Thursday 3 November 2022
[Clive Efford in the Chair]
Climate Change and Human Security
I beg to move,
That this House has considered climate change and human security.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Efford. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting me this debate, which follows on from the debate we had last year on global human security. There is an urgent need to consider how compatible the UK’s security approach is with tackling the climate emergency.
The climate threat is one of the largest threats facing humans. Too many politicians are still treating our vital net zero targets, which will keep temperature rises below 1.5° C by 2050, like buses: if we miss one, we can just catch the next. We must comprehend that there will be no coming back and no next time if we miss net zero by 2050. Doing so would be catastrophic, exacerbating worldwide challenges such as rising sea levels and the loss of natural resources. It would contribute to increased conflict, poverty, malnutrition and gender inequality. Some 1.2 billion people are set to be displaced due to climate change by 2050. If people are concerned about migration now, they have not seen anything yet.
Climate change can no longer be seen as a problem for the future; it is having a material impact on people worldwide now. Between 1970 and 2019 global surface temperatures increased at a higher rate than in any period over the past 2,000 years. Since 1950 the global number of floods has increased by a factor of 15 and wildfires have increased by a factor of seven. The abnormally hot and cold temperatures experienced worldwide contribute to as many as 5 million deaths a year—that is now, not in the future. Climate change is causing havoc around the world. Last month a new study of the Greenland ice cap concluded that a major rise in sea levels of 27 cm is now inevitable, even if fossil fuel burning worldwide were to end overnight. That is terrible news for the 150 million people globally who live less than 1 metre above sea level.
Earlier this year Pakistan was just one of the countries across south Asia that experienced a heatwave that took temperatures over 50° C. That country has now faced floods that have directly affected 33 million people, causing at least $10 billion in damage. Spring rains in Somalia have been the weakest in 60 years, contributing to drought and famine across east Africa, which has put 22 million people at risk of hunger and starvation. Devastating climate change effects can also be seen at home. The World Weather Attribution group found that human-induced climate change made the recent UK heatwave at least 10 times more likely. The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy has declared that the UK’s critical national infrastructure is
“very vulnerable to extreme weather and other effects of climate change”.
Over 570,000 UK homes are not suitable for high temperatures.
We are not just in the middle of a climate crisis; nature is in crisis too. Our way of life, especially in developed nations, is exploiting our global resources in a way that is becoming increasingly unsustainable for our planet. As nature declines, so does the quality of human life. Pollution and poor air quality alone cost millions of lives every year across the globe. We in the UK are not excluded, and all those things beg the question of whether the way in which we currently look at security policy limits the extent to which the Government keep us safe.
We are used to the Government declaring that their first duty is to keep citizens safe and the country secure. However, the way that they define our security matters. For years, we have thought that security is about the risks to our nation from hostile actors. That narrow conception risks sidelining the climate threat. The Russia-Ukraine war has shown that temptation. We have already seen countries such as Germany move back to using coal. Even in the UK, the former Prime Minister used the war to lift the fracking ban, and announce more than 100 new licences for oil and gas drilling in the North sea. It is of course important that we are properly aware of and equipped to tackle risks from hostile actors. However, the need for energy security should never lead us to downplay the existential threat that the climate crisis poses to humanity.
The term “human security” was first championed by the United Nations Development Programme in its annual report on human development. It is about security for people, and emphasises economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security. Human security puts the experience and wellbeing of the individual at the centre of security policy, prioritises international co-operation over national competition, and focuses on the shared security of all humanity. The concept of human security is acknowledged by multiple influential international organisations, including the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the World Bank.
The climate threat goes beyond national borders, and has far-reaching consequences. State-centric security practices cannot comprehend the vast array of threats that we face. We must move towards a model of security that cares for people above all else. If we do so, the true scale of the climate threat is thrust into the spotlight. Countries must be incentivised to prioritise it. After all, the sooner we act, the more people can be protected. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that limiting global warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C may save around 520 million people from frequent exposure to heatwaves.
Putting climate action at the heart of any Government plan is the best way to protect the UK against hostile actors. Putin’s war has shown how long-term dependence on fossil fuels can power hostile regimes. Russia has used Europe’s dependence on its natural gas as a weapon. If the UK had moved towards renewables harder, faster and earlier, Putin would not have that leverage, and our constituents would not be paying the price for the war.
What must be done to protect people from the climate threat? How can a human security approach help the world to reach net zero? A human security approach addresses the root causes of vulnerabilities, and takes early action on emerging risks. Threats such as climate change are predictable and incrementally destructive, yet consecutive Governments have failed to do anything meaningful about them in the long term. The worst impacts of climate change stretch well beyond average election cycles. The evidence is clear that the costs of climate change are dwarfed by the consequences of inaction.
The country’s finances are already straining under the weight of recent Conservative Government incompetence. They are set to shatter completely if we do not get a grip of the climate emergency now. The London School of Economics predicts that we will lose £340 billion a year by 2050 because of this Government’s refusal to take action fast enough. University College London issued similarly stark warnings about the world’s financial system, which is set to lose 37% of global GDP by the end of the century as a result of the climate crisis. Such losses will be unrecoverable.
That economic dark age is not inevitable. A green future should be seen as a prosperous one. A recent University of Oxford report states that if we move to a decarbonised energy sector by 2050, the planet will save $12 trillion. A net zero economy is an opportunity for this country. We can be the world leaders in this financial age.
Change must begin at home. The Liberal Democrats are calling on the Government to announce an action plan, backed by a £150 billion public investment programme, to fire up progress to reach net zero. Our plan proposes a major restructuring of the UK’s economic and financial model, and investment in renewables is vital to it. Renewables are the world’s cheapest source of energy now. Investing in them is good for the planet. It secures our energy and protects our wallets. As the Committee on Climate Change notes, reducing demand for fossil fuels will help to limit our constituents’ energy bills.
The UK must invest in renewable power so that at least 80% of electricity is generated from renewables by 2030. That is a tough target. We set the targets, but fail to deliver them. We must press ahead to make more of our renewable energy targets. The Government must now deliver on the many promises and targets they have set for the nation. We desperately require a department at the heart of Government that is dedicated to co-ordinating the many fragmented activities across Government and society. We urgently need to bring back the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which provided essential leadership during the coalition years. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government have any intention of re-establishing such a Department, given that we are falling behind in the delivery of our net zero targets?
The climate crisis should be at the forefront of every decision the Government make between now and the time that net zero is reached. We Liberal Democrats propose having both a department of climate change and a Cabinet chief secretary for sustainability to co-ordinate all Government activity in response to the climate emergency. That would ensure that climate change is given the priority it deserves in every Government action and in every Department.
The UK must put aside its damaging approach of isolation and the language of division. Climate change is a huge problem that can be solved only through collaboration with everybody else. I recently met John Kerry, who noted that the approach to climate change in the US changed completely when Joe Biden became the new President. Leadership matters, and we need such leadership from our Government now.
Ahead of COP26, the then Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), cut air passenger duty on domestic flights. Last May, he brought in a windfall tax that incentivised firms to invest in fossil fuel extraction. During the latest Conservative leadership campaign, he pledged that he would make it more difficult to build onshore wind farms in England. To have our new Prime Minister effectively dragged along to COP27 is humiliating for the UK. That is not the leadership we need from our new Government. The UK must lead from the front to encourage others to act. As the Committee on Climate Change suggests, it should prioritise strengthening the ambitions of countries around the world while preparing for a focus on climate finance and adaptation at COP27 next week, and COP28 next year.
For too long our response to climate change has been complacent. Climate action cannot be ditched in favour of status quo interests. After all, people can never be secure in a world ravaged by extreme weather events. It is time the world moved away from viewing our security simply at state level and started looking at the bigger picture. We cannot be safe until the world is safe from the worst fallouts of the climate emergency. The floods, heatwaves, wildfires and storms of 2022 are alive in our minds. There is no better time than now to put in long- lasting protections to save current and future generations from the crippling consequences of climate change.
Climate change must become part of the UK’s security thinking. The Conservatives must get a grip and take the lead on this issue. I hope that the UK Government will look at my recommendations. We are all in a war against climate change and must begin to treat it as such.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing such an important debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on supporting it, as numerous Members have done.
In 2007 the Stern report stated that climate change was the greatest and widest-ranging market failure that the world had ever seen, but here we are—all these years later—and it seems that warning is still falling on deaf ears. I used to stand in Westminster Hall debates and say that climate change threatens to undo progress towards the millennium development goals and the sustainable development goals. After only seven years since I was elected in 2015, we can now say that climate change is undoing progress towards the millennium development goals and the sustainable development goals. It is making it harder to reach poverty eradication targets, gender equality targets, and education and health targets. In some cases, we are going backwards on those indicators, after a period of progress that should be acknowledged.
Climate change is not something that is happening somewhere else, in faraway parts of the world; as the hon. Member for Bath said, it is beginning to disrupt our own way of life in these islands, across western Europe and across what we call the developed world, and it is becoming increasingly clear that things are going to get worse before they start to get any kind of better. This is an issue of huge concern to my constituents in Glasgow North, who I hear from regularly on all the points raised by the hon. Lady.
Glasgow could not have been prouder to host COP26 last year, but the conference was not a one-off: the clue is in the name. It is part of a process, and in the very near future—next week—COP27 will take place, where the work must continue on the progress towards making real the commitments to which Governments have pledged, whether that is coming up with the funds that have been committed to mitigation and adaptation measures, or making clear statements and demonstrations of action towards the targets that have been agreed upon and that we need to go further and faster to reach. The security implications—in the broadest meaning of that word—can already be seen all around the world.
The scarcity of vital natural resources, water scarcity and crop failure are often the root of instability in so many of the flashpoints and troubled parts of the world that we debate not infrequently here in Westminster Hall, including the situation in Tigray, Ethiopia. I firmly suspect that if people had more confidence in predicting the rains and being able to grow crops to feed themselves and their families, the chances are that the instability there and in so many other parts of the world would be significantly lessened. Many of the roots of such conflicts are to do with scarcity, particularly of water and food, the supply of which is directly affected by climate change.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I will reflect a little more on those interconnections later. This is exactly about that kind of domino effect, because the Government are really concerned about the small boats crisis and people coming to the United Kingdom, but what are many of those people fleeing? They are fleeing scarcity and instability in their home countries. The changing climate is leading to the massive displacement of populations across the world. Difficult though the UK Government might think the migrant crisis is on the shores of Great Britain, it is considerably greater in other parts of the world, such as Africa and Asia, where there are massive movements of populations—and climate change is at the root of it all.
It is worth reflecting on the instability that even the concept of climate change is starting to cause; and I will return to some of these ideas later. There is climate change denial in so many parts of the world, even in so-called western liberal developed democracies. When climate change starts to become an ideological divide, that in itself causes instability and is part of a polarisation that we are seeing across the world, particularly in the United States, which the hon. Member for Bath mentioned. The extremes of response to the climate crisis that we have seen in the space of the change of one Administration—and the risk of that swinging back in the other direction—is in itself a significant challenge to the world’s ability to respond to climate change. That has an impact on the politics of those countries and, perhaps, to a certain extent here.
Here at home we are also experiencing the effects of climate change. Just in the past 12 months we have experienced increasing extremes of weather. There was a heatwave not just down here in London: we even had record temperatures up in Scotland. Although on one level people might make a joke about that and say it is quite a nice thing—“It makes a change” and so on—it is becoming a new reality that we have to adapt to, and that is not cost-free.
As the hon. Lady said, climate change also affects the food supply and food security in Scotland and across these islands. Last week, there was a Westminster Hall debate about global food security; we used to talk about food security as a problem elsewhere, but it is becoming a real challenge in the United Kingdom too. That is also true of our energy security, as she set out.
There is a real danger of a feedback loop: we have a shortage of energy so we dig more coal out of the ground and burn it, but that worsens the problem of climate change and increases the challenge and the costs to the Government in the long run. The Government have to grasp that tackling climate change is the ultimate idea of preventive spend. We are going to have to pay for the costs of a changing climate, which has largely been brought about by the process of industrialisation in the west over the past 150 years or so, and we can do that either now in such a way that we prevent, mitigate and adapt to the changes, or later as the changes become more extreme and severe. That will cost us more in the long run, so it makes financial sense to start to invest now in tackling the causes and effects of climate change. It will also enhance our security.
That brings me to my challenges to the Government. I do not know what the right word is, but this is not about ideology. There may be free market, right-wing solutions to the climate crisis—setting aside what Lord Stern said back in 2007—so bring them forward. Let the market compete to find the most effective form of renewable energy and the most effective way to maximise crop yields, but not in a way that continues to cause problems. Externalising the costs of those things in the first place led to where we are.
Some of us might think that we need a bit more in the way of state intervention and direction of spending, but we should all start from an agreement that the climate and nature emergency is real. Sadly, I am not 100% convinced that everyone on the Government Benches would be willing to stand up and say that. In the Chamber, I asked the previous Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)—in the short time he was in post—whether he believed that the climate emergency is real and that anthropogenic climate change is happening today, and he completely dodged the question. Ministers in the western world in this day and age should not be dodging that kind of question. The answer to the question, “Is anthropogenic climate change happening today in front of us?” is yes. There might be a debate about how we tackle it, how we respond and how we prevent it from getting worse, but the answer to the question is yes.
I am sure the Minister will confirm that the Government’s position is that the climate change that is being experienced all over the world is the direct result of human behaviour over the past 150 years or so. It might be a bit difficult to get the Government to start to adopt the language of climate justice and to recognise the historical obligation that we in the west have to people in other parts of the world who are being hit by climate change first and hardest, but the point of debates such as this is to put those points to them and hear them argue either why that is not necessary or why they do not agree.
In among all that is the mainstreaming of our net zero targets. We should put that at the heart of Government policy and then, yes, debate how things will be delivered and the best way to invest resources, and the best way to let the market respond, if that is what people believe, or whether to let the state intervene more heavily, if that is what people believe.
The hon. Gentleman is generous to give way again. He is coming to the issue of delivery. Ultimately, we all agree that the pathway is there but the delivery is not happening fast enough. That really worries me, which is why I said at the very beginning of the debate that this is not a bus that we can miss: we have to get on with things now. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the Climate Change Committee, which has said that the Government must now urgently focus on the delivery of their own targets?
Yes, absolutely. The Government have agreed to the targets and achieved a certain amount of cross-party consensus on them. That is important given how some people want to use the very concept of climate change as a political wedge issue, when in fact it is something that should unite us as far as possible. Especially among all the chaos and revolving doors for Ministers of late, the Government should speak with one voice on these issues. Irrespective of which Department or Minister happens to respond to this debate, we should hear the voice of the UK Government, with all the weight that that is supposed to carry.
Even though we do not have a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Minister responding to today’s debate, it is important to address the question of the aid budget, its diminution, the cuts to it that are being applied across the board and the risk of further cuts to come. I come back to my point about preventive spend. If we do not support small farmers in different parts of Africa to grow sustainable crops without the need for expensive and polluting fertilisers, if we do not support communities to access fresh and clean water, and if we do not support girls to get into education so that they can raise healthier and stronger families and contribute to their economy, we really should not be surprised if, further down the line, those people start to get quite annoyed and upset about the kind of lifestyle that is being forced upon them and decide to take matters into their own hands. Indeed, they may decide to get on a small boat and come across to the United Kingdom, where everything seems to be much more comfortable. The Government must realise the importance of preventive spend and not just address the issues of climate justice and poverty eradication but understand that it is to everybody’s benefit to tackle such issues.
We all have to agree that this is the defining challenge of our times. By all means we should have a debate about the precise way in which we can reach our goals, but let us not argue about whether those goals have to be met, because not meeting them will simply make matters considerably worse, not just for people overseas but for people on these islands, too. We have to continue to hold the Government to account in the way that our constituents want us to, and we have to hope that the Government are prepared to recognise the consensus that can exist and get us forward and closer to tackling the causes and effects of climate change.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I thank the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for leading this debate. It is also a real pleasure to follow my friend and colleague the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady); he and I agree on this subject. I agree with the hon. Lady on it, too.
I am pleased to add my contribution to this debate. There has been some confusion over the past few days regarding the confirmation of the attendance of the Prime Minister at the COP27 summit in Egypt, which starts this Sunday. I am pleased that the original decision was reviewed and that the Prime Minister will now attend the summit to commit to our COP26 promises, as he should because he leads this country.
We all recognise the commitment that the Government gave at COP25 and COP26. I know that the Minister will respond to confirm the positive direction that the Government have taken and how important that is. As Members have rightly stated, climate change is set to exacerbate worldwide challenges such as rising sea levels, poverty and malnutrition. To say that we have a role to play is clearly an understatement: we have a massive role to play, not just singularly but collectively with other countries.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments from a human security perspective, too, as that is just as important. I know he will respond in a positive fashion. As my party’s spokesperson on human rights, human security means a great deal to me and my party. Like other Members, I receive hundreds of emails each week about many different and pressing issues from my constituents in Strangford; however, I must say that climate change and its impact on human security feature highly in my mailbox, so I am pleased to support Members in this debate.
Some notable events in the past couple of years have posed a real potential threat to human security. For example, the United Kingdom’s Climate Change Committee has found a 16 cm rise in UK mean sea levels since the start of the 20th century. That cannot be ignored: it is a fact of life. We have to address those things. Can we address them in a way that will make a difference? I think we can.
Like other areas of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has fallen victim to multiple extreme weather events in the past couple of years. We used to say that these sorts of floods happened every 100 years, but no: the 100-year floods happen every four or five years now. They happen regularly. On Tuesday night, I phoned my mother, as I do every night, and she said she had never rain quite like it. She is 91 years old, by the way, so she has been in this world for a long time. If she says that to me, I tell you what: I can say there has been some exceptional rainfall. The yellow warnings and the floods are there.
Most memorably, in summer 2018 we saw the warmest June since 1910, with the mean temperature 2.1° above the 1981-2010 average. That is another example of extreme weather—another 100-year event. It ultimately resulted in a hosepipe ban, which some laughed at at the time, thinking it was ridiculous. In hindsight, it shows the impact that climate change has had on our daily lives and security. In the summer of ’22, we had extreme heat that I cannot recall having experienced for a long time, and water levels fell in many places.
I am interested in planning matters. I see an example of the practical, physical way that change is coming in my constituency, where planning conditions have been introduced in the past couple of years to stop people building on floodplains, which they should not be doing, by the way. Ten or 20 years ago, and whenever I first joined Ards Borough Council in 1985—that was not yesterday either—that was not an issue: people were able to build on that land. Now, they cannot. Why is that happening? It is because climate change is coming and things are changing. With what it can see and from its plans, the planning department has projected where the floodplains will be. In some areas, we would have to go back to the beginning of the century to see where the land flooded in some exceptional conditions.
The Northern Ireland Assembly’s equivalent of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. DAERA has released its climate change adaptation programme for 2019-24. It underlined the impacts of the “beast from the east”—that is not Russia, by the way. The “beast from the east” was a spell of extreme weather conditions. We all experienced them in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They were exceptional. Northern Ireland experienced a spell of severe weather with low temperatures and significant snow, the likes of which we had not seen for a lifetime. It caused a real problem for travel and, moreover, healthcare provision was significantly interrupted. We must take into consideration the effects that climate change has on our local businesses and especially our food security. That is why today’s debate is so important.
Food security is described as people having physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. It is important for human security reasons such as poverty. We should expect to see a rise in poverty as our access to food decreases. It is my understanding—I am sure the Minister will confirm this—that the United Kingdom imports some 46% of our food. I know that the Government have committed to producing more food at home, as I believe we should—we need to be more self-sufficient—but the fact is that we import 46% of our food products from around the world.
We are ever mindful that we cannot grow everything here, so there will always be some imports. Northern Ireland has a population of 2 million but we have a highly productive farming sector. We export some 75% to 80% of our produce overseas to mainland EU and further afield. We are bucking the trend in relation to the rest of the United Kingdom, and that indicates how important our farming sector is to us in Northern Ireland.
It is clear this is not a domestic concern alone: internationally, we must come together as nations. This is a world crisis. We are here debating this issue at Westminster, in the mother of Parliaments, but we need buy-in from the rest of the world to make it happen. We need to take a joint approach to tackling climate change. There are widescale human security issues that can apply globally if we do not commit to our prior engagements, including the Paris agreement and the Kyoto protocol.
I know this is something that the hon. Member for Glasgow North is interested in, as, I suspect, everyone is. I chair the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion and belief. In 2018, we published our report “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?” Why is that applicable to today’s debate? This debate is not about food; it is about more than that. The FCDO response to the report was that it was climate change driving violence in Nigeria, not attacks on religious minorities. The fact is that it is a combination of both.
When the APPG visited Nigeria in May and June this year, we had discussions and talks with Government officials and some of the landowners in north-east Nigeria where things are happening. The Fulani herders are losing their grassland to the encroachment of sand and desert, so they moved further south into the land that just happens to be owned by Christians, along with some Muslims. In other words, the Fulani herdsmen are moving their cattle and herds closer to and encroaching on land that farmers need to grow their crops and look after their families.
Climate change is affecting us all, but not equally. The latest correspondence this week between Open Doors and some of the APPG’s members indicated that tensions are continuing to rise in Nigeria to an even greater level than when we visited back in May and June. When it comes to the issue of human security and climate change, that is a supreme example of what is happening. That is why we need to do things collectively and better together.
Minority groups and often religious minorities find themselves facing the worst impacts of climate change. In many cases, families want to produce food just to feed their families—not necessarily to sell on, although they may barter on occasions—and for Christians in north-east Nigeria, for example, land degradation is combined with the constant threat of attacks from Boko Haram or the Fulani herders.
Climate change and human security is not a topic that will be going away any time soon. The hon. Member for Glasgow North is absolutely right: we might have talked about the matter six or seven years ago, saying “the threat of”, but no, the threat and the reality is here today. I agree with him absolutely. We have the opportunity to respond in a timely and vital fashion. Delay can no longer be looked upon as acceptable in any way. We must ensure our commitments to our promises made at COP 25, COP26 and this weekend at COP27 and do what we can to curb national disasters, not just here in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but for all nations around the world. We all need to live together and do our best for everyone.
I am grateful. It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing the debate. It was a pleasure to be a co-sponsor—or whatever the correct terminology is—in the application to the Backbench Business Committee. Though the issue is serious, nothing says taking climate security seriously like the acres of empty green chairs before us on a Thursday afternoon in the House of Commons.
Nothing says taking climate change seriously like, after being the host country for COP26—as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), from north of the Clyde; we were only too pleased to host that conference in my home city of Glasgow—a grudging Prime Minister sulking his way to Egypt for the COP27 conference. Nothing says taking climate security seriously like stripping the COP President and the Minister present today of their places in Cabinet. Indeed, if all that was not bad enough, even the King—a man who, in this country at least, is perhaps uniquely credible on the international stage on climate change and the environment—was banned from going to COP27, not just by the former Prime Minister, but the new Prime Minister. Come Monday next week, maybe a new Prime Minister will have changed that. As well as having a practically empty Chamber, I am willing to bet that this debate, which is scheduled to last 90 minutes, will not go the full way and we will adjourn early. [Interruption.] I can hear some challenges to that behind me.
Turning to climate security, I know the Minister takes his portfolio extremely seriously and I do not aim this at him—in fairness, it may have been down to how the application was made—but it would have been good to have an FCDO or even a Defence Minister to respond to the debate.
Does the hon. Member agree that the failure of the UK Government to invest properly and sufficiently in renewable energy in recent years has damaged our ability to see security through the lens of human security, rather than what matters to Governments? Does he agree that the £4.5 billion of energy exports to the UK that Russia profited from last year emboldened that country to sustain its traditional state-centric view of security and, in that sense, has exacerbated climate change?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and will come to some of those points in turn. I want to speak about how I view climate security and where it fits in the broader issue of the security strategy across Government. We can learn great lessons from countries such as Sweden, which follows what is called a total defence concept, where the dynamic and changing threat picture that countries and national Governments face is given commensurate space in their national security strategy. Whether that is the hard military invasion, a pandemic, a shock weather event or a virus, the dynamic threat picture is represented in that national security strategy.
As my party’s spokesperson on defence, I have found it difficult to criticise the MOD over the past 10 months, not least in what it has done to support Ukraine, as have many Members across the House. However, we now have a situation where the integrated review, which can only be two years old, was going to be reviewed and then was maybe going to be reviewed, and I understand that it will now definitely be reviewed under this Prime Minister. We have an opportunity to get this right and give climate change and climate security the representation it deserves in the overall national security posture of the UK. I have an interest in this as a Scottish Member of Parliament. There are unique factors about climate change for our part of the country but, as hon. Members have said, this is a matter for the planet as a whole. In thinking about how we work on that, there are three key areas when it comes to defence and security. Climate change is a threat multiplier. The secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, gave an eloquent speech earlier this year on how that threat multiplier can and should be taken seriously by NATO member states. Indeed, it runs through NATO’s strategic concept, and NATO is one of the twin pillars of European security.
The second pillar is the European Union’s strategic compass. Traditionally, the European Union has not done as much in the area of defence and security, but it is doing more. When NATO leads on hard security—military security—the European Union absolutely complements it as the second twin pillar for things such as disaster management and resilience, and for dealing with climate change and other shock events that its member states will experience. That makes the case for the British Government to take off the blinkers and pursue a comprehensive defence and security treaty with the European Union in which it can partner with a major role-setter. About half a billion others on our shared continent can partner on a strategy for climate change.
Even more importantly, the European Union can help pursue a strategy that gives the global south its rightful place at the table. For all the experiences we have in this country—whether it is in the high north of Scotland, or the extreme weather in July this year—those in the global south feel ignored not just on climate, but on much else. To see the manifestation of that, we only have to look at the votes at the United Nations in condemnation of Russia and in support of Ukraine. Across the global south, the pattern of abstentions and voting against the interests of European and Ukrainian continental security, or against sanctions on the Russian regime being deepened and widened, is a product of our ignoring the global south for far too long.
I will end by talking about an issue that the hon. Member for Glasgow North rightly mentioned: climate scepticism. I want to go slightly further and talk about climate disinformation. We will all be asking our constituents to do more as we try to achieve our climate goals. We will be asking them to do more now, as the cost of switching on the boiler and leaving on the lights goes up and up and up. What an opportunity there is for climate deniers, sceptics or whatever we want to call them to pursue political strategies, much like we have previously seen in other policy areas in this country and elsewhere, not least the United States. What an opportunity there is to pursue disinformation strategies against what is a major threat to the people on this planet: climate change. What an opportunity there is for those on the extreme right—I certainly do not include the Minister in that—to sow disinformation, increase polarisation and set democratic countries off course in what they have to do on climate change. That is why it is really important that we have a national strategy to counter disinformation on this issue and much else, and that we build as much information resilience as possible across the population.
Yes, and that is perhaps a neat way for me to conclude my remarks. We do need that support, and we need all the parts of the state architecture working in concert with devolved Governments, the private sector and many other actors to pursue a national strategy for robust climate security that is at the centre of a broader national security strategy that works in concert with European and NATO allies and gives the countries of the global south their rightful place at the table.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Efford. I thank the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for securing this debate, which is a very timely one, given that COP is about to start. I think I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow South that this debate should have fallen within the remit of the FCDO or the Ministry of Defence, but the Minister and I, with our climate change briefs, will try to do justice to some of the issues that have been raised.
The hon. Member for Bath was right to talk about Putin’s hostile actions in Ukraine, which have drawn energy security to the forefront of people’s minds. It has always been quite difficult to get people interested in energy policy—it is sometimes seen as a very techy issue—but when we put it in the global context of how undue reliance on Russian energy supplies affects our security and the security of many countries, the lesson to be learned is that we need to be more self-sufficient. Obviously, the way to achieve self-sufficiency is through a quicker shift towards renewables, and—as I hope Members spotted—at its recent conference in Liverpool, Labour made a pledge for clean power by 2030. That is not just based on the awareness that we need to tackle the climate emergency, or that renewables are far cheaper—nine times cheaper—than gas; it is about our energy security needs as well.
It was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Bath talk about the impact on the financial system. I have spoken to insurance companies that are having to reappraise what they do, given that some of the risks they are used to insuring against are getting to the stage where they are either uninsurable, or those companies are far more likely to have to pay out on them. Flooding is an obvious example, but there is also this issue of stranded assets when it comes to their investments. Both the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and the hon. Member for Bath talked about how this is an opportunity, and as the shadow Secretary of State for climate change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), said at Labour conference,
“It’s cheaper to save the planet than it is to destroy it.”
Most people—although perhaps not the previous BEIS Secretary, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg)—are beginning to realise that we have huge opportunities in this space.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) spoke about the irony of there being flooding one moment in Northern Ireland and hosepipe bans the next, which brought home the fact that this is not just something that is happening in the most climate-vulnerable countries: we are seeing the impacts of climate change everywhere. Even just in recent times, we have seen floods in Pakistan, as has been mentioned; droughts and famine in east Africa; extreme weather events hitting central America, the Caribbean and the Asia-Pacific; and wildfires in California. We are seeing those physical manifestations of climate change around the globe, and the associated geopolitical risks.
Obviously, climate migration—the outflow of people from areas where their lives or livelihoods are threatened—is one of those risks. In some cases, those people are in mortal danger and it is imperative that they flee; in other cases, it is because their former way of life is no longer economically viable. A report from the World Bank suggests that 216 million people may be displaced by 2050 due to climate breakdown. Of course, not all of those people will choose to leave their homes, but they will then be left in an increasingly vulnerable situation where they are likely to be in immense poverty and at risk of resorting to desperate measures.
The other aspect is the battle over resources—for example, the melting of the ice on the third pole, the Himalayas. That is absolutely crucial to the water supply in India and China, and we may well see those two major superpowers at war with each other over access to that resource. Increasingly, we also see criminal elements being involved in deforestation in a bid to plunder the forests. Somali piracy, which was an issue a few years ago, is not quite a climate change issue, but it is closely linked to overfishing. It might not be climate change, but it is about the plundering of the world’s natural resources, and the inadvertent consequences of Somali fishermen not being able to make a living from their traditional way of life, and therefore turning to other activities.
The climate crisis accelerates instability around the world, and opens up a vacuum in which extremism can fester. As the UN Secretary-General said, it is a “crisis amplifier”. It often contributes to a breakdown of law, increased inequality and rapid social change. For example, in the Lake Chad basin, Boko Haram has taken advantage of a scarcity of natural resources to conscript young people to its cause. In war-torn Yemen, the humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by drought. ISIS has exploited water shortages in the middle east. As well as turning people towards terror, the damaging effects of climate change also risk leaving countries dependent on hostile states. A delegation from Madagascar is here this week, for example, and we know the role that China is beginning to play there. Countries in desperate need of economic support and security are turning to China, which gives China a huge degree of influence over their politics and full access to their resources.
I appreciate that this is a matter for FCDO, but one way in which the Government could make an immediate impact, if they wanted to, would be to reinstate our overseas aid commitment of 0.7% of GDP. The cut was a stark betrayal of the world’s poorest people, and may well have security consequences. Given our respective briefs, however, I will focus primarily on COP and what can be achieved there.
At COP, there should be a big focus on climate mitigation, renewed ambition when it comes to countries’ nationally determined contributions, and a focus on keeping 1.5° alive. Somebody said during a debate this week, I think, that 1.5° is on a life support machine, but we certainly must ensure that it is still very much the ambition. However, COP cannot be just about mitigation. We must also hear much more about adaptation, and how we can support the most climate-vulnerable countries as they try to make their nations more resilient. That could be about building sea walls; about natural defences against rising sea levels, such as planting mangroves; or about buildings that can better withstand extreme weather events.
There is a lot that we can do, but those countries need finance. In some cases, they are very poor countries that would normally be in receipt of aid, or they are tiny countries, for example the small island developing states. They tell me that they find it almost impossible to access climate finance. There are too many hurdles for them to jump over. In some cases, that is because they do not have the resources: they are tiny countries, and do not have the people to do all the research for the paperwork.
According to the UN, the 10 most environmentally fragile countries receive a mere 4.5% of all climate funding. That falls far behind other nations. It is not just about giving them climate finance; it is also about supporting them with their own initiatives. For example, the island and coastal states are increasingly looking at blue bonds. I know that Seychelles is doing so, as is—I think—Belize. As the centre of global finance, whether it is green finance or blue finance, the City of London could play a good role by helping those countries to access that money. That would be money from investors that are looking to do climate offsetting, for example. I am not that keen on carbon offsetting. It is not the solution to reaching 1.5°, but if there is an opportunity to get climate finance to climate-vulnerable countries, the UK ought to be playing a leading role.
We need to see progress at COP27 on loss and damage, too. There should be a formal mechanism in place so that those with the responsibility and capacity to pay for it do so. I was part of a meeting last week in Parliament with John Kerry, the US climate envoy. I asked him about the issue, and it was good to see that he thinks that it is important. He spoke about trying to bring forward progress on loss and damage, so that it is something we can deliver on at the 2023 COP, rather than perhaps something for 2024.
I also met the Foreign Minister of the Maldives recently, on Tuesday. That is an island state with a small population that covers a massive territory when we include the ocean around the islands. Seventy of its islands flooded this year. I wonder whether the Minister remembers when the then President Nasheed held a cabinet meeting underwater with scuba gear. I think he addressed the Conservative party conference around the same time. He was highlighting the fact that they will all be living under water if they are not supported. They are paying a price for a problem not of their own making.
The Foreign Minister spoke to me about how the country hopes to get to fully renewable energy by 2030. Although its own carbon footprint is absolutely minuscule, it is doing its bit. The islands are of course surrounded by salt water, but fresh water is really important, and the rain water is so polluted by the industrialisation of neighbouring India that it cannot be used. That demonstrates the interface between what the industrialised world is doing, and small countries such as the Maldives. They cannot sort out this issue by themselves. They need collective responsibility to be shown.
On finance, it was shocking to hear that the UK has not yet coughed up its contributions to the green climate fund and the adaptation fund—the $300 million promised in Glasgow. We currently hold the COP presidency. If we cannot meet our promises when we are meant to be showing leadership, we really cannot expect anybody else to do so. It is a total abdication of responsibility, as is the Prime Minister’s reluctance to attend COP27. He is going now, but it is pretty obvious he regards it as an inconvenience. I suspect he is only going because the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) is going and he does not want to be upstaged.
I hope that when he gets there, the Prime Minister rises to the challenge. It is crucial that, in the outgoing days of our presidency, we bring together countries to co-operate and that we show climate leadership. I hope that he has a bit of an epiphany as he flies out to Sharm El Sheikh and realises that he is there to do a serious job, and that he does it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and to participate in this important debate, although it is a shame that there are not more people here on this Thursday afternoon. What we have lacked in quantity of Members, we have perhaps made up for in quality of contribution.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to them for their work in promoting the importance of the international agenda. The hon. Member for Bath has been a strong voice for climate action and the protection of women and girls in that context throughout her time in Parliament, constantly challenging the Government to do more. I thank her for her commitment to the issue.
I do not want to be divisive, but I would gently say that if we were to compare the hon. Lady’s useful contribution with that of the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), the spokesperson for His Majesty’s Opposition, it was more balanced. If one listened purely to the comments of the hon. Member for Bristol East, one would think the Government were a laggard and the country was far behind. One would not believe that we had invested more in renewables than any other European nation, that we had transformed the economics of offshore wind, hosted COP26 and led the global conversation—that my colleague, the COP26 President, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), had taken us from the beginning of our presidency, when just 30% of the world’s GDP was covered by net zero, to now, when that figure is 90%.
There are plenty of things to pick apart in what any Government do, but surely it is perfectly possible to acknowledge the situation honestly. If people give speeches that absolutely fail to reflect the reality, they do not gain credibility, they lose it. It is perfectly possible to challenge this Government effectively, but it is best to acknowledge the reality of where we are at in order to do so. The hon. Member for Glasgow South talked about climate disinformation. I suggest that there are certain Members here who are guilty of that by not acknowledging what has gone on.
I will come back to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, but I want to talk about him. I acknowledge his strong support for the people of Ukraine, which has created a severe context for our discussion on energy and climate, and his support for helping them in their fight against Putin. I wanted to acknowledge that before I give way to him.
I thank the Minister for acknowledging that. He is brave to want a debate on credibility right now. It is not disinformation to point out that the COP presidency—of which he correctly seems so proud—has been demoted from the Cabinet, or that he himself has been removed from the Cabinet, or that the Prime Minister has been dragged kicking and screaming to COP. That is not disinformation; it is fact. Calling it disinformation is disinformation in itself.
To be fair to the hon. Member, he is a good debater. I was not particularly referring to those points, which are political fair play and not in themselves inaccurate, albeit presented in a certain way. Failing to recognise our overall position and making out that we are somehow, as we heard suggested by another hon. Member, not investing in, promoting and seeking to accelerate renewables is to misrepresent the situation. I sometimes think that, even by myself in a telephone box, I am capable of creating an argument where there would otherwise be agreement.
I am a little perplexed by what the Minister said. I said in my speech that, yes, we made lots of pledges and there are lots of targets. We are agreed on those, but it is about the delivery. The Committee on Climate Change itself has said that the delivery of the targets we have set ourselves is far too slow. We need to accelerate the pace of change. Will he acknowledge that we need to accelerate the pace at which we move toward net zero?
The hon. Lady is right in that respect, but it is important to acknowledge where we are. We have gone further and faster than any major economy on Earth in reducing our emissions while also leading the global conversation. If we do not acknowledge those points, we do not create a properly contextualised conversation. That is all I have sought today, but I entirely agree with her; my job from the Prime Minister is precisely about accelerating this. We need clean baseload, and that is why we are seeking to do more on nuclear. It is a great shame that the Opposition parties—with some exceptions—do not support that. It is interesting to see that if Scotland were to have 100% renewable energy, it would be reliant on the baseload provided by nuclear in England.
The Minister is talking about what the Government are doing on renewables. It was not clear, in his response to the shadow Climate Secretary at COP questions this week, what the current position is on the ban on onshore wind. We know that the new Prime Minister spoke against onshore wind during his unsuccessful leadership campaign. Can the Minister confirm if there is now a ban on onshore wind, or if it has been lifted?
Onshore wind is our single largest renewable source, providing about 14 GW altogether, 3 GW of which are in England. In order to deliver, we need all these energy sources, but we need to do this in a way that works with the grain of communities, whether that is through ground-mounted or roof-mounted solar, onshore or offshore wind, nuclear, hydrogen, carbon capture, utilisation and storage—without which it is hard to see how we can do industrial decarbonisation. We need all those things in order to deliver the targets, which, as the hon. Member for Bath suggested, are extremely challenging, but which we are on a firmer path toward than any other major economy on Earth.
It is great that the Americans have now come back to this agenda, and it is good that they passed the Inflation Reduction Act to promote it. I met with John Kerry recently, and discussed how we need to work co-operatively. In that context, at Glasgow we brought about the break- through agenda, looking sector by sector at collaborative ways to drive forward change across nations.
The UK, and indeed the world, as colleagues have said, is facing unprecedented challenges. I and the Government agree with the picture that has been painted. The food and energy crises, the war in Europe, inflation and recovery from the covid-19 pandemic are all part of the context, but in all the short-term pressures, around energy bills and the like, we must not lose our focus on climate change and we must recognise that it has an impact on human security, precisely as the propagators of the debate have suggested.
Extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity, and this summer we observed record-breaking temperatures, as other hon. Members have said, across Europe, the US and China, including the temperature rising above 40°C in this city for the first time. It was reported that the European Union saw 53,000 excess deaths in July as a result of the heat. As has been mentioned, the devastating floods in Pakistan affected 33 million people and a third of the country—an area about the size of Britain—was under water at one stage, which is truly horrifying.
These events serve to underscore the point that climate change and its impacts are being felt today, not in some distant future. It is driving food and water scarcity, displacement, migration and humanitarian and economic crises, while eroding resilience and reducing our capacity to respond. People, countries and regions will be impacted differently and over different timescales, but climate-related disruptions will increasingly strain international security arrangements globally, precisely as has been said today, causing a knock-on impact on human security worldwide in ways that we cannot always predict. Urgent action is needed to adapt and build the resilience of people, economies and ecosystems to current and future climate change and nature loss, and to the associated risks and impacts.
Climate change exacerbates existing vulnerabilities. It was acknowledged as a threat multiplier by the UN Security Council and the science is absolutely clear. A rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a significant scaling up of investment in climate change adaptation is needed to avert the most damaging impacts, but some of those impacts are already baked in, as has been said. That is why the integrated review identified tackling climate change and biodiversity loss as a leading priority over the coming decades—so it is in our national security strategy, in the form of the integrated review—and highlighted the inextricable links between climate change, nature and national security.
We were the first country to bring the security implications of climate issues to the UN Security Council in 2007, and the first to convene a leader-level debate on climate security in 2021. We have also convened workshops within NATO and we are seen as an international thought leader on the security implications of climate change—something to which hon. Members are contributing today. So we recognise and understand that human insecurity caused by climate change is a significant challenge.
The UK’s COP26 presidency helped us to continue our leadership in this area. COP27 starts on Monday in Egypt, and the Prime Minister’s attendance demonstrates the importance this Government attach to the climate agenda. An African COP, in a continent on the frontline of climate change, will rightly shine a light on the need to follow through and deliver on the commitments that have already been made, and scale up action on adaption and mitigation. COP26 secured many important commitments. Countries reaffirmed their commitment to keep 1.5°C alive, albeit on life support. Among many other important pledges, developed countries agreed at least to double their adaptation finance from 2019 levels by 2025. Those commitments must now be delivered.
To achieve human security in the face of climate change, the world must act. We need to reduce emissions faster than ever before. We need to seek to stop damage to nature and rebuild the biodiversity that is so central to human security, so we will continue to push for a landmark agreement to protect nature at COP15, the convention on biological diversity in Montreal in December—that is the other big COP, so we have COP27 and COP15. We need to enable countries and communities to avert and minimise losses and damages, while providing means to address impacts when they occur.
We estimate that, between April 2011 and March 2022, the UK’s international climate programmes directly supported 95 million people to adapt to the effects of climate change. We have pledged to double our international climate finance to £11.6 billion between 2021 and 2026, with the goal of mitigating climate change and supporting countries to adapt and build their resilience to its impacts, as well as protecting and restoring nature. Those investments directly support the improvement of human security.
We can and will do more. It is not just about the amount of money spent; the UK is making sure we spend smarter, plan more effective responses and utilise our world-class diplomatic service to support countries to be more resilient in the face of climate impacts. It is also about following through on our commitment to deliver net zero and nature action at home and internationally and to support the scaling up of adaptation globally as we build the legacy of our presidency and support Egypt to drive forward progress.
Hon. Members are right to challenge us to ensure that this takes place right across Government. I met the lead non-executive director of BEIS this afternoon, who leads on net zero. All Departments now have a non-executive member on their board with responsibility for net zero, because it is a matter for every Department. Through the Climate Action Implementation Committee and other Cabinet Sub-Committees, in my role as Minister for Energy and Climate Change I will be working to ensure that Ministers in every Department recognise the imperative to deliver net zero.
The Minister mentioned the Climate Action Implementation Committee, which came up in, I think, Prime Minister’s questions or perhaps COP questions. The Prime Minister is no longer chairing that Committee. The Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, I think, asked who will chair it, but we did not get an answer. Can the Minister tell us who is in charge?
The Climate Action Implementation Committee has up to now been chaired by the COP26 President, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West. He will cease to be President of COP in a few days, of course, but he will lead our negotiations through Sharm El Sheikh. It will be up to the Prime Minister, I guess, but I do not know. It is quite likely that it might be the Minister for Energy and Climate Change—I do not know. It will be a Minister who leads that Committee, which reviews carbon budgets, gets presentations from the Climate Change Committee and others and ensures that we stay on track, as we must if we are to deliver that.
Our agenda is not just about avoiding harm; it is strongly in our national interest. By leaning in ahead of the rest of the world, by cutting our emissions more than many others, and by investing in renewables in a way that has led Europe, we can create industrial capability that we can then export to the rest of the world. We genuinely can do the right thing by the environment, build a more prosperous and reindustrialised nation—in some parts of the country—and serve the interests of humanity and the planet as a whole, while delivering greater economic security and prosperity at home. That is very much what we are focused on; it is all about accelerating what we are doing in order to enable that. That will be my job and those of my officials.
The transition to a net zero economy presents job and export opportunities. McKinsey estimates that the low-carbon transition could present a £1 trillion opportunity for UK business by 2030; it is genuinely enormous. At Glasgow, we took steps to make London the first net-zero aligned financial centre. There are opportunities for the City of London and our industry in things such as hydrogen and carbon capture. Up in the north-west and right across the country, there is an appetite to see that happen. Taking a lead will drive prosperity here in the UK and globally, as global markets transform.
International action enables us to meet our own net zero target more efficiently and cost-effectively, while positioning ourselves to take advantage of the global economic opportunities that arise. If we engineer it right, we can come out not only with a net zero, emissions-free energy system, but one that is internationally competitive because we have helped to lead the global conversation and others are following us. We can use our natural resources—for example, the North sea basin—not just to get out the oil and gas for now. With ever higher environmental standards around production, that is the right thing to do while its production declines. We can also use it for offshore wind, storage of CCUS, and storage of hydrogen, which might be part of that whole hydrogen story. We have a European resource here by which we can help to serve the whole continent of Europe in a way that helps with the net zero challenge, and also helps with prosperity, not least in areas that otherwise would be left behind, because levelling up remains a central mission for us.
COP27—we will hand over the presidency next week, a year on from the brilliant COP26 hosted in Glasgow—is an opportunity for the world to come together to address climate change. With the Prime Minister at the helm and leading our delegation, the UK will be front and centre in driving forward meaningful action, without which the security of all humanity is at stake. I entirely agree with colleagues across the Chamber who have given such powerful speeches today in support of that positive objective.
I take that on board, Mr Efford. I thank Members for contributing to this debate. The fact that people were wondering who would respond to this debate—the MOD, the Foreign Office or indeed BEIS—seems to reinforce my call that we should have the Department of Energy and Climate Change back, which would co-ordinate all the questions and issues that we have debated this afternoon. That would address them together, rather than always having them addressed in a fragmented way.
I am pleased that so many Members have contributed from across our family of nations, which shows how important this debate is for all our constituents. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, our MP mailboxes are full of constituents’ concerns and worries about their futures if we fail to act. That very much shows how this is a human issue and how the security issues of countries should be brought down to the human level. We must do more. The Government can always blow their own trumpet—they do that very well—but I must point out where the Government can and must do better. We must no longer dither and delay. We must deliver now.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered climate change and human security.
Yemen Peace Process
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the peace process in Yemen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important and timely debate.
Just over 60 years ago, I was born in Steamer Point Hospital in Aden, and I began a long fascination with Yemen in its various guises. I was born with British citizenship as my father was serving in the British Arab army, and we left when I was three. Ever since then, I have tracked how things have changed over the years as I have written down the changing names of my country of birth. I have not been back since but I dream to, much like the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and her brother, the former Member for Leicester East, who were also born in Yemen.
Over the last 60 years, Yemen has been divided and come back together again, and it has now become a long-forgotten war for many. Why is Yemen important to us? The UK has a historic interest in Yemen through the existence of the Aden colony from 1839 to 1967. More importantly, today we are the UN penholder. The Government must continue to play their leading role in promoting peace. I pay tribute to the UN special envoy, Hans Grundberg, and his predecessor, Martin Griffiths, for all their work.
Today I will set the scene, as I know others will want to talk about different aspects. I thought it would be good to remind people about the complexity of the war and our role. That is not to say that we should impose a western-centric, top-down structure of government for Yemen. That has been disastrous in places such as Iraq. Like other middle eastern countries, Yemen is made up of different communities, and there is currently little feeling of a whole national identity. The war is not as clear as some may wish it to be. Often, there is too much focus on Saudi Arabia and the Iranian involvement, but it is an internal civil war, not a surrogate or proxy war. Although outside countries are involved, either by backing the Houthi rebels or supporting the Yemeni Government, they do not necessarily control them politically.
Yemen has had a history of civil wars for centuries, and a continual battle along the Saudi Arabian border—a border that has cut through some of the historical Yemen. It is a country divided by tribal and religious loyalties. The Houthis are more doctrinally close to the Sunnis than the Iranian Shi’ite regime with which they are often linked by the outside world. The Houthis are also more conservative than the southern tribes in their Sunni doctrine.
The hon. Lady seems to be implying that there are only allegations of Iranian involvement with the Houthis, whereas the Iranian regime is absolutely up to its neck in this, stimulating and providing massive amounts of material. Frankly, the Houthi attacks would not be successful without the destructive and disruptive behaviour of the Iranian regime.
If the right hon. Gentlemen was listening carefully, I said that although other countries are involved, they are not politically involved. They may be supported militarily, but the Houthis are thinking for themselves rather than being dictated to by the Iranian Government. That is the point that I was trying to make.
The sectarian divide in Yemen is not clearcut, as tribal loyalties cut across religious beliefs, making it a confusing and shifting picture, particularly for those looking from the west. Unification in 1990 was to bring forward a representative Government, with elections every seven years. However, it was fragile because of the problems with power sharing that we see elsewhere, including closer to home.
The origins of the present war lie in the political and economic marginalisation of northern Yemen by the former President Saleh. Many of the 301 members of the Yemeni Parliament, who were elected under universal suffrage, felt disenfranchised and unable to effect change. That was a missed opportunity to show that democracy works, in a part of the world surrounded by authoritarian regimes.
The war is a result of decades of exclusion of different parts of the population around the country. Yemen has been run by elites who have concentrated power with their own allies and disenfranchised large parts of the population, even when elections were held. With that in mind, we need to look at how that impacts the peace process and the route to lasting peace.
On 2 April, Yemen’s warring parties began a two-month nationwide peace brokered by the UN. That was extended until October, but it has not been extended again, although the fighting has not resumed at the same intensity as before. On 7 April, President Hadi transferred his powers to a new eight-person Presidential Leadership Council, and the new President is Rashad al-Alimi, a politician with long experience and a diplomatic background.
The six-month ceasefire has been the nearest thing to a reprieve since civil war broke out eight years ago. Casualties have come down countrywide, there has been an increase in fuel deliveries, and international commercial flights to and from Sanaa have recommenced for the first time in six years. However, the latest proposal put forward by the special envoy has not been accepted by the Houthis. The proposal is wide ranging and includes the payment of civil servants’ salaries and pensions, the opening of specific roads in Taiz—the second most populous city—a commitment to release detainees urgently, and the strengthening of the de-escalation mechanism through the military co-ordination committee. The main obstacle is that the Houthis want their security forces to be included in the salary payments to civil servants, which the Government could not accept. This is really disappointing.
Taiz has been in a state of a partial siege since the beginning of the war, and life has been tough, with a war economy inflating prices and insecurity. It was not until 2021, when Hans Grundberg became the first diplomat to visit Taiz since the start of the war, that the profile of the city and its plight were raised. Improving communications with and around Taiz must be central to negotiations, and this is one of the areas where the UK Government can help by working with the special envoy to call on the Houthis to show flexibility.
The outside world must remind the Houthis that all citizens have benefitted from the peace over the past year. Any attempt to prevent oil and goods from arriving at the port of Hodeidah impacts on the already difficult humanitarian crisis. Food is becoming more expensive as it becomes even more scarce, and there is not enough equipment to keep hospitals and schools functioning. Only 48% of the aid needed through the 2022 Yemen humanitarian response plan has been funded so far. The Houthis must realise that working towards a long-term peace process will help that and is in everybody’s interest.
Politically, the Presidential Leadership Council under President al-Alimi has unified the resistance to the Houthis. The Southern Transitional Council is the most well-known group, so we should recognise the role of Mr al-Zubaidi and, just as importantly, the other members —Tareq Saleh, Abdullah al-Alimi Bawazeer, Sultan al-Arada from Marib, General al-Bahsani, Othman Majali and Abu Zara’a al-Muharrami for their contribution to leading the council. However, the situation with the PLC is delicate, and support from the international community is vital to maintain its credibility.
I do not think it is for us to determine the future of Yemen. It is up to the people to decide what they would like to do through the negotiations, so I would not dream of putting what I think on to what they are going to decide. That is very important, as I mentioned at the beginning. We cannot apply our western-centric views to what is going on in Yemen. If the people decide that they want to divide as they used to be, that is fair enough, but I do not think we should be talking about that at the moment—
Does the hon. Lady recognise that there is considerable demand in southern Yemen for a degree of self-determination, if not independence, and that that is very much recognised by the south Yemeni diaspora here in the UK? This is not about us pressing for that as colonialists; it is very much a local demand.
Thank you, Mr Davies.
It is all very well for people in the UK to say that that is what should happen, but the country has been divided before. It came back together and started to have a Government who, unfortunately, were not run properly. Unifying the country could happen again, but if it is the will of the people of Yemen to divide again, we must accept that. It is up to the people of Yemen who are living there and those who are running the Government, who are beginning to run it with a lot of credibility. We have to wait for that to settle down.
The special envoy and other allies must also make clear that help and aid will come if the Government of Yemen take the opportunity to move on from their former position under President Hadi. Any weakness will be exploited by the Houthis and delay any future peace process. The UN special envoy has been tireless in his diplomatic efforts, and has been asking for a new six-month truce to allow time for negotiations for a formal ceasefire, the resumption of an inclusive political process, and talks on wider economic issues. We must help to make those things happen. On the humanitarian angle, Joyce Cleopa Msuya, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, has spent time in Yemen, helping the 4.3 million people who have been internally displaced since the start of the war in 2015. Her role can also help to encourage negotiations, showing that peace brings dividends. Mine clearance needs to be a priority, as mines are presently being washed into farm fields.
Before the civil war, 45% of the population of Yemen lived below the poverty line; that figure is now around 90%. Today, 24 million people are in danger of famine, of whom 14 million are at acute risk, and 2 million children are at risk of starvation. Huge parts of the population are being sustained by relief efforts. The UK has always been one of the leading donors supporting Yemen, providing more than £1 billion of aid during the conflict, and many British non-governmental organisations have been doing fantastic work. However, we must recognise that the Yemeni economy will need considerable help and support even after a return to peace.
Yemen is facing huge challenges from climate change, with near-constant drought and desertification of agricultural areas. Since the start of the war, the population of Yemen has doubled, but GDP per head has more than halved. There is a need to rebuild Yemeni society on an equal and fair basis, which includes the promotion of women’s rights. Lastly, there is the threat of an environmental disaster from the oil tanker FSO Safer, moored off the coast of Hodeidah. I have been raising awareness in Parliament about that potential catastrophe for many years. I am pleased that the UN has now raised enough money to start transferring the oil to a temporary vessel, but I have an immediate ask of the Government: that they work with our partners to make sure that transfer is completed as soon as possible, and to secure a safe disposal of the Safer. If that is not done, there is a risk of environmental damage to the whole of the Red sea for decades.
This war has gone on for too long, and too many people have died or been displaced. I urge the UK Government to work tirelessly with all parties and bring peace to a region that deserves it. The British Council is already working in the north and the south; there is a huge demand for English teaching and transferrable skills in Yemen. Our soft power influences can be a big help to Yemen in its post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation. That is important, because there is a compelling geopolitical reason why the west must help the people of Yemen: China or Russia, for example, could fill the vacuum, which could be disastrous for the region’s security. Our support for people in crisis in the world, helping them to build stable and fair regimes, is an investment in our own security as well as theirs. If we can achieve that, then perhaps I, the right hon. Member for Walsall South, and many Yemenis displaced around the world can one day safely return.
It is a pleasure to serve with you as Chair, Mr Davies, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) for suggesting this debate. We both went along to the Backbench Business Committee and were able to pitch the debate, because—like my brother and my sister—she and I were born in Aden, and we did say we wanted to go back and visit it in all its beauty. I left when I was 10 years old, so I do remember quite a lot of it. It is important that the Backbench Business Committee has granted us this debate at this time, because amid the millions of ongoing problems and crises that are going on around the world today, the prolonged conflict in Yemen has been forgotten.
We wanted to draw the House’s attention to the dreadful state of affairs in Yemen, which has already been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley and which we cannot simply stand by and watch from the sidelines. We are a great nation and we have always stood up against what is wrong in this world—we were the framers of the European convention on human rights—and we owe that to the thousands of innocent people who are dying in Yemen.
I will set out the background to the conflict. It has been eight years in the making, which is almost as long as the time I spent in Yemen. The eight-year-old conflict in Yemen is between the internationally recognised Government, who are backed by the Saudi-led military coalition, and Houthi rebels, who are supported by Iran.
After almost a decade of this prolonged conflict, the parties involved are far from reaching a peaceful solution. The failure in October 2022 to renew the ceasefire agreements is alarming and disturbing. But it is good that there was a ceasefire. The peace efforts gained some momentum in April, when Yemen's new governing council helped to consolidate anti-Houthi forces, a move that could set the stage for inclusive negotiations. The first nationwide ceasefire in years allowed commercial flights to resume from Sanaa and some fuel ships to dock in Hodeidah.
After six months of relative peace, however, the parties failed to renew the ceasefire agreements. Both the Yemeni Government and the Houthis have blamed each other for the disintegration of the deal, which has led them back to heavy fighting and plunged Yemen into a full-scale crisis.
I will outline some really upsetting and disturbing statistics, which my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley has already touched on. The United Nations Development Programme estimates that more than 370,000 people have died as a result of this war, with indirect causes, such as lack of food, water and health services, causing almost 60% of those deaths. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, three out of four Yemenis require humanitarian aid and protection and 4 million are internally displaced. Five million are at risk of famine and the cholera outbreak has affected over 1 million people. Fewer than half of the health facilities in Yemen are functioning, and many that are operational do not have even the basic equipment they need. Some health workers have not even been paid their salaries. In March, about 17.4 million people were in need of food assistance, with a growing proportion of the population having to cope with emergency levels of hunger. The conflict’s death-toll has been growing.
This is an urgent humanitarian situation, because the crisis in Yemen is exacerbated by the effect of the war on the humanitarian footprint and thousands of innocent people. An economic crisis continues to compound the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen. In autumn last year, the sharp depreciation of Yemen’s currency significantly reduced people’s purchasing power, so it was more difficult for them to purchase even the basic necessities, taking them even further out of reach. With around three quarters of Yemen’s population living in poverty, disease is rampant and of course the pandemic made matters worse.
This beautiful country is being destroyed and fragmented, town by town, street by street, and house by house. We are in the midst of a terrible war in Yemen and the humanitarian impact of this war on the Yemeni people, especially women and children, is painful for us to watch as silent bystanders.
So how can we go forward? The UN-backed peace negotiations have made limited progress. I, too, want to acknowledge the incredible work of Hans Grundberg, the UN’s special envoy of the Secretary-General to Yemen. He is looking at de-escalating mechanisms through the military co-ordinating committee, turning swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. And of course I also acknowledge Martin Griffiths for his work on the Stockholm agreement.
The regional conflicts and tensions among the actors involved have simply turned this crisis into a prolonged war. All the actors involved seem to be wedded to a military solution, but war can never be a solution for the millions of people who are suffering.
I have a series of questions for the Minister. Will he pursue every effort for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen, as well as for the implementation of the Stockholm agreement? Will he look at establishing a new international accountability mechanism for Yemen? The existing mechanism is simply not enough. We need independent reporting on war crimes. Will the Minister, as the UK penholder, consider drafting an appropriate resolution immediately that moves the country on to a peace process? We have done it in Northern Ireland. There are people who can facilitate a peace process. Even today, there is peace negotiated in Ethiopia.
We cannot stand by and watch the destruction of a country and the death of so many innocent civilians. The situation in Yemen is tragic and heartbreaking. The war and the stalemate have led to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, because of widespread hunger, disease and attacks on innocent civilians. The country is burning and the people are suffering. I know we have our own problems to deal with here, but ignoring this massive crisis is a disgrace to humanity.
It is a real pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. Yemen is important to us, and I want to concentrate on why that is. The south-eastern end of the Arabian peninsula was once crucial to the functioning of the British empire. A settlement in Aden was occupied by Royal Marines in 1839. It became a bunkering port for passing ships on the way to India. After the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, Aden became vital as a staging post for ships going to and from India and the far east. When oil replaced coal as the main fuel for ships, the importance of Aden was reinforced, particularly as it is so close to the middle-eastern oil fields. Unsurprisingly, BP built a rather large facility there.
As time passed, Aden and its hinterland became a formal part of the British empire, the Aden protectorate. That was the southern bit, as my two lady friends, my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), will recall, although they were still in nappies when I was running around there—I am old, in other words. I have lost my place now.
Yes, we have reminisced a lot together about what a lovely country it was. It was wonderful for me that there were so many different nationalities there; I was taught by Italian nuns and had Greek friends. There were people from Goa, and all sorts of other people, including of course the Arabs, with their brilliant hospitality. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that we need to restore that beautiful country.
I thank the right hon. Lady, whom I call a good friend, although she is not formally meant to be a friend; technically, she is not a friend, but she really is a friend. I have been able to find my place now—thank you.
The colony of Aden consisted of 23 sultanates when we were there. There were emirates, sultanates and several independent tribes. All this was run from London and controlled by the British Government, although not completely. In the 1950s, when I was there, some tribes were in open rebellion against British authority, which led to a protracted insurrection that we all remember. Well, others might not remember it as much as I do.
In 1967, the United Kingdom had enough. Aden was given independence as South Yemen, and British forces withdrew. The Aden protectorate was renamed the People’s Republic of South Yemen. The Yemen Arab Republic was to its north—that is the division we were talking about. In 1990, north and south joined to become Yemen.
My particular interest in Yemen comes from the fact that as a child I lived there from 1953 to 1957. I was there because my father served there, like the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley. My father was a company commander in the 1st Battalion of the Aden Protectorate Levies, charged with keeping order “up-country”, as we called it. He was always away, and I never really saw him. He was always on operations, and there was pretty fierce fighting. In 1955, he was awarded the Military Cross.
Since 1990, Yemen has gone from bad to worse. It is such a dangerous place that it would be utterly foolhardy for foreigners to go there without protection. We have already identified how poor the country is; it is actually very poor. It is the poorest country in the middle east and a very fragile state. Yemen has essentially become a cockpit where some would say the two main branches of Islam are fighting tooth and nail by proxy. The official Government of Yemen are now backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan, the Gulf states and, through them, us as their allies, and the United States. The rebels are mainly from the northern Shi’a Houthi grouping, who, I seem to recall, used to take great delight in shooting at my father in the 1950s.
Forgive me if I got that wrong; I am perfectly willing to be corrected. To complicate the situation further, al-Qaeda has turned up. Perhaps the most dangerous of the al-Qaeda factions is in Yemen. Just to make the problem even more difficult, so-called Islamic State is present as well, or Daesh, as I might prefer to call them. That is a very rude word in Arabic, and I will not explain what it means, but frankly it is correct.
We have a responsibility here, because we drafted the original UN Security Council resolution 2216 in April 2015, which demanded that the Houthis withdraw from all their seized areas and relinquish all seized arms. We established an arms embargo against the Houthis and the forces loyal to the former president. Security Council resolution 2216 was passed unanimously. The five permanent members of the Security Council must agree it; otherwise it does not pass. In this case, four did. Russia did not, but it abstained, which under the rules allowed the resolution to pass, so it passed unopposed. United Nations action on the ground has not been very effective, but that does not stop leaders of the United Nations doing their very best to try to sort out the situation.
There remains little access to large parts of Yemen, but I am pleased that the UK provides so much aid. Are we the fourth or the second-largest provider of aid to Yemen?
We are second. Aid must get through. We have mentioned people starving and a lack of medical supplies, but all I can remember about Aden is how little water there was there. Water is crucial—good clean water. Certainly, in the early days, some of the Saudi-led airstrikes went wrong, and they have clearly killed innocent people. However, in 2016, when I visited the Riyadh air operations centre, which controls all operations, I was impressed by the attitude of the air controllers and the coalition pilots to what ex-military people like me call weapons release. From what I saw, they were doing their very best then, and have done since, to avoid civilian casualties. Indeed, I heard real evidence that they often returned with full bomb loads. They were not positive that they would not hurt people, so they did not have weapons release.
The Gulf Co-operation Council and Saudi Arabia are very close allies of our country. We must be quite clear that, regardless of its mistakes, the Saudi-led coalition is operating under the authority of a unanimously adopted Security Council resolution. It is acting for the Security Council. It is acting for the forum of the world. It is doing the work on the ground in response to the Government of the world, if one wants to think of the United Nations like that. After all, the usurpation of power in Yemen was illegal. The Government of Yemen are a legal Government. We do well to remember that. It is far too easy for us to sit here and castigate what our allies do sometimes. The Saudi-led coalition is doing its very best to implement international law and the Security Council resolution that we, the British, drafted.
Obviously, everyone here realises that the only way ahead for Yemen is a political solution. That solution must obviously involve the United Nations. I suspect that it has to involve countries such as ourselves, other Arab countries and the United States. Perhaps, dare I suggest, it has to include Iran.
According to the United Nations, as we have heard, 150,000 people have been killed in the war in Yemen, and that does not include the 227,000 who died as a result of famine. I cannot believe that people in this world are dying because they do not have enough food. That is appalling. It is something that, as human beings, we have a real responsibility to sort out. Lack of food, kids dying—it is just dreadful. The lack of healthcare facilities just piles it on, too.
I should stop shortly, because others want to speak, but I hope that I have emphasised that we, the British, have a responsibility for action in Yemen. I know that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is acutely aware of the United Kingdom’s long-standing concern about what has happened in the country, and that the issue is not on the backburner. It is very difficult to sort this one out, but surely a world that can land a spacecraft on a flipping comet can find a way to stop Yemen going through the bloody awful hell that it is enduring.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for putting the debate together. It is of huge importance, and good to hear of the fond memories that they, and certainly the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), have of the place where they spent part of their lives. I gained my information on this subject over almost 40-odd years. My father had a friend called Said Abdi who came from Yemen. He would tell us about the issues and what was going on there. He was a Labour councillor, and he introduced me to the Labour party, so I have a lot to thank him for.
As has been said, significant human rights abuses have taken place in Yemen. There has been huge, indiscriminate mining of the ports by the Houthis, and they have recruited young people as soldiers. That is inhumane and barbaric. As the right hon. Member for Beckenham said, there have been issues and mistakes made in some of the military attacks by the coalition, but there have also been huge sacrifices, particularly by the UAE. It lost over 150 soldiers in an ambush on its camp; we have to recognise that. That is a huge tragedy, but the biggest tragedy is for those people in Yemen whose children are starving, and who have all sorts of diseases that we would not expect people to have in this day and age. It has been a sorry state of affairs for the whole country. What is essentially a proxy war should not affect the people of Yemen, but it is being played out by people from a different arena using Yemen as a base.
My concern—it was raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar), who is not in his place—is about south Yemen. We have a group of people who can, in this difficult situation, make at least some things work. On the negotiations, I am not advocating a partitioned country; I am saying that there should be support given to people to manage their own affairs regionally. That would not only give some stability to the region, but get the peace process moving, because we could see elements of peace there. It is no secret that the interference—the supply of arms—has predominately been by Iran. The only way we will get the peace process moving is by engaging people and getting them together to understand what the conflict is about.
The United Nations is producing a report, and has been involved for a long time, but that work needs to be reinforced with more robust reporting about what is going on, and that reporting needs to consider people’s actual position. It needs to consider all of Yemen, but particularly south Yemen. We need to make progress, and we can only do that by trying to resolve at least an element of the problem, and seeing how we can move forward. Considering the time, I will stop, but it is important for the Minister to look at how we can get the peace negotiations going and engage with the south.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) for bringing forward this important debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. We are debating the peace process in Yemen, but the brutal fact is that before the UK can make any meaningful contribution to any peace process in Yemen, the Government need to make up their mind what their position and intentions are towards Yemen and the horrific situation there. The Government are wringing their hands about the deliberate killing, widespread rape and intentional starvation of millions of people—there are more than 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and 4 million displaced—while knowingly fuelling the emergency by refusing to ban arms sales to one of the main actors in that brutality, with the ridiculous excuse that there is “no clear risk” that weapons sold to one of the main aggressors against civilians in Yemen might be used on civilians in Yemen.
UK-produced weapons make up around 20% of Saudi arms purchases. Even the US Government, which made up most of the rest of the Saudi arms supply, has now decided to pause its weapons sales to the country and has gone as far as to reset its military relationship. At the same time, we have the UK acting as penholder for Yemen on the United Nations Security Council, supposedly taking the lead on the Council’s activities and resolutions regarding Yemen. The UK Government do not just wring their hands about the emergency that they help to fuel; they lead the international hand wringing.
The penholding has done nothing practical to improve the situation for Yemeni civilians. Instead, earlier this year the UN decided to shut down its investigation into war crimes in Yemen, apparently under pressure from the Saudi Government—a lack of oversight that observers say has seen an acceleration in the rate of atrocities committed as perpetrators feel able to act without scrutiny, let alone consequences. The UN’s abdication of its role in Yemen mirrors the UK’s two-faced stance, and makes it all the more urgent that the UK finally acts in a manner consistent with its expressed concerns about all the horrors taking place in Yemen.
Ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia is the obvious first step if our Government are serious about the UK’s role in helping to end the mass murders, rapes and starvation. But it must not end there. The UK must also use its penholder role to—
I think our responsibility is to work towards peace, and we need to focus our efforts on ending the arms sales that rain bombs down on the Yemeni people.
The UK must use its penholder role to push the UN into restoring its mandate for war crimes investigation immediately to ensure that those who carry out those crimes are identified and held to account. The horrific situation in Yemen demands nothing less than a concerted and consistent political stance and a matching push for action. Instead of turning a blind eye while companies profiteer from the horror, the Government must step up now.
I give special thanks to the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and the hon Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). I think they both set the scene very well for a subject we are terribly interested in.
I have an incredible friendship with the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), but I might have to disagree with him on one small point. I want to set this out at the beginning to have it out of the way: I believe that Saudi Arabia does stand condemned in the courts of this world for its bombing of innocent women and children. It cannot be ignored. I want to put that on record. At the same time, the right hon. Gentleman is right that when it comes to the issues of sexual abuse, murder, arrests and intimidation, that is clearly down to the Houthis. I have expressed my deep concerns about the unholy alliance between Iran and the Houthis, which disturbs me greatly, as it disturbs peace in the middle east and across the whole world.
I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary groups for international freedom of religion or belief and for the Pakistani minorities. There are many issues in this debate, but I want to focus on one issue. Being chair of those APPGs gives me a deep interest in the issue of persecution. Recent FCDO reports on Yemen have stressed abuses occurring such as arbitrary arrests, the mistreatment of journalists, sexual violence against women and children and the persecution of religious minorities. It is the ordeal facing religious minorities that I want to focus on today. These are the stories we are getting back from Yemen. I want to focus on that specifically, as everyone else has done a marvellous job of highlighting the issues from different perspectives. It is important we do so.
When the ceasefire came into force in Yemen this April and was later extended, a glimpse of peace seemed visible on the horizon. We all hoped it would last longer than six months, as the right hon. Member for Walsall South referred to. A glimpse of peace was visible for a short period. However, regrettably, such ceasefires do not translate into an improvement for Yemeni Christians in particular. An Open Doors analyst for Yemen observed that:
“Christians with a Muslim background seeking emergency supplies are vulnerable to discrimination and mistreatment, if their faith is known…Their names can be removed from distribution lists, especially if help is being given out through local mosques where it can be checked whether someone is a good Muslim or not, based on mosque attendance.”
With all the terrible things people have said for the Yemeni people themselves, it is even worse for Christians. It poses a serious risk to the majority of Christians in Yemen, as 95% of them are converts from Islam.
The situation also raises grave concerns about the fair distribution of humanitarian aid reaching Yemenis. We all want to see more of that, but it has to be fair and equal for everyone. A lack of freedom of religion or belief for converts should not be dismissed in the name of humanitarian disaster. It has to be equal in its distribution. At this moment in time, it is not. Of course, the crisis facing Yemen is manifold and complex, but one human rights issue should not be neglected for the sake of others, particularly as research shows that where freedom of religion or belief is protected, other human rights conditions tend to improve as well. I have always believed strongly that religious belief—whatever that belief is—of ethnic groups and human rights march hand in hand together. They cannot be separated as different things —they are one.
Suspended fighting in Yemen can, in short, mean little tangible improvement for Christians as the humanitarian crisis looms, but the staggering scale of humanitarian disaster should not lead to policy makers and authorities ignoring the plight of Yemen's religious minorities. Indeed, a report last year by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented some of the awful disregard for religious minorities in Yemen, revealing that the conflict, which seems to many to be a Sunni-Shi’a divide, leaves no room whatever for people of other faiths. Experts found that Houthi leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi incited violence and discrimination against religious minorities for his own political and personal ends, including Baha’i and Jewish communities. In March, he said that the Christians, Jews and Baha’is
“don’t want to coexist…They want to take away the sovereignty of Islam.”
No, they do not; they just want the same rights, the same parity and the same equality as everyone else. They should never be treated differently just because they have a different view. I would say that if it were Muslims, because they should all have the same equality of treatment.
The report further documented practices designed by parties to the conflict to silence their perceived opponents or punish them for their religious beliefs and legitimise their power through the spread of fear. Like others, I speak on behalf of the Christians, Baha’is and Jews— on behalf of all the ethnic minorities that are being discriminated against by al-Houthi in Yemen.
Any peace process in Yemen must remember the country’s Christians and other religious minorities and ensure that solutions to the crisis, however temporary they may be, respect and protect the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief. As chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, I speak up for those of a Christian faith, those of other faiths and those with those with no faith because I believe that everyone should have the same equality. We do not see that in Yemen today.
Parties to the conflict must cease the arbitrary arrests and acts of harassment aimed at preventing the free exercise of those rights, including those directed at religious minorities and human rights defenders. We hear much about human rights defenders across the whole of the middle east. They play a very significant role, and they have been targeted too. We cannot wait until the humanitarian crisis is under control to protect those rights; they need to be safeguarded now.
Today, I just want to highlight the plight of the persecuted Christians and ethnic groups to all hon. Members and especially the Minister, for whom I have the greatest respect. I know that what I am saying is very close to his heart. I hope we can address this matter and see the plight of others in Yemen who are perhaps hidden. We want them to be treated equally and with parity, the same esteem, the same religious freedom and the same humanitarian aid. At this moment in time, they are not.
It is a pleasure to see you in your place, Mr Davies. It is a genuine pleasure to wind up for the SNP in this debate. We have heard some very thoughtful contributions. I warmly commend the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz)—the best part of Walsall, as I understand—for their very thoughtful contributions, and their empathy and good sense. I am struck by the sensitivity and humanity that we have heard from all points of the political compass.
I am glad that nobody fell into the trap of easy answers. As Members may be aware, the middle east is close to my heart. I grew up in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, and my parents have just retired back from Kuwait. My mother-in-law lived in Aden until 1967. My family has sand in our blood. In the middle east, everything is connected to everything else, and in Yemen more than elsewhere. We should beware easy answers; there is very little black and white in any of the middle east, and particularly in Yemen. I am glad that we have not had too many easy answers this afternoon.
I also agree with a thoughtful point by the hon. Member for Meon Valley, who said that this is primarily a civil war. I agree: to categorise it as a proxy war is slightly insulting to the Yemeni people. There are a number of real disputes going on in the Yemeni territory as it exists at the moment, but the tragedy is that we cannot deny the external aspects of prolonging the conflict. The UK has a case to answer in that. It is not an impartial bystander; it has chosen a side via its foreign policy.
A number of excellent points have been made. I will try to distil them down to a few questions and points from our perspective to the Minister—I welcome him to his place, and I look forward to working with him on this and other issues. The SNP will always be constructive where we can be. Our worldview is different from that of many of the other parties here, but on international affairs there is less opportunity for domestic point-scoring, and less need for it, given that every 10 minutes a child dies in Yemen. We need a common effort and to assist each other to find a resolution to the issue, so I will focus on peace, aid and arms in my remarks
The UK is the penholder on Yemen at the United Nations. Because of that and by dint of our history and connection to the region, we are in a position to assist with the problem. As the right hon. Member for Walsall South said, the Stockholm agreement is in the doldrums. In the view of the UK Government, does that remain the best mechanism to reboot the peace process? The UK is supporting the special representative, but what can be done to give added impetus to that process? Perhaps there is now an opportunity, given the good news from the African Union today about the situation in Ethiopia. Progress is possible, so there could be progress in Yemen if there were a new impetus.
On the accountability mechanisms, there have been war crimes on all sides. None of us should indulge in the idea that it is some sort of competition: there have been war crimes on all sides and there needs to be a proper accountability mechanism for war crimes committed by anybody. I would be glad to hear about support for the UK’s continuing efforts to properly investigate those crimes and bring the perpetrators before the International Criminal Court.
On aid, there is a clear distinction between the position of my party and that of the UK Government. We deplore the cut from 0.7% to much lower and we think that was badly timed. All the world was dealing with covid and the idea of covid being used as a pretext to cut aid is entirely wrong, but we lost that argument. I welcome the fact that in March 2022 the UK pledged £88 million in aid for Yemen, but that compares to the figure of £214 million in 2020-21. Surely the situation has not improved since then. We should consider providing far higher amounts of aid, particularly post-covid and given the impact of the war in Ukraine on grain supplies to the wider middle east and Yemen specifically. We would like to see much more aid because the humanitarian crisis is not getting better, and will get worse.
If we want to hear big numbers, the UK’s position on arms exports cannot be taken out of consideration. Since March 2015, the UK has sold £8.6 billion worth of arms, which is a significant sum. To be clear, I am not against the arms trade or arms companies, but I would like to see far higher standards to safeguard the use of those arms, particularly in such a complicated conflict as the one in Yemen. Will the Minister commit to suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia while there is a fuller investigation than we have seen to date? There is a case to answer. Will a wider and more comprehensive package of aid be brought back?
I am glad to wind up for the SNP in the debate. There are a number of points of agreement across the House. If the Minister takes steps towards a meaningful, durable peace in Yemen, he will have my full support.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, I believe for the first time. I welcome the Minister to his place, and I look forward to working with him on this and many other issues. I thank the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for securing this timely and important debate on the peace process in Yemen.
I believe the debate is important to raise awareness about the fragile political situation in Yemen and the ongoing humanitarian crisis. I welcome the opportunity to hear from the Government about what actions they are taking to help the people of Yemen. All of us, regardless of political party, are united in wanting to see a permanent ceasefire in Yemen and a political reconciliation between the warring factions. I and the Labour party believe that there is no military solution to the conflict and that inclusive political dialogue is the only route to a sustainable resolution.
The UK is the penholder on Yemen at the UN Security Council, which means the UK has the power to draft and table Security Council products on Yemen, including press statements, resolutions, presidential statements and more. Within the UN, the UK has the power to lead the way in efforts to forge a political, not military, solution to the conflict. It is important to consider that in our discussions about Yemen and about the actions the UK Government can take to help bring about a lasting peace. We need to focus on those efforts.
The relative calm brought about by the six-month truce has allowed some Yemenis to dream of a better future. It is therefore deeply disappointing that the truce came to an end last month, on 2 October, and that efforts to renew it have been unsuccessful so far. I will return to the truce and the prospects of its renewal in more depth, but first I want to outline the devastating impact of the war.
As hon. Member know, the conflict began in 2014 when the Iranian-aligned Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen, and later forced the Government into exile. In March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition, including the United Arab Emirates, began a military campaign, backing the internationally recognised Government. The toll of eight years of war on Yemen’s population has been extreme and the war has devastated the country. There have been thousands of civilian deaths, and the famine caused by the war has endangered millions of lives. Across Yemen, 16.2 million people—60% of the Yemeni population—continue to experience acute food insecurity. The UN has described the war in Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and it is estimated that 377,000 people have been killed or have died as a result of the war and the associated crises in basic food and other necessities.
Against this dire backdrop, the recently ended truce offered a beacon of hope and brought some welcome developments. Despite claims of violations by both sides, the truce brought about a sharp drop in fighting. Save the Children has calculated that the truce led to a 34% drop in child casualties and a 60% drop in the displacement of people. According to al-Jazeera, residents in Sanaa reported that their daily lives dramatically improved during the truce, and that prices came down as more essential goods entered the city. Evani Debone, a communications co-ordinator at the Adventist Development and Relief Agency Yemen, told al-Jazeera that the truce had given Yemenis hope for peace. She said:
“Children who go to school are not afraid of airplanes any more. Having the next generation of Yemen not being afraid and not running from the war, as well as having the right to live their lives again is the most important thing when we think about the truce.”
The truce established a partial opening of the Houthi-controlled Sanaa International airport and the key Houthi-held Red sea port of Hodeidah. During the truce, flights restarted at Sanaa International airport for the first time since 2016 and, according to the UN, fuel imports into the port of Hodeidah are calculated to have quadrupled during the truce, allowing people to regain some level of normality in their lives. The truce also called for the lifting of the Houthi blockade on Taiz, the country’s third largest city, but little progress was made there after talks aimed at reopening local roads stalled. Another sticking point was the funding of public employees, many of whom have not received salaries for years.
For now, it appears that some of the main gains of the truce, such as the increase in fuel shipments to Hodeidah and the resumption of flights to Sanaa International airport, have thankfully held. The ability to move freely from Sanaa International airport is particularly important because it means that tens of thousands of Yemenis have been able to visit loved ones and receive vital medical treatment during the truce. It is estimated that the opening of the airport allowed almost 27,000 Yemenis to get medical treatment overseas, and to pursue educational or business opportunities abroad.
I am sure everyone here agrees that the protection of measures that so improve the lives of ordinary Yemenis must be a priority. Although it appears that there has been no immediate major uptick in violence since the truce expired, the fear is that it will begin again. Two weeks ago UN special envoy Hans Grundberg told the Security Council that a “new uncertainty” and a “heightened risk of war” now prevailed across Yemen. Meanwhile, all sides in the conflict are blaming each other for the failure of the truce, but it is the ordinary people of Yemen who will suffer most if the violence begins again. However, UN special envoy Hans Grundberg has signalled that there is still cause for hope, telling the UN Security Council:
“It is important to remember that the truce was never intended as an end in itself, but as a building block to enhance trust between the parties”.
A truce is necessary in order to establish the kind of environment in which a political solution to the conflict can be reached. I have therefore been heartened that the special envoy has stated that he believes there is still a possibility for the parties to come to an agreement. It is vital that the UK Government and the whole international community do everything in their power to try to facilitate that. Re-establishing the truce would be a first step towards a durable peace. There is no doubt that it will take compromises and leadership from all sides.
To conclude, what specific steps are the Government taking to make the most of the UK’s penholder role in the UN in relation to re-establishing the truce in Yemen? Will the Minister tell us what the UK Government are doing to support the ongoing UN-led process to establish peace, and to encourage the negotiation of an enduring political settlement? It is vital that the Government do all they can to help end this brutal conflict and stop the suffering of the Yemeni people. For the people of Yemen, the stakes could not be higher.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) on securing the debate. She was an amazing Parliamentary Private Secretary when I served in the Department for Work and Pensions, and we worked well together. It is great to see her passion on this subject, just as it is to see the passion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz)—I call her my right hon. Friend because she is a friend, not an enemy—and my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart).
This is a really important debate, and it is good to hear about people’s family links. Indeed, it is wonderful to have received a bit of a history lesson from my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham, who spoke about his experience. He was very quick to talk about other people’s nappies, but he did not talk about his own, which I thought I would just mention gently. He talked about the complexities of the situation, and the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) clearly set out that there are real challenges to deal with.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley and the right hon. Member for Walsall South for securing the debate, for their incredible work in this area and for their keen interest in this subject. I also recognise the important comments made by my good friend, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He and I share a real passion for freedom of religion or belief with many other people in this room. He is a beacon on the subject and we treasure him greatly. For peace to be achieved Yemen, it needs all members of minority religions to be involved in the peace process, and the UN special envoy has been taking steps to ensure that the process is inclusive. No doubt the hon. Gentleman and I will speak more on that subject, as we always do.
Yesterday marked seven months since the UN successfully brokered a truce between the warring parties in Yemen. The truce has allowed Yemenis to live more safely and travel more freely than at any time since the war began, and has delivered many tangible benefits for the Yemeni people. As Members have mentioned, the reopening of Sanaa airport has enabled 60 commercial flights, allowing Yemenis to reunite with loved ones and seek urgent medical treatment abroad. The reopening of Hodeidah port has enabled oil to flow into the country, allowing public services to restart and bringing down the towering oil prices that made it entirely unaffordable for most people. Cross-border attacks, such as those on the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in January, have ceased.
It is therefore deeply disappointing that the Houthis refused to agree to an extension to the truce on 2 October. By introducing new demands at the last minute and maintaining a maximalist negotiating stance, the Houthis jeopardised the progress enjoyed by the Yemeni people under the truce. They have also threatened to dismantle what has been built over the past seven months. The Houthi attack on the Nissos Kea tanker in the southern port of Ash Shihr a fortnight ago posed a serious threat to stability, and the UK Government condemned the attack and the way it threatened the peace process. It will push up the price of essentials for Yemenis. However, we are encouraged that, at least for now, the door for extending the truce remains open, and the parties have not returned to full conflict.
I was remiss in not welcoming the Minister to his place. He has been a great colleague; I worked with him when I was shadow Leader of the House and he was a Whip, and he is amazing. I will speak about freedom of religion. My first communion and confirmation were all held in a church in Maala, and we had all of our confirmations at Steamer Point. My mother used to sing in the church choir, so my whole life was filled with music and going to church early in the morning. The Minister mentioned the peace process and said that there is room for hope. As the penholder, is he prepared to host a peace conference, as we did previously, to try to get aid to Yemen? Is he prepared to host that peace conference here, to bring all the parties together?
I thank the right hon. Member for her comments and her sincerity. This is not my brief, but Lord Ahmad’s, so he will respond to that point in due course. Without going as far as committing to what she suggested, I will come to what we are doing to facilitate and move forward with a political settlement.
The UK Government remain one of the principal supporters of UN-led efforts to end the conflict, and continue to play a leading role in moving the peace process forward. The Foreign Secretary, in his previous role as Middle East Minister, met UN special envoy Hans Grundberg in January. He offered the UK’s continued support for the work to bring the parties to the negotiating table, and to extend and expand the truce to convert it to a longer-term ceasefire agreement, which the right hon. Member for Walsall South included in her asks. We are working on those issues. Our excellent diplomats and experts continue to deliver on that pledge, working with countries in the region and the wider international community to bring about peace and alleviate humanitarian suffering. In January and July we convened Quint meetings relating to Yemen with the US and regional partners, to back the UN plan.
The hon. Member for Stirling mentioned the importance of the Stockholm agreement and its three main components, and we agree with him. It sets a solid foundation, covering key areas. The UN is taking forward a comprehensive political settlement that addresses the full suite of issues that are important to the parties and to the Yemeni people. We continue to use our role as penholder on Yemen in the UN Security Council to push for a lasting political resolution to the conflict. Resolution 2216 should be replaced when there is real consensus on a political settlement, and the UK stands ready to support the negotiation of a new resolution on ending Yemen’s war when the time is right. We have provided expert advice to underpin the technical aspects of the truce, and to support the longer-term economic, security and political vision for the country.
The UK has long upheld the position that any peace process and subsequent settlement should be Yemeni led, which was an important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley. We recognise the need for that process to be inclusive and involve marginalised groups, which we talked about under the auspices of freedom of religion and belief. We commend the UN special envoy’s approach to his consultations with the parties in March 2022, which involved a wide range of Yemenis.
To support the UN’s efforts to deliver a durable and sustainable peace deal, we have backed a range of grassroots initiatives that engage civil society and local groups through our conflict, stability and security fund. In April, we welcomed the establishment of the Presidential Leadership Council in Yemen. Along with my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley, I reiterate the UK’s strong support for the council and its eight members: President Rashad al-Alimi, Sultan Ali al-Arada, Faraj Salmin al-Buhsani, Abdullah al-Alimi Bawazeer, Othman Hussein Megali, Tariq Saleh, Abed al-Rahman Abu Zara’a, and Aidarous al-Zubaidi. We praise the strong and magnanimous leadership of the PLC. That leadership sustained the truce for six months and, since its expiry, has kept the door open for an extension. United, they will play a vital role in a Yemeni-led path to a political settlement—the outcome that all Members present actively strive for.
A number of points have been raised during the debate; I will answer those that I can. Concerns were raised by the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Mahmood) about the Iranian involvement in Yemen. The UK is deeply concerned by Iran’s destabilising interference in Yemen and the region. We know that Iran’s sustained material support for the Houthis has stoked further conflict and undermined the UN-led peace efforts. It is vital that Yemen is not used as a theatre in which to escalate the conflict in the region. The right hon. Member for Warley and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr also talked about the issue of southern Yemen. The governance arrangements for southern Yemen are ultimately a question for the people of Yemen themselves; the UK position, and that of the UN Security Council, is to support the unity, sovereignty and independence of Yemen. That is why the UK supports an inclusive peace process.
My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley talked about external influences from China and Russia in Yemen. I note, though, that the five permanent members of the Security Council have remained relatively united on Yemen—more so than in other conflict areas. We know well that Chinese and Russian support for the peace process is highly valued by the UN special envoy. Ultimately, we share the goal of sustainable peace in Yemen and will continue to work together to that end.
The right hon. Member for Walsall South characteristically made some demands and asks—she is a demanding person, but in a nice way and for good reason. We regret that the mandate of the group of eminent experts on Yemen has not been renewed. The UK voted in favour of that resolution, and spoke in support of it during the voting. We are concerned about reports of serious and wide-ranging human rights violations and abuses by parties to the conflict. That group had a crucial role to play in providing ongoing reporting on the actions of parties, and we continue to urge the parties involved to investigate those allegations, and take action to promote and protect human rights. We advocate for the establishment of an equivalent mechanism—Lord Ahmad will give further detail in writing to the right hon. Member.
Questions were raised about arms sales. I reassure Members that the UK takes its export responsibilities extremely seriously, and assesses all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria. We will not issue any export licence if to do so would be inconsistent with our export licensing criteria, including respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. In response to concerns raised by the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe), I highlight that the UK regularly raises with Saudi Arabia, including at senior levels, the importance of international humanitarian law, and conducting thorough and conclusive investigations into alleged violations.
Political progress is essential for the permanent alleviation of the immense humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people. We continue to be a major donor to the UN-led response, and have contributed over £1 billion since the conflict began. Yemen is a clear humanitarian priority for the UK. We have supported millions of vulnerable Yemenis with food, clean water and healthcare, and will continue to do so. Our support to UNICEF has already provided 182,000 children and caregivers with mental health and psychosocial support, and we intend to reach another 30,000 by March 2023.
It is worth mentioning that the British Council continues to have a positive impact on thousands of Yemenis. Since 2015, close to 1,000 teachers and over 300 school leaders have taken part in British Council core transferable skills training, which has enhanced the learning experience of over 160,000 students in Yemen.
My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley raised the issue of the Safer tanker. This year, UK financial and technical support also went towards addressing the threat posed by the tanker, which she clearly highlighted. The decaying vessel is at imminent risk of a major leak, which would be four times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill, and would devastate Red sea marine life, destroy livelihoods dependent on fisheries, and worsen an already critical humanitarian situation in Yemen. UK expertise brought the issue to international attention, and British firms are working with the UN on mitigation. Our £6 million contribution helped the UN to reach the threshold to begin the operation. That demonstrates how the UK is supporting Yemen in achieving the economic and environmental security that is critical for its future prosperity.
In conclusion, it is good to see that the situation in Yemen is more positive than in February. There has been considerable progress, which has delivered a truce and has the potential to lead to a permanent resolution to the conflict. However, we must also recognise that this opportunity is fragile and must be grasped by all involved. An inclusive and comprehensive political settlement under the auspices of the UN is the only way to secure enduring peace for Yemeni people and the region. The UK Government will continue to do all we can to bring about peace and a brighter future for all the people in Yemen. The Yemeni people deserve nothing less.
Thank you very much for chairing the debate, Mr Davies. I thank the Minister for his encouraging remarks, and all hon. Members for their contributions.
The war started as an internal civil war. It has gone on far too long and has brought in other state actors. We need every party to get together, in a bottom-up, not top-down, way that encourages every community and tribe to get involved. We need a new peace process, and we need it fast. I thank everybody, but I especially thank my friend, the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), for securing the debate with me; shukran.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the peace process in Yemen.