James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to MPs’ questions to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Palestinian Authority: ODA
2. What steps she is taking to ensure that official development assistance to the Palestinian Authority supports the peace process. (903830)
Development programmes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories work to preserve the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution and simultaneously to improve the lives of Palestinians, in line with the UK’s long-standing approach to the middle east peace process. Although the UK will no longer provide direct funding to the Palestinian Authority, we understand the importance of capacity building of Palestinian institutions.
Earlier this year, the long-awaited EU review into the Palestinian Authority’s school curriculum was published, and it confirmed numerous examples of antisemitism. I note the Minister’s recent announcement that the UK is no longer funding Palestinian teachers to draft and deliver this curriculum, but will he ensure that any further UK support to Palestinian education is conditional on a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism, and that that is shown at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East?
I assure my hon. Friend that the UK Government take a zero-tolerance approach to anti- semitism, wherever it is. The reduction in funding to the Palestinian Authority was in direct response to the official development assistance prioritisation review, which was itself in response to the economic constraints driven by covid. We do, however, continue to support the Palestinians through the UNRWA. We will ensure that, as we have done, we continue to press for that education curriculum to be devoid of any examples of antisemitism.
I obviously totally agree with bringing pressure to bear on issues such as antisemitism. Nevertheless, the humanitarian crisis that exists in Gaza in particular ought to shock the world, with a lack of access to clean water and of proper education, particularly for young girls and women in Gaza. As a country, we still ought to support the provision of those things. Can the Minister give us a clear understanding of when that assistance will return, because it matters?
As I said, the UK continues to support UNRWA, which does fantastic work in both the west bank and Gaza. On my recent trip to Egypt, I spoke with Egyptian officials about the work that they had done to help to support Gaza after the conflict. The best thing that we can all do for the people of Gaza, the OPTs and the wider region is to push for a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. That will remain the foundation stone of the UK’s policy in the region.
I welcome the new Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and I hope that she has a long and welcome time in that place.
How can this Government be serious about supporting the peace process and striving for reconciliation when they are cutting aid spending by 71%? With further deeply damaging cuts expected in tomorrow’s Budget and spending review, does the Minister not see that slashing the aid budget fundamentally undermines our national security as well as being against our national interest?
I remind the House that because of covid this country experienced the worst economic contraction in three centuries, and it was absolutely right that we responded to that. We remain, in both absolute and percentage terms, one of the most generous aid donors in the world. We are proud of that record, as I and my right hon. Friends in Government have said. We aim to return to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows.
4. What steps her Department is taking to help protect the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. (903832)
12. What recent steps the Government has taken to provide humanitarian support to the people of Afghanistan. (903841)
13. What recent assessment she has made of the security situation in Afghanistan. (903842)
The security situation in Afghanistan remains fragile and volatile. Islamic State has launched deadly terror attacks, including at Kabul airport and a number of Shi’a mosques. The situation for women and girls has become even more difficult since the Taliban took power. Women are now largely absent from public life and barred from many roles in the workplace. We continue to press the Taliban to allow secondary education for girls to ensure full and equal access to education for all. Between April and 18 October, we disbursed nearly £35 million of life-saving humanitarian support to Afghanistan.
Before the Taliban took control, more than 3.5 million girls were in school, and many more were in university and vital roles across the Afghan economy. Taliban spokesmen say that girls can go to school, yet in many areas they are permitted only up to grade 6 or 7, and in some areas they are not permitted at all. There is a growing gap between the Taliban’s promises and the reality. To those girls and women, it must feel that the doors that opened over the last two decades are slamming shut in their faces, and those who have stood against that have been met by violence. What are our Government doing to give them hope?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question about this incredibly important issue. This year, we are doubling our humanitarian and development assistance to Afghanistan to £286 million, including for women and girls. We continue to press the Taliban to ensure that women play a full and equal role in life and that girls of all ages can go to school, holding the Taliban to the commitments that they have made. On 5 October, the Prime Minister’s high representative for the Afghan transition, Sir Simon Gass, travelled to Afghanistan and held talks directly with the Taliban in which they discussed the humanitarian crisis and we pushed for improved rights for women and girls.
I thank my right hon. Friend for grouping my question. Many colleagues on the Government Benches and across the House have made representations to the Department regarding specific individuals in Afghanistan whose lives, or whose families’ lives, are at risk and would benefit from UK support similar to that given in previous years to our country’s agencies and armed forces while in Afghanistan. If former UK special forces members can vouch for certain individuals, why has the Minister’s Department not acted quickly to patriate these individuals to the safety of the UK? Would it help if they played football?
The Afghan relocations and assistance policy is designed to allow Afghan nationals who served alongside Her Majesty’s armed forces and wider Government in Afghanistan, and those whom we judge to be at serious risk because of that service, to settle in the UK. We continue to assist those who were called forward under that scheme during Operation Pitting. Sadly, we were not able to evacuate all, but we continue to seek to evacuate those who can be evacuated.
My hon. Friend referred to football—I take it that he means the Afghan junior women’s football team. As we have just discussed, the situation for women in Afghanistan is particularly acute and we are prioritising those people who are at serious risk of reprisals.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), the Minister will know that hundreds of people, including men who I served alongside, remain stranded in Afghanistan. Many are being hunted by the Taliban, and some have already been murdered, all because of their association with us. Will the Minister say a bit more about what the Government are doing to ensure that those who risk their lives for us are afforded safe passage out of Afghanistan?
I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for the question. He is right that many people in the House—himself included—have served alongside incredibly brave members of the Afghan armed forces, translators and others who supported our work while we attempted to support the Afghans. The ARAP scheme is designed specifically to facilitate their evacuation from Afghanistan. He, perhaps more than most, will understand the practical difficulties in executing that on the ground.
My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon speaks regularly with the countries in the neighbourhood to facilitate the evacuation from Afghanistan. I assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the UK Government take incredibly seriously the debt of honour that we owe to those brave Afghans who are currently in danger because of their support for our work in the country.
I realise that the Government can do much more for at-risk Afghan women who have managed to cross the border and are outside the country. One thing they can do for at-risk Afghans who are still in Afghanistan is link the provision of extra aid with their not being persecuted. How explicit are we making that link? How strongly are we exploiting that leverage?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. I assure him that we hold the Taliban to their word. They will be judged on their actions, rather than just on what they have said. Clearly, they now find themselves the de facto Government of Afghanistan. We have made it clear that the support from us and the wider international community will be contingent on their behaving in a way that they have said that they intend to behave. We will always base our decisions on Afghanistan on the facts on the ground, not just on the words of Taliban spokespeople.
Like the shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), I welcome the Foreign Secretary and her team to their places.
It has emerged that our ambassador in Kabul sent a series of diplomatic cables to the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), in July and August, warning him that Kabul would fall at pace and with little resistance. The former Foreign Secretary’s response to those urgent telegrams was to go on holiday. Will the new Foreign Secretary assure the House that she is putting early-warning systems in place across her Department to ensure that such a catastrophic failure of decision making is never allowed to occur again? Will she commit to coming to the House within the shortest possible timescale to make a statement outlining our political, diplomatic, economic and security strategy for Afghanistan, as opposed to making policy on the hoof, as her predecessor did?
The hon. Gentleman takes the opportunity to talk about things that have been widely discussed in this House, rather than about the future. That is of course up to him. The former Foreign Secretary explained his actions and there is nothing much more that I can add. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the ministerial team that she leads remain entirely focused on ensuring that where we can exert influence to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan, we will continue to do so.
Pakistan: Maira Shahbaz
6. What discussions her Department has had with officials in the Government of Pakistan on the case of Maira Shahbaz. (903834)
We strongly condemn forced marriage and the forced conversion of women and girls, including in Pakistan. We regularly raise our concerns, including individual cases, at a senior level with the Pakistani authorities. We fund projects in Pakistan to address child and forced marriages, gender-based violence, and discrimination and intolerance, especially against minorities.
At the age of 14, Maira Shahbaz was abducted, forced into a marriage against her will, and raped. She managed to escape, and she is living in fear for her life in one room with her entire family. We have now been campaigning for over a year, 12,000 people have signed a petition, and we saw the Home Secretary. Can the Foreign Office not do more? Is it for fear of alienating the Pakistan Government, to whom we give £300 million a year? Can we have action this day to move the court case on, get her out, and get her to safety in the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend will understand that it is difficult and sometimes counterproductive to discuss individual cases in detail, as to do so could put individuals and their families at risk. The House, and indeed hon. Members, will have heard his points, and I assure him that requests for asylum will be considered on their merits.
Child marriage is an abhorrent practice wherever it is found, and I urge the House to support the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) in her Bill to ban it in this country. I welcome the Foreign Secretary to her place, and particularly the fact that she has kept the women and girls brief. Will she explain why, in her first week in the job, she signed off £183 million in cuts to education for women and girls, when such funding is one of the key drivers to prevent child marriage?
I assure the Chair of the International Development Committee, and the whole House, that my right hon. Friend, the Department, and the wider Government take the rights of women around the world incredibly seriously. Education for girls remains a priority for the Prime Minister, and we will continue to advocate for that internationally, and fight for that as a priority within Government.
Safe Passage from Afghanistan
10. What diplomatic steps she is taking to support the safe passage of (a) UK citizens and (b) Afghan nationals from Afghanistan. (903839)
21. What steps her Department is taking to assist vulnerable Afghans leave Afghanistan to places of safety. (903850)
The Government continue to do all they can to ensure safe passage of eligible individuals who wish to leave Afghanistan. The UK has had constructive engagement with near neighbours, led by my noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon. British nationals continue to be facilitated and supported in their exit from Afghanistan, including through Qatar Airways flights. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met Afghan evacuees and the Qatari authorities on this very issue on her recent trip.
I thank the Minister for that answer and the Secretary of State for her recent update on this issue. It is important to acknowledge the considerable efforts that are being made, but concerns persist for those who remain and are seeking refuge or safe passage from Afghanistan. Members will understand that I cannot name my constituents for fear of putting their relatives in a deeply perilous state, but what more can the Government do to assist hon. Members to alleviate the anguish and distress of constituents with loved ones in Afghanistan? Will the Government commit to working with Members to secure safe passage from Afghanistan, removing their constituents from immediate risk?
The situation in Afghanistan is painful for us all. Three routes have been set up: for British nationals, through the Foreign Office; for Afghan nationals, through the Home Office; and for those who have supported us directly, through the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. We continue to engage directly with the Taliban. The Prime Minister’s High Representative for Afghanistan, Simon Gass, and the Chargé d’Affaires of the UK mission to Afghanistan based in Doha, Dr Martin Longden, travelled to Afghanistan on 5 October to have direct talks with the Taliban, and to hold them to the commitments they have made about respecting and protecting people within Afghanistan.
Outside the ARAP scheme and within Operation Pitting, a number of other people were called forward for evacuation. Can the Minister give the House full transparency in terms of how many people were actually called forward, how many people were evacuated, and how many of that cohort still remain in Afghanistan?
Since 28 August, over 500 more individuals eligible to come to the UK have been able to leave Afghanistan, as well as more than 400 British nationals and their dependants. We have assisted over 135 British nationals and their dependants to leave Afghanistan on Qatar-chartered flights. The total number of people who may be eligible is almost impossible for us to assess with clarity.
Bahrain: Political and Human Rights
11. What recent assessment she has made of the political and human rights situation in Bahrain. (903840)
We continue to monitor the political and human rights developments in Bahrain. Bahrain is a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office human rights priority country. We publish our assessment of the situation, including on areas of concern and areas of improvement in Bahrain, in the annual FCDO human rights report, most recently published on 8 July 2021. The details the hon. Lady requires are available in that document.
Over a decade after pro-democracy protests were crushed and oversight mechanisms, which the UK helped to fund, were adopted, cosmetic reforms have failed to remedy Bahrain’s deep-rooted problems. Will the Government show their commitment to Bahrain and publicly call for meaningful and inclusive political dialogue there, and for the unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Dr al-Singace, Hassan Mushaima, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and Sheikh Ali Salman?
The United Kingdom enjoys a constructive relationship with Bahrain, which means that where there are areas of concern we are able to bring them up directly. I myself have done so in bilateral meetings I have had with Bahraini officials, both here in the UK and on my trips to Bahrain. We continue to monitor the cases the hon. Lady raises, and others as necessary.
Iran: Middle East Terror Groups
14. What assessment she has made of the implications for regional security of Iran’s potential support for terror groups in the Middle East. (903843)
The UK has long condemned Iran’s regional destabilising activities. We regularly raise our concerns at the United Nations, most recently doing so on 9 August. We support the security of our allies in the middle east, including defence partnerships and capability building. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed continued security collaboration with her Saudi counterparts on 20 October and her Israeli counterparts on 19 October.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Iran remains the world’s leading sponsor of terror groups, including those committed to the destruction of Israel, and continues to enjoy impunity for its actions. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that having a nuclear weapon would give Iran the ultimate protection to spread its malign influence in the region? Will he confirm that the UK will keep all options on the table to stop Iran becoming a nuclear power?
I can assure my hon. Friend that our priority remains to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. Sadly, Iran’s nuclear programme has never been more advanced, and it is more worrying today than perhaps it has ever been. We regularly call strongly on Iran to halt all activities in violation of the joint comprehensive plan of action without delay and take the opportunity in front of it at the Vienna talks to restore the JCPOA. The current offer cannot remain on the table indefinitely.
T4. I welcome the Secretary of State to her position. Will she update the House on her Government’s recent discussions with international allies on restarting a meaningful peace process between Palestine and the Israeli Government? Will she describe the personal importance that she attaches to achieving a two-state solution? (903857)
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary engages regularly with the leadership of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It remains a foundation stone of UK foreign policy in the region to pursue, support and, where possible, facilitate a two-state solution based on 1967 lines with agreed land swaps and Jerusalem as a shared capital of both states.
T8. I have been informed of unfortunate cases of constituents who are unable to return home from Pakistan owing to disparities in international travel laws, including the fact that certain Pakistan-administered vaccines are not recognised by the UK Government. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Ministry of Defence will open discussions with Pakistani counterparts to find a solution, and will work with colleagues in the Department for Transport to ensure that my constituents who want to return home from Pakistan are able to do so safely? (903861)
Pakistan is a significant, important and close partner to the UK. Travellers from Pakistan can come to the UK freely provided that they adhere to the relevant covid-19 restrictions, the details of which are on the gov.uk website. We will continue to work with our Pakistani colleagues to reopen international travel safely.
T9. What evidence have the Government of Israel given the Foreign Secretary or her Department to justify the designation of six Palestinian human rights organisations as terrorist organisations? Does she agree with me—and, indeed, with the assessment of B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organisation—that this is not worthy of a democracy, and is more what we expect from repressive regimes? (903862)
The UK’s relationship with Israel is strong and important, and the strength of that relationship allows us to raise sensitive issues such as this. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will be speaking to our friends and colleagues in the Israeli Government about the reasons why they felt that they needed to designate those organisations.