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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 2 May 2023

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Horizon Europe

1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on association to the EU’s Horizon Europe programme. (904711)

We are in discussions with the EU on the UK’s involvement in EU research programmes. We are doing this in good faith, and we hope that the discussions will be successful. We are determined to secure a fair deal for researchers, businesses and taxpayers.

Owen Jackson, the director of policy at Cancer Research UK, has said that Pioneer, the Government’s proposed replacement for the EU’s science programme, does not “match up” to association to Horizon Europe. He has warned that if we do not rejoin, we

“will be at the margins, rather than at the centre, of these important opportunities”

to win funding. Now that the Windsor framework is in place, will the Minister update the House on recent meetings between the UK Government and the European Commissioner responsible for Horizon Europe?

We have always been at the centre of scientific innovation. I will not give the House a running commentary on the negotiations, but we do have optimism. We are confident that we will be able to secure that fair deal for researchers, businesses and taxpayers, with the kind of important research that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

Britain’s outstanding contribution to Arctic and, indeed, Antarctic science has been greatly aided over the years by Horizon Europe. Can the Minister reassure me that our huge contribution to the High North will be replicated, and soon, and can he tell me when the negotiations will finally end?

I can assure my hon. Friend that the High North will be at the centre of all our scientific work, and I acknowledge and praise his important role in that region.

Thousands of jobs in some of our key technological and scientific research institutions throughout the UK are now at risk. We are leaching talent and competitive advantage, and the Government have been dragging their heels. The Minister says that negotiations are ongoing. How long will those key institutions have to wait for an answer—days, months, or yet more years?

As I have said, I am not going to give a running commentary, but we are negotiating in good faith, we have optimism, and we are determined to secure a fair deal that recognises the researchers whom the hon. Gentleman has described. We are expectant that the negotiation will conclude in good order.

I am puzzled by the UK Government’s approach. There is cross-party unity in the House, and the Minister is missing an opportunity for a great deal of support. We all want to see our universities back in Horizon Europe, and we all want to see the thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds guaranteed. Just a couple of weeks ago, Professor Iain Gillespie of the University of Dundee was in Brussels drawing attention to the £900 million that Scotland’s universities secured from the last funding programme. There is a willingness in Brussels, and there is a willingness in Scotland; when will the UK Government match that ambition?

We are willing, and we are negotiating in good faith. Scotland’s scientific future will, of course, be a part of that, which is another reminder of why Scotland is better, and will flourish, within the Union.

Israel and Palestine

2. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of recent violence in Israel and Palestine. (904712)

4. Whether he has had recent discussions with his Israeli counterpart on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (904714)

Our strong bilateral relationship with Israel means that we can speak frankly with the Israelis, and whenever I do so I encourage them to ensure that security operations are carried out proportionately and in accordance with international law. I call on all parties to find opportunities to de-escalate tension. On 7 April, I condemned the indiscriminate rocket attacks directed at Israel, and I also condemned the horrific murder of Lucy, Maia and Rina Dee by a terrorist. My deepest condolences go to Rabbi Leo Dee and his family. The UK remains committed to a two-state solution, and we consistently engage with Israel and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority to support that goal.

I share the sentiments of the Foreign Secretary, but last year was the deadliest year for violence in the west bank since 2005 and the cycle of violence continues. There are some trailblazing organisations working in the region using cutting-edge science and artificial intelligence technology to encourage peace and an end to the bloodshed. What recent conversations have Ministers or the Secretary of State had with their colleagues in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology about the value of those collaborative projects and their impact on a two-state solution?

I thank the hon. Lady for the points she has put forward. I will endeavour to speak with the Secretary of State or Ministers in that Department. We will constantly explore opportunities to enhance peace and strive towards a sustainable two-state solution, whether through the most traditional people-to-people approach or through the use of AI. Whatever it takes, we are willing to consider it.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned the two-state solution. Now that it is the policy of the Israeli Government not to pursue a two-state solution, can he explain how the discussions on trade with Israel will be used to pursue that policy objective and to uphold human rights and international law in the occupied territories?

The UK enjoys a trade relationship with Israel; indeed, we have a trade agreement with the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well. We will always put human rights and the pursuit of peace at the heart of our foreign policy when it comes to Israel and the OPTs. We will continue to hold our position on the desirability of a two-state solution and we will continue, in our interactions with the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority, to pursue that aim.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the Abraham accords are a huge breakthrough in diplomatic dialogue in the region, that they are a force for good and that they are creating conversations between people who previously did not speak and join together around the same table? Is it not the case that the Palestinian leadership should recognise that the region is changing and that they need to get on board and work with their friends, allies and partners in the region to try to understand the differences of opinion across the region?

My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point about the changing dynamic in the region. I am very pleased that the Abraham accords were signed. More than being just a single point in time, the accords have unlocked a series of dialogues between countries in the Arab world and Israel. They have also formalised relationships that perhaps would have been informal up until this point, and they are a fantastic stepping-stone towards wider regional security and that peaceful, sustainable two-state solution.

Aside from the violent incidents that my right hon. Friend has referred to, does he agree that the fact that more than 1 million worshippers were able to visit the Temple Mount during Ramadan and that the month of April saw the great festivals of Easter, Passover and Ramadan being celebrated so freely throughout Israel marks Israel out as a remarkable example of religious freedom and tolerance in the middle east?

On my visit to Israel, I saw people of all religions living their lives freely there, and that is to be commended. Through this rare period when the three great religions celebrate these significant events at the same time of the year—I think these festivals converge once every 33 years—I had extensive conversations with the Israeli leadership, the Palestinian leadership and leadership in the region. I am pleased that opportunities were taken to de-escalate and to support religious freedom. That will always be something that we champion in our relationships.

Last week, the British Consulate General in Jerusalem, joined by other European missions, visited Jubbet ahd-Dhib school near Bethlehem, which along with 58 other schools in the west bank and Jerusalem is at risk of demolition, and implored the Israeli Government to

“reverse the demolition order and protect the right to education for all.”

Considering the possibility of violence occurring as a result of such demolitions and the impact of demolishing schools on children in the west bank and East Jerusalem, will the Secretary of State join the calls to demand that Israel reverse these demolition orders? Can he also tell me what steps he is taking to protect the viability of a two-state solution?

As I said in answer to an earlier question, one of the advantages of the strong bilateral relationship that we have with Israel is that we are able to speak regularly about such sensitive issues. Israel knows the UK’s long-standing position on settlements, evictions and demolitions, which is clear: they are illegal under international law and they limit the chances of success of a two-state solution. We raise that directly with Israel, and Israel listens when we do.

Iran: Human Rights Abuses

uman rights issues in Iran remain at the heart of the UK’s strategy towards Iran. We raise violations at all appropriate opportunities, as well as via our embassy and directly with the Iranians here in London. In response to the regime’s most recent crackdown on protests, we have announced more than 70 new sanctions, and we continue to work with our partners to hold Iran accountable at the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is responsible for grotesque human rights abuses, with reports of 582 executions last year and chemical attacks against 90 girls’ schools in recent months. Vahid Beheshti is on his 69th day of hunger strike and was recently supported by 125 cross-party parliamentarians in his campaign to proscribe the IRGC. Does the Foreign Secretary acknowledge the sense of urgency that so many parliamentarians have about the IRGC’s proscription, which would improve and protect lives both in Iran and here in Britain?

Mr Beheshti has met ministerial colleagues in both the Home Office and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I worry about his health and would urge him to stop his hunger strike. We have responded to Iran’s completely unacceptable behaviour by sanctioning the IRGC in its entirety and certain of its leaders specifically. We will always take action that we believe to be in the best interests of the safety of British nationals at home and abroad, and of course we always keep options available and under review.

Professor Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur, recently published his report on the human rights abuses in Iran. There are no surprises in it. We know that what is happening in Iran is atrocious, but we also know that the Iranian regime is doing pretty similar stuff right across the world, including here in the United Kingdom, where it is using the IRGC to bear down on people who condemn Iran in this country. Why will the Government not do what people on both sides of the Chamber want and proscribe the revolutionary guards? That is needed now.

As I say, we do not discuss or speculate about future proscriptions. I remind the House that the IRGC is sanctioned in its entirety, as are certain individuals within its leadership. The FCDO of course works closely with the Home Office, which is the Department responsible for such decisions. Any decision of this nature will inevitably be cross-governmental. We always keep our options under review, and we will always take the action that we believe to be in the best interests of the safety of British nationals at home and abroad and in pursuit of our wider objective, which is to put pressure on Iran to improve its human rights record.

Erasmus and Erasmus Plus

5. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on association to the EU’s Erasmus and Erasmus Plus programmes. (904716)

We fully recognise the benefits of international educational opportunities, but we have decided that it is not in the UK’s interest to seek continuing participation in the Erasmus or Erasmus Plus programmes. Of course, we have our own scheme, the Turing scheme, which supports global access to education and had more than 41,000 participants in the last academic year.

There is a real willingness across the House and the European Union for the UK once again to participate in Erasmus and Erasmus Plus, so that answer is incredibly disappointing. If the Minister genuinely believes that we are better together, surely our academic and scientific communities would be even better together if we were back exactly where we belong: at the heart of those hugely beneficial European programmes.

Many students are, of course, still going to receive an education in Europe. The Erasmus programme was financially unbalanced on our side, and the advantage of the Turing scheme is that these opportunities are now global.

Chagos Islands: Sovereignty

6. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in Mauritius on the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands. (904717)

My written ministerial statement on 17 March noted that the UK and Mauritius are continuing negotiations on the exercise of sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Chagos archipelago. I met Foreign Minister Ganoo on 1 March, when we discussed a range of issues, including of course the British Indian Ocean Territory.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. At the invitation of the Foreign Office, some of us went to the British Indian Ocean Territory in 2019 and inspected the extraordinary naval and military installations on the islands. The Secretary of State will agree with me that the British Indian Ocean Territory is vital for our AUKUS agreement with America and Australia. Why are we negotiating with Mauritius—a third-party country 2,000 km away from the British Indian Ocean Territory? Why are we not putting at the forefront of this issue something that is essential for all British overseas territories, which is the right of self-determination? When will the Chagossians—the indigenous people of these islands—finally get their say?

The UK is committed to the agreements made in 1965, and while there are no plans for a referendum, we do of course consult with the Chagossians, among whom there is a range of views. I assure my hon. Friend that the issues that he raised in his question remain at the heart of our thinking during the negotiations.

I am sure that the Foreign Secretary accepts that the Chagos islanders were disgracefully treated in the 1970s by the British Government of the day, and that they were forcibly removed from the islands that they love so much. They have fought all these years to be able to go back. They have won international law recognition of their case, as the Mauritian Government won international law recognition for the relinking of the archipelago with Mauritius. As the Foreign Secretary correctly points out, it was agreed in 1965. Will he assure the House that the negotiations with Mauritius will go forward rapidly and in a positive frame of mind, and that he will welcome and endorse the international legal decision on the determination of where the islands should be in the future?

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are pursuing the negotiations in good faith and with energy. We have held three rounds of negotiations to date, and we will meet again soon to continue the negotiations on the terms that we have discussed.

In addition to respecting the right of self-determination of the Chagos islanders, will my right hon. Friend agree that the military importance of Diego Garcia means that the islands should remain under British sovereignty?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. I can reassure him and the whole House that their importance to global security has been very much at the forefront of our minds throughout the negotiations and will remain so in whatever outcome the negotiations get to.

The Chagossians were indeed treated terribly by the British Government in the 1970s, but in the negotiations that are coming up, will the Foreign Secretary do everything in his power to ensure that we protect the marine protected area that we have set up? There are 220 coral species, 855 species of fish and 355 species of mollusc, and this food chain is vital to protect food sources for the whole of the eastern side of Africa. Will he make sure that that is preserved, whatever situation we end up with in terms of sovereignty?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that, as one of the leading voices in 30 by 30, we pay close attention to marine environments and habitats around the British Indian Ocean Territory, and more broadly we raise regularly the protection of maritime and marine environments when we speak to small island nations and those other countries around the world that have an influence in the oceans.

Africa: Sovereign Debt

7. What steps he is taking to help low and middle-income African countries with restructuring sovereign debt. (904718)

We are playing our part in ensuring timely treatment where the UK is a creditor, such as in Zambia and Ghana, and pushing for improvements to the G20 common framework and other debt relief processes.

In Somalia in 2020, a staggering 98.9% of Government revenue was spent on debt financing. Clearly, it is impossible for a state to tackle poverty in those circumstances, but the Government’s most recent international development strategy largely omits debt relief. While the Government are currently considering the International Development Committee’s report on debt relief, please will the Minister commit to prioritising this issue in the future?

The hon. Lady is quite right to raise the issue of Somalia, which is one of only three countries, I think, that has not yet received its heavily indebted poor countries settlement. She will be pleased that Britain is in the lead on the climate-resistant debt clauses, which will mean that, when a disaster strikes or when there is a specific event, countries will be able to delay all capital and interest payments for two years, which will then be added to the back end of the loan. Therefore, Britain is in the forefront of addressing this very important problem, which is rising in Africa.

Last week, the Minister said:

“A time when crises are everywhere, but leadership is not. When we can save a bank in California in three days, but Zambia waits more than two years for debt relief.”

I agree. However, the Minister knows that 90% of international bonds owed by countries eligible for the common framework are governed by English law, so what leadership is he demonstrating to ensure vulture funds cannot block debt-restructuring processes by simply refusing to come to the table?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I am flattered that she has read the speech I gave at Chatham House last Thursday. We are extremely concerned about the use of vulture funds, and Britain has been the lead country in trying to clamp down on them. I assure her that we will continue with that work.

Arctic Council

8. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on the operation of the Arctic Council. (904719)

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials continue to engage actively with our Arctic partners on the future operation of the Arctic Council. We look forward to working with the incoming Norwegian chairmanship of the Arctic Council from 11 May.

With the two-year Russian presidency of the Arctic Council coming to an end this month, as my hon. Friend has just said, and Norway taking over the presidency, what role can the UK play over the next two years in supporting the vital climate change research in the Arctic, which members of the sub-committee of the Environmental Audit Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), witnessed at first hand in Svalbard before Easter?

We very much welcome the work of the sub-committee. The UK will continue to contribute expertise and research to the Arctic Council’s working groups under the incoming Norwegian chairmanship, including on climate change. We also continue to support UK-based Arctic researchers studying these key issues through funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, including partners in Canada, Greenland and elsewhere in the region.

Climate Change

9. What diplomatic steps his Department is taking to help ensure that the UK plays a global leadership role in tackling climate change. (904720)

It has been revealed that the role of the UK special representative for climate change has been scrapped, following the decision not to replace the departing climate envoy, Nick Bridge; that oil and gas licences are being granted in marine protected areas; and that Rosebank oilfield, which would single-handedly exceed the UK carbon budget, may be given the green light. That is not taking climate change seriously. Does the Secretary of State agree that this Government’s actions are destroying our international credibility as a climate champion?

With the greatest respect, I think that the hon. Lady is slightly going over the top on this issue. We are making climate change a key part of all our bilateral relationships. We are building on the legacy of our COP multilaterally, and within the Foreign Office, we have more than 100 staff working full-time on climate change. She should also bear in mind that we were the first major economy to sign net zero emissions by 2050 into law, and that the UK has cuts its emissions faster than any other G7 country.

Last week, the Minister talked about climate as a driver of poverty and hunger. He knows that I agree. Sadly, however, his Government lack the ambition to drive forward a net zero transition and they give succour to climate deniers on their own Benches. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) is right that new coal and oil licences are being granted. The odour of hypocrisy hangs over us in Kinshasa and Pretoria and Beijing. Are those Tory internal divisions the reason that our climate leadership is frankly so lacking?

I do not think there are any climate deniers on the Government Benches. I am extremely flattered that it seems that more than one person on the Opposition Front Bench has read my Chatham House speech from last week. I point out to the hon. Lady that the Government have made an unprecedented commitment to spend £11.6 billion by 2025-26. We are focusing an enormous amount of effort on our technical expertise and, although the international community has promised to double adaptation spending by 2025, Britain has promised to triple it.

Strategically Important Non-aligned Countries

10. What steps he is taking to increase diplomatic engagement with strategically important non-aligned countries. (904721)

In December I made a speech in which I committed to a long-term

“effort to revive old friendships and build new ones”,

reaching beyond our traditional alliances, to ensure that we have sustainable, engaged relationships with countries that will make the weather in the forthcoming decades. I have travelled to a number of countries that fall into that category, as have my ministerial colleagues and friends.

Does the Secretary of State agree that we should have strong international relations with countries such as Brazil, which has non-aligned observer status, but is a country with huge wealth in food, energy and precious minerals and is therefore strategically important for a global UK on an increasingly volatile planet?

I commend my hon. Friend on the work he has done in building not only trade links but a strong bilateral relationship between the UK and Brazil. I will be seeking to reinforce his efforts on my forthcoming trip to Brazil because, as he says, it is an important and influential country, which has huge natural resources and is the lungs of the world.

One of the fastest ways we could transform our influence with non-aligned countries is to step up and help to lead the debate about the availability of green and development finance. One thing the Foreign Secretary could do this year is to make the case that if we are to give our multilateral institutions a bigger task, we must give them a bigger balance sheet as well. We could be using the money we get back from the European Investment Bank, all €3.5 billion of it, to help to lead the argument for a bigger World Bank. Is that an argument that the Foreign Secretary is prepared to lead now?

We are, and my right hon. Friend the Development Minister is personally leading the conversation on behalf of the UK Government about international financial institutions’ being more active in that very field, to ensure that they look again at their risk appetite so that we can unlock the trillions of dollars of available finance to help countries to transition from hydrocarbon, high-emitting sources of energy to renewable sources. That is a conversation we have regularly, both bilaterally and multilaterally, and I am proud that the UK is one of the leading voices on that agenda.

Foreign Affairs Committee Report: Consular Response to Covid-19

11. What steps his Department has taken in response to the recommendations of the Foreign Affairs Committee's third report of Session 2019-21, "Flying Home: The FCO’s consular response to the COVID-19 pandemic", HC 643, published on 28 July 2020. (904722)

As set out in our consular and crisis strategy 2022, we have an extensive programme of lessons learned from previous crises. We continue to improve our crisis response capability systems and structures.

Well, it clearly did not work, did it? The Select Committee report in 2020 showed how the FCDO was well behind other countries in getting people home when covid hit, and the Sudan crisis seems to show that those lessons have still not been learned. Although our defence forces were ready to move rapidly, the Foreign Office was still dragging its feet, once again ignoring those with leave to remain in the UK, who often have crucial roles in the NHS. When will the Minister get a grip of his Department?

The safety of all British nationals in Sudan remains our utmost priority. We on the Conservative side, and many across the House, will welcome the successful evacuation of more than 2,300 passengers.

Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

12. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. (904724)

The UK values our relationships with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and we work together on shared interests to advance regional stability, security and prosperity. There is no military solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. We continue to urge the parties to engage in substantive negotiations to secure a sustainable and peaceful settlement.

I recently attended the wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph commemorating the Armenian genocide 108 years ago. I was with His Excellency Varuzhan Nersesyan, the Armenian ambassador. With that in mind, can my hon. Friend tell me why the United Kingdom has not yet formally recognised the genocide, as many other countries have done?

Of course, it is a very sensitive subject, but the policy of the UK Government is that recognition of genocide is a matter for judicial decision rather than for Governments or non-judicial bodies. When an international legal body makes a judgment that the crime constitutes a genocide, that is a deciding factor in whether we use that term.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, the humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly. More than a dozen non-governmental organisations, including Genocide Watch, have stated that the conditions are ripe for ethnic cleansing. That is a very concerning situation for the 120,000 Armenians who live there. What further pressure can the Government bring to bear to end the blockade of the Lachin corridor?

We take this extremely seriously. We have urged all parties to return to the negotiating table and to reopen the Lachin corridor. I have spoken directly to the Foreign Ministers of both nations about this. Of course, we are very pleased that we have provided £1 million of humanitarian assistance to the International Committee of the Red Cross following the 2020 conflict.

Sudan: Emergency Situation

The long-term viability of Sudan relies of course on a permanent end to the conflict. In addition to undertaking the longest, largest evacuation mission of any western nation—bringing more than 2,300 people out of Sudan—we continue to push for a permanent end to the conflict and a resumption of civilian rule, and we will continue to work with the countries in the region and beyond to pursue that. The Minister of State with responsibility for Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), will make a fuller statement to the House later today.

Earlier today, I spoke to someone from the Sudanese community in Scotland, who are all desperately worried. She was one of the organisers of an event at the weekend raising money for the Sudan Doctors Union in the UK. They will use that money to funnel much-needed medical supplies directly to the doctors union in Sudan, where, amid the violence, an alarming 75% of hospitals are currently closed. She wanted me to ask this: what will the Government do, and when, to get food, water and medicine to Sudan, and how can we ensure that it actually gets to people given that supply chains from Khartoum have all but broken down?

I commend, through the hon. Lady, the actions of her constituent. She makes an important point about the difficulties in getting humanitarian aid to people in the midst of conflict. That is why we have called—both directly with military leaders in Sudan and via organisations and neighbouring countries in the region—for a permanent cessation of violence. We will, of course, add to the humanitarian support that we already give Sudan, and we will do so in close co-ordination with organisations such as the United Nations World Food Programme and with other donations from around the world.

Several constituents, mainly with military backgrounds, and I were concerned to hear of British citizens being beaten and robbed on the way to the airport to get out of Sudan. Being an ex-soldier, I would have thought that our military forces, who are superb, would be sent out to escort those citizens to the airport. Did that happen, or were British citizens told to get to the airport with no escort at all?

The military practicalities of providing what would, to all intents and purposes, be an armed escort from multiple points around Khartoum and the surrounding areas to a single point of exit, proved insurmountable. That was true for our international partners as well as ourselves—no country in the world was able to provide that level of security arrangement. We kept under review the safety of the various routes from within Khartoum to Wadi Saeedna, and we advised on that accordingly. I have a huge amount of admiration for the military personnel who sustained the longest airhead of any western nation at Wadi Saeedna and are currently supporting British nationals and others in their evacuation through Port Sudan.

I welcome the BBC’s pop-up service for Sudan, acknowledging the huge importance of factually reporting and explaining events, but BBC Arabic radio, which already had millions of listeners in Sudan, was closed in January, so this announcement rows back on a bad mistake. BBC Persian radio was closed five weeks ago, even though 1.6 million Iranians relied on it for news of the women-led uprising, and now 382 journalists’ jobs are being cut in the BBC’s language services. Will the Foreign Secretary commission a rapid impact assessment of these cuts, which appear more capitulation to tyrants than providing a lifeline to the people who need it most?

The BBC, including the World Service, despite being a recipient of direct Government funding, is autonomous. It makes its own decisions, and those closure decisions were made by the leadership of the BBC. I was uncomfortable with those. I negotiated a package whereby we were able to give the BBC World Service a degree of financial predictability, and in return, it was able to give me assurances that there will be no further closures for the life of this Parliament of any of those language services. We value what they do incredibly highly, and I am very pleased that the BBC’s Sudan service has been able to relocate and continue broadcasting to that war-torn country.

In congratulating the Foreign Secretary on the evacuation, could I ask him to look at the state of the airport? My understanding is that so many heavy vehicles were evacuated that there has been damage to the airport runway, which means it will not be suitable for the World Food Programme and others bringing in humanitarian aid. Could he see what the excellent British military could do to resolve that problem, if indeed those rumours on the ground are true?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the state of the runway. I do not pretend to be a military logistics expert, but my understanding is that the British military were doing repairs while they were using the runway to keep it serviceable. He is right that what is basically a military runway has taken an exceptionally high level of air traffic. My understanding—and I am willing to be corrected on this once we have an update later today—is that we have been able to hand back that airfield to the Sudanese armed forces in a usable state, having done repairs as the airfield has been used.

I am hugely grateful to our armed forces and civil servants involved in the evacuation of Sudan. With the operation now ended, it is right to examine whether all the correct decisions were made. We know that the evacuation effort was initially stood down once diplomats were out, while other countries continued, and that national health service doctors resident in the UK were initially turned away. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that every national health service doctor who asked to be evacuated was evacuated, regardless of whether they were British citizens or residents?

The right hon. Gentleman, who I have a huge amount of respect for, is factually wrong in the points he made in his question. After the initial evacuation of our diplomatic staff—which is not only our moral duty but our legal duty, because they are our employees—we continued the planning for a wider evacuation operation for British nationals, their dependants and others. We planned for a whole range of eventualities, including if there was a ceasefire or if there was not a ceasefire, both through air and by land.

When the opportunity arose, we took full advantage of that opportunity to conduct the largest and longest airlift of evacuees, both British nationals and their dependants and other nations, of any western country. I am incredibly grateful to our civil servants across Government and the military for facilitating that. We maintain a presence at Port Sudan to facilitate the onward passage; we maintain a presence at the border regions, both in Ethiopia and in Egypt, to do so; and of course, we will continue to find opportunities to evacuate people where we can.

The Foreign Secretary did not answer my question, so let me try again. Last week, “Newsnight” reported that there were at least 24 National Health Service doctors who were British residents, but who were not yet on evacuation flights. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that all 24, and any other NHS doctors who would be evacuated—the Africa Minister is helping the Foreign Secretary—were taken safely back to the UK, so that they can do their jobs in the creaking National Health Service that we now have?

My right hon. Friend the Africa Minister has given me the most up-to-date figures on this. My understanding is that 22 of the 24 who were identified have been directly evacuated by us. It should be remembered that just as British nationals and others may well have made their own routes out of Sudan, they may well have done so. We keep in close co-ordination, both through the NHS and through direct conversation with us, to ensure that we provide as full a service as possible for those seeking evacuation.

Occupied Territories: Ban on Imports

14. If he will have discussions with the Secretary of State for Business and Trade on the potential merits of implementing a ban on importing goods produced in occupied territories. (904726)

The UK has no plans to ban imports from the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However, goods imported from the settlements are not entitled to preferential treatment under the UK-Israel trade and partnership agreement, and the UK also supports accurate labelling of settlement goods so as not to mislead the consumer. The UK’s position on settlements is clear: they are illegal under international law and present an obstacle to peace.

I think it would be uncontroversial to say that we would not import goods from Crimea, so why it should be any different when we are dealing with the Occupied Palestinian Territories, I simply do not understand. Looking forward to any future trade agreement with Israel, can the Minister assure me that any such agreement would include a clear territoriality clause to specify that it applied only to the sovereign state of Israel, and not to any part of those territories occupied by her in 1967?

Only Israeli goods originating from the state of Israel will be covered by the new UK-Israel free trade agreement.

Topical Questions

Since the last set of oral questions, we have evacuated British nationals from Sudan, and we are pushing both multilaterally and bilaterally for a lasting peace settlement. I want to reassure the House that this does not detract from our ongoing support to Ukraine in its self-defence against the brutal invasion by Russia. I delivered a major speech on how the UK will engage with China, and I visited our Pacific partners and attended meetings of NATO and G7 foreign ministers. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Africa delivered a keynote speech on our international development policy, and other Ministers in the Department have visited allies across Europe, Africa, South and North America and the middle east, including key visits to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cameroon, Azerbaijan, Australia, Guatemala, the World Bank in Washington and The Hague.

Under the new Israeli coalition Government, which contains far-right elements, violence against Palestinians has escalated, including Israeli forces attacking Muslim worshippers at the al-Aqsa mosque and attacks against Palestinian Christians at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We must condemn all forms of violence, including the devastating murder of three British Jewish citizens, but does the Secretary of State agree that the cycle of violence will not end and there will be no prospect of a lasting peace if the occupying forces are busy building more illegal settlements and trying to evict and oppress an entire people?

I am not sure the hon. Gentleman was in his place during my earlier response, but our position on settlement demolitions is long-standing. We believe they are illegal under international law and undermine the best possible chances of a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.

T5. President Zelensky has said that Tehran has provided Moscow with around 2,000 drones, which are being used to devastate Ukraine. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the IRGC’s complicity in international aggression, and does he agree with me and many other Members that it is now time to revisit the proscription of the IRGC? (904742)

We have sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety. We have also put in specific sanctions on the supply of those military drones to Russia, which have been utilised to attack civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. We will continue to keep our deterrent posture towards Iran under review. As my hon. Friend will know, it is not common practice to speculate on what further action we might take in response, but I take the point he is making very much on board.

Scottish Government Minister Neil Gray MSP along with the agencies Scottish Development International and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have proved that direct foreign engagement works for Scotland by securing a £300-million manufacturing investment for subsea cables in the renewables industry, working with Sumitomo in Osaka. It is a game changer that has been welcomed across the highlands, so why does the Foreign Secretary seek to sabotage such vital economic activity by instructing UK diplomatic staff to hinder Scottish Government direct engagement?

The competences of the Scottish Government and the reserved position of the UK Government are absolutely clear. I would say to the hon. Gentleman and the House that Scotland has an excellent advocate overseas—it is me.

T7.   The humanitarian situation in Sudan is extremely serious and is spreading to affect neighbouring countries, as many thousands of people are fleeing Sudan. Many of those neighbouring countries themselves are very fragile. What are the UK Government and other international partners doing to support humanitarian efforts, not only in Sudan, but in neighbouring countries? (904744)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the situation is simply appalling. The head of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is expecting to be in the region within the next day or so. The essential fact that is required is a ceasefire. Without a ceasefire, the consequences— particularly the humanitarian consequences—are unconscionable.

T2. Following the adoption of the global women and girls strategy, how is it being promoted and operationalised in Saudi Arabia, particular in terms of advocating for women’s and girls’ rights and amplifying the work of local women’s organisations in the region? (904738)

Progress is being made on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, with 37% of all those employed now women, which is a higher level than in Morocco, which was the outlier in all this. I can tell her that our excellent embassy team in Riyadh is running leadership and skills development programmes to help women, particularly those in the cyber sector and those who engage in sport.

This summer’s Vilnius summit will be an important test of NATO’s willingness to fulfil its long-standing promises to Ukraine. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is now ludicrous to say that Ukraine’s NATO membership might be in some way provocative to Russia, since Putin has shown what he is willing to do when Ukraine is not a member of NATO and because Ukraine is not a member of NATO? Does he agree that it should therefore be the policy of the Government that Ukraine should be invited to make the necessary preparations to join as soon as possible under the rules, for the sake of clarity, stability and peace in Europe?

Before I answer fully, I place on record the gratitude that I and others have for the leadership that my right hon. Friend showed at a vital point in time, ahead of the explicit, most recent escalation of aggression from Russia towards Ukraine. I know that Ukrainians hold him, as I do, in very high regard because of the decisions that were made.

NATO’s position on Ukraine is unambiguous—that the invitation has been put out for Ukraine to join NATO. I think it is incredibly important that that is not taken off the table. Of course, Russia’s aggression into Ukraine was the provocative action. Ukraine’s desire to join NATO was an entirely understandable defensive posture, because of that threat from the east.

T3. Will the Foreign Secretary explain exactly how on earth he thinks the diplomatic staff now to be overseeing meetings between Scottish Ministers and Ministers from other countries and Governments will prevent discussion of whatever topics his Government decide are forbidden? Given that foreign direct investment growth was so much higher in Scotland than the rest of the UK last year—14% against the rest of the UK’s 1.8% —why does he think that such draconian interference is useful or necessary? (904739)

I would have thought that Scottish Ministers were better served ensuring that the people of Scotland are supported, rather than seeing health outcomes head in the wrong direction and seeing tax rates head in the wrong direction. I can assure the hon. Member that every one of the diplomatic staff in the FCDO promotes Scottish interests overseas. I am very proud of the work that our officials do from Abercrombie House, which is part of our UK headquarters in Scotland. I can assure her that, when it comes to promoting Scotland’s interests overseas, we continue to do so at all times.

Please could my right hon. Friend comment on how the Windsor framework will improve trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of mainland Britain, particularly Wales, and say whether the framework will also facilitate UK trade with Ireland and the rest of the EU?

The Windsor framework makes sure that trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, these constituent parts of the United Kingdom, is improved, increased and unhindered. That will be massively to the benefit of people in Northern Ireland, and of course to those businesses and traders in Wales producing such fantastic products that the people of Northern Ireland will want, as indeed will people across the whole world.

T4. On 15 May, it will be 75 years since the Nakba—the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and the destruction of 500 Palestinian villages. Given Britain’s historical role in Palestine, what message does the Foreign Secretary have on this anniversary for the millions of displaced Palestinians in the occupied territories, refugee camps and the wider diaspora? (904740)

The UK’s position on this is of long standing, and I have discussed it at the Dispatch Box today. We strive to create or to support the creation of a sustainable two-state solution so that the Palestinian people and the Israeli people have safe homes in which they can live, and that will remain the cornerstone of UK foreign policy in the region.

Can the Minister outline to what extent he thinks that Finland’s recent accession to NATO further unites Europe in the face of Russian aggression, and what lessons can be drawn from the process to facilitate the quick accession of other nations?

Of course, our Finnish friends have a heroic legacy and heritage of military courage, and all our diplomatic efforts are now focused on the accession of our friends in Sweden.

T6. It is almost a year since the killing of the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the Jenin refugee camp. Will the Foreign Secretary join me in supporting her brother Anton’s call for a thorough independent investigation into her death, and agree with me that that is now long overdue? (904743)

It is tragic when we see the loss of life in the region. We always call for the swift and transparent investigation of any fatalities, and that is very much at the heart of our policy. I will ensure that I get more details on the case the hon. Member has raised. I was familiar with it at the time, but I will make sure I am back up to speed with that.

May I thank the UK Government and the Royal Air Force for evacuating so many people from Sudan, and ask the Foreign Secretary to continue to work with our allies to help evacuate civilians and, more importantly, to push for a long-term ceasefire?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our top priority is to secure a permanent ceasefire. In respect of looking after British citizens who may still be there, we keep every option open and are 100% on that case.

T8. Many of my constituents from the Armenian diaspora remain deeply concerned about the ongoing blockade of the Lachin corridor and its humanitarian impact. Could the Minister let me know what the Government have done and will be doing to raise that issue with the Azerbaijan Government? (904745)

I raised this issue with the Azerbaijanis themselves in Baku in February. It is a very important subject and we continue to advocate for all sides to come back to the negotiating table. I will be looking at circumstances first hand in Armenia very soon.

Further to the excellent question from my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards), Vahid Beheshti has now been on hunger strike for 69 days. He has had a meeting with the Foreign Office Minister for the area responsible, but he has not had a meeting with the Foreign Secretary, so may I urge my right hon. Friend—Vahid Beheshti is just across the road from the Foreign Office—to have a meeting with him on his route back to the Foreign Office? He will tell my right hon. Friend about the malign activities carried out by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in this country and about the threat to UK citizens.

As I say, my heart goes out to Mr Beheshti. I urge him to bring his hunger strike to an end. We know very well the threats the IRGC poses to the people in Iran and the region and here in the UK. We work very closely with the Home Office on how best to protect ourselves and our friends in the region against that activity. I assure my hon. Friend that remains a top priority for us. I am glad my ministerial colleagues have had meetings with Mr Beheshti on this issue. As I say, any decisions about designation will be taken conscious of our absolute commitment to protect British people and British interests both overseas and in the UK.

The conflict in Sudan is a humanitarian disaster not only for the 46 million Sudanese but for the east African region and the continent, with the expectation of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of refugees. What discussions has the Minister had with the African Union to promote African leadership, involvement and mediation and a successful resolution?

I had a meeting with chairperson Mr Moussa Faki on Saturday morning and I can assure the hon. Member that everyone is focused on precisely the problem she has set out.

Good progress has been made on the Truro review, which this Government have given a commitment to implement. Of the remaining work, crucial is recommendation 6 to ensure the freedom of religion or belief special envoy role is permanently constituted—and, Mr Speaker, if I should declare an interest at this moment, I do, although I am speaking of course of the role itself. A short Bill would effect this. Time is now of the essence. Would the Foreign Secretary kindly meet me quickly to progress that?

The whole Government are deeply conscious of the brilliant work my hon. Friend does as an envoy; indeed, she occupies the office next door to mine inside the Foreign Office. We will answer her question as speedily as possible—I hope later today.

I think the Foreign Secretary will agree that the voices of young people should be heard loudly in climate negotiations, so will he speak with Cabinet colleagues and set out a plan for how youth negotiators can form an integral part of this country’s delegation to COP28 later this year?

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his action in this area, particularly in his new role, which I had the opportunity to congratulate him on at the time. He is right: the future of this planet is very much in the forefront of the minds of young people particularly. They seek to inherit it and their voices are incredibly important. I took the opportunity at COP26 and COP27 to meet young climate activists, and it is incredibly important that we find some way of both formally and informally having—

Order. I gently say to the Foreign Secretary that this is topical questions and we are meant to get through them. Colleagues really want to get a question in and I want to hear them. I call Richard Graham.

Mr Speaker, thank you. The Philippines is the third largest English-speaking country in the world and a growing trade partner, and we will welcome President Marcos to the coronation later this week. However, the Philippines continues to suffer from maritime incursions by the People’s Republic of China and the arbitration award under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, or UNCLOS, in 2016 has never been implemented because China, like the United States, does not recognise its arbitration awards.

Order. Mr Graham, I just said to the Foreign Secretary that these are topical questions and we need short answers and short questions. I need speed. If you do not want a colleague to get in, please pick which one.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was in the Philippines just a few weeks ago discussing with the Philippines coastguard the realities of the coercive behaviour that Chinese militia ships are demonstrating in the western Philippine seas. We continue to work closely with them through our maritime security work to support their efforts.

My constituent Dr Alaa Elmutaz Mohamed Mahmoud and her young son became trapped in Sudan during a holiday to visit family. Her colleagues at Nottingham University Hospital’s emergency department are desperately worried about her safety. She was advised to go to Khartoum to get a flight, but then fierce fighting closed the airport. She was then advised to travel 20 hours to Port Sudan. Now I understand that she is being told that any flights are for British passport holders only. What is the Minister doing to ensure that Alaa and her young son can be evacuated to safety and she can get back to work in Nottingham?

I do not know her constituent’s current position and whether she is in Port Sudan, but this is probably an issue that is better dealt with outside the Chamber and I would be happy to see the hon. Member immediately.

The World Bank has suggested that the minimum amount of money needed for post-war reconstruction of Ukraine is £411 billion. While it is for the Ukrainian Government and people to decide whose money will be used and on what terms, what is the Foreign Secretary doing to ensure that the United Kingdom is on the front foot in planning how to fund the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that point. I am proud that the UK will be hosting the Ukraine reconstruction conference in June. We are doing what the UK perhaps does best: bringing together influential voices and, more importantly, finance, and ensuring that they meet and talk. Underpinning all of that has got to be the belief that any investment in Ukraine will be protected. That is why it is very important that we make it clear that we will put that arm of protection around the Ukrainians for the foreseeable future.

Ahead of the Joint Ministerial Council next week, could the Foreign Secretary please outline what he is doing to support the overseas territories? Will he be rolling out the red carpet?

Metaphorically speaking, yes. The overseas territories are part of the immediate family. All relevant Departments will have a nominated Minister with responsibility for the relationship of their Departments with the OTs. We are launching a new OTs strategy and of course I will make myself available for the forthcoming JMC.

I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Hazaras. Hazaras are one of the most persecuted groups in Afghanistan and, since the return of the Taliban, they have been regularly subjected to targeted violence, killings and discrimination, all based on their ethnic and religious identity. Does my right hon. Friend accept that that targeting is happening? If he does, will he please do something about it?

I commend my hon. Friend’s work on this community. He is absolutely right that the Hazara community are being specifically targeted by the Taliban. Obviously, our ability to support people in Afghanistan at the moment is limited, but we keep them absolutely at the heart of our thinking with regard to preventing human rights abuses in Afghanistan.

With reference to Nagorno-Karabakh, what steps has the Department taken to support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Azerbaijan within its internationally recognised borders?

We continue to urge both sides to return to the negotiating table, and we recognise—I have told them this directly—how important both countries are as geostrategic allies.