Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:33 pm on 15th October 2020.

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Photo of James Duddridge James Duddridge Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 3:33 pm, 15th October 2020

What a wonderful debate, and what wonderful passion from people who know and have visited Sudan. I should start by thanking by my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin, but instead I thank my hon. Friend Alexander Stafford, who, in the unlikely event that he wished to take up a second job, could do so for the Ministry of Tourism of Sudan.

When I was explaining my Africa role to a colleague in the Tea Room, they said that they did not know Africa very well, adding, “But I have been to Sudan to tour around.” The depth of understanding of the continent among Members of Parliament is much richer than one would at first assume. That is not just on the paths most well trodden, but with respect to some of the beauty spots. I did not know about the pyramids, for example. However, I will not get overexcited about Sudanese history, because the debate included lots of matters of substance, which is what I want to concentrate on.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire not only on her work as Minister for Africa and on Sudan, but on her continued work for the all-party group on Sudan and South Sudan. Two weeks ago, in particular, the group had a good discussion of an hour, when some concerns were shared and I updated them a little. It is good to formalise those discussions and open them up to the rest of the House.

First, I should say that Sudan matters incredibly to the United Kingdom, and increasingly so, both today and over the next few years. We have long-standing historical ties and a vibrant diaspora. The shadow Minister, Stephen Doughty, discussed his diaspora, which is not typical, but neither is it uncommon—there are many concentrations of Sudanese diaspora across the UK. We are proud of our support for the change process, sometimes quietly and discreetly behind the scenes, sometimes slightly more up front. We are ready to make Sudan a priority, and I do not use those words lightly, representing as I do 47 different countries—that is not even the whole continent.

Our engagement in Sudan reflects why we have brought together development and diplomatic expertise, as the hon. Gentleman also mentioned. That means that everything is joined-up and different elements of Her Majesty’s Government can better operate together. We have come together for countries such as Sudan, where things are quite complicated, but also for those across the continent for which there is no simple development answer—we have touched on economics, tourism and a number of other issues. We have come together to end conflict and help that bottom billion.

In considering why Sudan is important, I want to reflect on the Foreign Secretary’s appointment of Stefan Dercon as his policy adviser, to ensure primarily that we are spending official development assistance well, but also that we are spending it where we have maximum impact—for example, on an international opportunity, or where we have specific expertise. We have specific expertise and history in Sudan. There is a specific opportunity to help the transitional Government to get back on their feet and a specific opportunity, which will not exist forever, to get the economy back on track. That is why I announced in June that we would support Sudan with £150 million overall, an uplift of what we were doing at the time.

As has quite rightly been said, we have had to reduce the budget elsewhere because of the reduction in GDP. I am more than happy to share with the hon. Gentleman a breakdown of those figures so that we can unpack that. I know that he has a different perception, but this is one area in which we are investing more than we expected to. That is documented, but I will ensure that, beneath the bonnet, all the programmes that he and others in the Chamber consider effective are reflected.

As several hon. Members underlined, Sudan has seen massive changes since Bashir went in April 2019, and I acknowledge the bravery of the citizens who pushed that change. They often faced violence and made lots of sacrifices, many of which were quite horrific, so we must stand side by side with their successors to deliver the full change, rather than allowing this to be simply one particular event in which one person has gone.

Despite attempts to silence those voices, I am heartened that, 18 months since the removal of Bashir, Sudan remains on a good path. Progress is never as fast as we would like, but the trajectory is solid. Throughout the period, we have demonstrated our support for a civilian-led Government, and for Prime Minister Hamdok specifically. We have engaged politically, and built international support and an extensive development and humanitarian programme.

The first challenge is perhaps the economy. There is an unsustainable debt, which we cannot fix until some of the fundamentals are there, because inflation is at 160%. We need to internationalise that situation, which is what the Berlin conference was about and why we pledged £150 million overall, £80 million of which will go through the World Bank to support a safety net to protect the most vulnerable during a financial transition. That will allow for the debt to be delivered, so that we can build a sustainable economy, particularly when we move forward to the next stage—I will come back to the economics later.

We should also commend the Juba peace deal of 2 October, but we do not remain lazy: we are still looking for the non-signatories to come on board. Bob Fairweather, the envoy to both Sudan and South Sudan, who is known to us all, will be pushing that forward.

I am also proud of the UK’s role in UNITAMS, the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan. That incredibly important mission will be used by the international community to help the marginalised. We have also supported UNAMID, the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur, which it was important to retain; we could not just walk away and leave a vacuum in Darfur. While I have not seen some of the more touristy areas, I have visited Darfur in another capacity.

Returning to the economy and how it interplays with the issue of state-sponsored terrorism, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire, am disappointed that more progress has not been made. We should all recognise that sometimes loud diplomacy is not as good as subtle diplomacy, but senior officials have spoken to the US about this matter, and I would hope to have some indications of positive progress even after the process of getting it close to the President’s desk. Due to both covid and the US election, these things tend to get pushed, but for Sudan this is a major building block through which other things can start happening, including trade.

My hon. Friend’s idea of a trade envoy is excellent, and I urge her to lobby the Department for International Trade about it. I know we gossiped about potential names, and there are a number of good candidates who know that turf; I think we now have a number of other candidates who we know are interested in Sudan.

The challenges are big, which is why we need to get the humanitarian piece right, the economic piece right and the conflict piece right. Some 10 million people are suffering from food insecurity, which is why we have invested £70 million in development assistance this year. The pandemic has exacerbated that insecurity, and we have shifted our programmes to include an additional £5 million due to covid and to accelerate the search for vaccines and other things that are helping.

Mention was made of flooding, which has been at levels not seen in decades and has doubled down on the crisis: everything is hitting at the same time. The UK is supporting the Sudanese-led response through the UN and non-governmental organisations as part of our £27 million plan to support the humanitarian effort.

Turning to human rights, a number of people have recognised the progress made on female genital mutilation. A number of issues around women’s rights that seem small to us are actually massive in that type of arena. I am less sighted on some of the blasphemy issues, but we will make sure I am sighted on those things as I deal with them going forward.

I had discussions with the Sudanese acting Foreign Minister about three weeks ago, and specifically raised issues of human rights as part of the transition. We co-sponsored the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council last week that maintains the level of support on these issues. In relation to Bashir, he remains in country and will be dealt with in country, and individuals at The Hague will be monitoring that carefully and supporting that process. It is important that justice is done, and seen to be done, to support progress going forward, as well as to punish what happened.

Most recently, we were all appalled by the violence on 13 June 2019, particularly given that it took place so long after the overthrow of Bashir and the optimism that followed, which shows that while the trajectory is good and going forward, there are steps backwards. There is a commitment from both the military and the protest movement to investigate; our officials have received assurances that that inquiry will be independent, and the acting Foreign Minister tells me that extensive submissions have already come in. From what I have seen, it is unclear who specifically co-ordinated and ordered that attack, but equally, it is clear from things that I have seen and been told that it was the security forces of Sudan. The Sudanese security forces—under Bashir and afterwards—are quite a disparate group, so it is difficult to understand the interactions and know who was actually responsible. If we can get answers from the inquiry, it is really important that we so.

Despite the many challenges, I am pleased that we remain a committed long-term partner for building society and institutions. We have an excellent ambassador. I saw him when I visited, and my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire has seen him a number of times. She has worked more closely with him than I have during this period. Ambassador Irfan Siddiq has worked tirelessly in the interests of Sudan, and has liaised with us back in the UK, explaining the detail. It is not always easy for an ambassador to be an honest but diplomatic friend of Sudan, and a good ambassador sometimes crosses that line and takes a step back or forward. Bad ambassadors are the ones who are liked by everyone and do not say boo to a goose. I fully support Irfan in what he is doing and other ambassadors who are honest and open, and get stuck in.

As part of our bilateral relationship, we will be moving things forward even further. I will visit Sudan, and I am looking forward to visiting the region more broadly soon. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth urged me to go into detail about the region and the neighbouring countries. I am more than happy to do that at great length; however—reading the situation—perhaps I should progress a little more swiftly.

I want to make sure I pick up everything that has been raised. On institutions, we are providing technical assistance and support. There has been talk of a nascent Parliament and women’s representation. Jim Shannon had some interesting ideas about ethnic and religious quotas. Obviously, that is not something that we have here, but it can be appropriate and can work in other countries, particularly those in transition.