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Topical Questions

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2024

The Government are pursuing vital British national interest priorities. We are supporting Ukraine, and the Prime Minster has announced a further package of military support. We support Israel’s right to self-defence and are working towards a sustainable ceasefire and tackling the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We continue strongly to support freedom of navigation on the high seas and to seek to make progress on Sudan. We are implementing the international development White Paper, which has been well received around the world. I continue to deputise for the Foreign Secretary in this House and regularly seek to keep the House updated.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, said at the weekend that more than 2 million people in Gaza were facing “inevitable famine”. Now that the Government have opted to halt funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, how do they intend to ensure that the urgently needed humanitarian aid—as called for in the International Court of Justice ruling last week and which was central to the ruling—will continue to be delivered to the innocent men, women and children in Gaza, who must have a right to food?

As I set out, the Government’s highest immediate priority is to ensure that aid and humanitarian support get into Gaza. We are relentlessly pursuing that objective. I have set out where we are on UNRWA, but there is no immediate effect on the food that it seeks to deliver in Gaza today.

T2.   I understand that my noble Friend the Foreign Secretary will shortly be visiting India, our friend and key ally in the region. Will the Minister set out what the Foreign Secretary will be aiming to achieve, particularly at a time when we are negotiating a free trade deal and building on the co-operation we already have? (901259)

Although I cannot comment in detail on future ministerial plans, I assure my hon. Friend that the UK Government have a broad and deep partnership with the Government of India. The Foreign Secretary has ambitions to further strengthen that relationship through trade and wider people-to-people relationships in defence, science and technology. On 13 November, in his first bilateral meeting, the Foreign Secretary discussed some of these issues with External Affairs Minister Jaishankar.

Access to critical minerals is vital as we face a climate and energy crisis, but this Government have repeatedly disregarded Latin America and ignored its potential. Will the Minister commit to working with countries such as Chile, Brazil, Peru and Mexico to deliver these essential supplies for a green energy transition?

Both sides of the House agree that this is an important issue, and I can assure the hon. Lady that we are working very hard. I have raised the importance of critical minerals on my visits to all those countries, and not least on my recent visit to Bolivia.

T6.   By any measure our world is becoming more dangerous, not less. I very much welcome Britain’s leadership and rekindled engagement on the international stage, not least in Ukraine and the middle east. Does the Minister agree that our foreign policy, our economy and, indeed, our security are interdependently related? Given the deteriorating threat picture, would he like to see an increase in our defence posture? (901264)

My right hon. Friend, the former Chairman of the Defence Committee, is absolutely right to focus on these threats. The Foreign Secretary recently said that all the lights on the global dashboard are flashing red. The Government know that the first duty of the state is to defend and protect its citizens from external aggression, and my right hon. Friend may rest assured that that will continue to be our highest priority.

T3. Tensions are soaring across the middle east after Washington vowed to respond to the drone attack by Iran-backed militants that killed three American soldiers. Does the Minister share my concern that we may be dragged into another regional war at the Americans’ demand? (901261)

The American Government and the British Government have made it absolutely clear that they do not wish to see this conflict escalate more widely. Equally, the hon. Gentleman will accept that no country can accept with equanimity the appalling deaths of those American soldiers.

British citizen Vladimir Kara-Murza has been moved from a Siberian prison to an unknown location, having endured four months of isolation. Why? Because his voice of freedom is such a threat to Putin. Vladimir has been poisoned twice and, under Russian law, should not even be in prison. What progress has been made on locating Vladimir and getting him released, so that we do not see him die in prison? What have we done to appoint a lead director for arbitrary detention?

As the Foreign Secretary has said, we are deeply concerned about the reports that Mr Kara-Murza has been moved from the penal colony in Omsk to an unknown location. We are urgently following up to ascertain his whereabouts. Of course, Ministers have consistently condemned his politically motivated conviction and have called for his release, both publicly and privately. We will continue to do that at every opportunity. We have sanctioned 13 individuals in response to this case. I have met Mrs Kara-Murza and, of course, the Foreign Secretary has offered to meet her to discuss the case with officials in due course.

T4.   Yesterday, as the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) alluded to, an ICC prosecutor said that there are “grounds to believe” that both the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces are committing war crimes in Darfur. Will the Minister outline what diplomatic steps the Department is taking to help to stop the violence? (901262)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right in her analysis of what is happening in Sudan—throughout Sudan, and in particular in Darfur—where there is clear evidence of crimes against humanity being committed. Britain holds the pen at the United Nations, as I said earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford). We work through regional and international alliances. We are clear that Sudan needs a comprehensive ceasefire and then movement back on to a political track, where former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok will play an increasingly important role.

Today is World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day and as I am sure the Minister is well aware, malaria affects more than 250 million people every year and causes the death of a child every minute. Given the news that the British-backed R21 vaccination has gained pre-qualification at the World Health Organisation, what commitment will my right hon. Friend give towards further support, including through the next replenishment of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance?

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Jenner Institute at Oxford to see the remarkable people who made that progress. Every day, malaria kills entirely unnecessarily more than 1,000 children under five and pregnant women. Thanks to that brilliant British invention and technology, I hope very much that we will be able to make malaria history within the foreseeable future.

T5.   The decision to pull funding from UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the day after the International Court of Justice called for increased aid to get into Gaza has been branded reckless by 21 aid agencies, including Oxfam. What assessment have the Government made of the number of additional Palestinians now at risk of death from disease or starvation as a result of pulling that funding? (901263)

The Government have been very clear about the position with UNRWA. We cannot overlook the appalling events that have been reported, but we are seeking to ensure that they are properly investigated. Britain has no additional funding plans for this financial year. We have already funded UNRWA, as have others, so I have no doubt that UNRWA’s support, getting food to those who desperately need it, will continue, but we cannot ignore the information that was brought to our attention.

I spent yesterday with NATO. One significant concern expressed to me was the acute need for the US to fulfil its commitment to Ukraine in 2024. Ahead of the Washington summit, will the Minister assure me that every effort will be taken to leverage political pressure on our allies and to secure the necessary support, for which we are very grateful?

On the road to Washington, we continue to make that point. The US will continue to be an integral part of European security, as will other European member states of NATO, which should ensure that they commit to their equal and required expenditure of 2%.

T7. The Minister has been clear about the extremely dangerous situation in Sudan. I have a number of constituents still waiting for the UK Government to process their applications for their family members to come to safety here, and hampered by the inability to travel over international borders. What conversations has he had with his counterparts in neighbouring countries such as Egypt to allow facilitation of the movement of people through there out of the dangers in Sudan to safety in the UK? (901265)

We talk continually to the surrounding countries and have given specific support to Chad in dealing with people coming over the border. The situation in Sudan that the hon. Lady describes is absolutely appalling, with nearly 18 million people urgently needing food. If she wishes to discuss her specific cases with me and the Foreign Office, we should do so straight after Question Time.

This year marks the 120th anniversary of the signing of the entente cordiale with France, 80 years since D-day and 30 years since the opening of the Channel tunnel. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is an incredibly important moment to reinvigorate that important bilateral relationship?

My right hon. Friend will have seen the stratospheric improvement in relations with France and its President that have taken place under our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. He and I were celebrating 120 years of the entente cordiale at the French residence last week. I have no doubt that that relationship, especially now, is in excellent condition.

T8. Women are unequally affected in conflict. We have heard accounts of horrific rapes perpetrated by Hamas, of women assuming heavy care responsibilities due to failing medical infrastructure in Gaza, and of women being trafficked out of Nigeria, to name three recent examples. Will the Minister comment on the Department’s work to provide a better future for women in conflict zones? (901266)

The hon. Lady has raised a most important matter. Women bear the brunt of poverty, conflict and starvation. That is why the British Government have made it clear, particularly in the White Paper, that this matter remains a top priority. The White Paper announced £38 million of additional spending to support women’s rights organisations. As we know, women’s rights are under threat all around the world, and we are doing everything we can to support girls and women.

As new heartbreaking testimonies of Hamas’s use of sexual violence and rape come to light from survivors of the 7 October attack, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the silence of many international organisations, such as the International Red Cross, on that appalling issue?

I hope that my hon. Friend will draw strength and satisfaction from the fact that the British Government are not silent on that very important matter.

T9. I am sure that the Minister was as shocked as I was by Venezuela’s actions towards Guyana last year. Will he update the House, and me—I have Guyanese heritage —on what steps the Government are taking to uphold Guyana’s sovereignty? (901267)

I thank the hon. Member for that question on an important subject close to the heart of several people in the Chamber. I assure her that there is ongoing engagement with, of course, President Ali in Guyana, but also all the regional players. I have personally had conversations with Brazil, Colombia, the Commonwealth and the United States to keep the focus on that area, and Maduro’s plans at bay.

What assessment have the Government made of the threat to the future of the Baltic states if Putin is seen to succeed in seizing territory permanently from Ukraine?

The Baltic states are on the frontline, and we therefore take great pride in the enhanced forward presence in the Baltic states, which includes our magnificent men and women in Tapa. That is part of our enduring physical presence to ensure that NATO has security on the ground. The matter is sharply in focus.

As the death toll rises in Gaza, so does the misery of women and girls in the occupied territories. I am increasingly concerned that aid is not getting to them. The United Nations says that there is a chronic aid access problem, and that women are having caesarean sections without anaesthetic. What is going on? Is the aid not getting to them? What steps is the Department taking to ensure that it does?

Tackling this is Britain’s central aim; the aim is to get humanitarian aid into Gaza, but also to ensure that there is a plan on the west bank to take forward a political initiative. Everything that we are doing is bent on trying to get the aid that is in the region through the narrow entrances into Gaza. We will continue to do that.

The Minister has said several times in the last few days that the Government’s decision to suspend funding for UNRWA should not affect that agency’s ability to deliver immediate aid in the region. If it transpires in the days and weeks ahead that the opposite is the case and the agency is being compromised, will the Government immediately review their decision?

Yesterday, I spoke to the head of UNRWA, Philippe Lazzarini. I made the point that it is essential that his review—which of course he is not conducting; the UN is conducting it—is completed as fast as possible for the reasons the hon. Gentleman set out. I am reasonably confident that it can be conducted within the next two months, and the British Government are watching this carefully.

Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have undertaken any further military action in Yemen since 11 January? If so, will he clarify whether the Government’s long-term plan includes committing to sustained military action in one of the poorest countries of the world?

We are careful to ensure that our response to the Houthis in Yemen is proportionate and right. We are conscious of the importance of getting food into Yemen to feed people who are starving. That process is hindered by the grossly irresponsible acts of the Houthi terrorists.

Yasin Malik, a political leader of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front, was given a life sentence in 2022. The Indian authorities appealed that sentence last year, seeking the death penalty, and the judgment is due on 14 February. Given the UK’s long-standing opposition to the death penalty, what discussions has the Minister had with the Indian authorities about this important case?

We always continue to make it clear that we disagree with the death penalty. My colleague the Minister for South Asia raised this issue most recently on 10 January, and we continue to highlight it. I know that he would be happy to discuss the case with the hon. Lady, if she wishes.

The Foreign Office recorded over 500 deaths of UK nationals in Thailand in 2022, some 135 of which were of undetermined cause. In 2022 and the 10 years before then, no murders were recorded of UK nationals in Thailand. My constituent’s son was murdered in Thailand in 2019. Does the Minister still maintain that UK nationals do not get murdered in Thailand?

We work closely with Thailand, and our officials in the country, led by our ambassador, do a great deal of work around these difficult issues when they arise. I have picked up some of the consular cases myself. If there are specific issues that the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise, I am happy to meet him to discuss them.

I have 10 and 11-year-old constituents—British citizens—who are stuck in the Israeli fire zone in southern Lebanon. The Foreign Office is urging them to return to the UK, but as their mother is not a British citizen, the Home Office is preventing that. Will the Minister help me to persuade the Home Office to relent on this issue?

I am happy to look at the case that the hon. Gentleman raises immediately after Question Time, if that is convenient to him. The Foreign Secretary is in the region today, not far away from the country that the hon. Gentleman mentions, and I am sure that we will be able to advance the talks that are going on.