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Topical Questions

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 2 May 2023

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.