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Topical Questions

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 21 June 2022

This Thursday I will be heading to Kigali for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. In a world where freedom and sovereignty are being threatened by aggressors, the Commonwealth is more important than ever. It represents a third of the world’s population and about 30% of the votes at the United Nations. The British Government will be backing Kamina Johnson Smith, the Jamaican Foreign Minister, as the new Secretary-General to ensure that the Commonwealth delivers for all its members in areas such as trade, investment and defending democracy.

In answer to an earlier question about Sri Lanka, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), said that she would continue to lobby the Sri Lankan Government, but that Government, and their military, are populated in part by people who are credibly accused of war crimes in a civil war that ended more than 10 years ago. The Americans thought that there was enough evidence to impose economic sanctions on some of those individuals. Is lobbying really the best that she can do?

On Sri Lanka, let me start by absolutely emphasising again that violence against peaceful protesters is unacceptable. We absolutely condemn the violence we see happening at the moment and we are urging everybody towards calm. We will continue to work to make sure that we support the country through funding from our conflict, stability and security fund, which has supported peacebuilding, and we continue to respect the independence of the prosecutor when it comes to investigating war crimes of the past.

T3. The world-class and well-respected Rwanda plan was designed to save lives in the channel, but the European Court of Human Rights is making a mockery of our attempts to protect our borders. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is now time to distance ourselves from the ECHR? (900611)

We were disappointed that last week’s flight was unable to depart, but we are not deterred from doing the right thing in delivering on our plans to control our nation’s borders. We are providing further information to the Court. It would not be appropriate to comment on individual cases at this time. However, we strongly believe that this project meets our obligations under both national and international law, and the Home Secretary has made it very clear that we will do what it takes to deliver this new partnership.

As the Secretary of State knows, 10 days ago I visited Afghanistan. Millions face starvation. One widow whose husband was murdered during the Taliban takeover explained that she was so desperate for money that she had considered selling her kidneys so that she could eat. Meanwhile, conflict continues to rage across the world in Yemen, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Mali and of course Ukraine. Given the scale of the conflicts across the world and the hunger crisis being driven across the world, why is humanitarian aid down by 35% on pre-cut levels? Why are we the only member of the G7 cutting foreign aid, and what impact will this have on our national interests and reputation abroad?

We are a major donor of humanitarian aid. On the Ukraine crisis, we are the third largest donor in the world. Through our international development strategy, we are committing £3 billion-worth of humanitarian aid over the next three years.

T4.   Chevening scholarships enable exceptional students from around the world to come and study here in the United Kingdom. What is being done to make sure that Ukrainian students can take advantage of this excellent programme despite the horrific war in their homeland? (900612)

Prior to Russia’s terrible invasion, 68 Ukrainian candidates were shortlisted for interviews for those really special Chevening scholarships. Obviously, those interviews could not take place, but I am absolutely delighted to give those brilliant, talented and often young people some good news: they will all be offered scholarships. That will treble the number of Chevening scholarships offered to Ukraine. For those who are unable to take up their scholarships, if, for example, they are defending their country, they will be able to defer.

T2. Alaa Abdel Fattah is a British national currently imprisoned in Egypt. He is on day 81 of his hunger strike. He is an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience who has been imprisoned for his pro-democracy views for eight of the nine years since Sisi took power. His family will be outside the FCDO today between 5 and 7 o’clock to ask, “Where is the Foreign Secretary?” Will she consider meeting them to discuss how we can ensure his release? (900610)

I assure the hon. Lady that we are working hard to secure Alaa Abdel Fattah’s release. Lord Ahmad has met the family and I am seeking a meeting with the Egyptian Foreign Minister who is due to visit the United Kingdom shortly, where I will raise this case.

T6. Last year, I visited Bosnia to understand first hand the situation in the country. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure peace and stability in the western Balkans? (900615)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that is a vital issue. We are seeing attempts by Russia to destabilise the western Balkans. I recently visited Sarajevo, as has the Minister for Europe and North America, to do what we can to support the country through greater investment, so that there are alternatives to malign investment, and to make clear our support for security in the nation.

T5. Last week marked the 15th anniversary of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which has caused a humanitarian crisis in the region. Will the Minister condemn the ongoing blockade and outline what steps the UK is taking to try to bring it to an end? (900614)

As it happens, after this session I will be travelling to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which will obviously be a good opportunity to explore a number of different issues and our bilateral relationship with Israel.

T7. Across the horn of Africa, we are seeing one of the worst droughts in 40 years. Coupled with the tragedy of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that is pushing millions of people into starvation. What more can we do to help on the ground and save lives? [R] (900617)

This is a terrible tragedy. So far this year, we have provided more than £72 million of additional support to countries in the region, which is helping about 8 million people. We played a vital role in convening a roundtable in Geneva that raised about $400 million. Last week, I wrote to the president of the World Bank to urge it to mobilise further funding urgently. I will meet representatives of the Disasters Emergency Committee later this week to discuss further steps.

My constituent Godwin Suh from Bafut in Cameroon, who now lives in Nottingham, came to see me. He described the political violence that, as anglophones, he and his family have suffered. His brother is missing, his nieces and nephews have been hospitalised, and lately his house there has been badly damaged by Government forces. Will the Minister for Africa meet me and Godwin to hear more about the human rights challenges that many face in north-west and south-west Cameroon?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; the human rights situation in north-west and south-west Cameroon is really concerning. There have been recent incidents with tragic civilian casualties. I would be happy to meet and discuss it with him.

I welcome the statement last week that we are talking to our international partners about a Marshall fund for Ukraine. I previously suggested that we should consider not only seizing the assets of sanctioned Russians, but monetising them, either by putting a lien on them or by outright sale. Clearly, that would need to be done in conjunction with partners. Has my right hon. Friend considered that?

We are working with our allies and Ukraine on a new Marshall plan to help reconstruct Ukraine after the appalling war. There will be a Ukraine recovery conference in Lugano in the coming weeks, at which the United Kingdom will put forward our offer. We are looking at how we can seize Russian assets to help fund the rebuilding of Ukraine, which is something we are working on across Government and with our G7 partners.

A recent report by the Hong Kong Watch non-governmental organisation found that five Hong Kong officials and six lawmakers complicit in the ongoing human rights crackdown currently own property in the UK, so will the Government now commit to using the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 to sanction these Hong Kong and Chinese officials?

We remain deeply concerned about the appalling human rights violations in China and about the deterioration of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. We keep all evidence on potential designations under close review, guided by the objectives of the relevant sanctions regime, but it is not appropriate to speculate about future sanctions and designations as to do so would reduce their impact.

It is vital that we do not forget the painful lessons we learned in the wake of Hurricane Irma in 2017, a key component of which is always to have a naval presence in the region ahead of hurricane season. Will the Minister please assure me those preparations are already being made?

The Department co-ordinated a cross-Government hurricane exercise earlier this month as part of its review of plans to ensure the UK provides a rapid and effective response this year. Officials also hosted a pre-hurricane season conference in May. Having visited Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, I totally understand the importance of hurricane preparedness. I reassure my hon. Friend that I met the Minister for the Armed Forces last week to discuss how our Departments can work together on an effective and appropriate response in the event of a major disaster.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that the FCDO has set an annual budget limit for the Independent Commission for Aid Impact that will prevent it from carrying out the workplan to scrutinise UK aid that it previously agreed with my Select Committee? Will she look into this, please?

I recently took over as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Latvia, and it was a pleasure to meet my opposite number from the Latvian Parliament, Rihards Kols, last week to discuss the importance of our future work together. Does the Minister agree that, now more than ever, it is important that we strengthen even further our long-standing relationship with countries such as Latvia that share a common set of values and principles with the UK?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking up his position. The UK enjoys close diplomatic, security and economic relations with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. I recently went to Estonia, and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has also been to the region and taken part in the three seas initiative that co-ordinates a number of workstreams in the Baltic and other parts of eastern Europe.

Since the illegal revocation of articles 370 and 35a, it has become absolutely clear that the right-wing Modi Government are bolder than ever before in their persecution of Kashmiris and minority groups in India. Most worrying, however, is the acceleration in their use of arbitrary arrest and detention of political and human rights activists, including Yasin Malik and hundreds of others, under the illegal Public Safety Act, which takes away any right to due process, yet the UK Government remain silent once more. Does the Foreign Secretary think it is right to continue negotiating a trade deal with the right-wing Modi Government, even at the expense of the blood of innocent men, women and children?

We are very clear that it is for the Indian and Pakistani Governments to find a long-term solution to Kashmir.

Canada is a key partner, and this morning I met the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, Nathan Cooper, who is keen to emphasise the potential for Alberta to help the UK through its present energy crisis. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to further deepen our relationship with Canada?

Canada is one of our closest allies. It is a fellow member of the G7, NATO and the Commonwealth, and we will shortly be joining it in the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. I speak regularly to my Canadian counterpart, and we are looking together at how we can bolster our energy security, in areas such as the one that my hon. Friend mentioned but also in the area of nuclear co-operation.

On Sunday, Francia Márquez, an internationally recognised environmental and human rights campaigner, made history by becoming the first black woman to be elected Vice-President of Colombia. Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be an environmental activist. Will the Minister commit herself to working with Francia Márquez and her new colleagues to ensure that the social and environmental rights of Colombia’s indigenous population are protected, and that UK aid for environmental programmes prioritises the protection of activists?

We work in Colombia on projects to promote peace and stability and also on projects to promote the environment and tackle climate change, and we will continue to do so.

The solution to the inflationary crisis that we face, driven by high energy prices and a lack of supply, is primarily international. What is my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary doing to challenge OPEC’s position of not intending to take action to increase supply? That strikes me as the single most important thing that the British Government could do to tackle the crisis internationally.

As my right hon. Friend says, we need to tackle energy supply. In the long term, that means more renewables and more use of nuclear energy, but in the short term, it does involve looking at oil and gas. My colleague the Energy Secretary is working closely with his counterparts, particularly in the Gulf region, and I also have frequent conversations with them. We do need to see supply increase in order to lower global process.

Will the Minister please update the House on the cases of the British citizens Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, who are still in Evin prison in Iran?

I can assure the House that the UK Government remain completely committed to securing the full release of British dual nationals held in Iran. That passion has not been diminished. I assure the right hon. Lady and the House that we will continue to work on this with as much alacrity and passion as ever we have.

On the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, can the Foreign Secretary give an assurance to businesses in Northern Ireland that are adversely affected by the east-west trade to which she has alluded that that problem will be solved as a result of her Bill, along with other political problems that will also be resolved as long as she proceeds with the Bill?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are proceeding with the Bill. We are also proceeding with close consultations with business on the precise design of the red and green lanes to ensure that it works for companies in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and also in the Republic of Ireland and the European Union, so that we can deliver the Bill as intended, freeing up east-west trade but also protecting that very important north-south relationship.

Bangladesh and northern India are facing some of the worst floods for 100 years. Many of my constituents are extremely worried about family and friends, especially in the Sylhet area. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will take action in respect of humanitarian aid, particularly when it comes to food, water and sanitation?

When I led the Joint Committee on Human Rights delegation to Strasbourg last week, we were repeatedly told that threats made by the United Kingdom to withdraw, or even just disengage, from the European convention on human rights risked giving succour to eastern European states, including Russia, which do not have the same respect for human rights and the rule of law that the United Kingdom has historically had. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the Prime Minister to tone down his veiled threats to leave the convention, and tell her more excitable Back Benchers to back off?

I honestly thought that the hon. and learned Lady would welcome the fact that the UK led in kicking Russia out of the Council of Europe and holding it to account.

Bills Presented

War Pension Scheme and Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (Public Inquiry) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Owen Thompson presented a Bill to establish an independent public inquiry into the administration of the War Pension Scheme and of the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme by Veterans UK; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 September, and to be printed (Bill 51).

Ministerial Code (Enforcement) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Owen Thompson presented a Bill to make provision about the enforcement of the Ministerial Code; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 September, and to be printed (Bill 112).

Ministerial Interests (Public Appointments) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Owen Thompson presented a Bill to require a Minister to make an oral statement to Parliament if a person is appointed to a paid post by them, in whom, or a company in which, that Minister has a personal, political or financial interest.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 September, and to be printed (Bill 113).