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Volume 790: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer to an Urgent Question on Yemen given by my honourable friend Harriett Baldwin in another place earlier this afternoon. The Statement is as follows:

“The UK is deeply concerned by the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the largest in the world. Over 22 million people—more than three-quarters of the population—are in need of humanitarian assistance. The UN estimates that 17.8 million people in Yemen do not have reliable access to food and that 8.4 million face extreme food shortages. Last year, the country suffered the worst cholera outbreak ever recorded in any country in a single year.

At the Yemen pledging conference in Geneva earlier this month, the Minister of State for the Middle East announced £170 million of support to Yemen this year. This funding will meet the food needs of 2.5 million Yemenis. Last year, the UK was the second-largest donor to the UN’s humanitarian appeal for Yemen. Our funding provided over 5.8 million people with at least a month’s supply of food, nutrition support for 1.7 million people, and clean water and sanitation for approximately 1.2 million people, but money alone will not be enough. We must see sustained progress on the response to this year’s cholera outbreak. We must see payment of public salaries to millions of civil servants and their dependants, and we must see unhindered humanitarian access into Yemen. The UK has led the way here too, lobbying and advising all parties to make the life-saving steps to prevent further deterioration of this crisis.

We are aware of reports over the weekend of significant civilian casualties resulting from coalition airstrikes. We take these reports extremely seriously. The Saudi-led coalition has confirmed that it will carry out an investigation. It is essential that this happens without delay, the results are published, and that lessons are learned and acted upon. Our hearts go out to the families of those killed. We call upon all parties to comply with international humanitarian law.

A political settlement is the only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and to address the worsening humanitarian crisis. The Yemeni parties must engage constructively and in good faith to overcome obstacles and find a political solution to end the conflict”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that response to the Urgent Question asked in the other place. Clearly, Saudi Arabia has the right to protect its territory and its people from the missile attacks witnessed in recent weeks, but this does not excuse the targeting of innocent civilians. Despite UK training to the Saudis on international humanitarian law compliance, we have seen the rate of civilian casualties increase.

UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said at the Security Council that if intensive operations were launched in Al Hudaydah, one of the main entry points for aid, it would, as he put it,

“in a single stroke, take peace off the table”.

If an attack on Al Hudaydah were to go ahead, causing an already horrific humanitarian situation to get worse, what measures, apart from condemnation, would the Government take to bring pressure on the Saudis? Surely, these are the circumstances when the suspension of arms sales must be considered.

The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that there is never any excuse for this. There is a joint incident assessment team in the Saudi-led coalition which investigates these incidents and produces reports, 55 of which have already been published. But we have been very clear at the UN in our most recent wording and language. The UK is the penholder at the UN Security Council on the Yemeni issue and we are urging restraint on the part of Saudi Arabia, particularly in the context that the noble Lord is referring to. For that to happen, it is also very important that the Houthi rebels, in this context, do not perpetuate or worsen the situation by continuing their missile strikes into Saudi Arabia. So, it is a very complex and fast-moving situation. We do not want it to deteriorate further and we are actively engaged at a humanitarian level, and very much at a diplomatic level.

My Lords, I am conscious that an already poor humanitarian situation has been exacerbated by the conflict, and by the blockade. Can the Minister tell us a little bit about the blockade of the ports which US and Saudi ships have been involved in, and how far that now has been lifted?

Can he also tell us about the consultations we are having with the Emiratis who, after all, alongside the Saudis, are major players in every single way in Yemen? I received a note from the UAE embassy in London about the humanitarian assistance to Yemen the other day. Clearly, they have major local responsibility, so can he assure us that we are working as closely with them and criticising when we think it is necessary?

I shall respond by giving a bit more information. Yemen imports 90% of its food and almost all its fuel. The level of imports remains insufficient. The UK has been responding to this by sending DfID experts and funding experts, particularly to Djibouti, to help to speed up the process of verification of shipping. As a result, over the past year the level of shipping that has been cleared to enter Yemeni ports has increased from 8% to around 70%—around tenfold—and we welcome that. We are funding to the extent of £1.3 million the UN verification inspection mechanism. These are all very important steps to ensure that urgent humanitarian support gets in.