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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2024

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The Minister of State was asked—


21. What recent discussions he has had with his counterpart in Israel on the number of civilian deaths in Gaza. (901254)

We are calling for an immediate humanitarian pause, in order to get aid in and hostages out as a vital step towards a sustainable, permanent ceasefire.

That is all very well, but the problem is that Netanyahu and the Israeli Government are simply ignoring all the pleas for restraint—those pleas have become empty words. What will the Government do to put real pressure on the Israelis to stop the unacceptable killings, enter into negotiations for a permanent ceasefire and stop the threats to permanently annex and occupy Gaza? Has the time come to stop selling to Israel arms that are being used to raze Gaza to the ground?

As I told the House yesterday, the Foreign Secretary is in the region today and will pursue the vital policies that the hon. Gentleman has set out. The hon. Gentleman will know that it is an absolute priority for Britain to ensure that more aid gets in, but the Israeli Government have the right of self-defence and, as the UK Government continually make clear, they must exercise that right within international humanitarian law.

Like many other Members, I am sure, I have received an extraordinary number of emails from constituents who are deeply concerned about what is going on—these are people who would never normally get in touch with their MP. We must stop the killing. My party and I believe that an immediate bilateral ceasefire is the way forward. What steps are the Government taking with partners in the region and around the world to achieve that end?

All of us want a ceasefire, but it must be sustainable. That is why the British Government are bent on ensuring that we get a humanitarian pause so that we can get far more supplies into Gaza, and, on the back of that, a sustainable ceasefire. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), we need a pause in order to get aid and support in and the hostages out.

According to the UN World Food Programme, over half a million Palestinians in Gaza are starving. A famine is imminent. Allegations against 12 United Nations Relief and Works Agency staff are rightly being investigated, but cutting aid to UNRWA entirely is disproportionate and punitive. Has the Minister even considered the consequences of those cuts on women, babies and the seriously injured, and does he understand that they would breach the measures issued by the International Court of Justice to ensure that aid flows into Gaza?

As I have set out to the House repeatedly, we are doing everything we can, along with others, to ensure that vital supplies get into Gaza, for the very reasons that the hon. Lady sets out. On UNRWA, it would be impossible for any of us to continue business as usual, given the appalling events outlined over the weekend. That is why we have made it clear that we will not produce further finance until we are satisfied that those matters have been addressed. With regard to what we are seeking to do through UNRWA now, we have provided additional funding in the past, and that will ensure that aid and vital supplies get into Gaza.

The Government have consistently repeated their commitment to a two-state solution, and that is right, but for 30 years Israel has deliberately undermined that through the settlement of the west bank, in contravention of international law. Now Netanyahu has come clean and ruled out a two-state solution, so does the Minister agree that, if the UK’s policy is to be seen as anything more than empty words, we need to demonstrate our commitment to a viable Palestinian state by recognising it and by upgrading current Government advice against trade with the illegal settlements to a full embargo?

The Government’s position on the issue of illegal settlements is absolutely clear. In respect of the two-state solution, I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that progress has been made previously, in particular after grievous acts of terrible conflict and terrorism; that is when the big leaps forward towards a resolution of this desperate problem have been made. We hope that on the back of the horrendous events that have taken place on 7 October and since, additional progress can be made as soon as the political track can be restarted.

The Palestinian Authority’s grip on security control across the west bank has been pushed out by the malevolent forces of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and local terror groups funded by Iran. Is it not the case that unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state now would risk equipping those dangerous actors with the trimmings and capabilities of a state?

The British Government have always been clear that we intend to recognise a Palestinian state when the timing is right. My right hon. and learned Friend will have heard the comments that the Foreign Secretary made last night, which in no way deviate from that policy; the Foreign Secretary is pointing out how important it is to ensure that people can see that when a political track gets going, real progress can be made.

If we cannot have a ceasefire, a humanitarian pause would of course be very welcome, but it will only be of any use if we can get the aid that is so urgently required into Gaza. What are the Government doing to overcome what the Foreign Secretary has described as the “ludicrous” checking regime put in place by the Israelis, and what more can we do to stop or avoid crowds of Israelis from gathering at crossings into Gaza, aiming to prevent aid from entering, and so obviate a famine?

On my right hon. Friend’s second point, I can assure him that we are in regular touch with all the relevant authorities to try to ensure that does not hinder the entry of aid. On his first point, we should all be aware that the issue is not that there is not enough aid in the region, but that it is not getting in. That is why the Government, under the Prime Minister’s specific instruction, have been investigating how to get aid in through all means, including from the sea and from a naval corridor.

It is really disturbing that BBC Online is reporting that the Foreign Secretary has changed the UK Government’s approach on recognition of a Palestinian state. Does the Minister agree that bringing forward and accelerating unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state would be to reward Hamas’s atrocity?

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is no question of rewarding Hamas for the appalling acts they perpetrated in a pogrom on 7 October. The point that the Foreign Secretary has been making is that we must give the people of the west bank and Gaza a credible route to a Palestinian state and a new future, but we must do so when the time is right.

The Minister will know that there is rising anger in the region about the desperate situation in Gaza, which makes a ceasefire much harder to achieve. More people are now dying of hunger and thirst than from bombs and bullets. He said yesterday that the UK is pausing funding to UNRWA, not cutting it, but given its critical role, will he reassure us that nothing will disrupt the supply of aid—not just into Gaza, but through Gaza—now and in the months ahead? He is right that these are serious allegations and we should be robust about how UK aid money is spent, but it would be unconscionable if we allowed anything to stand in the way of UK aid reaching those children right now. Will he promise that the UK will move heaven and earth to get that aid to them?

The shadow Minister for development is absolutely right about the balance that has to be struck. Of course, we need to investigate rapidly the very serious allegations that have been made against UNRWA, but the assets we use for getting aid and support into Gaza depend on the assets that UNRWA owns—warehouses, vehicles and the other distribution mechanisms. As such, we need that inquiry to be completed as rapidly as possible. In the meanwhile, Britain was not intending to give any further support to UNRWA in this financial year; in the next financial year we will consider the position in precisely the way the shadow Minister sets out.

West Philippine Sea

2. Whether he is taking diplomatic steps to help reduce the risk of conflict in the West Philippine sea. [R] (901234)

The UK is committed to the primacy of the United Nations convention on the law of the sea, and to freedom of navigation and overflight. We oppose any action that raises tensions, or the risk of miscalculation, in the South China sea. The Foreign Secretary spoke to his Philippino counterpart in December, and the FCDO issued a statement on 11 December, condemning Chinese unsafe and escalatory actions against the Philippines.

I declare an interest, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the Philippines. The Minister is no doubt aware of a large number of videos posted on YouTube and other outlets, showing Chinese gunboats ramming and victimising Philippine fishermen in the West Philippine sea. This is a vital industry for the economy of the Philippines, which, as she knows, is one of our key strategic partners in the region. What discussions has she had with her Chinese counterpart to stop those unprovoked attacks and allow those peaceful fishermen simply to go about earning a livelihood to support their families?

I was in Vietnam in October, speaking at the South China sea conference, and I set out very clearly the UK’s position and raised the serious risks, which my hon. Friend highlights, posed by these instances of unsafe conduct against Philippino fishing vessels. The UK has provided £6.5 million in funding to support regional partners through an enhanced programme of maritime security capacity building in south-east Asia, which includes training on the law of the sea, and we continue to provide that support to help maintain that free and open Pacific.

I thank the Minister for that response. China is quite clearly a thuggish country; a bully country that thinks it can step upon anybody. They have an insatiable demand and appetite for everybody else’s resources. When will the time come that China will understand that they cannot bully the wee person—that we will stand with that wee person against them?

The hon. Gentleman sets out a really important position, and we want to continue to support and work closely with the Philippines. I was able to co-chair the first UK-Philippines strategic dialogue in November, where we are continuing to work with the Philippines across a number of fronts on how we can support them to ensure that they can sustain their agency and present themselves the positions, as he highlights, of wanting to be able to use their waterways freely and unencumbered.

Palestinian State: Recognition

3. What recent discussions he has had with his Israeli counterpart on Israel’s political objectives in Gaza. (901235)

11. What recent assessment he has made of the potential merits of the recognition of a Palestinian state. (901243)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the potential merits of the recognition of a Palestinian state. (901245)

We are clear that for a peaceful solution to this conflict there must be a political horizon towards a two-state solution. Britain will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the objective of peace. Bilateral recognition alone cannot end the occupation.

Given the evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Israel, and now recognition by the International Court of Justice of the risk of genocide being committed by Israel, have the UK Government sought to ascertain what the Israeli military objective is in Gaza, and does the Minister agree with the motion tabled by the Scottish National party at the Council of Europe last week, supported by nine nations and 20 members, that an immediate ceasefire and a resettlement scheme for those bombed out of Gaza by Israel are absolutely essential?

I have not seen the motion tabled by the SNP—and I probably would not agree with it if I had. We are always focused on addressing the points that the hon. Lady has made. When it comes to the International Court of Justice, and indeed international humanitarian law, the Government’s view is not the same as hers, but she may rest assured that we keep these things under very close review.

There is now a live ongoing investigation by the ICJ into genocide in Gaza. Given the British Government’s reluctance thus far to recognise the state of Palestine, does the Minister not understand that failure to do so will soon result in the UK Government just recognising a cemetery?

The Government’s position—and indeed, I believe, the position of those on the Opposition Front Bench—has always been clear: we should recognise the state of Palestine when the time is right. The Foreign Secretary last night added some further words to that commitment, but that is the commitment of the British Government.

Last night the Foreign Secretary indicated that the UK Government will consider recognising the Palestinian state in order

“to give the Palestinian people a political horizon so that they can see that there is going to be irreversible progress to a two-state solution”.

Can the Minister explain how that is possible when both the Israeli National Security Minister and the Finance Minister have advocated using the ongoing war as an opportunity to permanently resettle Palestinians from Gaza and establish Israeli settlements there, and the Israeli Prime Minister has openly said he is proud to have prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state?

The Foreign Secretary was making it clear that we need a credible route to a Palestinian state and the offer of a new future. It is very important to lift people’s eyes to the possibilities once a political track is established. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that progress has been made. Progress that was made at Oslo took place on the back of appalling events when people reached for a political solution. The same is true of what followed the second intifada. The aim of the British Government is to get a sustainable ceasefire and move to that political track.

My right hon. Friend’s comments about a big leap forward are noble—I recognise that—but as long as Hamas, who believe not in a two-state solution but in killing and raping Jews, cling on in Gaza; as Fatah is barely able to control the west bank; and as Israel is still in trauma, still trying to get 130 hostages, including babies, back from Gaza, what does he think that talk about early recognition of Palestinian statehood can achieve?

I recognise the voracity of what my right hon. Friend says, but there is no change in the policy. He is right that Hamas must agree to the release of all hostages, that Hamas can no longer be in charge of Gaza, and that we need an agreement to provide governance, service and security there, which will involve the Palestinian Authority. The Foreign Secretary, in his meetings with President Abbas last week, sought to advance that agenda.

On Sunday, a third of Knesset Members attended a conference calling for the return of settlements to Gaza and to the north of the occupied west bank. Some of those Members have also asked for a voluntary migration of Palestinians from Gaza, with Israel taking over control. Does the Minister agree that that is not in the best interests of Israel and that there should be a return to the pre-1967 borders, with both countries working together to maintain peace in the interests of their citizens?

Yes, I do. The only viable long-term pathway is a two-state solution based on 1967 lines, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, that guarantees security and stability for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Surely the only political objective in Gaza is inextricably linked to the security objectives, because the grim reality is that Hamas do not seek a ceasefire, and Israel cannot be reasonably expected to pursue one with a group who actively seek its destruction, not least the commitment made by a senior Hamas official, Ghazi Hamad, who recently said:

“We must teach Israel a lesson, and we will do this again and again”,

and that the 7 October massacre was

“just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth.”

The only political solution must be the elimination of Hamas and the release of the hostages.

That is why the Government have made it clear that calls for a ceasefire on its own will simply not work. First, Israel absolutely has the right of self-defence, to address and deal with the cause of the terrible events of 7 October. Secondly, Hamas have made it absolutely clear that they do not want a ceasefire; they want to replicate the events that took place on 7 October.

For a decade now, the Labour party has supported Palestinian recognition. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has said,

“statehood is not in the gift of a neighbour. It is the inalienable right of the Palestinian people.”

I welcome the Foreign Secretary adopting that position and rejecting the notion that recognition can only follow the conclusion of negotiations. After the unacceptable comments by Prime Minister Netanyahu, does the Prime Minister agree that no country has a veto over the UK’s decision to recognise Palestine?

I can tell the shadow Foreign Secretary that we will pursue the policy that we think is right. The Foreign Secretary set out clearly in his remarks last night the importance of a credible route to a Palestinian state and a new future. In respect of the conversations that the Foreign Secretary will have had last week with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I cannot trade the details across the House, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the Foreign Secretary will have represented the British position with Prime Minister Netanyahu, whom he knows very well, with great accuracy.

Palestinian recognition is an inalienable right, not a privilege to be conferred by others. Although I was pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary say last night that the UK,

“with allies, will look at the issue of recognising a Palestinian state”,

I feel we have been here before, most notably in 2014. Given Netanyahu’s categorical rejection of a Palestinian state, what are the next steps? When will we hear about them, and how confident can we be that we will not be sitting here in another 10 years, wishing we had acted to prevent a genocide?

It is not easy to sustain the view that we have been here before—at least not to this extent. The British Government’s policy has been clear on the recognition of the state of Palestine. We are working extremely hard in the region and more widely internationally to secure a political track. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that that will be in the mix once that political track is able to start.

Climate Change Adaptation

4. What steps his Department is taking to support developing countries with climate change adaptation. (901236)

Extreme weather is already causing huge devastation, especially in the poorest communities across the world, who are also the least likely to find investors or to borrow from global financial institutions. At COP28 there was a breakthrough, and a loss and damage fund has finally been established. However, the money for the UK’s contribution will come from pre-existing climate finance commitments and the development budget. Should the Government, in the spirit of what the loss and damage fund represents, not establish a new, ringfenced loss and damage budget that is not taken from other budgets?

We did support setting up the loss and damage fund at COP28 and we contributed specifically towards it. However, it is important that loss and damage does not draw from the same donors and the same official development assistance budgets as other development. It has to be different. It was because the UAE, as a non-traditional donor, put in $100 million to that fund that Britain was willing to support it, but we need new and different donors and new and different sources of funds.

I welcome the extremely important work the Government are doing in protecting vulnerable communities around the world. Will the Minister confirm to me that the £3 billion that the Government have committed for saving nature will be used on some of the very vulnerable habitat sites and animals around the world, such as those Environmental Audit Committee saw on a recent visit to Antarctica? Will he particularly think about whales, fur seals and of course the emperor penguin?

I will think about all the mammals my hon. Friend has mentioned. I can assure him that our commitment is to biodiversity and to nature. We recognise the great importance of the work being done in the Antarctic, and indeed the contribution that he makes to that.

From the floods to the fires, from melting ice sheets to ocean heat, the climate crisis is reaching a tipping point. Labour has a plan at home: doubling onshore wind, trebling solar and ending new oil and gas licences in the North sea. Labour has a plan internationally: a clean power alliance of developed and developing countries to drive forward the transition. Is it not the truth that the Government have no plan and have squandered Britain’s climate reputation to wage culture wars at home?

The reason the Government were able to reduce the size of electricity bills for hard-working families was precisely because we are meeting our targets and will meet our international commitments. Britain’s international targets and commitments are enshrined in law as a result of the activities of this House. Internationally we are committed, as the right hon. Gentleman knows and as was set out to the House towards the end of last year, to spending £11.6 billion on ensuring that we meet our climate targets and produce climate finance. I would argue that that figure will be nearer £16 billion by 2026.

Debt Reduction in the Developing World

5. Whether he has had recent discussions with his international counterparts on a strategy to reduce debt in the developing world. (901237)

The main mechanism to tackle the debt crisis, the common framework for debt treatment, is failing due to the low level of participation by private creditors who own around 40% of low-income country debt. Does the Minister agree that there is strategic need for the United Kingdom to take debt reduction seriously and change its approach, given the crisis in Africa and the growing role of China and Russia in the developing world?

The hon. Lady is right to point to the considerable difficulties that countries are finding. Some 15% of low-income countries are in debt distress, and 45% are at higher risk of that. The African Development Bank says that debt repayments in 2024 are likely to be six times the level of 2021. That is why Britain is working with other creditors to secure debt restructurings, most often through the G20 common framework, but also through the Paris Club.

Middle East: Conflict Prevention

The Government are engaging extensively to prevent an escalation of conflict in the middle east. The Prime Minister spoke to President Biden last week about that specific issue.

I think we can all understand the anger towards Israel for the way it is systematically demolishing Gaza and needlessly killing so many of the people, as well as the need for it to be properly held to account. Does the Minister recognise that we must do everything to protect against others joining the conflict, and that activities such as those against the Houthis must also be proportionate and accompanied by more diplomatic work across the region to stop wholesale killing?

The hon. Gentleman is right to make clear that all of us seek that there should not be an escalation of this conflict in the middle east. That is why right at the start Britain moved military assets to the eastern end of the Mediterranean. More recently, as he alluded to, we are expressing strong support for freedom of navigation on the high seas, stopping attacks by the Houthis. We are degrading their capacity to carry out their attacks, and have made clear that we will not accept that challenge to international freedom of the sea.

One problem with the middle east is the sense of hopelessness among the Palestinian people, which is fuelling terrorist outrages. What steps can the Government take with our American friends to try to put pressure on the Israeli state to stop the imposition of new settlements in the west bank, so that we can gradually reduce tensions in the whole region? Is that not the way forward?

We have made it clear that the settlements are illegal and should not have gone ahead and should not go ahead. On the wider point, we are working closely with our American friends and others through the superb diplomatic network that Britain possesses, to try to lift people’s eyes and move to the day after, when a political track can start. That is the answer to my right hon. Friend’s question—the political track, which can then start to offer hope in resolving this dreadful and long-standing problem.

Today the middle east is in danger of seeing a major escalation of conflict, and whether it is in Gaza, the Red sea, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria or Jordan, we are seeing aggression. If there is a common denominator in those conflicts, it is the malign influence of Iran, usually through its proxies. What are the Government doing to disrupt and stop the disruptive activities of Iran?

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had a meeting recently with the Iranian Foreign Minister to set out Britain’s view of and requirements from the relationship with Iran, and I think that was a most useful contact to have. The Foreign Secretary is in the region today, trying to ensure that the very points behind this question are accepted and honoured. We are working extensively with Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, Israel, Saudi Arabia and America. Those discussions are ongoing, and will address the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised.


8. What assessment he has made of the impact of the UK’s non-military support to Ukraine over winter 2023-24 on the humanitarian situation in that country. (901240)

18. What discussions he has had with his international counterparts on maintaining support for Ukraine. (901250)

Since February 2020 the UK has committed £357 million of humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. In response to winter we scaled up humanitarian support with additional funding to provide cash assistance, insulation, and support for energy and heating. The Foreign Secretary’s first overseas visit was to Ukraine. He continues to set out the UK ambition to international partners and did so in November during NATO and OSCE gatherings, and most recently at Davos, where he met Foreign Minister Kuleba.

Tim Bamford, our local councillor for Denby Dale, has devoted his own time and expense to making several potentially dangerous excursions, driving a truck to deliver essential humanitarian aid to war-torn Ukraine alongside volunteers from the Yorkshire Aid Convoy. Will the Minister join me in thanking Tim—who is sitting in the Public Gallery—and all the fantastic team at the Yorkshire Aid Convoy for everything that they are doing to help the Ukrainian people, and wish them a safe journey for their next trip in March?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in thanking Tim and Tina Bamford, both of whom are in the Public Gallery. The response of the British people to the tragedy in Ukraine has been remarkable and hugely generous, and we salute the courage and generosity of spirit shown by the commendable actions of the Yorkshire Aid Convoy.

There are many billions of Russian assets frozen by western nations, and there is a strong moral case for Ukraine to use those assets to repel Russia’s aggression and rebuild its own economy. What progress has the Department made in talking to other nations to make that a reality?

I agree that there is a strong moral case for using Russian assets to repair the damage that Russia has wrought on Ukraine. We are clear about the fact that Russia should pay, and we continue to assess what legal path there might be to achieving that end.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently said:

“I think the big difference from last year to this year is that this year…There is somehow a trend towards getting used to Ukrainian suffering.”

It is more than 200 days since the Opposition tabled a motion necessitating Government legislation to bring about the full seizure and repurposing of Russian state assets within 90 days, but no plan has yet been forthcoming. Why are the Government so out of step with our allies and partners in this regard?

We are not out of step; we are leading the pack, and have been doing so for the last two years. Our resolve is shown by our own financial commitment but also by our permanent commitment to the UK-Ukraine relationship, which was demonstrated when the Prime Minister signed the UK-Ukraine agreement on security co-operation at the start of the year. We are in it for the long haul.

Tomorrow Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, will meet representatives of the Heritage Foundation, a Republican-leaning think-tank. He will meet allies of former President Trump in an effort to unlock $60 billion of funding for Ukraine. What efforts are the Government making to persuade Trump’s allies, and what contingency planning are they doing with our European allies for a scenario in which Trump and his allies are not persuaded?

Ministers engage constantly with counterparts around the world, including those in the US. When it comes to the NATO response, we have seen NATO expand and grow in the last two years. Putin thought it was weak, but it is now bigger and stronger than it was in 2022.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that Ukraine needs $37 billion this year just to manage the books. There is a special European Council meeting on Thursday to sign off a package of €50 billion in aid to Ukraine. The UK Government have been part of that coalition, so can the Minister assure us that Ukraine fatigue will not set in here? There is backing across the House for the continuation of these supportive efforts, and surely the most effective way to get aid to Ukraine is to transfer the seized Russian assets to finance for Ukraine’s reconstruction.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we feel no fatigue when it comes to our Ukraine policy. We have exceeded last year’s commitment in terms of lethal aid, and we will be contributing a huge amount of other aid and economic support. Since 2022, our total humanitarian, economic and military support has risen to more than £12 billion, which I think demonstrates that our resolve is unflagging.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) about the attitude towards the Ukraine fight, and indeed towards NATO, of certain elements on the American political scene. Will our Foreign Office team do everything in their power to impress on our American allies that the peace of Europe depends on unquestionable American support for the NATO alliance in the future, just as it did in the past?

We continue to make that point to all our interlocutors. I should also say that we continue to make the point to all NATO member states that investing 2% of GDP in defence expenditure is a condition of membership.

I met the Leeds Ukrainian community in my constituency this weekend to hear about the desperate needs of war-torn Ukrainian citizens. With the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán continuing to veto the EU’s £50 billion aid package to Ukraine, what diplomatic steps is the Minister taking to encourage Hungary to play its part in supporting Ukraine’s fight for freedom?

We are very active in our diplomacy with Hungary and neighbouring states. I was actually in Slovakia last week, talking about a similar set of issues. Diplomacy does matter and our judgment is that, in the end, Mr Orbán will do the right thing.

Iran and Pakistan

9. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on the state of relations between Iran and Pakistan. (901241)

The Foreign Secretary has made it clear to his Iranian counterpart that Iran must stop using regional instability as cover to act recklessly. He and Lord Ahmad have also underlined to Pakistan’s Foreign Minister the importance of avoiding further escalation. We welcome Iran and Pakistan’s subsequent commitment to dialogue in a joint statement released on 22 January, confirming that ambassadors will return to post, and we continue to monitor the situation.

As the Minister said, diplomatic efforts have eased tensions following the exchange of missiles earlier this month. However, the Minister will be aware that, over the weekend, Iranian gunmen murdered nine Pakistanis in the Iranian city of Saravan. The fact that both countries have launched air strikes against each other indicates how fragile the situation is in the middle east, and how interconnected acts of war and violence are across the whole region. How will the British Government ensure that their own actions do not escalate tensions?

As I said, Iran must stop using regional instability as cover to carry out its reckless acts. We recognise that it bears responsibility for any further escalation, and we are looking at all the tools that we have to bear down on the Iranian regime, including sanctions.

Eritrea: Human Rights

10. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the human rights situation in Eritrea. (901242)

We continue to press Eritrea bilaterally and at the UN Human Rights Council to end human rights violations. It may come as a surprise to the House to hear that Eritrea is an elected member of the UN Human Rights Council.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Eritrea, I often hear the country described as the North Korea of Africa. Young people are conscripted indefinitely, and critics of the regime are arbitrarily detained and disappeared. Does the Minister agree that that perhaps explains why over 90% of asylum claims from Eritreans in the UK are granted by the Home Office? What more can the Government do to take steps to ensure an end to human rights abuses in Eritrea and elsewhere in the horn of Africa, which are push factors behind irregular arrivals in the UK?

I think the hon. Gentleman pulls his punches; it is worse than he said. Eritrea ranks towards the bottom of the world press freedom index. We urge Eritrea to allow the UN special rapporteur for human rights access to the country, and we also seek the full withdrawal of Eritrean troops from northern Ethiopia, in accordance with the Pretoria peace agreement.

We must not forget the abuses that are happening in neighbouring Sudan. Over 7 million people have been internally displaced, with 20 million in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Last night, the International Criminal Court prosecutor told the UN Security Council that there are reasonable grounds to believe that both the Sudan armed forces and the rapid support forces are committing atrocious crimes in Darfur. What hope does the Minister have that we can end the impunity, stop the rapes, murder and pillage, and bring peace to the people of Sudan?

We are calling for an immediate ceasefire. There were talks in Addis before Christmas. We seek progress through the United Nations, where we hold the pen on Sudan, and also through the Troika, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the African Union. We are doing everything we can to end the appalling situation in Sudan, which my right hon. Friend has just described with great eloquence.

Afghanistan: Hazara Community

15. What discussions he has had with his international counterparts on the situation of the Hazara community in Afghanistan. (901247)

The UK works closely with the international community including the G7 and G20 and through the UN to protect the human rights of all of Afghanistan’s people and to co-ordinate a consistent international response. In December my colleague the Minister for South Asia in the other place raised the recent attacks on Hazaras with the UN assistance mission in Afghanistan.

Last week the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) and I met members of our respective Hazara communities. They also regularly attend the all-party parliamentary group on Hazaras, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow). My concern is that the kidnaps, rapes and persecution that the Taliban regularly use against the Hazara women and girls largely go unreported due to a lack of diplomacy or to journalists being unable to access the region. Would the Minister or a member of her team be prepared to meet those whose families are still stranded in the region and are subject to what is essentially the ethnic cleansing of the Hazara people?

The hon. Lady sets out some of the shocking issues that we know about. Indeed, Daesh claimed responsibility for the November attacks and we are continuing to see these challenges. I will happily take back her question to my colleague, and I am sure that he will be happy to meet them.

Since the summer of 2021, when the hopes and dreams of so many women and girls in Afghanistan were snuffed out, we have been struggling to get a strategy together. For 20 years the UK, international partners and Afghans themselves fought for a more hopeful future for women and girls. Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken with international partners to develop a sustained strategy for working in the region so that we can regain a sense of hope for the 40 million Afghans left behind to a future devoid of opportunity?

The hon. Lady highlights the frustration that we all feel. We are working closely with international partners at a number of levels to ensure credible monitoring not only of the violence and threats against religious minorities but of the challenges for women and girls across the piece. We co-sponsored a Human Rights Council resolution extending the mandate of the UN special rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation, to try to make decisions together on how to tackle it.

China: Diplomatic Relationship

The Government set out their approach to China in the integrated review refresh last year. We must continue to engage with China to work towards open, constructive and stable relations to manage disagreements, defend our freedoms and co-operate where our interests align. The Foreign Secretary spoke with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 5 December in pursuit of those objectives.

The results of economic modelling from the Rhodium Group, the RAND Corporation and, earlier this month, Bloomberg on the impact on global GDP of either an economic blockade by China on Taiwan or a full-scale invasion, are horrifying. Am I right that the Government have done their own economic modelling for both those scenarios? If so, will the Minister publish it?

The hon. Gentleman highlights the importance of understanding and planning for such economic coercion. This is an area of policy that sits within my portfolio in the FCDO. Across Government, we currently have a lot of focus on thinking about how we can build resilience in UK interests and support partners.

Topical Questions

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.