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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 667: debated on Tuesday 5 November 2019

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

The Secretary of State was asked—


1. What assessment he has made of the effect of the US Administration's decision to withdraw support for Kurdish forces on regional stability. (900296)

19. What discussions he has had with his international counterparts on the feasibility of implementing a no-fly zone over northern Syria. (900319)

May I start, Mr Speaker, by saying it is an honour to be the first Member at the Dispatch Box to congratulate you on taking the Chair? You will not have an easy task, but I am confident that with your technical expertise and your long experience and good humour, you will do an absolutely superb job.

The UK has consistently opposed Turkish military action in Syria. We condemned it with our European partners and we are concerned about the impact it will have on stability, on the humanitarian crisis and also on the counter-Daesh effort.

Mr Speaker, I am sure the whole House will want to join me in congratulating you on your election yesterday. It is fantastic to see you in the Chair.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Abandoning the Kurds, who led the fight against IS, has seen over 10,000 refugees fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan on top of the 1.5 million displaced people it is already generously caring for, so will he increase humanitarian work and the Kurdistan region’s ability to defend itself against Daesh? Does he agree that this has also strengthened Iran and its proxy terror arming Hezbollah, and that Israel, the middle east’s only democracy, must be protected from that threat?

I thank the hon. Gentleman; he has followed this subject for a long period and has experience and insight. We are worried, and our main concerns are around the humanitarian situation and the stability of northern Syria. Notwithstanding the removal of Daesh leader al-Baghdadi, which we welcome, we are worried about the medium-term impact on counter-Daesh strategy in the region. So while we welcome the ceasefire brokered by Vice-President Mike Pence in relation to northern Syria, we are also seeing an accommodation between the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Syrian regime and indeed Presidents Erdoğan and Putin, and that is counter both to our counter-terrorism efforts but also to the humanitarian plight that the hon. Gentleman rightly raises.

May I add my congratulations to you, Mr Speaker?

Save the Children has identified around 60 British children who are stranded in north-east Syria. The Government have said that we owe them a duty of care. No matter what their parents may have done, these are innocent children, and some are now malnourished and some are suffering from life-threatening illnesses. What are the Government doing to ensure that those British children are repatriated?

The hon. Lady is right to say that the first responsibility is of course with any parent or prospective parent who would take their children out to a conflict zone. We have made it clear that we are willing to repatriate unaccompanied UK minors or orphans where is no risk to UK security. We would consider carefully individual requests for consular support more generally and subject to national security considerations, but of course the UK has no consular presence in Syria from which to provide assistance, and that makes it very difficult to help, but we respond on a case-by-case basis.

This is an honour, Mr Speaker.

Mr Ahmed, a Syrian Kurd constituent of mine, has relayed his deep concerns for family and friends in the region. Communities without security cannot prosper; what more can be done to secure a peace?

We talk to all the parties and players involved. Obviously there is an important NATO component. The US withdrawal of troops is, of course, a matter for them, but we note that a small residual number of troops are going to be left for counter-Daesh operations. We support the deconfliction mechanism that is in place to try to ensure that the airspace can be correctly and properly policed.

It is an honour, Mr Speaker, to be the first Back Bencher to be called from the Government Benches during your Speakership. I made my remarks about your predecessor a matter of formal record, and I hope I can now get called, which would be agreeable.

On this very serious issue, having recently been to the region may I urge my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to engage with the local leadership there when they make themselves available at ministerial level? On the conduct of the Turkish military operation, there is now pretty incontrovertible evidence that white phosphorus has been used as a weapon against civilians, if not other chemical weapons, either by the Turks or by their Syrian auxiliary allies. This is a matter of immense seriousness; will the United Kingdom Government now hold Turkey and her allies to account?

Your tenure and leadership, Mr Speaker, are already producing changes on the Back Benches, which are hugely welcome. My hon. Friend is right to be concerned that we ensure we are engaged with key figures on the ground in northern Syria. In relation to white phosphorus, we are very concerned by the reports—which have not yet been fully verified, as we have said—and we want to see a swift and thorough investigation by the UN Commission of Investigation. That is what we are pressing for.

Before the shadow Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), stands up, may I be the first London MP to welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker? Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what international discussions are occurring with the Turkish Government in order to ensure a long-lasting peace?

I have spoken to the Turkish Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan on 12 and 20 October, and we have made it clear that we are not willing to see demographic changes on the ground that would alter the balance in northern Syria. We are concerned about the humanitarian situation. It is welcome that the ceasefire is broadly holding, but we now need to see measures for a credible medium-term approach that allows us to continue to press our overarching aim to see Daesh defeated in the region and that is also fair and just in relation to the humanitarian crisis, particularly to those who have been displaced or lost their homes.

On behalf of the Scottish National party, may I be the first Scottish MP to welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker? On 16 October, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), told the Foreign Affairs Committee that the UK was failing to attend meetings to discuss the situation in Syria, not least the increase in migration and the refugee crisis. Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what possible benefits there can be from failing to attend these meetings? What are the foreign policy implications of this, and will he change his mind about non-attendance?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are in close contact with all our bilateral partners, that we engage with our EU partners and that we have raised this situation in the UN Security Council. I have discussed it at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and the UK will be attending the next ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition against Daesh on 14 November in Washington.

I am glad to hear that. The Brexit Secretary told us that the UK would only attend meetings of the EU Council where there was

“a significant national interest in the outcome of discussions, such as on security”.

The situation in Syria strikes me as something that affects security as well as foreign policy, so I ask the Foreign Secretary again: will he change his mind, given that there are 27 key partners in there? It is increasingly striking that there are no benefits from leaving the European Union, but even worse, could it be that we have a Government so blinded and dogmatic over their commitment to turn away from Europe and embrace Trump that they will not even bother to turn up for these meetings? Does he not agree that this is having security and foreign policy implications right now?

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I think the blinkered prejudice is all on his own side. I have attended EU Gymnichs before the meetings with Foreign Ministers, because when we have security issues of course we want to engage with our EU partners. The reality is that we will continue to do that once we have left the EU, because we want to be strong European neighbours and allies as well as giving effect to the referendum in this country.

UK Soft Power

17. What the activities are of staff working in his Department on soft power; and if he will make a statement. (900316)

As the first woman to speak, may I also congratulate you on your new job, Mr Speaker? The UK is home to world-class universities, cultural institutions and major sporting events that are known throughout the world and that help to promote our values and build relationships. We will keep investing in our soft power assets, including the British Council, the BBC World Service and Chevening scholarships, and engaging with partners as part of our role as a positive influence in the world.

I thank the Minister for that answer, Mr Speaker, but more importantly I thank you, because I believe that our soft power overseas has already been enhanced as a result of your appointment to the Chair. May I ask the Minister what we will do with this newly enhanced soft power to speak up for persecuted Christians around the world?

Congratulations from the west midlands as well, Mr Speaker: everybody is congratulating you.

We actively use our influence to speak up for persecuted Christians and individuals of all faiths or beliefs at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN, among other bodies. Throughout our diplomatic network, we lobby Governments for changes in laws and practices and raise individual cases of persecution in countries recently including Egypt, Indonesia and Sudan. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), the PM’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief is working very hard as well.

Last summer, the Red Arrows went to North America on an 11-week deployment and I happened, by sheer coincidence, to be in Chicago with the Mayor of the West Midlands. There we were, walking along the esplanade and we saw the Red Arrows on display with around a million Chicagoans cheering the Royal Air Force, which was great. That is a great example of soft power, but when does my hon. Friend think that a soft power strategy might be published?

I thank my hon. Friend, with his great links to the west midlands and the Mayor of the West Midlands, all congratulating the Speaker on his new position. Of course, this was a great example of global Britain going forward. We are all incredibly proud of the Red Arrows and they are a great example of soft power. When the Red Arrows were out there, the engineers and the pilots ran STEM––science, technology, engineering and maths––workshops in schools throughout their route, which was an excellent opportunity to showcase our soft power. To put my hon. Friend’s mind at rest, yes, we will introduce a strategy for soft power once we have won the general election and come back.

No soft soap from me, Mr Speaker. The fact of the matter is that I have known you since you came into the House. I am really pleased that you are in the Chair and we at least have a northern voice. It is Lancastrian rather than Yorkshire, but it is nice to have a regional accent. It is very nice to see your dad up in the Gallery, another old friend and colleague of ours. It is a very happy occasion for the Hoyles.

Now I am turning into angry mode. Will the Minister define what is soft power and what is hard power? Is what the Russians did to us in the last election, and possibly during the referendum, soft or hard power, what are we going to do about it and when are the Government going to publish this report that they are trying to hide from the public?

I am always concerned about the health of the hon. Gentleman; far be it from me to suggest that that was theatrics. To answer his question, soft power is one of the best values of the UK as a nation, in that we are out there with our embassies, trade envoys and cultural attachés and our British Council work. All that is absolutely excellent, as is the World Service that we help pay for. As regards Russia, the hon. Gentleman is an assiduous parliamentarian and I believe that an urgent question on the matter has been agreed by the Speaker, the first he has agreed in his time as Speaker. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman hangs around, he will get the answers that he is looking for.

Mr Speaker, I am delighted to join the congratulations on your election yesterday on behalf of the people of Liverpool.

An important element of soft power is our commitment to international development. Will the Minister take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government's commitment to that, including the 0.7% aid commitment and the continuation of the Department for International Development as a stand-alone independent Government Department?

It is a pleasure to take a question from the hon. Gentleman, who has been unbelievably good as Chairman of his Select Committee. He is standing down and, honestly, we will miss him. To answer his question, absolutely: 0.7% is writ large. We are very proud that this is the Government that brought that in and put it on a statutory basis. As regards keeping DFID going after the election, let us get through the election.

As the first born and bred Lancastrian to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, may I also congratulate you and wish you well in your role? Last night, the director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, came to dinner at the House of Commons. I wonder whether the Minister will join me in putting on the record our appreciation of the museum’s work. Not only is it an extraordinary lending institution of artefacts around the world, but its work in Iraq, for example, where the British Museum trains men and women archaeologists, is doing so much to preserve and protect sites that have been destroyed by Daesh and others in recent years. If the Government are looking for an envoy for anything, I am going to be free. [Laughter.]

I thank my right hon. Friend for that wonderful question. I am delighted to include the British Museum’s work as another area of soft power for the great UK and for global Britain everywhere. My right hon. Friend is standing down and will be greatly missed not only here but in the middle east, where his expertise and humanity are respected by everybody.

As the first Bury Member of Parliament to speak, may I congratulate you on your fantastic achievement, Mr Speaker? Following yesterday’s decision, which was based on merit, you have been able to bring a great sense of unity to the House.

Turning to soft power, what are the Government doing to make it clear to the Indian Government that we have extremely serious concerns about human rights abuses in Kashmir? What will the Government do to promote the concept of self-determination for the Kashmiri people? Time and again before elections, people on the Front Benches make commitments to promote self-determination, yet Governments have repeatedly failed to do anything about the issue when it comes to using soft power in international institutions.

That was a serious question, and it behoves me to give a serious answer. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to the Indian Foreign Secretary about the matter, raising our concerns about humanitarian issues, particularly in Kashmir. As for the election and commitments regarding an independent Kashmir, the matter should be sorted out on a bilateral basis between the two countries.

Relations with NATO Allies

NATO is the cornerstone of UK and Euro-Atlantic defence and security and has been for over 70 years. On 12 October I addressed the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, where I reiterated how NATO allies must work together towards our shared values and to uphold peace and the international rule of law.

When we finally leave the European Union in January, there will be six key strategic countries that are committed to the defence of our continent but are not members of the EU. Will my right hon. Friend commit to work with them and others across the continent to ensure that NATO remains the supreme defence posture, rather than the EU army proposed by Mr Verhofstadt and others?

My hon. Friend is a stalwart defender, supporter and champion of NATO and will know that we continue to meet our 2% defence spending target. We contribute to every NATO mission, including leading the Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup in Estonia. We also lead the Joint Expeditionary Force of up to nine NATO allies and partners, and we do not want that to be undermined by anything done within the EU. Indeed, we want to keep EU, US and North American solidarity as strong as possible.

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition and the Labour Front-Bench team, may I welcome you to your new role, Mr Speaker? A vital part of co-operation with our NATO allies is defending ourselves against Russian attempts to interfere with our democracy. To that end, what possible reason can the Government have to delay the publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee report until after the general election? What on earth do they have to hide?

The right hon. Lady will know, as she has been in her post for quite a while now, that ISC reports go through a number of stages of clearance and other processes between the ISC and the Government. The reports often contain sensitive information, and I know that she would want to see the integrity of such information protected. The reports have to go through that process before they are published, and it usually takes several weeks to complete.

The recent average, just to respond to the hon. Gentleman, is six weeks. This report was only submitted on 17 October, so it has been handled correctly.

I am surprised that the Secretary of State could answer with a straight face.

On a related issue, I ask the Foreign Secretary a simple yes or no question pursuant to my letter to him on Friday. Does Mr Cummings have unredacted access to top-secret intelligence and unrestricted access to top-secret meetings relating to NATO, Russia, Ukraine and Syria—yes or no?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her letter. As she knows, the Government and Ministers do not comment on security clearance, but the insinuation in her letter that No. 10 is somehow in the grip of a Kremlin mole is frankly ridiculous, even by the standards of the loony left. What is troubling is that the leader of the Labour party sided with the Kremlin when it denied responsibility for the nerve agent attack in Salisbury in 2018—one more reason why this Labour party, under this leader, can never be trusted with Britain’s security.

The question is about NATO. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one of the biggest fault lines in NATO at the moment is the fact that the largest partner is spending 4% of its GDP on defence, whereas no one else is spending much above 2%? Does he agree it is time for the UK to show a lead and commit to spending 3% of our GDP on defence in the next decade?

I pay tribute to the work my right hon. Friend did as Foreign Secretary. We are committed to and, indeed, are meeting our 2% commitment. Not all NATO members are, and we therefore continue to sympathise with the concerns of the US in that regard and encourage others to meet the commitment. I am sure the Chancellor of the Exchequer will look fondly and with interest at his suggestion of a 3% commitment.

Harry Dunn

I start by congratulating you, Mr Speaker, on your election. I know that you will want to defend the rights of this House against any rogue Executive.

I extend my deepest sympathies to Harry Dunn’s family. Are the Government exploring routes to extradite the driver? Do they think they are likely to be successful, given that President Trump’s notes, which were caught on camera, appear to confirm that she will never return?

The right hon. Gentleman seems to be slightly confused about the process. A criminal investigation is being conducted by Northamptonshire police and the Crown Prosecution Service. There is no question of any extradition process, let alone of what any Government might do about it, until the CPS has taken its charging decision.

From the Foreign Office’s point of view, this is a deeply tragic case. We have expressed our disappointment and called for a review of the immunity question. It should be waived, and we have cleared, as best and as properly as we can, all obstacles to justice being done. It is now properly a matter for the police and the CPS, including in relation to any extradition matters that follow.

The family and friends of Harry Dunn have been let down in the most appalling way, not just by the lack of justice for their son but by the complete lack of answers from the Government to questions that they and we have raised. May I therefore ask the Secretary of State one more simple question that any mourning family would want answered? Can he tell me how long Harry had to wait between being knocked off his motorbike and the arrival of an ambulance?

Like the right hon. Lady, we feel a huge amount of sympathy for the family, who are very distraught. We are doing everything we can to clear the path to an investigation. I do not know the answer to her question, but I gently say to her that on all these matters, particularly on something so sensitive, we should all proceed and talk about it responsibly.

Human Rights

6. What diplomatic steps his Department is taking to (a) promote and (b) support human rights internationally. (900301)

As a fellow Lancastrian MP, may I add my congratulations to you, Mr Speaker?

The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally. We do that through a mixture of bilateral and multilateral engagement and by working with and supporting civil society and others promoting respect for British values and democracy. The rule of law and human rights are and will remain a core part of our international diplomacy.

It is hard to talk about human rights when one of the most flagrant breaches of those rights, the genocidal violence against the Rohingya people by the Myanmar military, remains completely unpunished. What are the latest plans to seek the referral of Myanmar to the International Criminal Court?

The UK has committed to finding a sustainable solution to the Rohingya crisis. We will continue to work in Myanmar and Bangladesh to ensure safe and dignified returns, and ensure that they are all voluntary. Through the European Union, we imposed sanctions on 14 individuals responsible for human rights violations during the 2017 Rohingya crisis. We will continue to work with the United Nations, the EU and other international actors to hold to account those responsible for these appalling atrocities.

May I add the tributes of Kent to your speakership, Mr Speaker? May I also personally pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has spoken up on human rights issues in this House for 30 years and has not tired of arguing for people around the world whose rights are challenged? May I also thank her for what she has done over the past two years, when she has been on the Foreign Affairs Committee and been an amazing friend, counsel and adviser? The last report that she has played her part in is on the human rights of this country and how democracies can defend themselves against autocratic influence from around the world. Does the Minister agree that there is much more we can do to defend academic freedoms in this country from Chinese influence and democratic freedoms from Russian influence?

The UK has a long tradition of protecting human rights domestically and fulfilling our international human rights obligations, but, as my hon. Friend the Chair of the FAC has just said, there are concerns about academic freedoms, particularly given the influence of China, and Russian interference. Those two issues are serious and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary pays close attention to them.

Yesterday’s Human Rights Watch report on Saudi Arabia revealed mass arrests of women’s rights activists in the past year and alleged that many of them had been sexually assaulted, whipped and tortured in detention. Does the Minister still think the Prime Minister was right to describe Crown Prince Salman two years ago as “a remarkable young man”?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains a Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights priority country, particularly because of its use of the death penalty and its restrictions of women’s rights, freedom of expression and freedom of religious belief. We have raised human rights concerns repeatedly with the Government of Saudi Arabia, with this most recently having been done by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

The true answer is that when it comes to Mohammed bin Salman, this Government are all too willing to look the other way. Can the Minister explain how it was possible that in July the Department for International Trade illegally authorised licences for exports of arms to the royal Saudi land forces, a full 41 days after the Foreign Office was told that those forces were operating inside Yemen?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the International Trade Secretary apologised for any export licences that were issued in error. We are carefully considering the implications of the judgment for decision making, and we will not grant any new licences for export to Saudi Arabia, or any other coalition partners, of any items that might be used in the conflict in Yemen.

Mr Speaker, may I join all colleagues around the House in congratulating you on your elevation to Speaker of the House?

The key human right is article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights and people being able to practise their religion openly and freely. May I pay a huge tribute to the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt), for commissioning the Truro review of the persecution of Christians and the current Foreign Secretary for all the work that he and his team are doing in taking forward that review? Recommendation 10 requested the Foreign Secretary write to key organisations such as the British Council, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and Wilton Park, so may I thank him for writing that within 24 hours? Will he review this in 12 months to see how they are doing in taking forward freedom of religion and belief as part of that?

May I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work he does and his recent appointment as the Prime Minister’s envoy for freedom of religion or belief? As he says, huge numbers of Christians around the world are being persecuted—it is currently estimated that 125 million Christians experience high or extreme levels of persecution. The Government have accepted all the recommendations from the bishop’s report, but my hon. Friend’s suggestion of a review is a good idea.

13. Congratulations to you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), for his comments. I have very much enjoyed being a member of that Committee.Will the Minister clarify what steps have been taken to review all sales of arms to Saudi Arabia? I can hardly bear to say the word “Yemen”, but there have been thousands of Saudi air attacks on civilians targets—including homes, markets, weddings, funerals, schools, hospitals and buses—that have killed thousands of civilians, including many children. Surely, that is in breach of international law. I hope that we are taking all the necessary steps to highlight the complicity of countries such as the UK in the alleged violations of international law. (900310)

I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for her years of service to the House, particularly her years of service on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and for always keeping a laser-like focus on such issues. As she will be aware, we operate one of the most robust export control regimes in the world and take our licensing obligations seriously. When mistakes are made, things are investigated. As the Secretary of State for International Trade has said, the Government have apologised for the fact that export licences were issued in error, and we are investigating what happened.

May I be the first Sussex Member of Parliament to be called in your Speakership to congratulate you on your election to the Chair, Mr Speaker? In that county, I am privileged to represent probably the largest number of Chagos islanders anywhere in the world. I have no doubt about UK sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory; however, human rights have been neglected ever since the Wilson Administration forcibly evicted the Chagos islanders from their homeland in the late 1960s. Will the Minister assure me that, as we go forward, Chagos islands human rights will be better respected in terms of a right of return and nationality issues?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for always doing all he can to speak up for his constituents. The United Kingdom Government have expressed sincere regret over this issue; however, in November 2016, the UK Government announced that the resettlement of Chagossians would not be supported on the grounds of feasibility, defence or security interests. The UK Government continue to the work with Chagossian communities to design a support package worth approximately £40 million, the intent of which is to support Chagossians here in the United Kingdom.

Consular Support: UK Nationals Overseas

Our consular staff help more than 20,000 British people abroad every year, and we constantly strive to improve support, with more online services, updated information and specialist staff.

As a Geordie, may I say what a pleasure it is to hear your northern tones bring order to our proceedings, Mr Speaker?

My constituent Christine Scott was falsely arrested and imprisoned in Ghana. She is disabled, with severe mobility issues, yet the sum total of her consular support during the 16 months of her ordeal was a list of lawyers. She remains deeply traumatised, but the Minister has yet to respond to my inquiry. His Department has suffered cuts of 30% since 2010 and now fights for funding with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development—a situation that the Foreign Affairs Committee said was “unsustainable”—so what is he doing to ensure that the first priority of consular services is to support citizens like Christine and not to cut costs?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have seen her letter, and I will be responding to it later today. I am also happy to meet her. The details of this case are rather more complex than she has suggested to the House. I also gently suggest—[Interruption.] Wait until we have a meeting. I would rather discuss the full details of the case. If she looks specifically at Africa, she will see that we are opening five new missions there and recruiting hundreds more staff. Our consular services are first-rate across the globe. We are enhancing the network. We should be supporting our consular staff in the incredible work that they do. They are being not cut, but totally supported by this Government in their work with British citizens across the globe.

Mr Speaker, you might be from the wrong side of the Pennines, but it is a delight to see you in the Chair and for impartiality to be returned to that office.

As we continue to expand our consular network overseas, may I urge the Minister to look at the proposal that I recently wrote to the Prime Minister about with regard to a permanent consular post in Atlantic Canada, not only to support the very many Brits who travel there every year but to make better use of our trading relationship post Brexit?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He did tireless work as the trade envoy to Canada, and I know that it is a country very close to his heart. I will certainly look at his suggestion, but, as I say, we have enhanced our network around the globe. We are always looking for new opportunities to support British nationals. In 2018-19, we provided support to 22,607 new consular cases, with satisfaction ratings of more than 80% reported from the people whom we helped around the globe.

In Belfast, they might say, “Good on you, auld hand,” Mr Speaker, but we are delighted with your elevation.

The Minister knows that I will not go into details about this case because of its sensitive nature, but I want to pay tribute to him: my constituent is now home from Cameroon and in the arms of his family. They are incredibly grateful to him for the work that he has done and to Sir Simon McDonald, Chris Ribbands, Sharon Gannery, the deputy commissioner, and Amina Begum Ali for all their tremendous work. There is a family full of love and joy in my constituency where they did not think that that would happen, so I thank him.

May I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tireless work that he does for his constituency and for the family in question? We are not always able to resolve cases as satisfactorily as we have resolved this one, but we will always try everything that we can to help British citizens in trouble abroad.

I, too, welcome you to your place, Mr Speaker. My constituents, Julie Pearson and Kirsty Maxwell, died abroad. They were taken far too soon in suspicious circumstances. I have asked questions of two Prime Ministers and met several Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers, and I could not get them the help that they needed, so I set up an all-party group on consular services and deaths abroad. Sixty families gave evidence in hours of harrowing experiences. Ninety two recommendations were made. It is clear that there is a cultural problem stemming from lack of funding. The officers who are trying to help these families abroad do not have the resources or training. Will the Minister read my report and, most of all, will he apologise to the families that we have met across all our constituencies who have been let down by the FCO?

I am reading the hon. Lady’s report, and, unfortunately, I find it rather one-sided. I know that my predecessor agreed to meet the all-party group, but the meeting never took place because a date was never arranged. That was not because my predecessor did not try to get that arranged. I have agreed with the hon. Lady to meet the APPG, but, again, that meeting has never happened, so rather than publishing one-sided reports, I wish that she and the members of that APPG actually worked with the Foreign Office, which has some incredible staff, dealing with some very serious incidents across the world. Last year, there were 4,000 deaths of British nationals overseas. We will always look at what more we can do and implement many of the Victims’ Commissioner’s recommendations and work with other non-governmental organisations to improve our service for people who die abroad. I only wish that we could have a more constructive approach from the all-party group.

Llongyfarchiadau, Mr Speaker—congratulations. May I be the first to say that to you in Welsh?

I thank the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa for the efforts he has made on behalf of my constituent Luke Symons, who is held captive by the Houthis in Yemen, where no consular services are available—for obvious reasons. I urge the FCO not to take its eye off the ball during the election period, and to continue all efforts to get his release.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa is doing everything he can for the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. Providing consular assistance in Yemen is, of course, far from straightforward, but we will continue to keep up the pressure and to do everything we can.

May I say how delighted I am to have a rugby league fanatic in the Chair, Mr Speaker?

Can the Minister update me on my constituent Aras Amiri? What urgent action is being taken in Tehran for this woman, who is a British Council employee? Tragically, her family here are heartbroken because they have not had an update on what is happening with her desperate case, following her imprisonment on false charges.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will speak to the Iranian Foreign Minister later today. The treatment of British Iranians particularly is of grave concern. We repeatedly raise our concerns with the Iranian authorities, including through the Prime Minister, who raised this matter directly with President Rouhani during the United Nations General Assembly.

Topical Questions

Since the last oral questions, I visited the US to reaffirm our commitment to strengthening the special relationship. I spoke to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, affirming our leading role in NATO and our commitment to it. Above all, I am focused on supporting the Prime Minister in getting Brexit done so that this country can move forward as an open, outward-looking country with global reach and global ambition.

I missed my chance earlier to congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your appointment, so may I take the opportunity to do so now?

Chinese state media yesterday urged the Hong Kong Government to take a tougher line against what it called “wanton violence” in the city. Will the Minister contact both his Chinese and Hong Kong counterparts, and say to them both that what is needed is a return to dialogue and democratic norms, not an even tougher line being taken against the demonstrators?

The hon. Lady’s point is one with which Members across the House would agree. We remain seriously concerned about the situation in Hong Kong and the recent violent clashes between protesters and the police. We condemn the minority of hardcore violent protesters, but also continue fully to support the right to peaceful protest. As the hon. Lady says, that ought to be a stepping stone to political dialogue, particularly with the forthcoming local elections on 24 November in mind.

T2. Does not the blocking of Joshua Wong as a council candidate offend against the very basic principles of the Sino-British agreement, and what is the Secretary of State planning to do about it? (900322)

As I mentioned in my response to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist), the local elections on 24 November will be an important milestone to see whether there can be a de-escalation of tensions in Hong Kong, and a path towards political dialogue and engagement that is consistent with the joint declaration and one country, two systems. I share my right hon. Friend’s concern about the barring of Joshua Wong because standing for election is a fundamental right enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which itself reflects the one country, two systems model. We continue to make our concerns known to our Chinese partners.

As a fellow Lancastrian, Mr Speaker, may I welcome you to your new role?

Will the Foreign Secretary update the House on the ongoing industrial dispute between Interserve and the Public and Commercial Services Union members working as support staff in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Is he aware of the repeated security breaches in the last six months through Interserve bringing on site contractors without appropriate clearance?

We are of course aware of the dispute, and want to see it resolved as swiftly as possible. I am not aware of the security breaches to which the hon. Lady refers, but I will look into them and respond to her by letter.

T5. Let me be the first cockney MP to congratulate you on your new role, Mr Speaker; I look forward to your service in this House.Five of the 15 members of the Hamas political bureau have been designated as terrorists by the United Kingdom and the USA, but in the UK we proscribe only the military wing of Hamas. Is it not time that we proscribed the entirety of Hamas, rather than only Hamas as a military organisation and a terrorist organisation? Does my right hon. Friend agree that until Hamas renounces violence, celebrates peace and brings peace to the middle east, there will never be a peaceful solution between Israel and the Palestinian state? (900327)

May I, Mr Speaker, extend my felicitations from Wiltshire on your advancement? I feel absolutely certain that my Wiltshire colleagues would join me in that.

I thank my hon. Friend for his important question. He is aware that we do of course proscribe the military element of Hamas, and we have a policy of non-engagement with Hamas in its entirety. Until Hamas sets its face against violence, accepts the Quartet principles and engages with the political process, it will be outside the tent.

T3. Heartfelt congratulations, Mr Speaker.Will the Foreign Secretary comment on the report overnight of the capture of the sister of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in north-west Syria? Does not this, and the death of the Daesh leader itself, underline the importance of our international alliances to keep British citizens and our communities safe from the threat of terror? (900323)

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on his new appointment as an adviser at the Home Office on counter-extremism and counter-terrorism—a role that I know he will perform very effectively.

We do not comment on operational matters, as the hon. Gentleman will know. We welcome the removal of Baghdadi, but there is a much broader counter-Daesh strategy that we need to pursue. We need to keep all our partners together—which is why, frankly, some of the latent anti-Americanism that is preached by Opposition Front Benchers is deeply unhelpful.

T6. It is great to have a no-nonsense northerner in the Chair, Mr Speaker.

Google turns around over £10 billion in the UK, making a typical profit margin of 22%, so it should pay about £420 million in corporation tax, yet it pays only about £70 million due to profit shifting. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to press for international action to end this kind of disgraceful tax avoidance? (900329)

The UK is a world leader on tax compliance, with one of the lowest tax gaps in the world. The UK was a major sponsor of the OECD’s base erosion and profit shifting project and has adopted many of the recommendations. The Government also introduced the diverted profits tax, which came into effect on 1 April 2015 and counters the contrived arrangements used by some multinationals to divert profits from the UK.

T4. As the first Gavin Shuker MP to be called under your tenure, Mr Speaker, may I, too, offer my congratulations on your elevation?For 10 years in this place I have repeatedly raised with the Foreign Secretary and his predecessors the appalling human rights abuses in Kashmir. Further to our recent disappointing exchange of letters, can he give one single example of actions he has taken in robustly challenging the Indian Government’s revocation of article 370 of the Indian constitution? (900326)

The hon. Gentleman has been a stalwart champion of human rights and has indeed taken a very close interest in foreign policy in relation to this region. He asks what we have done. As the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), said earlier, fundamentally the issue of Kashmir needs to be resolved between the two parties, but we never duck the issue of human rights in any country. I have raised the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia with the Saudi Foreign Minister and, particularly in relation to detentions, blackouts and internet blockages, with the Indian Foreign Minister. We will continue to do that because it is absolutely important. Even with some of our closest partners, we need to be able to have those candid conversations.

In the eight years since I was first appointed the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to nations in south-east Asia and elected chair of the all-party China group, trade and investment in that region has increased sharply—as have challenges to our values in some areas. May I therefore thank officials at the Foreign Office and the Department for International Trade who balance these responsibilities so well? May I also welcome the Foreign Secretary’s first visit abroad to the ASEAN summit in Bangkok? Does he agree that we should do all we can to participate in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and deepen our role with the nations of ASEAN?

I pay tribute to all my hon. Friend’s tireless efforts and work. The Asia-Pacific region covered by the trans-Pacific trade agreement and ASEAN is a hugely important relationship for us. They are growth markets of the future, and we have perhaps not invested in partners there as much as we could have. While ensuring that we remain strong trading partners and allies with our European partners, leaving the EU allows us to invest more and with renewed vigour and enthusiasm in that critical region. That will bring dividends in jobs, free trade and advantages for consumers at home, and it also allows us to project our influence and soft power, as we have been discussing in this House.

T7. Teesside also celebrates your election to the Chair, Mr Speaker. This morning, Israel’s Supreme Court confirmed its Government’s decision to deport Human Rights Watch’s director for Israel and Palestine, Omar Shakir. That decision comes amid the worrying closing of civil society space for those advocating human rights in that country. Will the Government urge Israel to reverse its decision and allow Human Rights Watch to continue its vital work? (900330)

I know at first hand from my time working on human rights in war crimes and for human rights NGO Liberty how important the work of Human Rights Watch is. We want to see that continue, and of course we support it in general terms. We discuss a whole range of issues with our Israeli partners. The Israeli Supreme Court has a strong record of independence and has held the Executive to account on many occasions. It is important that we respect the separation of powers there as well.

Warmest congratulations to you from Worcestershire, Mr Speaker.

The Foreign Secretary mentioned the transatlantic relationship in his opening remarks. We have not had a UK ambassador in Washington for four months. Can he update the House on when he expects that appointment to be made, and can he also rule out appointing Mr Nigel Farage to such a position?

Our embassy in the US does a terrific job on a whole range of issues, from trade to security co-operation. I have been out there twice since my appointment, and I know how much commitment and hard work they put in. We are taking our time, to ensure that we get the appointment of the next ambassador right, and I think my hon. Friend need not lose any sleep over the prospect of it being Mr Farage.

I suppose I am the first person to congratulate you twice, Mr Speaker.

Can the Foreign Secretary tell us how the UK’s standing as a soft power superpower is enhanced by its continuing refusal to comply with the UN General Assembly resolution that it should withdraw its colonial administration from the Chagos islands by 22 November this year?

We contribute to soft power in all sorts of ways, from our entrepreneurs and our world-beating innovators to the popularity of the arts and the English language overseas. The hon. Gentleman raises the specific issue of the British Indian Ocean Territory. We have no doubt about our sovereignty in that regard. It has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814; Mauritius has never held sovereignty over the territory. We were disappointed that what was effectively a bilateral dispute was referred to the International Court of Justice and the UN General Assembly. The point of principle is that that circumvents the basic tenet that the ICJ should not consider bilateral disputes without the consent of both parties.

Congratulations, Mr Speaker.

In the light of the Foreign Secretary’s rather dismissive response to his predecessor on defence spending, is he aware that the Defence Committee, on which four parties are represented, has recommended 3% of GDP as a realistic medium-term goal? Does he accept that 2% of GDP on defence is a minimum? It is a floor, not a ceiling.

I pay tribute to all the work that my right hon. Friend has done in this House on security over the years. I certainly hope that I was not dismissive. We have just had one comprehensive spending review. There are competing bids going to the Chancellor on a whole range of issues, but he makes an important point. We are committed, as a stalwart NATO ally, to 2%, and we will certainly consider the report that he referred to as we consider the next CSR.

I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, and I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Following on from the Secretary of State’s previous response, it is three months today since the draconian illegal blockade in Kashmir began. Thousands continue to be arrested without any due process. There are food shortages and medicine shortages, and persecution, oppression and injustice continue, yet the UK Government remain silent. The United Nations Security Council remains silent, and the international community remain silent. The sons and daughters of Kashmir are asking a simple question: does a Kashmiri child not feel the same pain as any other child? Does a Kashmiri child not bleed in the same way as any other child? Is a Kashmiri child’s death not worth the same as any other child’s death? Why is the world silent?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I understand the passion with which he raises this issue. Of course we feel for the suffering of anyone in Kashmir, and we certainly have not been quiet on this issue. I have raised it with the Indian Foreign Minister, and we have discussed it with our partners. It has been discussed in international forums more widely, so I can reassure him and his constituents on both sides that we continually raise and will continue to raise these matters with the Indian Government. Equally, the wider issue of Kashmir, as has already been said in the Chamber, is a bilateral dispute that we feel—and, indeed, the UN Secretary Council resolutions and the international community have said—ought to be resolved bilaterally. We would certainly encourage and want to facilitate all those efforts to achieve that solution.

Given the events of the last few years, I am not sure whether it is congratulations or commiserations I should offer you, Mr Speaker, but I certainly express my pleasure at your appointment.

When we return from the election and this House sits after the election campaign, it will be midwinter in northern Syria and 60 British children will be living in tents there. May I again ask the Foreign Secretary to revise, as a matter of urgency, our policy on their return?

I thank my right hon. Friend, and we certainly share his concerns about the humanitarian situation. I have already made clear the UK’s policy on unaccompanied minors and orphans: we are willing to see them repatriated. We will consider wider requests for consular support more generally, subject to national security concerns. The real challenge we have is that we do not have a consular presence in Syria, and accessing the children—or anyone else of UK nationality for that matter—is very difficult, but we do respond to all cases on a case-by-case basis.

Questions are now over, but may I tell anyone standing that their name will be down for next time as a matter of urgency? Let us get the priorities working correctly.