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Topical Questions

Volume 682: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2020

Since the last oral questions, I have hosted my German and French counterparts at Chevening to discuss Iran and Belarus. I visited Washington where I met Vice-President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo and others to discuss the free trade agreement and a range of foreign policy issues. In late September I visited South Korea and Vietnam to forge closer partnerships and discuss our application for ASEAN dialogue partner status.

With tensions increasing in the China-Pakistan-India border area, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are willing to redouble efforts to resolve the long-standing conflict in Jammu and Kashmir?

My hon. Friend takes a close interest in this issue, and he will know that India and Pakistan are both long-standing and important friends of the United Kingdom. We have encouraged, and continue to encourage, both sides to engage in the dialogue that is necessary to find a lasting diplomatic solution to the situation in Kashmir, and to maintain regional stability. It is, of course, ultimately for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution, taking into account the wider issues of the people of Kashmir.

The Foreign Secretary has said that the Chinese Government must accept the responsibilities that come with being a leading member of the international community, and he has rightly highlighted the egregious human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Since July, he has apparently been gathering evidence to impose targeted sanctions against the officials involved, but so far we have seen very little action. Today China is standing to be elected to the UN Human Rights Council. While I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s willingness to speak out about this issue, surely, today of all days, we should take a clear moral stance and show that the UK has more than words at our disposal. Will he confirm that we will oppose China taking a seat on that council?

I suspect the hon. Lady will know that the UK has a long practice, under successive Governments, of not commenting on voting in UN elections that are conducted by secret ballot—[Interruption.] Never under a Labour Government: the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) is wrong.

The hon. Lady and I stand in total solidarity on the point of principle. We have unequivocally made clear to China our grave concern about Xinjiang. On 6 October, since we last met, the UK joined 38 other countries in the UN Third Committee to call on China to allow immediate and unfettered access to independent UN observers.

May I say to the Foreign Secretary, who is a former human rights lawyer, that it is quite desperate and a sign of our diminished influence in the world that the UK is not willing to take a stance on this important issue? We are deeply concerned about our relations with the rest of the world. Whether it is the covid vaccine, climate change, the Iran deal, west bank annexation, NATO or Scotch whisky, the Government appear to have no influence at all in Washington at the moment when we most need it. We are told that they are now scrambling to repair the damage to relations with Joe Biden and his team. There is no greater indication of why that matters than the case of Harry Dunn. In July, the Foreign Secretary told the House he had reached an agreement with the US about immunity arrangements for the Croughton annex. His repeated refusal to publish that agreement has fuelled the family’s anguish and underlined the widespread belief that his Department has chosen to side with the US Government over its own citizens. Why does he believe that neither Parliament nor the family of Harry Dunn should see the small print of this important agreement with the United States?

We did indeed change the arrangements, exactly as I undertook to the family and to the House. We also issued a written ministerial statement, which set out the terms. When the Labour party was in government, at two points when they reviewed the arrangements for Croughton, they did not make a WMS and they did not put into the public domain the memorandum of understanding. It has been standard practice not to do so, and I think the hon. Lady knows that.

I am going to say to both Front Benchers once again that from today onwards—just a warning—I will be stopping questions that are too long. Topicals are meant to be short and punchy for the benefit of everyone. I have got to get through a list. Please, let us help to make sure that other hon. Members get on it.

The merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development is a welcome acceptance that the UK’s outward-facing Departments should merge to best employ all the tools at our disposal. I detect, however, a concerning trend in the new FCDO for diplomacy and development to be regarded as separate and equal. Assimilating DFID’s obtuse culture into King Charles Street is dangerous and will cripple the Foreign Office’s ability to achieve its objectives. We must, above all, regard development as a foreign policy tool. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that the current reform programme at the Foreign Office ensures that our development programme supports our diplomatic activities, rather than transcending and undermining them? (907495)

I reassure my hon. Friend that the raison d’être of the merger is to bring together our aid clout and heft with our diplomatic reach and muscle. If he looks at the visit I made to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, he will see the support we provided for the Palestinians in dealing with covid alongside our diplomatic support for a two-state solution; if he looks at the situation in Yemen, he will see that we are doing the same; and he will see the same in our response to the explosion in the port of Beirut. I think he will find that we are practising what we preach, which brings together the aid—taxpayers’ money—with our diplomatic muscle to make a real difference on the ground.

Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what representations the Government have made to the Turkish authorities over their latest silencing of political opposition, with the arrest of 82 members and office bearers of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the HDP? Do the Government share the view of many of us that those actions are, once again, a fundamental violation of human rights against the Kurdish population? (907498)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, Turkey is a close NATO ally, but that has never stopped us from raising human rights across the whole range. We will obviously continue to do so as a part of our partnership.

The Prime Minister set this Thursday as the deadline for achieving a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union. Foreign Secretary, what is the likelihood that on Thursday evening you will be popping champagne corks? (907496)

We have a European Council this week. The scope and the prospects for a deal are there. I am hopeful that we can close the gap, but ultimately it will require the same good will, the same pragmatism and the same flexibility on the EU side that the United Kingdom and this Prime Minister have shown.

The reputation and effectiveness of DFID was built on strong scrutiny within Parliament. What progress has been made on establishing a Select Committee on official development assistance to review spending and ensure that every penny reaches where it needs to go? (907499)

I share the hon. Lady’s view about the importance of scrutiny. We have made clear our commitment to not just maintaining but strengthening the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Select Committees of the House are ultimately a matter for the usual channels and for the House, but we will make sure that the FCDO is willing to be scrutinised whatever the House decides.

I warmly welcome the announcement yesterday that the UK and Kenya will jointly host next year’s replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education. May I urge the Foreign Secretary, when we hold the G7 presidency next year, to make the campaign for 12 years of quality education a top priority? (907497)

I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to her work in government; I know her commitment on this issue. She will know that since 2015, the UK has supported 8 million girls to gain a decent education. What is important is not just the number, but the quality of education. Our global objective is to help 40 million girls into a decent education. That is a key focus of our use of ODA—this touches on the point about merging DFID and the Foreign Office—and it is also one of our top priorities for 2021, in the context of both the summit that she mentioned and our G7 presidency.

I have been contacted by constituents who are concerned that covid-19 has resulted in an increase in the persecution of Christians across the world, with reports that Christians are being denied food aid and access to personal protective equipment, and in some places are even being blamed for the virus. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that Christians and other religious minorities do not face additional discrimination in the distribution of aid because of their faith? (907502)

I absolutely agree with the concern that the hon. Lady has raised. Bringing ODA into the FCDO gives us the opportunity to raise these issues diplomatically, as well as to look very carefully at our aid budget. We are a member of the International Religious Freedom Alliance. We are looking to co-host one of the next summits, whether that is next year or the following year, depending on covid, and the issue that she raises will be very much at the top of our agenda.

Given the wider destabilising activities of Iran in the middle eastern region, what steps has my right hon. Friend taken to consider the use of sanctions against it, and what discussions has he had with our US ally? (907500)

We continue to hold Iran to account for its destabilising activity in the region. We currently have over 200 EU sanctions listings in place against Iran, including sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and FCDO officials take every opportunity to discuss Iran with our US counterparts. As part of this regular dialogue, the Foreign Secretary last spoke to Secretary Pompeo on 16 September.

The Iranian regime routinely commits human rights atrocities and abuses against its people, with, recently, the execution there of Navid Afkari. It plays an appalling role in the destabilisation of the whole region. Does the Foreign Secretary not think that the UK should be more robustly condemning that regime and the pernicious role that it plays across the middle east and against its own people? (907505)

I agree with the hon. Member about the importance of raising human rights. The most recent thing we did, with my French and German counterparts as E3, was issue a démarche to Tehran on the human rights situation, including not only the case that he raises but the fate and arbitrary detention of the UK dual nationals held in Iran.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend’s Department made of the potential shifting geopolitical centre of gravity on natural resources as the world moves from oil vehicles to electric vehicles? (907501)

My right hon. Friend makes a good point about the shifting economics and the shifting geopolitical centre of gravity. We have more co-operation with South America, as well as other regions, and that will be crucial if we are to shift the dial on climate change. Earlier this week I had a strategic dialogue with my Brazilian opposite number that was very much about not only the issues he raises but tackling deforestation and sustainable commodity use.

Eighty-two arrest warrants against sitting and former mayors; 200 members of the pro-Kurdish and pro-peace HDP party currently in detention; and now even MPs of the CHP, the Republican People’s party and modern founding party of Turkey, arrested—what is the Government’s view on this undermining of democracy in Turkey, and how has the Foreign Secretary expressed it to our Turkish allies? (907509)

Turkey is a close partner and a strategic ally in NATO, and has Council of Europe obligations. We raise the whole suite of international obligations that apply as a matter both of customary international law and of the conventions that Turkey itself has signed up to.

What diplomatic efforts has my right hon. Friend engaged in personally to work with China to ensure success in next year’s CBD15 and COP26 conferences on global biodiversity and climate? (907503)

That is a good example for all the other challenges we have; it is an area where we must work with China if we are going to shift the dial on climate change. China is the largest emitter, but also the largest investor in renewables. My right hon. Friend will have seen the welcome recent commitment by China to be carbon neutral by 2060. In that and other areas—including, for example, the recent UN General Assembly leaders’ pledge for nature on biodiversity, co-led by the UK—we want to work with China. We will not persuade others to step up to the plate unless we can shift the dial with China.

Last month, the remote village of Washah in northern Yemen was hit by an airstrike carried out by the Saudi-led coalition, killing three women and six children. This is yet another breach of international human rights laws in that area. When will the Government step up to their international responsibilities and properly hold Saudi Arabia to account for its actions in Yemen, done in the name of the UK-supported coalition? (907510)

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an important strategic partner, and we recognise its right to defend itself against attack from parties within Yemen. The UK has a stringent arms control regime, and it is used whenever we work with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in terms of arms trade with the Kingdom.

I was pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary reaffirm the important role of the BBC World Service for UK soft power and influence for good when he appeared in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee recently. What consideration has the Department given to guaranteeing direct funding for the World Service, as the BBC looks at new funding models? (907504)

My hon. Friend brings the passion for journalism that he had outside this House to the core of this issue. He is right to say that we value the role of the BBC World Service in projecting UK soft power around the world, and I will look very carefully at future funding in the context of the spending review.

Saudi Arabia has been an ally of ours against terrorism for some time. Foremost among Saudis, the erstwhile crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef was a great friend of this country. He has now disappeared from public life, with great concerns over his safety. Will the Foreign Secretary make plain the importance of Prince bin Nayef’s safety to the United Kingdom Government?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all the work that he has done in this area. We will of course look very carefully at the case he raises, and I understand the point that he makes.

Canada and the Netherlands have formally joined the International Court of Justice case, led by Gambia, on the genocide against the Rohingya people by the Myanmar Government. Can the Foreign Secretary explain why the UK Government, despite being a penholder on the UN Security Council, for instance, in relation to Burma, have not done so, and when he plans to change that? Will he meet me and my co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the rights of the Rohingya to discuss this matter further?

We have a Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ meeting coming up, where we will be looking at the further amount of support we are providing to ease the humanitarian plight of the Rohingya. We have looked at the ICJ proceedings and will continue to keep those under close review.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.