Topical Questions

Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons on 30th June 2020.

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Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Small Business, Enterprise and Innovation)

A good friend of the all-party group on Yemen is the UN’s Sir Mark Lowcock, who this week described the massive child malnutrition crisis in Yemen as leaving a nation on a precipice. The UK earns 10 times as much from arms sales in the region as we spend on aid to Yemen. Since I was elected in 2015, I have lost count of the number of the Foreign Secretary’s predecessors I have questioned on this issue. Will this British Foreign Secretary be the first to stop the UK being part of the problem? Will he agree with me and ensure that the UK becomes part of the solution? How much will he commit to Yemeni aid today? Foreign Secretary, time is of the essence.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Since the last oral questions, I have called on China, with our international partners, to adhere to its international obligations to respect the autonomy and freedom of the people of Hong Kong; we have welcomed President Macron to the UK from France to celebrate and pay tribute on the 80th anniversary of General de Gaulle’s appel; and I met E3 partners in Berlin last week to discuss Iran, the middle east peace process and ongoing negotiations in relation to Brexit.

I say to the hon. Gentleman that on Yemen we absolutely are part of the solution. I visited Saudi Arabia, where I had the chance not just to meet Saudi Ministers and members of the royal family, but to talk to the President of Yemen. We are fully supporting Martin Griffiths’ work as the UN envoy, and this is an exceptional example of where we can bring our aid budget—the significant contributions that we make—to alleviate the humanitarian plight, while also trying to resolve the broader conflict.

Photo of Imran Ahmad Khan Imran Ahmad Khan Conservative, Wakefield

The three prongs of Britannia’s trident—diplomacy, trade and development—working together are vital for Her Majesty’s Government to achieve their vision for global Britain. Every policy adopted by our outward-facing ministries must leverage our influence, expand our commercial interests and bolster our national security. I enthusiastically welcome the merger of DFID within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as it better ensures the maintenance of an overarching, co-ordinated and cohesive strategic approach. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to further maximise the UK’s effectiveness the Department for International Trade should also be drawn fully into the new, muscular FCO?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am not going to be drawn down the tempting line offered by my hon. Friend, but he is right to say that the merger of our aid budget, and the heart and soul of our development expertise, with the Foreign Office network, and the diplomatic clout and muscle that we can contribute, will make our foreign policy more effective. I think I can give him a crumb of reassurance, which is that trade commissioners will be directly accountable to the ambassador or high commissioner in the specific post. That will make sure that we are more aligned and joined up, country by country, in the way he has described.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

In the wake of revelations about potential Russian exploitation of the covid-19 pandemic here in the UK and press reports in recent days that Russian officials have paid bounties for British troops in Afghanistan—who have served for more than 10 years in that most dangerous region—does the Secretary of State accept that the Government’s failure to produce the Russia report, which everyone in this House has been waiting for, shows just how weak the Government are on national security?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

First, I know that the hon. Lady would not expect me to comment on intelligence matters or, indeed, intelligence matters from other countries. I can tell her that right across the board we work with our Five Eyes partners on some of the nefarious activities that Russia is engaged in. We work very closely, through our security presence in Afghanistan, to protect all our staff and British nationals. The Intelligence and Security Committee report of course awaits the formation of the new ISC, but I understand that it will be published shortly.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

The Foreign Secretary is in charge of reviewing the Foreign Office’s travel advice, as confirmed by the Secretary of State for Transport yesterday. Will the joint biosecurity centre advise the Foreign Office in respect of that travel advice, so that those who decide to travel overseas will know the risk of catching covid-19 in the countries to which they travel? That would be the same process as we are adopting for our changes to quarantine and air bridges for those coming into the United Kingdom.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Not only have we had advice from the JBC in relation to the review of quarantine and the potential exemptions, but it has also helped to inform the approach on travel advice. There are of course strict legal requirements that we must go through when we revise travel advice. We are considering exempting certain countries and certain territories, and we will update our travel advice shortly. Indeed, I believe my right hon. Friend will find that the Secretary of State for Transport will today publish a written ministerial statement that will give further updates.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

While the Government set out plans for easing the UK’s lockdown, I remind the House that Kashmiris have been under lockdown for more than 330 days. Unlike ours, their lockdown is not being lifted at any time, with the humanitarian situation worsening each day. Will the UK Government condemn the human rights abuses in Kashmir and call on the Indian authorities to immediately lift the lockdown?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I know that the hon. Gentleman follows this issue assiduously. I have raised with the Indian Foreign Minister issues in relation to human rights in Kashmir. We continue to regard it as a bilateral dispute that needs to be resolved between Pakistan and India, but the issues the hon. Gentleman has raised are important, we are concerned about them and we do raise them with the Indian Government.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

I am sure my right hon. Friend shares my concerns about the recent state-based cyber-attacks against our key ally and Five Eyes partner, Australia. Will he advise the House of any steps we have taken to support Australia and what progress, if any, we have made on establishing the rules-based order with our allies to deter state-based actors in the field of cyber- warfare?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

As I set out in my statement on 19 June, in relation to cyber-attacks we stand shoulder to shoulder with our Australian close friends, partners and allies. We work closely across all Five Eyes partners to strengthen our resilience, and that applies in relation to cyber-attacks from not only state actors but, increasingly, non-state actors as well.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

The Minister spoke earlier of the UK’s commitment to the people of Yemen and the Secretary of State said that the Government are part of the solution. How do they reconcile those statements with the UK’s continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which is contributing to the relentless and indiscriminate murder of children and civilians?

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The UK Government’s commitment to Yemen is unwavering. We welcome the ceasefire announcement from Saudi Arabia, and we encourage the Houthis to engage with that peace initiative and to cease their attacks into Saudi. As I say, we support the work of the United Nations special envoy and will continue not only to discharge our humanitarian duties to the people of Yemen but to work at a diplomatic level to bring about a permanent end to the conflict.

Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, North East Bedfordshire

The right to question authority is the essence of press freedom. Reporters Without Borders warns of a decisive decade of changes that will challenge that cherished freedom; the recent conviction of Mrs Ressa in the Philippines is a chilling example. What is the Foreign Office doing to uphold press freedom around the world? In particular, what representations has the Foreign Office made to the ambassador from the Philippines?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend, who I know has been a stalwart champion of freedom of speech ever since we both entered the House. I reassure him. I spoke to Amal Clooney about the case; Maria Ressa was her client and worked very closely with her. I know that the Minister for Asia has raised this with the ambassador from the Philippines. I also discussed the case with Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State.

More broadly, there are three elements of our strategy for preserving media freedom around the world. We have a joint campaign with the Canadians to strengthen media freedoms and protect journalists. We are championing freedom of religious belief around the world and I will shortly—certainly before the summer recess—be bringing the new Magnitsky legislation to this House, both the legal regime and the first designations we will be adopting.

Photo of Antony Higginbotham Antony Higginbotham Conservative, Burnley

The situation in the middle east is a concern to me and my constituents and it is a long-running problem, which has not just existed for the past couple of weeks. Could the Secretary of State outline the steps that we are taking to bring both Israel and Palestine to the table, so that we can secure lasting peace in the region?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I have spoken to President Abbas and Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, as well as Prime Minister Netanyahu previously. We make clear that the United Kingdom’s consistent position—in fairness, across all sides of this House—is that we want to see a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. We acutely feel that the vacuum without talks is very dangerous. We want to see talks proceed. That is why we are working with those partners in the region, Arab countries and the E3.

Let me be absolutely crystal clear to the House: we have made clear that any annexation, partial or full, in relation to further territory in the occupied territories and the west bank would be both contrary to international law and counterproductive to peace.

Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is time for the UK Government and others to ban trade with settlements, given that Israeli settlements are illegal? It is now the time for a ban, not a sanction, of goods.

Photo of James Cleverly James Cleverly Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The UK’s position on imported goods from Israel remains unchanged. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has highlighted, we oppose annexation. We have made it clear to the Government of Israel that we regard it as contrary to international law, and also not in their own interests. That position will remain unchanged.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar

The UN arms embargo on Iran is due to expire in October 2020, in line with the 2015 nuclear deal, yet Iran has continued to flagrantly breach the deal since the UK triggered the dispute resolution mechanism in January. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the absence of meaningful consequences has emboldened Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions and further destabilise the region? Will he act urgently, with international partners, to extend the UN arms embargo?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I agree with my hon. Friend in relation to the concerns he has raised about Iran’s conduct. We do want to keep the joint comprehensive plan of action. We would like to do better and we think there is an opportunity to do better in the future, but that is what we have got now. In order to hold Iran’s feet to the fire and to hold them to account, the United Kingdom, with our French and German partners, triggered the dispute resolution mechanism. I was in Berlin last week for E3 consultations about how we will approach this issue and how we will continue to hold Iran to account. My hon. Friend is absolutely right; we will strive with all of our international partners to continue the arms embargo on Iran.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

During the covid crisis, the UK has received valuable assistance from Cuba, including assistance with the repatriation of British citizens trapped on the Braemarcruise ship, and more recently from the Cuban medical brigade sent to the British overseas territory of Anguilla. In recognition of that UK-Cuba co-operation, will the Foreign Secretary speak to his US counterpart and condemn attempts by US Senate Republican majority members to target countries that seek life-saving medical assistance from Cuba?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I am not sure I caught all of that, but I think I caught the gist. One of the things that covid-19 has shown is the need for global co-operation and, frankly, the good co-operation we have had with some that might ostensibly seem unlikely partners. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my Cuban opposite number, who during the coronavirus challenge provided proactive support to ensure that we could get passengers off the Braemar cruise ship—I think I am correct in saying there were something like 600 passengers at very high risk and a significant number of people with coronavirus symptoms—and back to the United Kingdom to the care they needed. We certainly welcome all of that collaboration.

Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Labour, Newport West

Like many colleagues in the House, a number of my constituents in Newport West were stranded in other parts of the world as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. Can the Foreign Secretary explain what work the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing to ensure that we get all our British citizens back where they should be, at home?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The Foreign Office has put an incredible amount of work in. If the hon. Lady looks at the number of UK nationals who have been returned, it is over 1 million because of the work we did to keep commercial flights going. There were also the special charter flights we commissioned. We put £75 million in and tens of thousands of people got home via that route. I think we have had one of the most proactive and effective responses. It has been very difficult. We have also made sure there are loans for those who would otherwise be stranded. I am proud of the work across Government, but particularly from the consular division of the Foreign Office, to look after British nationals in their time of need.