James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to MPs’ questions to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Overseas Humanitarian Work
What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of reductions in the UK aid budget on the UK’s humanitarian work overseas. (902992)
What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of reductions in the UK aid budget on the UK’s humanitarian work overseas. (903007)
What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of reductions in the UK aid budget on the UK’s humanitarian work overseas. (903013)
Humanitarian preparedness and response is one of the Foreign Office’s seven priorities under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, and is a priority for the UK’s aid budget spend this year. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will spend £906 million to maintain the UK’s role as a force for good at the time of crisis. We have consistently been one of the largest bilateral humanitarian donors globally: since 2015, the UK has provided over £11.1 billion in humanitarian funding. However, it is not all about money. The FCDO is uniquely placed to bring together diplomatic clout and humanitarian expertise, to ensure the drive for more effectiveness in the response to humanitarian crisis through preparedness, and an example of that is the G7 famine compact.
In that case, what is the Minister’s message to constituents in Glasgow North who have donated in good faith to UK Government aid match programmes such as those run by Mary’s Meals or War Child, who have now been told that the match funding they were expecting for every pound donated by a member of the public will be delayed at least until next year? That is delaying and slowing down vital life-saving humanitarian work, so when are the aid match funds going to be released? Hopefully it will be sooner rather than later. [Interruption.]
As my ministerial colleagues have just said, the hon. Gentleman answers his question in his question. I pay tribute to the generosity of spirit of the people of the UK—all parts of the UK—who have contributed to humanitarian relief causes. I also pay tribute, of course, to the excellent work of the FCDO members of staff who are based in East Kilbride; they do fantastic work .
May I ask the Minister specifically what support is being made available to the small island states? They have climate vulnerability—they are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events—and they have been devastated financially by the pandemic, but the metrics that are used to calculate whether they count as least-developed countries often do not take into account those particular vulnerabilities. What is he doing to ensure that aid will get to them, and that debt relief is also considered?
The hon. Member makes an important point, and we take our responsibility to small island nations seriously. That issue does not necessarily fall within the humanitarian spend, which is designed for more acute need, but we will of course, through things like COP26, take into consideration the factors that are difficult for small nations to deal with, whether they be island nations or otherwise, and that will always remain a serious piece of work in the FCDO.
The official development assistance budget, before it was cut, would have amounted to 1% of covid borrowing. We all know that the motion that was passed last week essentially spells the end of the 0.7% commitment. In the absence of the development strategy from the Department, which continues to be delayed, is it now the case for the Government that those who need help the most are relegated to the bottom of the pile to wait for everything else to be done, rather than being put front and centre of foreign policy?
The hon. Gentleman seems to disregard the fact that the UK will remain one of the most generous aid donors in the world, spending £10 billion to help some of the poorest people in the world. We are experiencing the worst economic contraction in three centuries, driven by a global pandemic beyond any of our control, but our commitment to get back to 0.7% has now been set out and the conditions for doing so are now public. We are proud of the work that we do supporting the poorest people around the world, and we will continue to be one of the most generous aid donors in the world.
What recent assessment he has made of the prospects for a negotiated peace settlement in Yemen. (902994)
We continue to fully support the UN efforts to end the conflict in Yemen, alongside the US, the Saudis and other international partners. The United Nations has put a fair deal on the table, consisting of a ceasefire and a measure to ease restrictions in Hodeidah port and Sanaa airport. However, the Houthis are not engaging constructively with the proposals to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people. Rather than coming to the table, the Houthis continue their offensive in Marib. We are committed to reaching a peaceful settlement to the conflict. We await the appointment of a new special envoy, and we look forward to working with them when they are in place.
After seven years of violence, suffering and hardship, there is still no end in sight, as the Minister acknowledges. The UN has warned that Yemen faces the worst famine the world has seen for decades. After more than halving their aid to the country, what will the Government do to stop families dying of starvation and disease? As penholder for Yemen at the UN, we clearly have a special responsibility. What further pressure are the Government putting on all the parties for meaningful and inclusive peace talks involving all key stakeholders—not simply the Houthis, who are clearly blocking the discussions, but the Hadi Government and the Southern Transitional Council?
The hon. Gentleman is right that we are concerned about the humanitarian situation in Yemen. We have given over £1 billion-worth of aid to Yemen since the conflict began. I recently spoke about the food security issue with David Beasley of the World Food Programme in the margins of the G7 in Italy.
The best thing we can do for the people of Yemen is to bring this conflict to a conclusion. We engage constructively with the Saudis and the Government of Yemen but, unfortunately, the people we have the most difficulty engaging with meaningfully are the Houthis, and I publicly call upon them to engage with us, to engage with the UN, to engage with this process and to bring peace to these people who so desperately need it.
Where is the morality and sense in the Government trumpeting at the G7 the importance of fighting famine while, at the same time, withdrawing food aid from nearly a quarter of a million people in Yemen? As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, Yemen is facing what the UN is calling the worst famine in decades. I am told by the aid agencies that the Government have said they hope to restart the life-saving programmes at some point next year, which is a year too late for those in need now. It is also totally impractical and wasteful to shut down the delivery infrastructure, which takes years to build, only to restart it from scratch a year later. Would it not be better to maintain the current programmes, which are so badly needed and which enhance the UK’s global reputation, rather than making the poorest pay for the global pandemic?
Despite the worst economic contraction in 300 years, the UK remains one of the largest bilateral donors in supporting the humanitarian efforts in Yemen, but it is not just about money, important though that it is; it is also about bringing the diplomatic power of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to bear. I spoke with the Government of Yemen about making sure fuel ships outside the port of Hodeidah are able to land, so that fuel can be used to mill grain and transport food. That work, alongside our work with the United Nations, the Saudis and the Government of Yemen to bring about peace, is the best thing we can do to help the medium and long-term situation for the people of Yemen.
Human Rights: Trade Deals
What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on inserting clauses on human rights in future trade deals. (902997)
What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on inserting clauses on human rights in future trade deals. (903004)
What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on inserting clauses on human rights in future trade deals. (903008)
FCDO Ministers are in regular contact with Cabinet colleagues on a range of trade-related issues and we are clear that more trade does not have to come at the expense of our commitment to human rights. The UK will continue to show global leadership in encouraging all states to uphold international human rights obligations and will hold to account those who violate human rights. Since the inception of the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020, we have used those powers to impose sanctions on 78 persons involved in human rights violations. The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting global values. By having a strong economic relationship with partners, we can have more open discussions on a range of issues, including human rights. We continue to take a balanced and proportionate approach with partners to deliver the best outcome for the UK and to maximise the benefits of trade, while ensuring that we promote our core values.
The UK has a free trade agreement with Colombia that contains a human rights clause, but we have just heard that in recent months protesters in Colombia have faced brutal violence at the hands of Colombian police, with human rights organisations documenting 43 protesters potentially killed by the police. Given those abuses, and the Colombian Government’s repeated attempts to deny and minimise the crisis, will the UK Government signal their commitment to human rights and, rather than turn a blind eye, ensure that this human rights clause is actually upheld?
Colombia is an FCDO human rights priority country, and we take the growing reports of violence against social leaders and human rights defenders extremely seriously. We consistently raise our concerns with the Colombian Government and in multilateral forums. The point that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), has just made is still very much the case. When we export our products and services, we also export our values and buy the right to have serious conversations with partners around the world.
Will the Minister confirm here and now that it is our foreign policy to defend human rights and the rule of law across the world? Does he agree that, as well as putting UK businesses with high human rights and labour rights at a disadvantage, signing trade agreements with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers without any human rights clauses undermines that policy and our global reputation?
The UK is proud to be incredibly vocal on the international stage about our commitment to human rights. As I have said, having an open and expansive trade policy is not any kind of contradiction to our passion for promoting human rights. If the hon. Member has particular concerns about forthcoming trade agreements and the human rights elements thereof, please feel free to write to the Department.
During an Adjournment debate earlier this year, the Minister for Trade Policy justified the deal with Cameroon on the basis that there had been a reduction in human rights abuses against its own people. Next day in the House, the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), refused to confirm whether he was right or wrong. So can this Minister tell the House what level of abuse the Government are prepared to accept with similar oppressive regimes to grant them a trade deal with the UK?
We continue to monitor the situation in Cameroon closely. We raise our concerns directly with the Cameroonian Government and within multilateral forums calling for an inclusive dialogue and the end to violence. As I say, the Government have always been clear that increased trade will not come at the expense of our values and, specifically, will not come at the expense of our commitment to human rights. We want to have trade relationships with countries around the world, but ultimately the foundation stone on which all Government activity is built is our commitment to human rights.
I spent 16 years in the European Parliament scrutinising and voting on trade policy. Trade policy is not just about trade; it is an opportunity to raise standards on the environment, human rights and elsewhere. It is therefore really concerning that, in 179 pages, the Department for International Trade’s 2021-22 statement makes no mention of human rights, slave labour or workers’ rights at all. This is a missed opportunity. SNP support for future trade deals cannot be taken for granted—it was not in the European Parliament, as often we did not find them ambitious enough. In a constructive spirit, I urge that we have an FCDO statement to ensure co-operation between the two policy areas so that future trade deals can raise standards in these vital areas.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us due notice that the support of the SNP for future trade arrangements cannot be guaranteed. I had kind of worked that out by myself, because over the past 15 years the SNP has never backed a trade agreement anywhere. There is, no doubt, always a reason for SNP Members to say no to trade agreements. To return to the broader point, our commitment to human rights is a foundation stone of our foreign policy and our “force for good” agenda in the world. We will ensure that we use our trade relationships not just to export products and services but to export our principles and values. He is right that that should be an inherent part of all trade agreements, and indeed it is, but ultimately, given that the SNP will be looking for an excuse to say no to a deal, he, I am sure, will always find one.
Israel and Palestine
When he plans to make a decision on whether the UK will support the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. (902999)
Whether his Department's guidance advising against trade with illegal settlements in the West Bank extends to public bodies. (903010)
The UK Government share the objectives of increasing understanding and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians. UK officials remain in close contact with the US Government regarding the international fund. The US is at the early stages in its planning and, once more information is available, we will consider options for collaboration.
The UK’s overseas business risk guidance is intended to provide guidance for UK businesses to identify and mitigate security and political risks when trading overseas. The guidance is not aimed at public bodies or Her Majesty’s Government. The UK’s position on settlements is clear, and we have articulated it regularly. We regard them as illegal under international law, and they are therefore a risk to the economic and financial activities in settlements. We do not encourage or offer support for such activity.
The UK consulate in Jerusalem has given vocal support to oppose the illegal evictions in Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. What practical action can the UK Government take to ensure that those evictions end? They run contrary to the intentions of the international fund for peace and, as the Minister has just stated, we are opposed to illegal occupations.
The UK enjoys a close and important relationship with Israel, and because we have that close relationship, we are able directly to bring up sensitive issues. I and my ministerial colleagues have brought up with the Israeli Government our opposition to those demolitions.
Given that the Minister has just said that his Department’s policy is not to encourage or support economic and financial activity in settlements, will he at least say that, where public bodies decide that they do not wish to invest in settlements, following his Government’s advice, he will not stand in their way in doing so?
Procurement by public bodies is governed by various public procurement regulations. The Public Contracts Regulations 2015 require contracting authorities to treat all economic operators equally and without discrimination. In addition, the Local Government Act 1988 requires local authorities to exercise their functions in relation to public supply or works contracts without regard to non-commercial matters, which includes the location in any country or territory.
The Minister for Middle East and North Africa indicated earlier that the Government have yet to consider joining the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, because they are awaiting further information. Why are the Government not showing more initiative in working with the US to drive that? Our chief negotiator in Northern Ireland held a similar initiative, the International Fund for Ireland, to be the great unsung hero of the peace process. Does the Minister agree that the middle east need be no different? (903052)
As I said earlier, the UK values and welcomes means for Israelis and Palestinians to work more closely together, and we call on the leadership of both to do so at Government and Palestinian Authority level. We work closely with our US counterparts, and we will continue working with them as they put more details on that fund. Once they are in a position to engage with us in more detail, we will consider that in due course.
I have received more than 2,000 emails from constituents raising their concerns about violence towards worshippers at al-Aqsa mosque, and the threatened evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah. In response to those concerns, will my right hon. Friend outline what steps he has taken to raise those issues directly with the Israeli Government? (903055)
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised this very issue with his Israeli counterpart, I have raised it with the Israeli ambassador, and we have consistently called for sensitivity in the security arrangements around the most holy sites in Jerusalem. We continue to call for a permanent ceasefire, and we will continue to work with all parties, both in the west bank and in Israel, to pursue that aim.