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I hope you will indulge me for just one moment, Mr Speaker, while I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Alistair Burt, who has left office and, in a normal state of affairs, would have been answering this question. He is a very old friend of mine. We have shared offices not just in the Foreign Office but in Portcullis House. I know that he will make a great contribution to international affairs and elsewhere, not least in the middle east, in the rest of his time in Parliament.
Today is the fourth anniversary of the intervention by the Saudi-led coalition into the conflict in Yemen, at the invitation of the Government of Yemen, which began when the Houthi rebels captured most of the capital, Sana’a, and expelled the internationally recognised Government. Since then, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, the largest in the world, has continued to worsen, as many hon. and right hon. Members know. We call on both sides urgently to implement the agreements made at the Stockholm peace talks and bring an end to this dire conflict.
The United Kingdom is at the forefront of work towards a political solution to this conflict—there can only be a political solution, in the long term—and we will continue to show leadership as part of international efforts to end the appalling suffering that millions are facing. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited the region at the beginning of the month in a display of the UK’s support for efforts to secure peace. During this time, he visited the port city of Aden, becoming the first western Foreign Minister to visit Yemen since the conflict began. He also attended the peace talks in Stockholm last December. This year—the tax year 2019-20—we have committed an additional £200 million of UK aid, bringing our total commitment to over £770 million since the conflict began. This support will save, and indeed is saving, lives by meeting the immediate food needs of more than 1 million Yemenis each and every month of the year, treating 30,000 children for malnutrition, and providing more than 1 million people with improved water supply and basic sanitation.
The UK continues to support the work of the UN, and the UK-led UN Security Council resolutions 2451 and 2452 were unanimously approved by the Security Council in December 2018 and January 2019 respectively. Those resolutions enshrined the agreements made in Stockholm and authorised the deployment of monitors within the UN Mission to Support the Hodeidah Agreement, thus bolstering the peace process further. We believe that the Stockholm conference was a landmark point, as the first time that the parties had come to the negotiating table in over two years, but we all know that there is a serious risk that this window of opportunity to make progress towards lasting peace may slip away. The UK therefore urges both sides to act in good faith, to co-operate with the UN special envoy and General Lollesgaard, and to implement the Stockholm agreements rapidly. We have been clear that a political settlement is the one and only way to bring about long-term stability in Yemen and to address the worsening humanitarian crisis. We shall continue to make every effort to support the UN-led process to get to the solution that so many Yemeni civilians so desperately require.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
Let me begin by completely agreeing with the Minister about the terrible loss from the Foreign Office Front-Bench team of Alistair Burt, who might well have been answering this question today were it not for his decision on a matter of principle. Labour Members applaud the right hon. Gentleman for that today, as we do the equally principled stance taken by the Minister for Asia and the Pacific. We will miss both the substance and the tone that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to our debates from the Front Bench over the past two years.
Unfortunately, however, the former Minister is one of several Foreign Office and Defence Ministers who have told us repeatedly from the Dispatch Box, in written answers and in evidence to Committees that Britain is not a party to the conflict in Yemen. Most crucially, for the past three years, that phrase has been used time and again by Ministers to explain that it is impossible to assess alleged individual violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen because we are not a party to the conflict. Yet this weekend we read reports in The Mail on Sunday that members of British special forces had been engaged in gun battles with the Houthi rebels in Yemen while providing support to the coalition forces.
I am not for a second expecting the Minister of State to comment on the activities of our special forces—something that the Government never do—but I want to ask him two important questions of principle. First, in the light of these reports, do the Government still stand by their long-standing statements that Britain is not a party to this conflict? We already know about our support for the Saudi air force and our supply of billions in arms for the Saudi coalition. If, in addition to all that, our forces are engaged in actual gun battles with the Houthi rebels and that does not constitute being a party to the conflict, I really do not know what does.
The second question of principle is this. It is an equally long-standing position of the Government that there is no military solution to this conflict. Indeed, the Minister has reaffirmed that today. So I simply ask this: why, if these reports are accurate, are British forces being put in harm’s way trying to deliver that military solution?
Finally, there was one especially disturbing allegation in The Mail on Sunday report that our forces are providing support to locally recruited, Saudi-funded militia and that many of the fighters—up to 40%, it was alleged—are children as young as 13 years old. Is that in any way true? If it is, that would confirm that our forces are not just a party to this conflict but witnesses to war crimes.
I thank the right hon. Lady for the tone of her contribution. She will appreciate—indeed, she expressly appreciated—that in relation to special forces we do not comment either to confirm or deny any involvement. Clearly, she is well aware that we have liaison officers who are based in Saudi Arabia, and have been routinely. I am very keen not in any way inadvertently to mislead the House on this matter, and therefore I will, if she will forgive me, ensure that she has a written response, liaising with the Ministry of Defence, about the issue of other engagement or involvement of British personnel in Yemen at the moment. We still hold to the firm view that we are not a party to the conflict. Clearly, we are supportive of Saudi Arabia, which has been a long-standing ally, as she is aware. There is no military solution to this matter.
I have never been to Yemen myself, but my late father’s first engagement out of Sandhurst was in Aden, in a different time. He had the fondest of memories, as indeed many people living in that country have of this country. That is why we have been a pen-holder at the UN Security Council.
I have also, of course, read the article in The Mail on Sunday, if perhaps slightly later than the right hon. Lady did—only this morning. It makes some very serious allegations. I am keen that we get to the bottom of those allegations. Again, I am very keen not in any way to mislead the House, but allegations made in relation to any engagement that involves bringing child soldiers on board would be appalling. I very much hope that the journalist will be in a position, within the sources that he can reveal, to make it clear what knowledge he had on the ground. Clearly, that will be investigated as a matter of urgency.
Order. I am very much hoping to move on no later than 1.30 pm, so brief questions and answers would be greatly appreciated.
The whole House will be grateful for the words of the Minister and the shadow Foreign Secretary about my right hon. Friend Alistair Burt. I have worked with him on international development matters for the last 14 years, and the Government can ill afford to lose such a capable Minister at a time like this.
The welcome change of direction on Yemen that the new Foreign Secretary has ushered in is greatly to be applauded, but there were exceedingly serious, credible and authoritative allegations in the Sunday media that serving British military personnel have been seriously wounded in operations in Yemen. That flies in the face of assurances given from the Dispatch Box on countless occasions, including in emergency debates that you have authorised, Mr Speaker. I tabled a number of questions last night to the Ministry of Defence, and were it not for the all-consuming nature of Brexit, I suspect the House would want to explore this as a matter of urgency.
I thank my right hon. Friend. I know he has a long-standing interest in this issue, not least the humanitarian aspect, from his time as International Development Secretary. He is right; these are very serious allegations, and I am keen that I do not inadvertently give reassurances on the Floor of the House that could turn out not to be the case. We need to have an internal investigation. I will perhaps take this up in writing with him, but I suspect that we will come back to this issue on the Floor of the House before too long.
In the deepening humanitarian crisis, some aid agencies are saying that they cannot now work around Hodeidah, and the cholera crisis is spiralling out of control. How are we using our influence? We have been told that the Government are using their influence through arms sales. What influence has £4.6 billion-worth of arms sales delivered in? The Minister said in response to the shadow Foreign Secretary, on the subject of the Mail on Sunday allegations, that
“we are not a party” to the conflict, but “we are supportive”. Can he give more detail about what the difference is? What advice is the Foreign Office giving to the Home Office about those who manage to flee the conflict in Yemen, who are being diverted to Sudan at the moment? What advice is it giving about the safety of young families who have been sent there?
For obvious reasons, there is constant dialogue between the Home Office and the Foreign Office. I will get back to the hon. Gentleman on specifics, if I may. As far as the broader issue of arms sales is concerned, I appreciate that other Members may wish to raise this, but let me say generally that, as he will be aware, we have one of the strictest arms sales regimes in the world.
I can confirm to the right hon. Lady that in my part of the world—in Asia and the Pacific—the issue that I probably spend the most time on is arms licences. All Foreign Office Ministers take that work extremely seriously. I have a strict rule in my mind that if the recommendation is to refuse, I will endorse that, but if it is to accept, I will look very carefully through the papers and will often ask for further and better particulars or will push back to refuse. That causes all sorts of day-to-day concerns with the Department for International Trade, but we do that. We take that very seriously as Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers—something I am sure she looks forward to doing at some point in the near future.
May I echo what has been said about the former Minister, the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire? He will be a huge loss to both the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development.
On Saturday in Birmingham, friends of Yemen from across the country came together with a very powerful voice for the diaspora. Can the Minister seek to ensure that, the next time Martin Griffiths is in the UK, he has a meeting with representatives of the Yemeni diaspora who live here, so that their voice can be heard in this process?
That is essential, and we will try to organise that. I will try to ensure that my private office gives the hon. Gentleman as much notice as possible of Martin Griffiths being here in the UK. We can be very proud of what we are doing on the humanitarian aspects of this. That links into the Yemeni diaspora in this country, and we hope that they will feel that they can play an important part in a better future for that country.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will be aware that this war did not begin with a Saudi-led intervention. This whole matter began six months after Houthi rebels, representing no more than 15% of the Yemeni population, captured most of the capital, Sana’a, and expelled the internationally recognised Government. As she alludes to, they have been supported by Iran, and clearly the international community needs to try to come together. It is a desperate humanitarian situation on a scale that few of us can comprehend. I have been out to Cox’s Bazar, where the Rohingya are living, but this is on a scale literally 30 times as great; it is really quite horrific.
This is a grim anniversary. Since the ceasefire was announced, three civilians have died in this conflict every single day, and there are 110,000 cases of cholera. Three dates are essential: the date that we can have the next meeting of the Quad, the date when the peace talks will resume and the date for the appointment of a new Minister with responsibility for Yemen. When will those be? It is important that we have proper ministerial focus. The Minister cannot run the whole world. We need someone as focused as the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire.
That is a fair question. I would like to think that I can do the job at least for urgent questions and the like, but I take on board what the right hon. Gentleman says. As far as a date for peace talks is concerned, we are desperate to ensure at the UN and with all our partners that there is momentum from what happened in Stockholm, which was very positive, but we feel that the momentum is coming to an end. As far as the Quad is concerned, there are ongoing discussions, and no doubt we will again try to get more movement and momentum to ensure that the progress made is built upon and does not dwindle away.
My right hon. Friend will recognise that that is an issue for the Secretary of State for International Development, but there are restrictions on it—in fact, fairly strict restrictions in international law, and our own legislation has come into play in that regard. Clearly this is a desperate humanitarian situation. I think all of us feel that it is right that a significant amount of international aid is placed there. There is a recognition that it is sometimes difficult to get to the most vulnerable on the ground, but we shall do our level best to ensure that that happens.
I very much echo the comments that others have made about the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire. He was one of the very best, most thoughtful and most dedicated Ministers, and his departure from the Front Bench is a loss to the Government and the country.
There has been a huge reluctance on the part of the Government to criticise the Saudi regime, even in the face of the most appalling humanitarian situation in Yemen, which the Minister described, and the appalling conflict. It seems unacceptable that we continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. I do not call that leadership. Instead of leveraging our influence from our trading relationship with Saudi Arabia, it seems that we are silenced by it. Does the Minister share my assessment that, after Brexit, we will be in a weaker position, not a stronger one, to criticise states with a bad human rights record?
No. The truth of the matter—I see it even in my part of the world—is that the diplomatic channels are open, and we regularly express human rights concerns with countries with which we have trade. I reiterate that we do take our export licensing responsibilities extremely seriously, and we operate a very robust arms export regime. There is a respectable case that says we should not be in the arms business and should just not sell any at all, but we would like to think that our regime means that in many ways we are able to present a more robust case than many other countries that sell arms across the world.
I should say to my hon. Friend that the most vulnerable areas are in the north-west of the country, and important though Aden is as a port, Yemen is a large country and it is actually too far away. The roads from Aden to the most affected areas are of course particularly dangerous to traverse at this time.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I look forward to crossing swords with her now she is on the Foreign Affairs Committee. We take the issue of children very seriously, and part and parcel of our work with non-governmental organisations and international bodies is ensuring that children are not used in any sort of conflict, particularly those being pushed across borders in the way she describes. We will do our level best, and if we have more specific information, I will obviously ensure that it is brought to her attention.
The Iranian-backed “party of God”—Hezbollah—which is mainly based in Lebanon, has been supplying training, weaponry and missile technology to the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency. To what extent does the Minister believe that Hezbollah is egging on the Houthis not to adhere to the terms of the ceasefire?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. We have very long-standing concerns about Hezbollah’s involvement in Yemen. Hezbollah and Iran are of course providing training and weapons to the Houthis, contrary to UN Security Council resolution 2216 and the embargo on the export of weapons by Iran. We shall continue to encourage Iran, the state sponsor of Hezbollah, to demonstrate that it can be a constructive part of the solution, rather than continue with its current conduct. We hope it can promote stability.
With nearly 110,000 new cases of cholera since the start of the year, a third of which involve children under the age of five, does the Minister agree that any strategy to protect children must not only stop the appalling attacks on children, such as the attack on the school bus last summer, but to take action against killer diseases such as cholera? Will he tell us what we are doing to achieve that?
It is an absolute tragedy of the first order. I am often reminded that cholera was discovered, if that is the right word, in my constituency, a stone’s throw from here, back in the 1840s, when it was discovered that it was a water-borne disease. It is obviously unthinkable that people would suffer from cholera in this country, and we are doing all we can to ensure that there is fresh water, and indeed that water supplies are as pure as possible. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there is probably also cholera in some of the more difficult to reach far-flung areas, where it is difficult to get access.
The initial optimism of the peace talks bringing the two sides together seems to have waned. What influence is my right hon. Friend seeking to have on the different parties to bring them to the negotiating table so that international aid can be provided to relieve the humanitarian suffering?
As we see it, the next phase of the Stockholm agreement is to provide for a mutual redeployment of the forces away from Hodeidah. Again, we are looking to work, as we need to do, with both sides of the conflict for an agreement on that, which would obviously have a big impact on the humanitarian situation. That has not been implemented to date, and to be frank with my hon. Friend, until that happens the ceasefire is unlikely to be sustained.
Without wishing to repeat what others have said, keeping Hodeidah port open is absolutely critical to the flow of aid and food supplies to those most in need in Yemen. Given the heavy weapons fire between the warring parties in the city this week, what urgent pressure has the Minister sought to exert to restore the ceasefire there?
The work we are doing within the UN is clearly vital. We have to bring both sides of this conflict together, and we have done our level best to do that. We think the Yemeni Government understand the importance of this issue, and it is the single most important issue that will have such an impact on the lives of the many millions of Yemenis having to put up with this dreadful conflict.
May I add my compliments to those paid to the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire?
The allegations about child soldiers are very serious. I have previously raised them in the House, and it is very disappointing that it has taken us so long to discuss them. UNICEF has reported how many child soldiers were employed by the Houthis, the BBC has reported that they were being shot in the back, and we have seen other such crimes such as the use of mines. When are we going to take Yemen seriously, instead of discussing some issues around the edges that do not affect the situation in Yemen?
To be honest, until all parties in Yemen are committed to the peace process or start down that path, it is going to be very difficult. That is the truth. We will do as much as we can on the humanitarian side, and we will obviously continue to do as much as we can diplomatically, but there needs to be a sense within Yemen of all parties being committed to peace. Unfortunately, four years in, that is not yet the case. I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s deep-seated concerns about the dreadful notion of child soldiers being used in this conflict.
As I mentioned in the answer to my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone, we obviously recognise that Iran has an important part to play, not least because it is the state sponsor of Hezbollah. We will continue, in whatever way we can, to make representations to the Iranian Government—we do that out in Tehran, obviously, but also in the international community—and to try to impress on others the importance of their influence. As he says, it has all too often been a malign influence, and it needs to change.
On bringing Iran to account, the hon. Lady is absolutely right that it has had a proxy in what has happened, as it has for some years, not least in encouraging the Houthi insurgents. We have recognised that if Yemen is to have unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, Iran clearly has an important part to play. We hope it will use its influence with the Houthis to encourage a de-escalation of the current crisis and to end their attacks on coalition countries, but also to support the moves back towards a political track.
As I have often said here about diplomacy, sometimes it is a matter of taking three steps forward and a couple of steps back. Stockholm was definitely three steps forward, and I think we are in a far better place today than we were six months ago. Equally, we do not want those advances to slip away. Iran has had an important part to play in that process, and will do in the years to come.
The Minister is right to focus on the peaceful and negotiated solution that needs to be sought to bring an end to this conflict, but what discussions are there about long-term support to stabilise and rebuild the country? This is not just about bringing the fighting to an end; the long-term solution is about ensuring that it does not restart.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and of course there is thought going into that. I see it in a different part of the world—in Afghanistan, where obviously we have had an engagement—and one realises just how long a haul this must be. As my hon. Friend says, an important aspect of that is to build up a sustainable economy. Of course, one does not start from zero in that regard. We need to work together with the international community to build up a sustainable economy in Yemen that can provide prosperity for future generations.
Alistair Burt was dedicated in office, a decent person, and dignified in the leaving of office. He was also helping me with the case of my constituent Luke Symons, who has been held captive by the Houthis for two years in Sana’a, and we were, I hope, making some progress. Will the Minister—or perhaps the Foreign Secretary, who is aware of this case—agree to an urgent meeting with me in order that we do not lose momentum, given the former Minister’s departure?
I could not suppress a slight smile when the hon. Gentleman talked about my right hon. Friend Alistair Burt; it was as though he had died. I think he is still alive and kicking. He is probably having a quiet pint and a quiet afternoon—though maybe not. The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point about Luke Symons, on whose case he has worked extremely hard. He is aware that the Foreign Secretary brought up the case during his visit to Yemen earlier in the month. We have been providing consular advice to the UK-based family since 2017, and will continue to do so.
I wish to put it on the record that although I appreciate there were particular reasons why Luke Symons was out there—his wife is a Yemeni national—we now advise against all travel to Yemen, and therefore we are unable to provide consular assistance out in the country. Anyone who travels to Yemen against our advice is putting themselves at considerable risk.
Of course I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, and indeed representatives of the Symons family.
I, too, would like to share my gratitude to Alistair Burt for his work. I was very glad to be able to listen to Yemenis last week who were in London for events. They included Dalia Qasem Farea, Laila Al-shabibi and Hisham Al-Omeisy—the House may remember that he was held by the Houthis, and I have raised his case in the House.
Of ongoing concern to many aid agencies is the ability of goods and people to travel around Yemen to get to the places and people who need them. Can the Minister tell us more about what is being done to ensure that aid reaches those who need it the most?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. I have already alluded to that subject in several answers. Our immediate focus, obviously, remains on ensuring that enough food is getting through to the desperate Yemenis to prevent starvation and a disastrous famine. With the operating environment in Yemen extremely difficult for humanitarian organisations we are now focusing our attention on UN agencies, NGOs and other donors, in order to get out to those more difficult areas. Part of that is to assess the acuteness of need in those parts of Yemen, but that of course is an ongoing process and we feel that we have made some significant progress along with NGOs and other international partners.
The hon. Gentleman and I have spoken on the whole issue of the arms trade. He is putting forward a perfectly respectable position, but I think it is not necessarily shared by us all. I hope that the fact that we have safeguards in place that are, I think, more stringent than most other countries’ should give some comfort to his constituents; but I think that we will have a very active and live debate in this House, in relation to not only Yemen but the whole world, in the years to come.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Speaker. In an answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled, the British Government confirmed that they had directly trained 102 Saudi pilots over the last 10 years. Last year they signed a deal to sell 48 Typhoon jets to Saudi Arabia. How many of those pilots and planes have been operational in Yemen? Or is it the case that once the pilots are trained and the planes are sold, the British Government wash their hands?
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that I cannot answer that question directly, simply because we obviously do not have that information to hand. And no, it is not a matter of our washing our hands. We have military liaison in Saudi Arabia, and part of that is to try and encourage a sense of ethics. We have military liaison, of course, in a number of other countries that are at the heart of war zones as well. I obviously cannot give a direct answer because I do not have that data to hand, but I very much hope that the liaison officers that we have with the Saudi military are inculcating some of the values that we need, within warfare, to be properly adhered to.
I am sure that the best wishes of the whole House will go out to those members of the British Special Forces who have been reported injured in Yemen. I do not expect the Minister to comment on the details of the operations that they might have been involved in, but can he say whether any members of the British armed forces operating in Yemen have observed, or been witness to, the use of child soldiers by the Saudi Arabian side?
I refer to my earlier answers. I do not wish to fob the hon. Gentleman off. Some serious allegations were made in the Mail on Sunday article. I am sure that they are well sourced, so I would be interested to know more about those sources. There will be an investigation on the matter.
The Government clearly recognise the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, because they have recently increased aid; yet, sickeningly, unlike Germany, Norway, Denmark and Finland, UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia continue. Does the Minister feel that these continued arms sales are helping to cease or intensify the relentless and indiscriminate murder of innocent children and civilians?
I can really only refer the hon. Lady to what I said earlier on arms sales. Many of these are long-standing contracts, with arms that are in the hands of some of the combatants in the Saudi-led coalition in this regard. There is nothing that I can usefully add to that answer.
The Government contract the manufacture of UK arms for Saudi Arabia. They contract the issuing of bombs into UK aircraft in the Kingdom. They have RAF soldiers in command centres, and now we learn that we have ground assets in Yemen. So can I ask again, because I do not think the Minister answered the question: if this does not constitute being a member of the coalition, what on earth does? What legal advice have Her Majesty’s Government received about potential complicity in war crimes and international humanitarian law abuses, which we could now be liable for?
Will the hon. Gentleman please be assured that there is ongoing legal advice on all the matters to which he referred? I should perhaps also say, to correct the record in that regard, that we do not have our liaison officers or others in command centres with the Saudis. The liaison is in Saudi; they are there in a training and advisory capacity.[This section has been corrected on
Like many hon. Members, I attended some of the #YemenCantWait events over the past week. I was struck by one quote:
“We’ve had 4 years of WAR, and the SUFFERING is reflected on every face you see.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. It is an absolutely desperate situation. We are working closely with Martin Griffiths, and will continue to do so.
As I said at the outset, the most important thing is to try and move towards a political solution. We had some real progress, for the first time in two years, in Stockholm at the end of 2018, and we now need to build upon that. That is the message that goes out: how can we work together to build upon the progress that has already been made? It is, though, an utterly desperate situation.
Mr Speaker, you will be glad to know that we are 110 seconds within your limit, so I could filibuster a little bit longer. [Laughter.] No, I do not wish to be too glib on this. I know that we shall come back to the subject repeatedly in future. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I appreciate, and they will appreciate, that for obvious reasons, one or two of their replies will have to be provided in writing. I think it is greatly to our credit that we are a UN penholder on this Yemeni issue. It is very close to our hearts. We shall be doing a lot of work, continually, on the humanitarian side. Some of the most important work that we do across the globe will be done, and many, many lives will be saved courtesy of the British taxpayer.