Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 30 April 2024

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The Deputy Foreign Secretary was asked—

Blue Belt Programme

The blue belt programme supports the protection and sustainable management of 4.3 million sq km of ocean around Britain’s overseas territories.

The blue belt programme, directly funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, is a fantastic way not only to help with climate change but to improve our environment. One of the biggest threats to oceans is plastics, so will the Government consider strengthening the UN global plastics treaty in the upcoming negotiations?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is interesting to note that 85% of plastic pollution in the Pacific and Indian oceans comes from just six rivers, and therefore an international treaty really matters. The point he makes is a good one, and it is at the centre of negotiations, which the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), was talking about last week in Ottawa.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Deputy Foreign Secretary will be aware that over 90% of the UK’s biodiversity is within the overseas territories. I was privileged last summer to visit St Helena in the Atlantic ocean, where I was amazed by the natural biodiversity both on the island and in the seas around it. What more help are the British Government giving to the overseas territories Governments to ensure that their biodiversity can be enhanced and maintained?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has had a chance to visit St Helena—as have I in the past. It is one of the most remarkable places on Earth. On the issue of cleaning up the ocean and plastics, I can tell him that the UK is a founding member of the high ambition coalition to end plastic pollution, which is a group of 60 countries whose central aim is to stop plastic flowing into the environment by 2040. The overseas territories are not suppliers of plastic but they are receivers of a lot of it, and that is why this is so important.

The recent Environmental Audit Committee reports—on the Arctic and the current one on the Antarctic, both of which I chair—have called attention to the excellent blue belt programme and how very important it is in the Arctic and the Southern ocean. One of our recommendations was that the programme would work properly only if all the Ministers responsible for the Arctic in different Departments got together on a reasonably regular basis to discuss it. Can the Deputy Foreign Secretary please advise on whether that committee has met or what plans he has to call the meeting?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am advised that the meeting is, I think, today.

Many of my constituents have written to me concerned that the UK is delaying its ratification of the global ocean treaty, which could limit human activity in what would be known as sanctuary areas in order to protect valuable marine life. Has a Minister made an assessment of how that could work with the blue belt programme to ensure that our overseas territories have the highest possible protection for their water and their biodiversity?

The hon. Lady makes a good point. The Government are extremely well joined up on that—I made the point earlier about the DEFRA Minister working closely with the Foreign Office on these matters—so I think she can reassure her constituents that that matter is very much in hand.

Middle East: UN Security Council

2. What recent steps he has taken through the UN Security Council to support progress towards a sustainable peace in the middle east. (902563)

The UK played a leading role in securing the passage of Security Council resolutions 2728 and 2720, which set out the urgent demand for expanded humanitarian access.

The way to a sustainable peace, as my right hon. Friend says, is through humanitarian access. Could he please confirm what the UK Government are doing to ensure the full funding of UNRWA again, and what they will do to stop the Hamas terrorist group affecting the supply of aid to Palestinian citizens?

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of aid getting in, and UNRWA is a critical organisation in achieving that. He will know that we have had a chance to look at the Colonna report, and I spoke about this matter with the UN Secretary-General yesterday when I was in New York. We are waiting for the report of the Office of Internal Oversight Services, which we expect to hear about soon, and we will then reach our conclusions on the best way of getting aid into Gaza. My hon. Friend may rest assured that we are doing everything we can to ensure that aid gets in.

Next Sunday will mark 100 days since the International Court of Justice warned of a genocide in Gaza, yet the Israeli military continues to ignore the legally binding orders of the world’s highest court, continues to bomb Gaza indiscriminately and continues to block vital humanitarian aid, all while the UK stands by and lets the right-wing Netanyahu Cabinet blatantly undermine the court’s legitimacy.

Can the Minister explain to me just what blatantly disregarding international courts and openly violating UN ceasefire resolutions means for the rules-based order he claims to uphold, because to me, my constituents, the Palestinians and countless persecuted groups across the world, frankly these rules are now not worth the paper they are written on?

What the hon. Gentleman says—the way he reflects on what the ICJ said—is not accurate. The ICJ called for hostage release, for more aid into Gaza and for Israel not to commit acts that violate the rights of Palestinians. The Government agree with those three points.

Will the Deputy Foreign Secretary take the message back to his boss that the insertion of British troops on the ground in Gaza will simply play into the hands of those who wish to divert attention further away from the existential conflict between Russia and Ukraine? Does he share my sadness that there is not a single mention of Ukraine in any of the questions on today’s Order Paper?

My right hon. Friend will know that the Government are absolutely committed to doing everything we can to help Ukraine. He will have seen the Prime Minister’s announcement last week on the increase in defence spending, and where that announcement was made.

I very much hope that my right hon. Friend will not draw any conclusions from today’s Order Paper, but note specifically this Government’s driving ambition to ensure that Ukraine is successful in beating back the Russians.

The creation of a sustainable peace in the middle east will require the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. The Deputy Foreign Secretary will know that Prime Minister Netanyahu is now implacably opposed to the creation of such a state, so what will the UK do to oblige Israel to comply with the international peace process? Does he think a sustainable peace is possible so long as Mr Netanyahu remains in power?

Many voices are heard within Israel, but the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the predominant view of the region, of the United Nations and of the regional powers, the great powers and the British Government is that a two-state solution is required, with both Palestine and Israel living behind secure borders in peace and safety.

More than 30,000 Palestinians are dead, more than 100 Israeli hostages are still unaccounted for and Gaza is facing famine. The war must end now with an immediate ceasefire. That needs both sides to agree. It was Hamas, not Israel, who rejected the last internationally brokered ceasefire deal. Now a new offer is on the table, and Hamas now have the power to stop the fighting. Does the Minister agree that Hamas should accept this deal and avert a catastrophic continuation of this war?

Yes. The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and, although these negotiations are fluid at the moment, he is right to say that Hamas should accept the deal that has been put on the table.

The Minister knows that securing a sustainable peace will require a massive aid and rebuilding programme, in which UNRWA will have, and must have, a crucial part to play. Indeed, he has previously acknowledged that UNRWA has a vital role to play in providing aid and services in Gaza. Why, then, having assured this House that he will come to a decision on the future of UNRWA’s funding when he received Catherine Colonna’s interim report, has he sat on that report for 10 days and said absolutely nothing about restoring funding? He now seems to be setting us up for even further delay. It is simply not good enough. Will he now tell us when this Government will make a decision on UNRWA’s funding?

We have been very clear that we are waiting for not one but two reports. As I say, I discussed this matter yesterday with the UN Secretary-General. We know very well, as the hon. Gentleman does, that the assets UNRWA has in terms of logistics, vehicles, warehouses and so forth, are essential for the supply of humanitarian relief within Gaza. We are considering the matter carefully. He will also know that Britain is not currently in deficit in its funding; we are fully funded at this point for UNRWA. It has also received additional resources, including private resources as well as new Governments coming in to support it. We will consider carefully both those two reports in full and then make a decision, and I will come back to the House to inform it when that decision is reached.

Persecution of Christians

3. If he will make an assessment of the implications for his policies of the Open Doors report entitled “World Watch List 2024”. (902564)

The report provides a sobering account of the extreme difficulties faced by many Christians around the world, noting that more than 365 million Christians face persecution each year. As my hon. Friend knows, freedom of religion or belief is a priority for the UK, and we will continue to recognise and seek to address issues of persecution of Christians globally.

I thank the Minister for her answer. It is great to see my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) on the Front Bench.

The “World Watch List 2024” laid bare the significant persecution that Christians face across the world and the increasing pressure on churches in China. During recent ministerial visits, what representations were made on this issue to the Chinese Government, alongside highlighting other aspects of their dreadful human rights record?

My hon. Friend has always been a staunch advocate not only for the churches but for all faith groups in his constituency. It is unacceptable that Christians are persecuted simply for practising their religion. He highlights China in particular, and we remain deeply concerned about the persecution there of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners. He knows that I was sanctioned by China for raising the issue of the persecution of the Uyghur Muslims. The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), who is the Asia Minister, visited China last week, where she made clear our concerns about its human rights violations.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Open Doors produces the World Watch List reports and we are deeply indebted to it for what it does. Pakistan continues to cause concern for me and many others; there are Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians who cannot have the freedom of human rights and are persecuted across all of Pakistan. How can we exert greater influence to effect change in Pakistan and make it better for people when it comes to worshipping their God as they so wish to do?

The hon. Gentleman is already applying a lot of pressure through his chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, which took forward a Bill just last week. My co-Minister Lord Ahmad met Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Ishaq Dar, in March to discuss the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and the former Foreign Secretary has raised the issue of the persecution of religious communities, including recent attacks against the Christian community in the Punjab. Those conversations will continue, and the fact that we have committed to continuing the role of the freedom of religion or belief envoy will provide us with the authority to do that.

Illegal Migration: International Co-operation

4. What diplomatic steps he is taking to strengthen international co-operation on tackling illegal migration. (902565)

5. What diplomatic steps he is taking to strengthen international co-operation on tackling illegal migration. (902566)

13. What diplomatic steps he is taking to strengthen international co-operation on tackling illegal migration. (902575)

Tackling irregular migration is a priority for Foreign Office engagement across our overseas networks, through international forums, including at the G7 and European Political Community, and bilaterally.

Given the success of the agreement with Albania, which has considerably reduced the number of illegal immigrants crossing by small boats, does the Minister believe that more of these agreements are necessary, alongside our Rwanda policy?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes a good point. He will have seen that on 17 April we signed an agreement with Vietnam to tackle irregular migration and reduce channel crossing casualties. The numbers of Vietnamese people coming across the channel has been one of the fastest rising groups in recent months.

Recently, the Irish Tánaiste stated that he believed the increase in irregular migration to the Republic of Ireland was a direct result of the deterrent effect of our Rwanda policy. The Irish Government have since made moves to try to remove those illegal migrants back to the UK. What conversations has my right hon. Friend had with EU counterparts and Home Office colleagues about ensuring there is no returns policy with the EU unless a reciprocal agreement is made?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point: what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. The movement of asylum seekers from the UK to the southern Irish Republic would suggest that the Rwanda agreement is already having the deterrent effect we are seeking.

I have been saying for some time in this place, and many other places, that a combined effort between French and English forces would be very useful on the ground in France to stop the boats from even getting to the beaches in the first place. We have the technology and we can destroy the boats; I do not see why we do not do that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and I wish to visit Calais to meet the mayor to discuss that idea. Will my right hon. Friend join us?

That is an unbelievably tempting invitation from my hon. Friend. Recently, we have seen a 120% increase in French troops on the ground and a 36% reduction in the number of migrants coming across compared with last year, so French troops on the ground are delivering what is required, at least in part.

The Irish Republic’s Government and their Justice Minister indicated that they believe that up to 80% or more of those who are illegally in the Republic of Ireland are coming across the land border, but that appears to have been a purely subjective figure. Has the Minister been able to establish the veracity, or otherwise, of such an exceptionally high figure, which the Justice Minister has claimed to be the case?

We have not because, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, that is a southern Irish Government responsibility. No doubt the southern Irish Government will be pressed on this matter and will deliver an answer in due course.

On one hand, the Minister says he wants to improve international co-operation on tackling illegal migration, but on the other hand he says the Government are not willing to come to an agreement with the Government of Ireland or any other European countries on returns of asylum seekers.

I did not say anything of the sort, Mr Speaker. We are working together in numerous international fora, including the Global Refugee Forum, the G7, the UN General Assembly and the European Political Community summit, to tackle this matter upstream. Working upstream and working with others is critical to resolving this deeply disturbing problem.

The only way to stop boats at sea and illegal migration is through structured co-operation with our neighbours and internationally. I welcome the signing on 23 February of the agreement between the UK and EU’s Frontex border protection service, but is it properly funded and what mechanisms are in place to review that funding as it evolves? Surely the Minister must agree with me that the best way to tackle illegal migration is to fund safe and legal routes properly. What progress is he making on a comprehensive deal to that end with our EU friends, including Ireland?

We need to tackle this issue, as I think the hon. Gentleman is implying, on a series of different fronts. We are working upstream, as the deal with Vietnam demonstrates. Our Prime Minister has substantially repaired the relationship with France. The Calais Group has met the UK-France customs partnership. We work closely with Frontex. There are far more officials now in Britain dealing with these cases. As the Prime Minister has made clear, once this matter has been resolved, he is going to look at bringing in safe and legal routes from elsewhere.

Gaza: Humanitarian Situation

14. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. (902576)

We have trebled our aid commitment in the past year and we are doing all we can to get more aid to Gaza by land, air and sea.

The Colonna review was given no evidence to back up claims by the Israeli Government that UNRWA staff were involved in the 7 October attacks. Other countries have already restored funding to the aid agency, so it can continue its work feeding tens of thousands of people who are starving in Gaza, including innocent babies who are dying without milk. Will the Minister commit to refunding today? Or will he continue to risk UK complicity in using famine as a weapon of war?

I have set out the process by which we will judge how and when to restore funding to UNRWA, but the situation has improved in recent weeks. The hon. Member will have seen that fuel for bakeries has been restored. We are pressing for the activation of the water pipeline and, over the past week, we have been averaging more than 200 trucks each day. Progress has been made, but there needs to be a lot more progress, and Britain will continue to press for it.

When Putin invaded Ukraine, the people of Blyth, Cramlington and Seaton Valley came together and generously gave what they could spare. With help from local companies, such as Moody Logistics and Storage in Cramlington, we were able to ensure that aid reached those who had lost their homes and their belongings. What plans does my right hon. Friend’s Department have in place to get aid from the UK to Gaza?

I pay tribute to the good people of Blyth, Cramlington and Seaton Valley for their generosity, and to my hon. Friend for helping to channel that goodwill so constructively. His constituents will want to support reputable non-governmental organisations and charities working to support humanitarian relief in Gaza.

Israel has forced more than 1 million Palestinians to flee to Rafah, claiming it to be a safe zone, yet for months the Israeli military have been bombing Palestinians there relentlessly and, according to the UN, killing mostly women and children. Now it is planning a ground invasion that will lead to carnage. Does the Minister agree that President Biden could stop this with one phone call, and will he press him to do so?

President Biden has been very heavily engaged in this matter. As the hon. Member knows, both the American and British Governments have pressed Israel not to launch an all-out assault on Rafah for the reasons that she set out. The shadow Foreign Secretary rightly said that he hopes that Hamas will accept the current deal on the table, and I agree with him.

An Israel ground invasion in Rafah is probable within days, leading to 1.5 million displaced Palestinians with no safe place to shelter. Children in Gaza have been starved at the fastest rate that the world has ever seen, and Members across the House, including myself, have come here time and again asking for something to be done in terms of delivering aid and pushing for a ceasefire. Time and again, the Minister says that we are trying, trying, trying, but clearly trying is not working. What will the Government do to move the dial and stop children dying?

The hon. Member will have seen the 6 April maritime announcement and she will know that Britain is ramping up the delivery of aid by land, sea and air. She will, I hope, be aware that we have a naval ship standing by with £9.7 million of aid and logistics equipment. There have also been 10 air drops already from the Royal Air Force; an 11th one is expected today. Therefore, the British Government are doing everything they possibly can to move the dial, as she requests.

As the Minister will know, it is not only Governments and NGOs supporting Palestinians across Israel, the west bank and Gaza, but a lot of charities. I have been contacted by one such charity, ABCD, which operates a centre for disabled Palestinian children in the Nur Shams refugee camp. It tells me that its centre has been raided and destroyed not once, but several times, by the Israeli army—not by settlers. What more can the Government do to protect the facilities and personnel of British charities operating in the Palestinian territories?

My right hon. Friend will know that we do everything that we can in that respect, but if he is able to give me some specific details about that particular charity and what has befallen it, I will look into it.

The Prime Minister has identified getting aid in and getting hostages out as two key priorities for the UK Government. Israel is facilitating aid getting into Gaza by air, land and sea, with 468 trucks entering the area in a single day. We are seeing real progress on aid; when will we see progress on hostages, too?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to see breathing space so that we can get the hostages out and more aid in; in spite of what she says, the aid that is getting in at the moment is not sufficient. That is precisely the policy of the British Government, and we will continue to pursue it with all vigour.

Given that the Colonna report makes clear that donors should have confidence in UNRWA and that Australia, France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Japan and Denmark have all restored funding, and with Gaza facing famine, I ask the Deputy Foreign Secretary again: when will the Government do what Labour has called for and restore full funding to UNRWA?

As I have set out, we are looking at all those reports and we will make a decision in our own time. Britain is not falling short in that respect, because we are currently fully funded on all the earlier commitments we made. We will look at the Office of Internal Oversight Services report and the UNRWA reaction to it. We are aware of non-traditional donors and private donations coming in, and UNRWA is fully funded until the end of May. When we reach our conclusion, I will be sure to inform the House of it.

Strategic Export Licences: Israel

As required by the UK’s robust arms export control regime, the Foreign Secretary has reviewed the most recent advice about the situation in Gaza and Israel’s conduct of its military campaign. The British position on export licences is unchanged, but we will keep that position under review.

Given that the very purpose of the UK’s arms export licence criteria is to apply a precautionary principle to arms sales to prevent them from fuelling future atrocities, and given the extensive evidence of potential war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law by Israel in Gaza, surely it is clear that the UK export licensing system is not working. Does the Minister agree with me and the countless Midlothian constituents who have been in touch with me that the Government should now suspend the transfer of arms to Israel in order to prevent future atrocities, and does he agree that UK Government policy allows for that decision to be made at the discretion of Ministers, outside the failed export licensing system?

Our position on the arms embargo is consistent with most of our like-minded partners, who have not taken any decision to suspend existing arms export licences to Israel. It would be an odd decision for us to take when we have used our own military weaponry to defend Israel from the attacks by Iran.

Exports are linked to law, of course, and the White House said yesterday that the International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction over Israel because, rather like the USA, it is not a signatory to the statute of Rome, which set up the Court. More than three years ago the then British Prime Minister wrote an open letter saying that the UK does not accept that the ICC has jurisdiction, again because of the statute of Rome and the absence of sovereignty over the situation in the region. Can the Deputy Foreign Secretary confirm that that is still the position of His Majesty’s Government?

I can tell my right hon. and learned Friend that we do not think that the ICC has that jurisdiction, as was set out in the letter to which he referred, but it is a matter for the ICC ultimately to reach a determination on that.

British Embassy: Port-au-Prince

8. What steps his Department is taking to support the welfare of staff in the British embassy in Port-au-Prince. (902569)

The safety of our staff is paramount, and a decision was taken in November 2019 to move the last UK base staff member in Haiti to the neighbouring Dominican Republic. The security situation since has not allowed us to consider returning permanently. We have two country-based staff members in Haiti’s capital, who we are in constant contact with. They are working from home and there are no specific threats to them based on them working for the UK.

When Haiti’s transitional council was sworn in last week, the location of the ceremony had to be changed owing to gunfire erupting from nearby criminal gang outposts—a stark reminder that Haiti is a country far from political legitimacy. What steps are the Government taking to assist the transitional council in order to ensure that a new President is democratically elected in 2026 and that we do not see them targeted with violence in the meantime?

We are working closely with international partners, including the United States, Canada and, very importantly, CARICOM—the Caribbean

Community—and of course we are also working incredibly hard to ensure that we provide every support we can for the multinational security support mission. The Foreign Secretary has already pledged funds for our support for that important mission.

I welcome the UK’s £5 million commitment towards the deployment of the multinational security support mission in Haiti. Will my hon. Friend tell the House a little more about how that mission is being deployed, and can he expand on the discussions that he has had with our friends in the Dominican Republic about their security on the border with Haiti?

I thank my hon. Friend for his important question about the Dominican Republic. I was there at the end of March and met President Abinader. We talked about the situation and the importance of the MSS. Clearly, the Kenyans will need to decide how they move forward, but as has been said, the putting in place of the transitional presidential council was an important moment.

Half of Haiti’s population is starving, violence is rife, dead bodies lie forgotten on the street. For too long this crisis has been ignored. As the Minister knows, that grave situation risks also destabilising the wider Caribbean region, including our overseas territories, with the Turks and Caicos islands less than 200 miles away. Can the Minister confirm the UK’s donation to the UN fund—the Government missed that out of their statement—and lay out what other diplomatic support the Government are offering to address the crisis?

Most importantly, beyond the other things that I have mentioned, we are working closely with the UN Security Council, which is a vital forum here, and we continue to work with like-minded countries to help with the establishment of the MSS. The hon. Lady rightly highlights the importance of humanitarian support. We are one of the major donors to the UN central emergency response fund, and there has been an authorisation of disbursement of $12 million to support those affected.

Conflict in Gaza: Iran

10. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of Iran’s role in the conflict in Gaza. (902571)

Iran’s support for proscribed groups operating in Gaza, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, compromises our efforts towards a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza.

Iran continues to operate in violation of the joint comprehensive plan of action. Its nuclear programme is way beyond anything needed for purely peaceful processes. However, it does not end there: Iran is threatening journalists on UK streets, and its proxies in Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis continue to inflict tragedy on the region. What is my right hon. Friend’s assessment of whether the JCPOA is still fit for purpose?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Alongside international partners, we are prepared to use all options available to tackle the difficulties that he describes, including triggering the UN snapback and ending the JCPOA if necessary.

As probably the only Member who has actually lived and worked in Gaza, I must say that I have been heartbroken over the past six months by what I am hearing from friends and colleagues there about the almost total destruction of the healthcare system and the impact of widespread starvation on their patients. With the UK having defunded the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, still supplying arms to Israel, and often defending Netanyahu’s policies, is the Minister not anxious that the UK Government are undermining international law itself?

No. The hon. Lady will have seen how, in respect of UN Security Council resolutions 2720 and 2728, Britain’s diplomacy worked to move people into a common position. We are very clear about the importance of getting aid into Gaza and getting the hostages out, and all British policy is bent, without fear or favour, towards achieving that.

Rafah: Military Offensive

11. If the Government will make an assessment of the potential impact of a military offensive in Rafah on the humanitarian situation in that area. (902573)

We are deeply concerned about the prospect of a military offensive in Rafah. We need an immediate humanitarian pause to get aid in and hostages out, then progress towards a permanent, sustainable ceasefire.

The Foreign Secretary is fortunate to have such an able deputy, which makes it all the more difficult to understand the inherent complacency in that answer. We are hours away from a bloodbath that will make Falluja pale into insignificance—it will be the worst bloodbath seen in the world since the second world war. Some 1.6 million people, most of them women and children, are 72 hours away from a full-scale invasion. The Minister keeps saying that we are going to press Israel; what are the Government going to do about it if it happens?

The hon. Gentleman and I first entered this House on the same day, nearly 40 years ago, and it is no surprise to see him back in his place. It has to be said that throughout that time his views have been remarkably consistent. Given the number of civilians sheltering in Rafah, it is not easy to see how such an offensive could be compliant with international humanitarian law in the current circumstances, and on his overall point, I hope he will recognise that the British Government are doing everything we can to prevent the circumstances he has described.

“Sustainable calm” is the latest buzzword, but the fighting simply has to stop. In the past two days, Palestinian President Abbas has said that in order for there to be sustainable calm or a ceasefire, the United States must give a warning to Israel. What warnings have the UK Government given to Israel when it comes to a possible ground invasion in Rafah?

I refer my hon. Friend to the comments I made earlier. He will know that the British and American Governments have been working in lockstep to prevent the situation he has described.

International Parental Child Abduction

12. What recent discussions he has had with his Polish counterpart on international parental child abduction. (902574)

I recognise the distress caused to all those affected by international parental child abduction, particularly the children. The primary global mechanism for dealing with international child abduction cases is the 1980 Hague child abduction convention. Due to the persistent campaigning of my right hon. Friend, the Foreign Office has raised this matter with the Polish Government, including the Foreign Secretary raising it with his counterpart.

The Minister is fully sighted on what is, frankly, one of the most tragic and appalling cases: that of my constituent, Mr Tom Toolan, whose Polish ex-partner defied a family court order and took their daughter Rhian to Poland. This case has been going on for too long—for many, many years. I thank the Department for the engagement it has been having. The Minister will also know that there are hundreds of other cases of children being abducted that are specific to Poland. With the change in the Polish Government at the end of last year, what further plans do the Minister and the Government have to give real support to my constituent? His life is being destroyed by this, and it cannot go on. It is not sustainable any more, and he has been let down by Polish court orders again and again.

My right hon. Friend’s persistent campaigning has made sure that the case of Tom Toolan has been raised regularly with our Polish counterparts. The Government have raised it many times, including on 9 April with the Minister of Justice. The Foreign Office remains committed to using every appropriate opportunity to raise issues surrounding the enforcement of court orders under the 1980 Hague convention, as well as individual cases, with the Polish Government. As my right hon. Friend will know, now that I have taken over this brief, I am absolutely committed to ensuring that we are returning children to the parents they have been allocated to by courts.

Sudan: Humanitarian Situation

15. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the humanitarian situation in Sudan. (902577)

This year, the UK will nearly double its support for people in Sudan, with £89 million in aid. That is nearly double the amount we set out at the beginning of last year, but in the past quarter, we have augmented that figure as well.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The Sudanese city of El Fasher is the western region of Darfur’s humanitarian hub, but the US ambassador to the UN has said that El Fasher

“is on the precipice of a large-scale massacre”.

What is the Minister doing to avert this impending crisis?

The hon. Member raises the position of El Fasher, and I specifically spoke about this with the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, yesterday. She is absolutely right, and we are doing everything we can. As she will know, Darfur is a particular focus of the British Government—and indeed of Parliament, through the all-party group on Sudan and South Sudan—and, through a number of mechanisms, we are doing everything we can to try to ensure that the people in Darfur are protected.

I do not know whether the Deputy Foreign Secretary has had the opportunity to see the evidence that frontline aid workers gave to the International Development Committee last week. It was very traumatic evidence, but the one chink of light was their positivity towards the work that the FCDO has been doing to try to continue education for children displaced during this crisis. Will my right hon. Friend give a commitment that that support will continue and, indeed, be enhanced?

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he has said. We are seeking to assist 500,000 children under five in Sudan. He will know that 8.6 million people have been displaced, 2 million have fled across borders and 17.7 million are suffering acute food insecurity. More widely, 730,000 Sudanese children are suffering from the deadliest form of malnutrition.

As we know, and as has been said, right now an offensive is under way to capture El Fasher, the last remaining city in Darfur outside Rapid Support Forces control. The risk of massacres and rapes targeted at non-Arab communities is imminent, and I fear that it will be simply appalling in scale. All arms supplies to the warring sides must stop, and we thank our tireless diplomats, alongside African Security Council colleagues, for Friday’s statement at the UN, but what mechanisms are the Government using, with our partners, every single day to build pressure for an immediate ceasefire and a sustainable peace?

We very much hope that Jeddah 3 will be the next significant opportunity to negotiate. What we require is a ceasefire, with the troops returning to barracks, and a political track. When I was in Adré on the Chad-Sudan border a few weeks ago, I saw for myself the difficulties of supporting Darfur, including with food. The hon. Lady, and indeed the House, may rest assured that Sudan is not forgotten and that Britain, as the pen holder at the United Nations, is doing everything it can to help.

Nicaragua: Freedom of Religion or Belief

The UK is committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all. We share widespread international concern about the suppression of human rights in Nicaragua, including the right to freedom of religion or belief. We continue to call, in bilateral and multilateral settings, for the Nicaraguan Government to respect democracy and all human rights.

Three all-party parliamentary groups, including that on international freedom of religion or belief, recently produced an inquiry report, “The Silencing of Democracy in Nicaragua”, outlining widespread, grave and brutal human rights violations by the regime against journalists, academics, political opponents, religious leaders and wider civil society. Our report makes recommendations for the UK Government and other states. What public steps will Ministers take, both unilaterally and jointly with other countries, to challenge those violations, to support the victims and survivors, such as Bishop Álvarez, and to call to account the Nicaraguan regime for such violations, in line with our recommendations?

I very much welcome the report. It was good to meet my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour, the respected special envoy on FORB, to review the report—I read it with interest and will respond to the inquiry members shortly. She can be assured that we continue to call out this behaviour—this unacceptable behaviour—by the regime, which does not respect human rights and certainly does not respect freedom of religion or belief.

Jimmy Lai

We have called for an end to British citizen Jimmy Lai’s prosecution in Hong Kong and for his release. The Foreign Secretary raised his case with the Chinese Foreign Minister in February, and I raised it during my visits to Beijing and Hong Kong last week.

Would Ministers agree that this dreadful case shows the true nature of the Chinese communist regime? Could we be doing more to really get a stout defence of British citizens throughout the world, including Vladimir Kara-Murza in Russia and Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong, who are part of political show trials in authoritarian or fascist states?

Mr Lai has faced multiple charges to silence and discredit him, and he has been targeted in a clear attempt to stop the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association. My hon. Friend raises an important question about dual nationals and the challenges that our consular teams face in countries that do not recognise that British nationality. We will continue to champion them, and we have consular teams at Jimmy Lai’s trial almost every day and will continue to provide what support we can, including to his family.

I know that the Minister takes a close interest in this issue. Has she or any other Foreign Office Minister had an opportunity to raise this directly with the Chinese ambassador?

I have raised this issue with the ambassador, and was able to raise it last week when I was in Beijing with my Foreign Minister counterpart.

The trial and detention of British citizen Jimmy Lai shows the symbolism and importance of getting a grip on the question of Hong Kongers and their rights. Can the Minister confirm that when she was in Beijing she was able to get the balance right between the legitimate trade interests and the importance of human rights, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression, and all those other moral and political duties that we have in foreign policy?

I was able to meet many different groups, from businesses to civil society and religious voices, and indeed political interlocutors, last week in Beijing and also in Hong Kong. I raised very firmly all those issues, such as freedom of expression, without fear or favour. They were robust discussions. It is so important that we are able to engage so that we can have those conversations. Our complex relationship with China and Hong Kong continues but we will continue to stand firm to make sure we champion and stand up for all those who defend those freedoms.

Topical Questions

The Government continue to stand up for our values, our allies and those most in need. The Foreign Secretary attended the NATO and G7 Foreign Ministers meetings and reaffirmed our unwavering commitment to Ukraine. He urged partners to increase their support in line with the Prime Minister’s pledge of 2.5% of GDP for defence. I returned overnight from the United Nations in New York as part of Britain’s contribution to the international conference on population and development 30 and our work on Sudan and securing funding to stave off a famine in Ethiopia.

Conditions in Gaza are desperate and civilians are suffering. It is now an immense issue. Water has still not been fully switched back on and famine is taking hold. The World Food Programme reports that 90% of people in northern Gaza are living on less than a meal a day. Will the right hon. Gentleman clearly outline what his Government are doing to alleviate the threat of famine and prevent its further spread?

We are trying to make sure that the water is restored, as I set out earlier, and we are championing the provision of aid by land, sea and air, and I set out the help we have received from the Royal Air Force in that respect. But at the end of the day, the right way to get aid into Gaza is by road and we are pressing in every way we can to ensure that that access is restored.

T5. Following on from that discussion about getting aid into Gaza, sometimes we need novel ways of thinking about doing that, so what conversations is my right hon. Friend having with other countries and counterparts about opening a new maritime corridor if the road routes are failing? (902591)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are working closely with a number of partner Governments, including the United States of America, Cyprus and the United Nations. Maritime discussions include corridor planning for the delivery of UK aid and our package of support including equipment and the use of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Cardigan Bay.

Last week the US Congress agreed a new $61 billion aid package for Ukraine. The bipartisan co-operation led by Mike Johnson is essential if Ukraine is to continue to defend against Putin’s illegal invasion. I am proud that this House will stand united on Ukraine for as long as it takes to win. Will the Minister update the House on progress with our G7 allies to seize and repurpose frozen Russian state assets in the UK, to support the reconstruction of Ukraine?

The Government are seeking agreement on a way of advancing this matter with the G7. The right hon. Gentleman is right about the mechanism, and we are doing everything we can with our allies to achieve precisely what he describes.

T8. Hamas are rightly an internationally proscribed organisation, yet the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which funds and supports Hamas, is not. Should it not be? (902594)

The list of proscribed organisations is kept under review, but we do not comment on whether any particular organisation is being considered for proscription. However, the Government have taken measures to counter the threat from Iran, including sanctioning the IRGC in its entirety.

T2. Tibet is currently ranked as the least free place for civil and political rights by Freedom House, alongside Syria. There are credible reports of torture, extrajudicial killings and serious restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of the media. Last year, three independent UN experts warned that almost a million Tibetan children are coerced into a residential schools system designed to systematically assimilate them into Han culture. [Interruption.] What diplomatic steps have the Government taken to hold the Chinese Government to account for these grievous violations? (902588)

The Government consistently raise human rights issues with the Chinese authorities, as I did during my visit last week, as I have mentioned. We also regularly raise Tibet in multilateral fora, such as in January at China’s universal periodic review and in March as part of our item 4 statement at the UN Human Rights Council.

T9. Many people in the Aylesbury constituency are understandably concerned about the plight of Palestinians in Gaza. They condemn the appalling actions of Hamas, but at the same time want the UK to do everything possible to get more aid in. Can my right hon. Friend let them know what further plans he has to provide more aid directly, especially with our friends in the region, including Egypt, Qatar and Jordan? (902595)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his thoughts and ideas, which he came and spoke to me about last week. He was conveying the views of the mosques in Aylesbury. We are pursuing many of the ideas that he set out, as he knows, especially on meeting the evident humanitarian needs that have rightly preoccupied the House today.

T3. One month since UN Security Council resolution 2728 passed with UK support, what are our Government doing to bring about the immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the compliance with international law, the release of hostages and the passage of aid that it calls for? What are the consequences for non-compliance, apart from more death and destruction? (902589)

As the hon. Lady knows, UN resolution 2728, which was passed on 25 March, reflected the international consensus behind the UK’s position about the importance of getting aid in and the hostages out. That is what we are bending every sinew to achieve.

Bearing in mind Lord Cameron’s unique responsibility for Libya, following our intervention in that country during the Arab spring, what are the Government doing to help the Libyan Government to tackle the enormous fraud that is taking place from the sale of oil from the Libyan state oil company?

We continue to work closely with the Government in Libya. Lord Ahmad and I keep in touch on these matters, and I will update my hon. Friend further.

T4. When the International Court of Justice, almost 100 days ago, sent Israel for trial, plausibly on charges of genocide, the British Government called it a foreign court. What attitude will the Government take if, as is widely reported, the British King’s Counsel chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court issues an arrest warrant for Benjamin Netanyahu? (902590)

I think the hon. Gentleman is speculating in an extraordinary manner. What the Court said at the time was that the hostages should be released, that there should be more aid into Gaza and that Israel should not commit acts that violate the rights of Palestinians. That is where the Court rests at this point, and we must wait for further events.

Ahead of the UN General Assembly high-level meeting on antimicrobial resistance, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital to build the political will of developed and developing countries to prioritise tackling AMR? What discussions has he had with his counterparts coming up to this high-level meeting?

My hon. Friend is right. An enormous amount of work is going on in respect of AMR, which is being discussed extensively this year at the United Nations. Dame Sally Davies, who leads for Britain on this vital issue, is doing a fabulous job, and Britain is committed to doing everything it can to make real progress.

T6. As of 9 April, eight field hospitals are reportedly active inside the Gaza strip, with some operating at 265% of their capacity and with a shortage of medication and supplies. What are the UK Government doing to help facilitate medical evacuations, particularly of children? (902592)

We have worked extensively with our partners in the Gulf on evacuations, and Britain is doing a great deal through our medical support for the field hospital we have in Gaza as well as to support other humanitarian and medical activities, which are so vital there.

British citizen Ryan Cornelius has now been imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates for 16 years. In 2022, the UN determined that he was “arbitrarily detained”, and before the Deputy Foreign Secretary came to his current position, he signed a letter calling for his immediate release. On Saturday, Ryan turned 70, and his children have grown up without him. Will the Government please update us on what they are doing to get him home and whether they will lodge a plea for clemency, given his age and ill health?

I assure my hon. Friend that FCDO Ministers and officials continue to raise the cases of both Mr Cornelius and Mr Ridley with the UAE authorities. We are urgently looking into the information provided by the family and seeking expert advice. We will follow up with the people concerned when we have more information.

T7. The proposed EU-UK youth mobility scheme would have allowed 18 to 30-year-old UK citizens to work and study in the EU without barriers that the Government’s Brexit have created, yet the Tories and the Labour party immediately rebuffed the offer. What is the message to young people across the UK who are watching opportunities being blocked by Westminster? (902593)

The EU scheme requires people between the ages of 18 and 35—I did not realise that you were still a young person at 35—to have absolutely free movement. That discussion has been had at length both in the Chamber and during the Brexit vote. What we do have is bilateral youth mobility schemes, which we are more than happy to propose with interested parties.

On Gibraltar, the Minister has stated that our current EU negotiations are consistent with UK sovereignty. How will that be achieved, given our defence and RAF assets as well as any nuclear naval capability that the UK has in that region? How will our sovereignty be guaranteed at the border if there is a Schengen border post on the soil of Gibraltar?

My hon. Friend can be assured that we will continue to safeguard the sovereignty of Gibraltar, which is much cherished. He can also be assured that in the negotiations we will fully protect the operations and the independence of the UK’s military facilities in Gibraltar. I very much look forward to discussing this more fully in front of his Committee tomorrow morning.

T10. Despite repeated claims by the Saudi authorities that they would abolish the death penalty for children, child defendants are still regularly sentenced to death. Some 11 have been executed since 2015. Child defendants Abdullah al-Howaiti, Abdullah al-Derazi and Youssef al-Manasif have all received death sentences for crimes allegedly committed before the age of 18. In April 2020, Saudi authorities issued a royal decree purporting to abolish the death penalty, but that appears to have been an empty promise. Will the Minister intervene and impress on them their human rights obligations? (902596)

We continue to engage with the Saudi authorities on this and, as the hon. Member knows, we push back on the death penalty being used in any country around the world.

When will the Foreign Office and the Home Office abandon their ridiculous pseudo security argument that is preventing the return of Shamima Begum and other women and children from northern Syria? Our allies oppose that policy because they know that it risks turning those children into tomorrow’s terrorists.

My right hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about this matter, speaks with considerable authority on it. I have no doubt that his voice will be heard in both the Foreign Office and the Home Office.

Spain, Norway and Ireland are ready jointly to recognise Palestine as a state within weeks. Four other European countries look likely to follow suit, and France recently voted to admit Palestine as a full member of the UN. Is it not time that the UK Government joined their European partners in recognising Palestine?

As we have made clear, recognition of a Palestinian state cannot come at the beginning of the process, but it does not have to come at the end.

Could the Deputy Foreign Secretary update us on the state of our relations with Djibouti, and his assessment of the impact of the UK recognising the memorandum of understanding between Ethiopia and Somalia on the development of the port of Berbera? Does he have any plans to visit Djibouti? If so, may I give him some advice?

I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that I have visited Djibouti, without suffering the fate that I am so sorry he suffered. As he knows, we are taking up this matter with the authorities in Djibouti.

Israel’s deliberate and wilful starvation of Gaza is a war crime, yet the Government deflect all questions on UNRWA funding by saying that it runs until the end of April. We are here—today is the last day of April. If the Government do not restore UNRWA funding, are they not aiding and abetting Israeli war crimes?

I have made very clear the Government’s position on UNRWA. We are in a process, and after it has been completed I will report to the House.

Ahmed Ali Alid, the Moroccan asylum seeker convicted last week of murdering 70-year-old Terence Carney, wandered through 13 European countries before entering the UK illegally and claiming asylum. Does the Minister agree that we must redouble our efforts and work with international allies, and that we do not want criminals like that in our country?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns. I am not familiar with the case, but I will follow up and get back to her.