United Nations Relief and Works Agency - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:38 pm on 19 November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Polak Lord Polak Conservative 2:38, 19 November 2018

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions Ministers have had with the representatives of the Government of the United States of America regarding that Government’s decision to withdraw from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Photo of Lord Polak Lord Polak Conservative

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I remind the House of my non-financial registered interests.

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Department for International Development

My Lords, the cessation of US funding for UNRWA could worsen the humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and threaten regional security. Her Majesty’s Government continue to support UNRWA and have helped to reduce its immediate financial shortfall through increased UK funding and proactive lobbying.

Photo of Lord Polak Lord Polak Conservative

I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. Just this weekend, while we were all focused on local matters, the UN singled out Israel for criticism. Why did the UK vote for all nine one-sided resolutions, unlike the United States, Canada and Australia? Perhaps after 29 March we will be able to create and pursue our own policy. While UNRWA provides important health and other services, it refuses to help resettle the Palestinians and even refuses to take off its list some 2 million Palestinians living in Jordan. Does the Minister agree that UNRWA, which was born in 1949, is now outdated, does not provide value for money, and continues to perpetuate the problem? Is it not time, together with our allies, to find, create and follow a new and modern programme of aid and development for the benefit of the Palestinian people and all the peoples of the region?

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Department for International Development

It is time that there was a peace process and for the parties to the conflict to come to the table and start to negotiate to resolve these matters regarding refugees. UNRWA provides essential healthcare to some 3 million people in the region, along with essential education for 525,000 people there. The United Kingdom Government are not going to walk by on the other side when people are in need.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

I thank the Minister for that response, which is absolutely right. The noble Lord, Lord Polak, made a point about what more we can do, which I found really interesting because the last time that the Minister responded on the issue of the importance of UNRWA he recognised that we could not do this on our own. We have to work with our partners, particularly our European partners. Is there not an opportunity to focus more on inter-community activity and on economic activity which can build a sustainable economic environment in the Palestinian territories?

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Department for International Development

The noble Lord makes a good point and we are very much with him on that. The situation in Gaza is appalling. Youth unemployment is running at around 70%. That was one of the reasons we decided to double the amount of economic development assistance that we give to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The sum will go up to some £38 million over the next five years. We need to work with our partners across a whole range of areas, and our European friends and colleagues are very important to this process. It is also incredibly important that we leverage our influence with our United States friends. That has been done by our Foreign Secretary in a meeting with Jared Kushner. Moreover, the Minister, Alistair Burt, was in the region over the weekend with Jason Greenblatt, who is the special representative for the area for the US President. We will continue to work on all those fronts.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, given the importance of UNRWA and the unpredictability of President Trump, what plans do the Government have to fund UNRWA in 2019-20? Given its importance for the education of Palestinian young people, does the Minister agree that cutting its funding would be very short-sighted?

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Department for International Development

We need to acknowledge that the US felt that it bore a disproportionate share of the funding in providing one-third of it; it wanted to see that broadened out. Something good that we have been involved and instrumental in was a meeting in the margins of the UN General Assembly, where we sought to assemble people and work with colleagues across different groups in which we are influential to raise additional funding. That meeting raised an additional $122 million; that was not sufficient to remove the shortfall because $64 million still remains, As well as voicing criticism and concern, some of those around the world who expressed concern need to dip into their pockets.

Photo of Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Lord Kirkhope of Harrogate Conservative

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is deep concern about the way in which some of the facilities provided by UNRWA in the Gaza Strip are abused by Hamas? It uses schools and other facilities to disguise the storage of weapons and builds tunnels underneath those facilities, apparently without any kind of recrimination. Does he not think that this is inappropriate and puts in peril UNRWA’s work in the community?

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Department for International Development

We and UNRWA take all those concerns extremely seriously. When issues such as the content of school textbooks have been raised, they have been thoroughly investigated. When the principles of non-violence that the Palestinian Authority signed up to are questioned, that ought to be raised with UNRWA. Ultimately, the only way forward in the long term is for all parties to come together and begin a peace process that can resolve the refugee situation and territorial claims.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

My Lords, there are many legitimate concerns about UNRWA. Since there is a funding gap, is there evidence that other countries will follow our example, such as our partners in Europe and the Arab countries in particular?

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Department for International Development

As the noble Lord will know, we are one of the largest funders. The UN General Assembly margin meeting that I mentioned raised $122 million, some of which is yet to hit UNRWA’s bank account. It is important that people honour their pledges. It is also important for other countries to step forward and support UNRWA, not only on its financial needs but through wider support for moving towards a Middle East peace process.

Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Non-affiliated

My Lords, can the Minister explain why the Government of Israel, as the occupying force in Palestine, are not required to pay for, or at the very least contribute to, the cost of UNRWA?

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Department for International Development

I cannot give an adequate answer to that at present. The situation is incredibly complex, but the only way forward is for people to agree a peaceful resolution on a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with agreed land swaps, a fair settlement for the refugees that are there and an agreement on Jerusalem as a shared capital for the two nations.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, there were also reports in the papers that the British Government would follow President Trump and withdraw from another UN organisation, UNESCO. That was done by Mrs Thatcher’s Government in 1985 and there were huge outcries in the universities, the arts and elsewhere. Can the Minister give us an assurance that these reports are not correct and that the United Kingdom will not withdraw from UNESCO?

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates The Minister of State, Department for International Development

Yes, I am happy to give the noble Lord the reassurance that he seeks on UNESCO. It is very important, whether we are talking about UNRWA or UNESCO, that we remember that we are also talking about British taxpayers’ money. It is absolutely beholden on us to ensure that that money is spent as widely as possible for the benefit of those in need and not wasted in any way.