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Volume 811: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021


Asked by

My Lords, we remain deeply concerned by the ongoing conflict and risk of famine in Yemen. The United Kingdom is playing a leading role in combating hunger, contributing over £1 billion in aid since the conflict began. To respond to this crisis, in the next financial year, the UK will feed 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month and provide one-off cash support for 1.5 million of Yemen’s poorest households. The UK is also providing the Yemeni Government with technical economic support to stabilise the currency, which will help to reduce food prices.

By 2018, 85,000 children had starved to death in Yemen. Another 18 million people are on the verge of starvation, and yet we are going to cut overseas aid. Is not the least that we can do to help Yemen and other places to restore aid to its previous level?

My Lords, we have debated concerns over the ODA reduction on a number of occasions in this House. I appreciate the sentiments expressed but, notwithstanding the nature of the economic outlook that we face, the United Kingdom continues to support our aid efforts around the world, including in Yemen, as I have already said.

My Lords, the Minister will surely agree that the Houthis, who control 75% to 80% of the population, are critical to finding a political solution to the problem, more so as the Saudis are seeking an exit. Is there any evidence that the Houthis are responding positively to the new UN peace plan? In particular, are they prepared to facilitate humanitarian access to tackle Covid, cholera and widespread starvation?

My Lords, we have seen, including in this week, some positive steps from Saudi Arabia, in the nationwide ceasefire that it called for and the opening up of key ports, for both aid and fuel. However, the Houthis’ behaviour in this humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. We therefore call upon them again to cease their activities, so that we can progress a peaceful settlement in the interests of all Yemenis.

Does the Minister properly understand that many Members of this House regard the cut in aid to Yemen as shameful, first, because of the adverse impact it will have on people suffering the worst humanitarian crisis in the world? Equally important is the impact on the morale of the dedicated aid workers, who are trying to stem the tide of misery.

My Lords, as I have already said, I respect the views expressed in your Lordships’ House on this important subject. I recognise that reductions have been made in our support through the cuts in ODA. Nevertheless, we continue to support humanitarian efforts in Yemen and the political efforts to bring about a peaceful settlement to this conflict.

My Lords, one of the terrible consequences of the conflict in Yemen is the increase in child marriage. According to CARE International, more than two-thirds of girls are now married by the age of 18, as their families struggle to cope. The UK has long been a global champion and a leading donor in the efforts to end child marriage. Can the Minister tell me what we are doing to help the girls of Yemen, and give me any reassurance that the UK’s vital work to end child marriage will be protected from the cuts to international development spend?

My Lords, my noble friend is right, and the United Kingdom stands firm in its opposition to the abhorrent practice of child marriage. We will continue to defend the rights of children, particularly young girls, who are vulnerable to this. That work will continue not just in Yemen but elsewhere. As I am sure my noble friend recognises, the access situation in Yemen is extremely challenging. Therefore, the political settlement must proceed, and then we can look forward to playing our part to ensure that the rights of every girl in Yemen and elsewhere are protected.

My Lords, the khat crop in Yemen is widely cultivated because it yields a greater income than food. If, however, this income falls and food prices increase due to scarcity, the inevitable consequence is widespread starvation. Will the FCDO support a return to pre-cut levels of aid and consider direct injections of cash into the market to stabilise prices and avoid the already very poor and meagre food aid distribution networks?

[Inaudible]—food security. In this regard, it is not just a challenge of getting humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable. I assure the noble Baroness that we are also working directly with the Central Bank of Yemen and the Government to prop up the economy and facilitate food imports, and indeed to reduce food prices. That is part of the technical support we extend and will continue to extend.

My Lords, a recent UN IPC food security report found that half a million children aged between zero and four are acutely malnourished and 100,000 are severely malnourished. The IRC Yemen country director said that we cannot wait for widespread famine to be declared in the country; by then it would be too late. Let us have another go: can the Minister explain how halving aid spending in a country facing famine supports efforts to protect 20 million people from catastrophic famine?

My Lords, the noble Lord knows that we have made it very clear that we have been challenged in our budgets through the Covid crisis and domestic challenges. Nevertheless, we are spending £10 billion on ODA. In Yemen specifically, this will mean that 240,000 Yemenis will be directly assisted. We are establishing 400 healthcare centres. We are also working on important and vital sanitation links and water projects. This is all part of our effort with the global community, but what is needed in Yemen most urgently is a peaceful political resolution. As I have said, we are working very much on that priority as well.

My Lords, Saudi Arabia was the world’s largest arms importer from 2015 to 2019. The Saudi-led coalition imposed a blockade on Yemen and used the arms for deadly air strikes on civilian targets, leading to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Is it the Government’s view that the US and Italy stopping arms sales to Saudi Arabia will help end the conflict? Will we consider joining them?

My Lords, as I have said on repeated occasions from the Dispatch Box, we look at our arms exports very carefully and take our responsibilities in this respect very seriously. We assess our export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We also welcome, as I am sure the noble Baroness does, the announcement from Saudi Arabia of a nationwide ceasefire. We hope that all sides of the conflict will now adhere to it.

My Lords, the humanitarian crisis could be greatly worsened if the oil tanker FSO “Safer”, currently off the Yemeni coast, is allowed to continue to decay. We face the greatest environmental disaster of the century. Can the Minister say whether the Islamist Houthi regime is continuing to stall on allowing UN experts to inspect this ship?

My Lords, sadly, the short answer is yes. The UK has already contributed £2.5 million to fund this mission, but it is for the Houthis to facilitate the mission’s access and deployment.

My Lords, we know that the only way to avert famine in the long term is to end the conflict and create a peace in which all members of society can prosper. A lasting peace requires justice and accountability for the many crimes committed in Yemen. I welcome the establishment of the International Accountability Platform for Belarus. Does my noble friend agree that such a platform is also needed for Yemen to ensure that justice and accountability become more than just aspirations in that country?

[Inaudible]—justice and accountability. Like all noble Lords, I hope that, through the political settlement, we will see justice and accountability for the innocent victims of this conflict.

The suffering in the civil war has been made worse by our selling arms to Saudi Arabia, allowing it to interfere in the conflict for its own ends, with indiscriminate bombing of homes, attacks on fleeing innocents and deliberate attacks on food supplies. Will the Minister agree that the usual response of us having a strict arms sales policy no longer holds water? Making money out of suffering can never be justified and we have a moral duty to provide redress.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it is important that the United Kingdom plays its part in ensuring that the humanitarian suffering is alleviated, notwithstanding our domestic challenges, which are quite impactful on our international support. We are playing our part. We are also lending support to the political settlement. As I indicated in response to an earlier question, we take a very robust approach when it comes to arms exports.