Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 2 March.
“I thank my right honourable friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for raising this Urgent Question. The situation in Yemen remains among the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Two-thirds of the entire population—more than 20 million people—require some form of humanitarian assistance. The UN estimates that, in the first half of this year, 47,000 people will be in famine conditions and 16.2 million will be at risk of starvation. Improving the dire circumstances faced by so many Yemenis continues to be a priority for this Government.
Yesterday, I attended the high-level pledging conference for the United Nations humanitarian appeal for Yemen. I announced that the UK will provide at least—I repeat, at least—£87 million in aid to Yemen over the course of financial year 2021-22. Our total aid contribution since the conflict began was already over £1 billion. This new pledge will feed an additional 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month, support 400 health clinics and provide clean water for 1.6 million people. We will also provide one-off cash support to 1.5 million of Yemen’s poorest households to help them buy food and basic supplies.
Alongside the money that the UK is spending to reduce humanitarian suffering in Yemen, we continue to play a leading diplomatic role in support of the UN’s efforts to end the conflict. Yesterday, I spoke to the United Nations special envoy, Martin Griffiths, and we discussed how the UK could assist him in ending this devastating war. Last week, the United Nations Security Council adopted a UK-drafted resolution that reiterated the council’s support for the United Nations peace process, condemned the Houthi offensive in Marib and attacks on Saudi Arabia, and sanctioned Houthi official Sultan Zabin for the use of sexual violence as a tool of war.
Just last night, a Houthi missile hit and injured five civilians in southern Saudi Arabia. I condemn that further attack by the Houthis on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and reiterate our commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend itself.
We are also working closely with our regional and international partners for peace. On 25 February, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, about the Yemen peace process, and he also recently discussed this with the US Secretary of State. I discussed Yemen with the Omani ambassador to the UK on 4 February and spoke to the Yemeni Foreign Minister on 20 January regarding the attack on Aden and the formation of a new Yemeni Cabinet.
The UK is also leading efforts to tackle Covid-19 in Yemen and around the world. This month, as part of the UN Security Council presidency, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary called for a ceasefire across the globe to allow vulnerable people living in conflict zones to be vaccinated against Covid-19. The UK, as one the biggest donors to the World Health Organization and Gavi’s COVAX initiative, is helping ensure that millions of vaccine doses get through to people living in crises such as Yemen.
I thank my right honourable friend for raising this question and thank honourable Members for their continued interest in Yemen. The conflict and humanitarian crisis deserve our attention, and the UK Government remain fully committed to doing what we can to help secure a better future for Yemenis.”
My Lords, in response to the global pandemic, every other G7 member has increased aid. The UK is alone in choosing to cut it. What impact will this cut have on the UN’s ability to prevent famine in Yemen? I hope that the Minister and his Government will rethink this move and the plan to abandon the 0.7% target.
My Lords, let me assure the noble Lord that we remain very much committed to resolving the continuing conflict in Yemen. In terms of specific aid, our recent announcement is in addition to the £214 million we will spend in the current tax year on humanitarian aid and support for Yemen. Our additional aid for 2021-22 will feed an additional 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month, support 400 health clinics and provide clean water for 1.6 million people. We are extending support to the special envoy in Yemen, Martin Griffiths, to bring peace and get all parties to the table.
My Lords, there has been a 49% reduction in our contribution of support to the world’s poorest country, which has been afflicted with the worst cholera outbreak in global history. Will the Government now rethink the unlawful cut from 0.7% to 0.5%? If the Government were correct, and the focus of overseas aid was to be on the world’s poorest, there must have been a humanitarian impact assessment for this cut. Was one carried out? Will the Government publish it if it was?
My Lords, first, in terms of announcements, the final settlement on ODA is still being finalised within the department. I will be able to answer with more detail once that has been agreed. As I have already alluded to, we stand by our commitments to Yemen from previous years, and famine alleviation remains a key priority. But it is a challenging announcement in terms of the reduction and the challenges that the country is facing at the moment. Notwithstanding that, we remain committed to supporting the people of Yemen in not just humanitarian aid but resolving the conflict.
My Lords, cutting British aid, particularly to Yemen, in the middle of a humanitarian emergency looks less like global Britain than little England at its worst. Let us hope that it is not too late to reverse it. How will we use our chairmanship of the G7 group of rich nations this year to help the poorest and most vulnerable people in Yemen and elsewhere?
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that global Britain means that we remain committed to helping the most vulnerable. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised the issue of cholera, and we should acknowledge the role that British aid and support has played in ensuring that cholera treatment is delivered. That is why we have given the commitment to both CEPI and Gavi, in addition to the COVAX facility, for the current crisis. Providing support to the most vulnerable is high up the priority list of the G7 agenda.
My Lords, will the Minister get the department to look again at the money going to non-governmental organisations working in Yemen under incredible difficulties? There is a simple reason: they are more effective than anyone else at delivering help in the benighted situation faced there. I repeat that we really should not cut aid to Yemen, let alone to all the other countries. We really need to look at this again.
My Lords, as ever, I listen carefully to my noble friend, who has great insight on international development. I note the concerns she has previously aired to me directly as well as what she has said today. Her point about the important role that NGOs play in Yemen is at the forefront of our mind, although I am sure she would acknowledge that things have been extremely challenging on the ground, particularly in some of the areas controlled by the Houthis.
My Lords, the Minister rightly used the word “peace” a number of times when referring to the Government’s commitment to bringing peace in Yemen, and yet we continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, which is part of the violent problem there. Does this not reflect badly on the moral case for global Britain, at a time when we have cut our aid to what are acknowledged to be the poorest and most suffering people in the world—look at the television programme the other night on the nine year-old blind boy teaching in a derelict school—when they need it most?
My Lords, I align myself with the news story that the right reverend Prelate relates. As a parent, I totally understand the issue of children, in particular, who are suffering in Yemen and elsewhere in the world. That is why we remain very much committed to our programmes on vaccination, but also, importantly, as noble Lords have brought to our attention again today, to humanitarian aid. On the issue of our support to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that is subject to a very rigorous arms control regime which is applied quite specifically. It was also revisited after the court case a couple of years ago, to ensure that the application of that regime could be more specific.
This is an almost 50% cut in aid compared with last year, at the same time as the UK Government have granted £6.7 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be used in Yemen. Surely given the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and as the UN penholder on Yemen at the UN Security Council, the UK should be increasing aid to Yemen and putting all our endeavours into trying to get peace talks going.
The noble Baroness is right to point out that we are the penholder of the UN Security Council. It is through our leadership, both in resolutions and regular updates, that the situation in Yemen has been at the forefront of each discussion of the UN Security Council, no matter who holds the presidency of that body. We have also extended support to the UN special envoy’s office in pursuit of peace, with £342,000 provided in direct support to the peace process, and have seconded advisers to the UN special envoy Martin Griffiths. We will continue to support the international community in alleviating the humanitarian crisis currently engulfing Yemen, but the best way out of it is through a political settlement.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that no political, economic or other issue supersedes the moral issue on the question of Yemen? Does he agree that we are painting a very confused picture to the world of our compassion, or lack of it, having supplied arms at the same time as reducing our humanitarian aid? I add my voice to those pleading for a revision of this situation.
My Lords, we take extremely seriously the point that the noble and right reverend Lord has raised about arms export licensing. Indeed, our rules ensure that we focus specifically on international humanitarian law. If we look at what the United Kingdom has done over the last five years, we see that we have provided more than £1 billion in aid. However, I concur with what he says: we must ensure that we focus on the most vulnerable in what are very challenging circumstances for our budget, and that is exactly what we are seeking to do.
My noble friend will be aware that 80% of the population of Yemen rely on humanitarian support, and that a child dies every 10 minutes from diarrhoea, malnutrition or other preventable causes. The situation in Yemen today is as dire as it has ever been since the conflict started in March 2015. What consideration has been given to this dire situation—[Inaudible.] I ask the Government to reconsider—[Inaudible.]
Does the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, want to repeat the last part of her question?
My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed, and I apologise to the noble Baroness and other Peers who were unable to get in.