”

That is an indication of further violations of international law. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that whatever his diplomatic approach is at the moment, it simply is not working?

The United Kingdom has a like-minded position alongside a number of our international friends and allies. We seek to protect the viability of a sustainable two-state solution. We raised with the Israeli Government our concerns about activities that might put that future at risk. That is not something the UK does alone; it is something we do in close co-ordination with a number of our international friends and allies. That will continue to be our diplomatic stance.

Last Thursday, a Hamas terrorist shot three Israelis in the heart of Tel Aviv, just a few streets away from the British embassy. Shooting and bombing attacks have rocked Israel for over a year now and this wave appears to be intensifying. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those attacks? What meaningful steps can he take to counter the resurgence in terrorist activity?

The UK Government condemn terrorism in all its forms. Whatever criticism Palestinians may have of the Israeli Government, there is no justification for terrorist action. We always encourage dialogue, we always encourage co-operation and we always encourage actions that de-escalate. That will continue to be our posture with regard to Israel and the OPTs.

The only way to permanently end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is to deliver Palestinian self-determination and preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity through a peaceful two-state solution. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that his Department remains committed to achieving that solution based on 1967 borders and the recognition of Palestine as a state?

Our position on a sustainable two-state solution is long standing. We will always encourage Israel to take actions that support that and we have the same conversations with representatives of the Palestinian Authority. We encourage dialogue, we encourage negotiation, we encourage co-operation and we encourage de-escalation.

The emergence of Lions’ Den, a new terrorist group to go alongside Hamas, Hezbollah and many other Islamic terrorist groups, is clearly a threat to Israel’s security, and indeed that of the Palestinians. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of Lions’ Den and what co-operation is he pursuing with the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government to combat this new form of terrorism?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We will address terrorism in close co-operation with the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, neither of whom have an incentive or desire to allow terrorism to flourish. We will continue our close co-operation with the security services in Israel to try to ensure that Palestinians, Israelis and Brits in the region are all kept safe.

When I raised these issues, the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and chief negotiator simply stormed out of the meeting. Does there come a time when simply raising issues is not enough?

As we have already heard, on 26 February, following the appalling murder of two Israelis, a violent mob of 400 settlers attacked the Palestinian town of Huwara, killing one, injuring hundreds, and burning buildings and cars. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) said, a far-right Minister in the Israeli Government called for Huwara to be wiped out. That shocking incident is part of the deteriorating situation in the occupied west bank and the wider problem of settler violence, for which too often no one is held to account. Again, will the Government press the Israeli authorities to condemn and crack down on these shocking incidents of settler violence?

There has been condemnation of those actions within the Israeli system. We are always clear that where there is lawbreaking, authorities should take action. Within the Israeli system there has been recognition of the action being illegal and provocative, and therefore we will continue to work with the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority to find ways of de-escalating the situation and striving for peace, and for what ultimately is in the best interests of Palestinians, Israelis and the region: a peaceful and sustainable two-state solution.

In February we welcomed the moratorium on new construction in settlement areas, as the Foreign Secretary has described. As we heard, that was followed by an immediate and blatant breach of trust by the Israeli Prime Minister. The Foreign Secretary says that it is better to raise issues than not, but how does he measure success in raising them, because we see absolutely no evidence of success?

I do not think it is news to anyone in the House that the situation in Israel and the OPTs is complicated and long standing. We are not the only country in the world that raises these important issues, and we can continue to do so because we have a strong working relationship with both the Government of Israel and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority—as I said, I had conversations with both very recently. We will continue to work at what we think is in everyone’s interests: a sustainable two-state solution. We will not be fatalistic about it. We will not give up just because it is difficult. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should walk away just because it is a long-standing challenge, that is up to him. We will not abandon the Israelis or the Palestinian people. We will continue working for a sustainable two-state solution.

Girls’ Access to Education

2. What progress his Department has made in helping to ensure that girls around the world have access to 12 years of quality education. (904050)

Ensuring 12 years of quality education for all girls is a British Government priority. We run bilateral education programmes in 19 countries, and our girls’ education challenge programme is supporting 1.6 million girls to secure a quality education.

During its G7 presidency, the UK introduced two global targets for improving access to education for girls in low and middle-income countries by 2026. Can the Minister say what progress the Government are making in this area; when they expect the targets to be met; what co-ordinating role the UK is playing; and whether he will centre the voices of girls and young women, including those most impacted by inequality and discrimination, in the delivery of the targets?

The hon. Lady is entirely right; those two specific targets were a major priority for the UK G7 presidency in 2021. Prioritising foundational learning—reading, writing and counting well—is at the heart of that. We are on track to achieve both targets by the date agreed at the G7.

Since the fall of Kabul, some 850,000 girls have been prevented from attending school by the Taliban. Recently, pupils at St Matthew’s C of E Primary School in Stretford undertook a whole-school march in solidarity with the plight of Afghan girls denied an education. They have done all they can to raise awareness of this important issue. What more does the Minister believe his Government can do to raise awareness of this ongoing travesty? Crucially, will he agree to bring forward a comprehensive Afghanistan strategy that takes into account the ongoing crackdown on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan?

I congratulate the school in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency on that public-spirited statement about the rights of women and the appalling violations that are taking place in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not a monolith in Afghanistan; there are parts of the country in which education is taking place at both a primary and a secondary level for girls. It is the job of the international community to try to persuade and argue with the Taliban Administration that what is happening in those areas should be extended across the whole country.

With 129 million girls out of school across the world, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the FCDO on putting girls’ education at the heart of the women and girls strategy that was announced last week? The International Parliamentary Network for Education brings together parliamentarians from over 60 countries to promote the importance of education. Will my right hon. Friend encourage Members of this House to sign up to the network so that we can continue to work with others to ensure that no children are left behind? Mr Speaker, will you join?

I am certain that if you sign up, Mr Speaker, most colleagues will follow your lead. My right hon. Friend has done a great job in this area herself. Between 2015 and 2020, the UK supported more than 8 million girls with getting into school, of whom 65% were living in fragile countries.

One of the biggest barriers to education worldwide is poor health. In 2021, more than 600,000 people worldwide died of malaria. Will the Minister please commit to renewing the UK Government’s commitment towards meeting the 2030 Commonwealth goal of ending malaria? Will he also provide maximum support to the Global Fund?

As my hon. Friend knows, we committed to the latest Global Fund replenishment a sum of £1,000 million, so we are right behind the aspirations that he has expressed. A child dies every minute from malaria, entirely needlessly. Dealing with that is a top priority for the Government.

By the middle of this century, Africa will be home to 1 billion children, yet in places such as northern Nigeria half of girls are out of school. Achieving universal girls’ education would end child marriage, halve infant mortality and drastically reduce early childbearing. Can the Minister update the House on what progress has been made towards our G7 presidency pledge to get 40 million more girls into school? Can he explain how that squares with the Government’s decision to cut the FCDO’s education, gender and equality budget in half last year?

We are looking at the budgets for the next financial year, and indeed the year after, and we will come to the House and set out what they are. However, the hon. Lady should be in no doubt that this is a top priority, as I explained to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). If we want to change the world, we can do so by educating girls. That is the first and foremost way of achieving it, and the Government are absolutely behind that agenda.

We all strongly support the education of girls worldwide. That is something that we should all be working on, but the UK must avoid the danger of reinventing the wheel. The EU already has 100 co-operation agreements on education, of which the UK was a leading part until recently. With the thaw in EU-UK relations, for which I commend the Government for fixing the Northern Ireland protocol difficulties, surely there is an opportunity for the UK to fold itself back into these frameworks, not reinvent the wheel, and get more girls into education.

The hon. Gentleman is right: we take a wholly unideological approach to educating girls and women. We go with what is most effective—with what works—and if the EU produces programmes that are good value for taxpayers’ money, we will of course look at them.

Hunger Crisis in East Africa

3. What recent discussions he has had with international partners on the hunger crisis in east Africa. (904051)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the hunger crisis in east Africa. (904057)

East Africa currently represents the world’s largest and most severe humanitarian crisis. We have allocated £156 million in life-saving aid across the region this financial year.

Oxfam estimates that one person is likely to die every 36 seconds in east Africa owing to food insecurity, but the “Integrated Review Refresh”, published yesterday, failed to acknowledge this unfolding crisis. Drought and famine have displaced nearly 2 million people in Ethiopia and Somalia recently. What further action can the Government take to support people on the ground and ensure that they can return home safely?

I am sure that when the hon. Gentleman has time to study yesterday’s “Integrated Review Refresh” in detail, he will see that it contains much to be welcomed in respect of the future of Britain’s international development leadership. However, he is right to talk about the intense humanitarian needs that exist in the area that he has mentioned. In Ethiopia we are helping to deliver humanitarian support to 8 million people, alongside efforts to promote water conservation. In Sudan, £320,000 vulnerable people are receiving food support thanks to British assistance. In South Sudan, 200,000 are receiving emergency food and nutrition, and in Somalia—which I visited in December—4.4 million people have received water, sanitation and hygiene support from Britain since 2018, and 3.2 million have received emergency food. The hon. Gentleman can therefore rest assured that we are absolutely on the case, and are doing everything we can to support the international effort to counter what may well be the fifth year of drought.

The £156 million of aid to which the Minister referred is five times less than the amount provided by the UK Government six years ago to deal with a milder crisis. In a week when we are talking about displaced people, we are facing an exodus of biblical proportions in east Africa. What more can the Government do to help those communities to stay in their homes?

The hon. Gentleman is right, in that the aims of British development policy are to help people to remain in their own homes and be safe and secure and, indeed, prosperous. What we are seeing in the horn of Africa is an immense crisis of extraordinary proportions to which the whole international community must respond, not only with money but with skill and expertise, and British leadership is at the forefront of that.

There is much talk about the deaths on the battlefield in Ukraine, but what assessment has the Department made of the impact of grain prices caused by grain not going into east Africa from Ukraine? It is quite possible—and I should be interested in testing this assertion—that more people have died in east Africa as a result of the war in Ukraine than have died within the confines of that country.

I cannot comment on the hon. Gentleman’s last point, but he is right to suggest that, as a result of Putin’s illegal brutality and invasion of Ukraine, there have been disruptions to food supplies in the Sahel in particular, but also in east Africa. Those disruptions are causing rising inflation and food shortages, and Putin stands condemned for the effect of his actions in that respect as well as every other.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of visiting Kenya and meeting students who described to me graphically the impact that drought caused by climate change is having on their lives and on their food supply. That is due to failed crops and boreholes that are drying up, but it is also having an impact on their education. What more does my right hon. Friend think can be done not just to address the current crisis, but to introduce mitigation measures in the longer term so that climate change does not have such a drastic impact on those communities?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We discuss resilience and climate adaptation frequently with the Kenyan Government. I was there in December. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was also there and he spoke to President Ruto. My hon. Friend may rest assured that our relationship with Kenya, which is extremely close, deals not only with humanitarian, trade and investment issues but with drought and the other issues she has raised.

Across east Africa, 48 million people are facing crisis levels of hunger, yet east Africa has been taken out of the integrated review. Even the Minister’s own colleagues understand that the fundamental issues in east Africa are climate adaptation and real partnership. What are the Government going to do to address the fundamental causes of this cycle of crises?

The hon. Lady is wrong about it being taken out of the IR, and if she has the chance this weekend to study it in detail, she will see that that is the case, but she is right to say that an estimated 72 million people will require humanitarian assistance in 2023 due to conflict, drought and flooding. On all those issues, Britain is working with its allies across the international community to do everything we can to stop it, recognising that this is the fifth consecutive season of failed rains across the horn of Africa.

Sanctioned Russian Assets

4. Whether he is taking steps to seize and repurpose sanctioned Russian assets to assist the reconstruction of Ukraine. (904052)

The simple principle is that Russia should pay for the harm and damage that it has caused. We must ensure that any proposals are robust, safe and compliant with domestic and international law, and we will of course consider all lawful routes to ensure that Russia pays for the damage and harm it has caused.

The UK Government have frozen Russian assets, but the EU has already set out a plan to shift such assets into a fund to help to rebuild Ukraine, and Canada has already passed a law to do the same. What is stopping us? Why can we not do the same?

Both those projects are still in train; neither has come to a conclusion and no country has liquidated frozen assets. As I say, anything that we do needs to be in complete compliance with both domestic and international law.

Reconstruction of Ukraine will also require rehabilitating and helping women. In the wake of what we have done on preventing sexual violence in conflict, what steps will we now be able to take to help those who have been victims of sexual violence?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has done in this area for many years. I am proud of the fact that the UK has been at the forefront of the campaigns for preventing sexual violence in conflict. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad organised a conference on this very issue last year. We must ensure that the perpetrators, the facilitators and those ordering this brutality are all held to account, and we will work with our international partners to ensure that that happens.

Ukraine’s 2023 budget alone has a $38 billion gap, and the cost of the damage done to critical infrastructure runs into the hundreds of billions. There is one party responsible: Russia. We support the Government’s plans for a reconstruction conference this summer, but we cannot have any dragging of the heels in making Russia foot the bill for its barbarous war. We have heard about other international examples, so when will the Foreign Secretary set out a clear plan to seize—not just freeze—Russian state assets and repurpose them?

The sad but simple truth is that it is not as easy as the hon. Gentleman’s question implies. The fact is that there have been conflicts around the world before and there have been perpetrators before, but there has never been a seizure of assets. As I say, we need to ensure that we are compliant with both domestic and international law. We will look carefully at the proposals being explored and tested by our close friends and allies, but I can reassure him and the House that we will ensure, working in close co-operation with our friends internationally, that Russia pays for the brutality that we are seeing in Ukraine.

Turkey and Syria Earthquakes

5. What steps his Department is taking to support those affected by the earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria. (904053)

UK aid ranging from search and rescue to tents to medical care has helped thousands of survivors in Turkey and Syria, and more than 9,000 patients have been treated by UK medical teams as of 7 March.

Last night I was honoured to speak to members of the British-Turkish community to learn about the ongoing aid effort to help those impacted by the disaster. I was also fortunate to visit Gaziantep in 2019 with our late friend Sir David Amess, where I met families displaced by the war in Syria. It is heartbreaking to see so many of these people having to rebuild their lives once again. Will my right hon. Friend commit to ensuring this Government’s efforts go beyond initial disaster relief and provide long-term support for those in the region to rebuild their lives, their homes and their businesses?

Since the Syria crisis began, as my hon. Friend knows, Britain has contributed something like £3.8 billion, which is more than the whole European Union has provided added together. We will certainly focus on that. For now, the British taxpayer has found £43 million and the Disasters Emergency Committee has raised £100 million. All across the country, people are responding magnificently to this crisis. In my constituency, the Sutton Coldfield chamber choir will be playing at a concert at St Columba’s church on Saturday night to raise money for Turkish victims.

More than 850,000 children remain displaced after the earthquake that hit in early February, with many of these children now in temporary shelters. What discussions have Ministers had with Turkish officials to ensure that all is done to return children to a place of safety, to locate their families and to educate them?

The hon. Gentleman is right on all counts. Immediately after the crisis, Education Cannot Wait allocated $7 million to try to ensure that children, particularly those out of school, could get back into education. We will continue with our efforts to ensure people who suffered so much from the earthquake are remedied in every way we can.

Iran: Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps

6. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ role in Iran’s internal repression and activity in the region. (904054)

The UK will continue to hold the Iranian regime, including the IRGC, to account for its repression. We have imposed sanctions on the individuals involved in the repression of women in Iran, and we continue to sanction the IRGC in its entirety.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for his answer, but the evidence of the IRGC’s brutality in Iran, particularly towards women, is clear. The evidence of its wider malign influence in the region is clear. Likewise its links supporting Russia and its reach to Europe, including threats on these shores. How much more evidence do he and the Government need to see before they do what I have asked many times in this Chamber and proscribe the IRGC?

As I said, the IRGC is already sanctioned in its entirety. Where it is involved in illegal activity, our security forces and police take action, and I commend the action they take. We do not routinely discuss future designations and sanctions, but we will always take actions that protect the British people and British interests and that deter malign activity.

Like the hon. Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), I have repeatedly come to this Chamber to ask about proscribing the IRGC, which is widely recognised on both sides of the House as a bunch of clerical fascists and homicidal maniacs who particularly enjoy torturing and murdering women. I suspect the Foreign Secretary agrees with us, so why does he not take the final step and proscribe the IRGC?

The actions this Government take with regard to the IRGC are to deter its malign activity within its own borders, within the region and here in the UK and to protect British citizens, including dual nationals, and British interests overseas. We will always act in accordance with those principles. As I say, the UK Government do not routinely speculate on future designations.

Argentina: 2016 Joint Communiqué on the Falklands

8. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of Argentina’s decision to withdraw from the 2016 joint communiqué on the Falklands. (904056)

The Argentine Government’s decision is disappointing for the Falkland Islands, for the UK and for Argentina. There are many areas in which our countries stand to gain from working together positively, including on the humanitarian effort to identify fallen Argentine service personnel from the 1982 conflict. The joint communiqué covers all these areas and more. The Argentine Government’s decision hurts our mutually beneficial bilateral co-operation, and it further damages the Falkland islanders’ confidence in their intentions, which is why Argentina should reconsider its decision. We are working closely with the Falkland islanders to identify next steps.

I was lucky enough to visit the Falkland Islands a few weeks ago with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and from meeting local people there it was clear that they powerfully and passionately stand by the referendum result of exactly 10 years ago, when more than 90% voted for the Falklands to remain a British overseas territory. That makes Argentina’s recent unilateral decision to abandon the joint communiqué all the more outrageous. What are the Government doing to make it clear to the Argentines that the Falkland Islanders have the unequivocal right to self-determination and how the UK will protect that in practice?

It would be remiss of me not to welcome the 10th anniversary of the referendum on the future of the Falkland Islands. It is only for the people of the Falkland Islands to decide their own future. We consistently make clear to Argentina and to international partners our unbending support for the Falkland Islanders and their self-determination rights.

The Falklands are British and that is the end of the story. Santiago Cafiero is undoubtedly engaging in a bit of electioneering during a general election, and we should just—[Interruption.] Exactly as the Foreign Secretary just indicated, we should not be surprised when these things are said.

Many of my constituents lost loved ones killed on the Sir Galahad in the defence of the Falklands many years ago and some of them are worried that some papers have not been published yet and will not be until 2065. They would like to see the full papers that were provided to the board of inquiry, so will the Minister investigate whether those can now be published?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making those points in his original remarks. There are usual processes to go through, but I will take those points away and discuss them with the Minister for overseas territories.

Tunisia: Human Rights

10. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the human rights situation in Tunisia. (904058)

We are concerned by the recent wide-ranging arrests in Tunisia, including those of politicians, former civil servants, businesspeople and media representatives. The UK underlines the importance of due legal process and respect for human rights, especially freedoms of expression and association. Tunisians should have the space for legitimate political opposition, civil society and independent media activity.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but President Kais is seeking to impose one-man rule in Tunisia, including with a sham Parliament and the arrest of critics. He now appears to be looking for scapegoats, such as black Africans, to distract attention from the dire economic and social situation. Will the Minister condemn what is happening now in Tunisia and support those working for democratic and tolerant governance in the country?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the Minister for north Africa, publicly commented on this matter on 16 February. He has also raised the issue with the Tunisian chargé d’affaires, and G7 ambassadors in Tunisia have also made a number of joint statements since July 2021. We are also aware of reports of racially motivated discrimination and violence towards perceived sub-Saharan African migrants, and we encourage Tunisia to comply with the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination.

Persecuted Christians: Bishop of Truro’s Review

12. What steps he is taking to implement the recommendations of the Bishop of Truro’s review. (904060)

Almost a year after the expert independent review, which highlighted that there is still much work to be done to fully implement the Truro review, can the Minister point out what progress the FCDO has made in better advocating for those who are persecuted for their religion or belief? Not least, will he confirm that, as our manifesto promised and in accordance with recommendation 6 of the Truro review, the role of Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief will now be established in law?

I want to thank my hon. Friend for all her work and commitment in this vital area. Who can doubt that she, like my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) before her, is the very personification and essence of how this role should be performed? Last July we had an international ministerial conference to advance FORB and we always regularly raise cases of concern. On recommendation 6, she makes an extremely good point and the Government are considering it.

Beneficial Ownership Transparency Measures

13. What diplomatic steps he is taking to encourage adoption of beneficial ownership transparency measures by (a) G20 nations and (b) offshore tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions. (904061)

We are working with a range of jurisdictions, including G20 nations, and global financial centres to promote beneficial ownership transparency and to make it a global norm.

My right hon. Friend has a superb personal track record on this issue. May I urge him to redouble his efforts? Does he accept that transparency about who owns what means that oligarchs, kleptocrats and crime lords have fewer places to stash their dirty cash; that it is the single cheapest and most effective measure that any country can take to cut the social and economic costs that international criminality imposes; and that it becomes ever more powerful as the network of truly transparent jurisdictions grows?

Open registers of beneficial ownership are extremely important. My hon. Friend and I, and indeed the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), did a lot of work on that from the Back Benches, and it is now Government policy. All overseas territories and Crown dependencies are committed to open registers. All have made voluntary commitments, and the Government intend to make sure that they stand by those commitments.

Cox's Bazar Refugee Camp

16. What steps his Department is taking to support those affected by the recent fire in the Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (904064)

I was in Cox’s Bazar just on Saturday, when I was able to visit the site of the terrible fire that affected 12,000 people and destroyed 2,000 homes. I was able to announce a new package of funding of £5.26 million to support the Rohingya, and to meet the agencies that are all working at incredible pace to help them to rebuild their homes.

I thank the Minister for her answer and for making that important visit. She will be aware that the UN Food Programme has announced that it has been forced to reduce rations for Rohingya refugees by 17% because of wider funding cuts. Despite her recent announcement, UK aid for the Rohingya refugee crisis has gone down by just over 80% since 2020. How can that be justified when this population has faced genocide at the hands of the Burmese military? Has she discussed with the Chancellor restoring the overall aid budget, which is the best way to ensure that we tackle refugee crises?

The UK has been a leading donor to the Rohingya crisis, providing over £350 million since 2017. Last week at the UN, the joint response plan was published; it is only just over 40% funded so far, so we will be working with our friends across the world to find the funding to support it completely.

Nigerian Elections

18. What plans he has for engagement with the Government of Nigeria and other interested parties following the recent elections in that country. (904066)

I had the pleasure of meeting all the front-runner candidates ahead of the election, and officials have continued engagement with a range of counterparts throughout.

The UK has a vibrant and engaged Nigerian diaspora. I know; I count myself one of them. Ndi Igbo North East England, in my constituency, has expressed concerns about serious failures of technology, security and communications in last month’s presidential elections, as has the European Union. Given that the Government have provided financial support to Nigerian civil society on election integrity, and technical advice to the Nigerian independent national electoral commission, what does the Minister think went wrong?

The hon. Lady is entirely right to say that we provided £5 million of taxpayer’s money to civil society, to boost citizen education and voter engagement; also, the British high commission deployed observers to polling stations across seven states. We commend all those involved for their commitment to democracy and, importantly in respect of her question, to resolving disputes through the courts and through peaceful means.

I am enormously grateful, Mr Speaker. Nigeria is a fast-growing country and connections between our communities are flourishing, so if Nigerians lose trust in their political institutions, it will affect our prosperity and security too. Yet the Government’s development support for Nigeria has been slashed, our offer is lacking and our voice is weak. Surely we need to develop a strategy for partnership in Nigeria and across the whole of Africa. How is the Minister going to deliver on that?

We are working incredibly closely with all our partners across Africa, none more so than Nigeria. We have been heavily engaged in recent events. We note that the gubernatorial elections have been rescheduled for 18 March, but the Government have congratulated President-elect Tinubu. We look forward to working with his Administration and dealing with exactly the matters that the hon. Lady has so eloquently raised.

Topical Questions

Yesterday I set out how the Government will ensure that the country remains safe, prosperous and influential. In San Diego yesterday afternoon the Prime Minister, alongside President Biden and Prime Minister Albanese, announced that we will deliver a multi-billion-pound conventionally armed but nuclear-powered submarine capability to the Royal Australian Navy.

Last month we negotiated the Windsor framework for Northern Ireland with our European Union colleagues, and last week at the UK-French summit we struck a deal that will help to stop the boats bringing illegal migrants to the UK.

On Ukraine, the UK stands ready to provide a further $500 million of World Bank loan guarantees to cover the cost of vital Government services. We are accelerating delivery of our £2.3 billion-worth of military aid and Challenger tanks and will keep—

On behalf of the people of Stockton South, I offer our deepest condolences to the families of victims of last month’s devastating Turkish-Syrian earthquake. I was glad to see the Government’s fast response in sending humanitarian aid, but can my right hon. Friend ensure that the UK will assist both Syria and Turkey in elaborating strategies to prevent any future natural disaster from having such a devastatingly high fatality rate?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Development Minister, who travelled to the region shortly after the earthquakes, keeping a close eye on the swift financial and technical response we deployed. I can assure both my hon. Friend and the House that we will continue to pay close attention to the humanitarian need as a direct result of the series of earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.

In recent weeks, allies in the US and EU have moved to ban TikTok from Government phones, but the UK Government’s response is to say that it is a personal choice. Will the Foreign Secretary clarify whether the Government will recommend a Government agency ban, or whether the UK will be behind the curve again?

As it is a security matter, this issue is taken up by the Security Minister, which is a Home Office competency.

T3. Last week, the UK warned that the regime in Tehran is now dangerously close to weapons-related activities, after Iran was caught enriching uranium to 83.7% by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Considering that Iran has systematically escalated its nuclear activities in the face of diplomatic efforts, does my right hon. Friend agree that the time has now come for a snapback in sanctions, as enshrined in the joint comprehensive plan of action? (904076)

We continue to work closely with our international partners and the leadership of the IAEA on Iran’s nuclear activities. Our position is clear: it is unacceptable for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon or nuclear weapon technology. We will continue to work with our international allies to prevent that from happening.

T2. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for aid match. The Government funding rounds for UK Aid Match and the Gavi and Malaria match funds ended in 2023 and totalled £377 million, which represents just 0.3% of UK overseas development assistance. When will the next round of aid match be announced, how much will be announced and will the Government increase the percentage of ODA that is aid matched? (904075)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to accentuate the importance of aid match, which has done an enormous amount to swell the funds that can be deployed. I will come back to the House as soon as we are able to set out the amounts we will be spending in the next financial year and, I hope, in the financial year thereafter as well.

T4. There are striking parallels between the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the 1974 invasion of Cyprus by Turkey. Both involved aggressive incursions into the sovereign territory of another country. Will the Foreign Secretary call on Turkey to remove its troops from Cyprus and enable Cypriots to determine their own future? (904077)

The UK led the international response to Turkish actions in 1974, including through drafting UN Security Council resolution 353 calling for the immediate withdrawal of Turkish troops. The best way to address the situation in Cyprus is through a just and lasting settlement, in line with the UN parameters based on the model of a bizonal, bicommunal federation, and the UK will continue to engage actively in pursuit of that.

T6.   Many people who come here on small boats are fleeing war where this country has sold weapons, natural disasters where this Government have given up on tackling climate change, and hunger and disease where this Government have slashed the aid budget. How does anything in yesterday’s integrated review tackle the push factors that cause so much displacement and migration in the first place? (904079)

The integrated review published yesterday sets out a comprehensive approach to dealing with all those issues, including migration in particular. Migration is a complex area that requires a whole series of different interventions. There is, alas, no silver bullet.

T5. The behaviour of Iran is increasingly concerning, particularly that of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) said earlier. What more will my right hon. Friend do, particularly by working with our allies, to ensure that we attack that threat head on? (904078)

We have sanctioned individuals and entities in response to their malign behaviour, including the sanctioning of the IRGC in its entirety. We continue to work very closely with our international allies and friends in the region to deter Iran and the IRGC from further such actions.

T7. I was in Ukraine two weeks ago, where I heard stories of horrific war crimes by Russian forces against the Ukrainian people, including sexual crimes and rapes of children as young as four and of women as old as 90. What are the Government doing to ensure that a special tribunal is set up for the crime of aggression? (904080)

We continue to work with the International Criminal Court on ensuring that it is able to bring people to justice. We are working closely with our friends internationally to look at what other legal vehicles we may need to ensure that everybody—from perpetrators and facilitators right up to the decision makers in Moscow—is held to account for the brutality and perverse actions taken by Russian troops in Ukraine.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after giving assurances that it would not carry out death penalties, has just executed Hussein Abo al-Kheir, a father of eight. Will the Foreign Secretary try to arrange to make a statement to the House later this week on the ramifications for our relationship with Saudi Arabia, recognising people such as 14-year-old Abdullah al-Huwaiti, who was tortured into making a confession for a crime that he could not have committed?

The UK strongly opposes the death penalty in all countries and circumstances. We regularly raise our concerns with the Saudi authorities. Saudi Arabia is well aware of the UK’s opposition to the death penalty.

T8. To follow the question asked by the Father of the House, Hussein Abo al-Kheir was executed in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, despite allegations that he had been severely tortured and calls from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to halt his execution. Last year, the number of people executed in Saudi Arabia reached a record high, with 81 people killed in a single day. Can the Minister explain further how the UK is working with our international allies? (904081)

As I said, we strongly oppose the death penalty in all countries and circumstances. On the al-Kheir situation, Lord Ahmad has raised that case with the Saudi ambassador, the Saudi vice-Foreign Minister and the president of the Saudi human rights commission on multiple occasions since November, including during his visit to the kingdom in February.

The abduction, so-called re-education and illegal adoption of 6,000 Ukrainian children is an act of genocide. So far, the UK has sanctioned only two Russian governors who are complicit in that activity, which has clearly been learned from China in Tibet and Xinjiang. Will we now back the Avaaz campaign and sanction the further eight responsible individuals, including the directors of the so-called boarding houses for Ukrainian children?

The abduction, forcible deportation and—to all intents and purposes—kidnapping of Ukrainian children is a terrible and perverse act. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that we will not rest until the people who are involved in that are held to account. She will know that we do not routinely discuss future sanctions designations, but I can assure her that, with our international partners, we look very closely at that terrible state of affairs.

T9.   A loophole in the sanctions regime means that Russian steel is rolled in countries such as Turkey and then imported to the UK. The Foreign Secretary will know that the UK is the only country in the G20 where steel production is declining, and our domestic steel production is essential to our support for Ukraine. Will he follow the lead of the EU, which is closing the loophole in the regime, and tell us when the UK will also close the loophole? (904082)

There was a lively debate on this in Westminster Hall last week. I can confirm that our sanctions regimes are under constant review, and our enforcement activity at His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in particular will be focused on these issues.

In the least developed countries, over half of health centres do not have hand-washing facilities, and I recently saw the benefits of delivering those during a trip to Ghana with the charity WasteAid. The Government’s new health position papers contain approaches to integrate water, sanitation and hygiene within health programming. Will the Minister commit to progress the implementation of that, to raise standards of hygiene and reduce levels of infection across the developing world?

The crisis in Kashmir now spans across nine decades and, today, those living in the region still face unimaginable human rights abuses. Police brutality, arbitrary arrest and the repression of journalists there are still too common. Will the Minister ensure that the plight of the Kashmiris is not forgotten, and will he launch a renewed effort to facilitate dialogue between Pakistan and India, so that a political solution can be found?

The UK’s long-standing position is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution on Kashmir, taking into account the wishes of Kashmiri people. We continue to monitor the situation and encourage both countries to engage in dialogue and to find those lasting diplomatic solutions to maintain regional stability.

The Ukrainian economy is suffering immeasurably because of the war imposed by Russia. One of the things that would help the Ukrainian economy now and post conflict is more joint ventures with western multinationals, which help with not just economic growth but governance reforms. What steps are we taking to help Ukrainian companies to partner with western multinationals?

My hon. Friend makes the right point. As well as ensuring that the Russians who have violated Ukraine repair the damage they have caused, there will be a need for a long-term relationship to rebuild the Ukrainian economy. UK Export Finance will help British-based companies to help Ukrainians rebuild their homeland once we have helped them to successfully defend themselves against this invasion.

For the past 15 months, my team and I have been battling to bring five British children who are in hiding in Kabul to safety. Their British father was blown up by the Taliban. Their Afghan mother will not be granted a visa by the Home Office and they are too young to travel alone. Neither the Foreign Office nor the Home Office are responding to my correspondence on this case. Please will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers grant me an urgent meeting, so that we can bring this family to safety?

I will look into the point that the hon. Lady has made about her correspondence not being responded to, and I will—[Interruption.] I will, of course, take the opportunity to meet with her to find out the situation. As she knows, we do not have a consular presence in Afghanistan, but our consular teams in neighbouring countries provide remote support for British nationals overseas.

Earlier in this session, we heard about the importance of respecting self-determination when it comes to the future of the Falkland Islands. Can my right hon. Friend update the House with regard to consultations with the Chagossian people on the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory?

My right hon. Friend Lord Goldsmith had a meeting with representatives of the Chagossian community. We will ensure that, as far as we can, we keep those lines of communication open.

On 25 January, in the urgent question on whether the Government had assisted the Wagner Group in circumventing UK sanctions, I asked the Minister, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), how many exceptions and waivers to the rules there had been over the past two years. The Minister said that a letter would be sent to me. It is now 14 March, so will the Foreign Secretary ensure that that letter is sent to me?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing that issue to my attention. I will find out why there has been such a protracted delay, and ensure that he gets a response in good time.

Whether China is a threat, a challenge, an opportunity or all of the above, the UK’s response to it will surely be enhanced by better Chinese language skills. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he is doing what he can with colleagues in Government to improve the UK’s capacity in that regard?

In the integrated review published yesterday, we set out a comprehensive list of tools that we will be using to help us to continue to grow our Mandarin speakers, and more widely as well. I recommend that all Members of the House have a fulsome read of the integrated review in due course.

AerCap is the largest provider of commercial aircraft in the world and, after the imposition of sanctions, it required a number of leased aircraft in Russia to be returned. That has not happened; instead, those aircraft have been re-registered in Russia, and continue to fly and operate. I know that there is a court case on the issue of loss with the insurance industry, but do the Government consider that to be an example of sanctions evasion?

It is very difficult for me to come to an assessment based just on the points made in the hon. Gentleman’s question. I am more than happy to look at the matter in more detail, if he will write to me about it or catch me privately. As I say, with regard to the legal action, he will understand that the Government cannot comment while that is ongoing.

I recently visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and what I saw made a deep and lasting impression on me. Does the Minister agree with me and with former Israeli ambassador Ilan Baruch, whom I met yesterday, that the UK and others must stop giving Israel impunity for its illegal actions under international law and again become serious and active players for peace?

I assure the hon. Lady that we want nothing more than peace in that region. I have visited the OPTs and have met representatives of the Palestinian Authority and Israelis. Of course, it is in everybody’s interest that we have peace in the region: it is in the interests both of Israelis and Palestinians and of the wider region. That will continue to be at the heart of UK foreign policy in the region.

I am grateful for the many pieces of correspondence I have had from the Foreign Office regarding the death of my constituent’s son abroad—the many parliamentary questions and binary interactions across this Chamber. Will the Foreign Secretary meet me to discuss the finer points that will allow my constituent closure in this case?

The hon. Gentleman has been a great champion and advocate for his constituent, and officials have continued to keep him informed. I will be happy to meet with him to discuss the case more fully, if he wishes.

British nationals Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof still remain incarcerated in Iran. What is the Foreign Secretary going to do to bring them home?

I assure the right hon. Lady that we continue to make every effort to support British dual nationals incarcerated in Iran. This remains an ongoing piece of work, and she will understand that it is not always possible, or in the best interests of the individuals, for us to go into details. However, I assure her that it remains a priority for the UK, and is one of the reasons why it is important that we maintain a bilateral diplomatic relationship with Iran.

The Foreign Secretary will be well aware of the huge demonstrations in Israel opposing the Government’s plans to control the judiciary, which will undermine the rule of law—a situation described by the President of Israel yesterday as “very serious”. Does the Foreign Secretary share President Herzog’s concerns?

Ultimately, of course, the Government of Israel need to understand that they have a responsibility to the people of Israel. We always suggest that, when there are protests, Governments listen to why those protests are happening, and of course, we want to see Israel abide by the rule of law.

The Russell Group has co-ordinated new research, highlighting the scale of the ongoing delays in the academic technology approval scheme, which is having a detrimental impact on students, research projects and universities. These delays have already led to businesses retracting funding and PhD applicants withdrawing from UK opportunities. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his Cabinet colleagues about that, and will he meet me to discuss the Russell Group findings?

We recognise that international students coming to UK universities is an incredibly important part of our economy. That is important for our soft power internationally, and it is one of those things where the knowledge that those students take back to their countries of origin helps those countries, too. We recognise how important it is, and I will continue to work with other Departments to ensure that our international offer to students remains top quality.

The global crisis of malnutrition threatens the lives of 200 million people. Will the Development Minister look to support my early-day motion 951, which seeks to welcome the Bridgetown agenda, which will transform the mission, the model and the money in the global finance development architecture? Now is not the time for half measures.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Government Ministers do not normally sign early-day motions, but in respect of his point about Bridgetown, there is no more important agenda around internationally. We need to ensure that we turn billions into trillions, as the rich world has promised repeatedly at recent conferences of the parties, and the Bridgetown agenda is in very large part the way we do that.

I was honoured to attend the UN Commission on the Status of Women last week, where I heard from the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts about its #SheSurfsFreedom survey, which highlighted the impact that online harassment, misogyny and abuse are having on girls around the world. Can I ask what actions the Minister intends to take to work with partners to ensure a free and equal digital future?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point, and I will study the results of those events, if she will make them available to me. Then the Government will consider what, in addition to what we are doing already, we may be able to do.