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Queen’s Speech - Debate (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:13 pm on 22nd June 2017.

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Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State 6:13 pm, 22nd June 2017

Again, the noble Lord speaks from great experience. He might be quoting some sort of history lesson here, but thankfully we leave those for Questions. We have noted his concern, and his experience is vital for the debates and consideration. I am sure my noble friend Lord Howe will reply to him accordingly.

The noble Lord also raised the issue of the national shipbuilding strategy, which will be published in the near future, I understand. He asked a question about manpower for the new “Queen Elizabeth” carrier, as did the noble Lord, Lord Touhig. That has been allocated, and we believe it is sufficient. The Aircraft Carrier Alliance is in the process of finalising arrangements for the “Queen Elizabeth” carrier to commence sea trials. This is the latest stage of trials and commissioning of the ship, as well as technical preparations. As the noble Lord will know better than most, a series of factors need to be considered, not least the state of tides and weather, which need to be favourable for the ship to actually exit dock.

My noble friend Lord Balfe asked about continued defence co-operation with the EU after we leave. I assure my noble friend that the UK is a global player and that we recognise that we need to remain engaged in the world, including in central European and foreign and security policy arrangements after we leave the EU. Discussions will continue to that effect.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, raised the impact of the fall of sterling on defence spending. The MoD centrally manages the impacts of variations on foreign exchange rates as part of its routine financial management, and arrangements are in place to limit the impact of the current foreign exchange position for several years. As someone who spent many years in the City, I assure him that exchange rate fluctuations cause a few people, not just those in defence, to miss a heartbeat now and again. It is about how you can mitigate that risk.

The noble and gallant Lord, the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and others also raised the issues of recruitment, retention and training for our brave service men and women. My noble friend referred earlier to the fact that we are modernising our employment offer, introducing a Bill to make it easier for our regulars to work more flexibly. Equally, as the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, said, this is also about the veterans who have already served their country. I am pleased to inform him that proposals are under consideration. As he knows, the MoD plays a key role in co-ordinating support and services for veterans in partnership with other government departments. We believe that the current approach is fit for purpose and delivers effectively and appropriately. However, a new service, the Veterans’ Gateway, as the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, just acknowledged, was formally launched on 20 June. This is a £2 million grant from the Covenant Fund, which has been made to a consortium of charities, led by the Royal British Legion, to set up the one-stop service to better support the UK’s veterans community.

The noble Lord, Lord West, also raised a number of points about the size of the Navy. In the interests of time, again, I am sure my noble friend will write to him.

It seems appropriate that in the last few minutes I come to my own department, foreign affairs. I assure all noble Lords that I look forward to working with noble Lords from across your Lordships’ House as we move forward on this important agenda. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, raised the issue of the US state visit, which was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary stated yesterday, an invitation has been extended to President Trump and has been accepted. There are no changes to the visit, but it was not mentioned in the Queen’s Speech as the dates have not yet been fixed.

The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Sharkey, raised important issues about Cyprus. The UK continues to encourage all sides to engage in positive and flexible discussions on all the issues relating to the settlement, urging focus on practical solutions that protect the rights and security of both communities in a future unified Cyprus. We welcome the decision of the parties to reconvene the conference on Cyprus on 28 June, and I confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we stand ready to participate in the conference at an appropriate level.

Key aspects of the work of the Foreign Office relate to promoting peace, security and stability. Various questions were raised about the Gulf Cooperation Council and the situation with Qatar. I assure all noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Hannay, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has spoken to the leaders in the Gulf to urge unity and de-escalation. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has also reiterated this key message to his counterparts in the region.

We encourage Qatar to engage seriously with the substance of their neighbours’ concerns, and we encourage its neighbours to relax the restrictions imposed on it. I assure noble Lords that the UK and the US remain in close contact as we work together with international partners, including key European partners such as the French, to calm further tensions in the region.

On the point that was raised by my noble friend Lord Suri and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, about sanctions and future regimes, we will introduce a sanctions Bill to provide a legislative framework for the UK to continue to meet its international obligations and use sanctions after the UK’s departure from the EU. We will also support the reform of international systems, including the UN.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, talked of Syria and the Assad regime. It remains the Government’s consistent view that it is the Assad regime’s military campaign that has driven the conflict and, as far as we are concerned, there can be only a transition away from the Assad regime to a new and more inclusive Government who can unite all sides and bring peace to Syria. That remains the UK Government’s objective.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, asked specific questions about Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Again, in the interests of time, I will write to her and share with noble Lords the detail on that. Likewise, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked specific questions about Sudan, as did the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, and I will write to them as well.

I have two or three final points, if I may seek noble Lords’ indulgence. First, on the important issue of security and combating terrorism, extremism is a global scourge and requires an international response. I assure noble Lords that we continue to work with partners to eradicate it and, yes, we will look at how we can further work with our European partners as we leave the EU. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, raised this issue, among others, and my noble friend Lord Suri raised the issue of cybersecurity. Quite appropriately, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, talked about how hearts and minds must be won in this respect. As this is a portfolio that I shall be looking after at the Foreign Office, I will certainly be looking to noble Lords across the House on how we can work this important agenda because it needs a consistent, consolidated and collaborative effort across the board.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, as always, spoke passionately about freedom of religion around the world. Again, I am honoured to be given that portfolio as part of the FCO team. Freedom of religion is a universal human right, and we will work in collaboration with DfID to ensure that we can promote and protect the right to freedom of religion and belief internationally. DfID works closely with the FCO to raise concerns about freedom of religion. I assure the noble Lord that we are safeguarding and consistently raise the important issue of the persecution in certain parts of the world of Christian minorities, Yazidis and other minorities. He mentioned the Ahmadiyya community, which of course is close to my heart. We need to ensure that the British Government stand up for the rights of all minorities, no matter where they are in the world. In the discussions that we have around the world, that means having those sometimes candid discussions to ensure that those protections can be afforded. I look forward to working with the noble Lord and others on that important area.

Today has been a rare day when we saw agreement between my noble friend Lord Polak and the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge. It is one of those important days of collaboration, and long may that last. He rightly raised concerns around Hezbollah and other groups whose political and military wings are not limited in what they do. I am sure he will appreciate that the Government consistently review the situation with all such groups. If there are concerns that need to be raised directly with me, I am of course available. I welcome the contribution that my noble friend made, as did other noble Lords, about the important and continuing role of DfID.

The noble Lords, Lord Alton and Lord Hylton, talked about refugees and continuing aid. As the House will know, the Government remain committed to supporting the countries that border Syria. In particular, we have committed £423 million bilaterally to Jordan, for example, to support humanitarian aid and also, importantly, we invest in education and job opportunities for Syrian refugees. Again, I assure the noble Lord that we will be reaching out to vulnerable people across the country, particularly Christian minorities, who have suffered and are suffering persecution. UK funding is distributed on the basis of need to ensure that civilians are not discriminated against.

The issue of modern slavery was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and I welcome her contribution. As she noted, this, too, was mentioned in the gracious Speech. The Prime Minister has made modern slavery a top foreign policy priority. It is another portfolio responsibility that I carry and I look forward to hearing from her on the specific issue of supply chains that she raised. I would welcome working collaboratively with her on the important modern slavery agenda.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of climate change. I assure him and others that the Government continue to believe that the Paris agreement is the basis for a global framework to progress forward. Of course we regret the position of the United States on this.

I assure the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, that I have not forgotten him. Certain things carry forward from one portfolio to the next. As I am a former Aviation Minister, it is appropriate that an aviation issue carries forward. The Ascension Island Government have been working with employing organisations on the island and we have also discussed options for interim air services to Ascension. I assure the noble Lord that the runway is not closed; part of it remains open to small aircraft, as he mentioned in his contribution. We of course understand the frustration caused by the suspension of regular flights, but I assure him that we are working to find alternative access arrangements.

I am very conscious of time, and I see that my noble friend Lady Goldie is scribbling a note. However, I cannot conclude my remarks without mentioning the Commonwealth—even after I said that my voice might pack up. I have left this important issue until the end, and it really is the last issue. I pay tribute to all noble Lords who raised this important issue, including my noble friend Lord Polak and the noble Lord, Lord Luce. Of course I pay particular tribute to my noble friend Lord Howell. I will be working very closely with him. He has wide experience in this field and does not yet know that we have a meeting with him and the Royal Commonwealth Society in early July. I look forward to that. We are hosting an important summit next year and I look forward to working with all noble Lords across the piece to ensure that we put this on the agenda.

Finally, on the Commonwealth agenda, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that it is a great responsibility, and LGBT rights are an important item on the agenda. Just today I signed off on a particular issue on the Human Rights Council where we ensured that the UK insisted on calling a vote on a resolution on the protection of the family because we believed that, as it stood, it did not recognise that there are many diverse forms of family. I look forward to working with the noble Lord and others on this important agenda.

I thank noble Lords for their indulgence during my closing remarks. I have never usurped so much time, but there was a wide range of issues to cover on a global stage, involving a variety of important departments. I say earnestly and most sincerely that I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this important debate. I thank in particular the Front Benches and of course my noble friend Lord Howe. He is a constant source of support and mentoring for many of us who have joined the Front Bench. He is very distinguished in his contributions and I assure noble Lords that his wise counsel will be something that I will rely on. Of course, I will be assisted in this important brief by my noble friend Lady Goldie. As we have seen, she does her job very efficiently and effectively—and long may that continue.

Debate adjourned until Monday 26 June.

House adjourned at 6.48 pm.