James Cleverly MP, Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, answers MPs’ questions.
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Israel and Palestine
1. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the security and human rights situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (904049)
11. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of recent violence in Israel and Palestine. (904059)
14. Whether his Department is taking steps to support the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. (904062)
15. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of recent violence in Israel and Palestine. (904063)
24. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the security and human rights situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (904072)
The security situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories remains fragile. Last week I spoke with my Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, and urged both sides to take steps to de-escalate and avoid a cycle of violence. We welcome the United States’ Middle East Partnership for Peace Act and the proposals for increased international funding for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Let me begin by condemning the recent spike in violence and bloodshed in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and on behalf of us all I pay respect to all Palestinian and Israeli victims of conflict. The Secretary of State’s Department has acknowledged that there is a culture of impunity when it comes to crimes committed by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, and the SNP wholeheartedly agrees. What are the Government doing to encourage Israel to end the widespread and systematic discrimination against Palestinian populations? Will he outline any of the concrete steps that have been taken to deter land seizures, home demolitions, and the forced evictions of Palestinian people and their communities?
The UK enjoys a strong bilateral relationship with Israel, which allows us to raise issues where we disagree. We have disagreed with settlement expansion, which we have raised directly, and we also disagree with the demolition of Palestinian homes. Our position on that is long standing and consistent. In my most recent conversations with the Israeli Foreign Minister, I raised our concerns about the speculation of settlement building on the E1 territories in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I am pleased that there has now been a moratorium on such expansions, because to do so would be damaging to the prospects of a sustainable two-state solution.
In February I visited Masafer Yatta in the south Hebron hills, where the Israeli Government are planning to evict more than 1,000 Palestinians from their homes. That sits alongside Prime Minister Netanyahu’s election pledge to annex west bank settlements, amounting to 30% of the territory, while Finance Minister Smotrich recently said that the village of Huwara should be “wiped out”. Has the Foreign Secretary raised those matters with his Israeli counterpart, and how does he intend to ensure that the new Israeli Government abide by their obligations under international law?
We raise issues of settlement expansion with the Government of Israel, and I have raised with my Israeli counterpart the need for a careful use of language. I have raised with both my Palestinian and Israeli counterparts the need for all of us to try to find ways of de-escalating the tensions. At this stage, that must rightly be the priority for us all, while we continue to work with the Israeli Government on ensuring that we keep a sustainable two-state solution alive.
Five years ago, the British Government became the first in the world to endorse a concept of an international fund for Israeli and Palestinian peace. Since then, warm words have followed, but very little action. Given the desperate need for that fund right now, with the deterioration of the situation in Israel and Palestine, will the UK Government commit again to leading on that fund? Will the Foreign Secretary use the opportunity of the G7 summit in May to get other international partners lined up as well?
People-to-people links between Israelis and Palestinians are incredibly important, and we fund projects to build co-operation, whether at Government-to-Government level, or people to people. We remain in close contact with our US counterparts about the international fund for peace. We want to ensure that it is the most effective use of funding allocated towards people-to-people links, and we will always look favourably at projects to build greater peace and co-operation. We want to ensure that anything we subscribe to, or any funding we commit, is allocated to the most effective way of bringing about that reconciliation.
In the west bank town of Hawara, over 400 settlers, backed by Israeli soldiers, torched Palestinian homes, businesses and vehicles, and killed 37-year-old Sameh Aqtash, in what senior Israel Defense Forces commanders have called a pogrom. Israel’s Finance Minister Smotrich, who describes himself as a fascist homophobe, openly said Hawara should be wiped out. Such extremism is given licence by a lack of international accountability, so will the Foreign Secretary, if he agrees with the rule of international law, commit to banning all goods sourced from Israeli settlements illegally built on occupied Palestinian land?
As I have said in answer to other questions, we have made it clear that the language used with regard to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories needs to be de-escalatory. It needs to be carefully thought through. Inflammatory language, as we have seen, is unacceptable. The behaviour of those settlers is unacceptable. That has been recognised by the Israeli authorities and we want to make sure that those people are held to account for the actions they have taken. We will always seek to reinforce the viability of a future Palestinian state as part of a sustainable two-state solution. The decision with regard to settlement goods is long standing and we do not speculate about any changes to those positions.
I welcomed the recent joint commitment by the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority to reduce the surge in violence, and the Israeli Government’s pledge to halt new settlement constructions, but on the very day that commitment was signed, Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted:
“Contrary to tweets, construction and regulation in Judea and Samaria”—
the west bank—
“will continue according to the original planning and construction schedule, without any changes. There is and will not be any freeze.”
That is an indication of further violations of international law. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that whatever his diplomatic approach is at the moment, it simply is not working?
The United Kingdom has a like-minded position alongside a number of our international friends and allies. We seek to protect the viability of a sustainable two-state solution. We raised with the Israeli Government our concerns about activities that might put that future at risk. That is not something the UK does alone; it is something we do in close co-ordination with a number of our international friends and allies. That will continue to be our diplomatic stance.
Last Thursday, a Hamas terrorist shot three Israelis in the heart of Tel Aviv, just a few streets away from the British embassy. Shooting and bombing attacks have rocked Israel for over a year now and this wave appears to be intensifying. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those attacks? What meaningful steps can he take to counter the resurgence in terrorist activity?
The UK Government condemn terrorism in all its forms. Whatever criticism Palestinians may have of the Israeli Government, there is no justification for terrorist action. We always encourage dialogue, we always encourage co-operation and we always encourage actions that de-escalate. That will continue to be our posture with regard to Israel and the OPTs.
The only way to permanently end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is to deliver Palestinian self-determination and preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic identity through a peaceful two-state solution. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that his Department remains committed to achieving that solution based on 1967 borders and the recognition of Palestine as a state?
Our position on a sustainable two-state solution is long standing. We will always encourage Israel to take actions that support that and we have the same conversations with representatives of the Palestinian Authority. We encourage dialogue, we encourage negotiation, we encourage co-operation and we encourage de-escalation.
The emergence of Lions’ Den, a new terrorist group to go alongside Hamas, Hezbollah and many other Islamic terrorist groups, is clearly a threat to Israel’s security, and indeed that of the Palestinians. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of Lions’ Den and what co-operation is he pursuing with the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government to combat this new form of terrorism?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We will address terrorism in close co-operation with the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, neither of whom have an incentive or desire to allow terrorism to flourish. We will continue our close co-operation with the security services in Israel to try to ensure that Palestinians, Israelis and Brits in the region are all kept safe.
When I raised these issues, the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and chief negotiator simply stormed out of the meeting. Does there come a time when simply raising issues is not enough?
It is better than not raising them, I would suggest.
I call the shadow Minister.
As we have already heard, on 26 February, following the appalling murder of two Israelis, a violent mob of 400 settlers attacked the Palestinian town of Hawara, killing one, injuring hundreds, and burning buildings and cars. As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald) said, a far-right Minister in the Israeli Government called for Hawara to be wiped out. That shocking incident is part of the deteriorating situation in the occupied west bank and the wider problem of settler violence, for which too often no one is held to account. Again, will the Government press the Israeli authorities to condemn and crack down on these shocking incidents of settler violence?
There has been condemnation of those actions within the Israeli system. We are always clear that where there is lawbreaking, authorities should take action. Within the Israeli system there has been recognition of the action being illegal and provocative, and therefore we will continue to work with the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority to find ways of de-escalating the situation and striving for peace, and for what ultimately is in the best interests of Palestinians, Israelis and the region: a peaceful and sustainable two-state solution.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
In February we welcomed the moratorium on new construction in settlement areas, as the Foreign Secretary has described. As we heard, that was followed by an immediate and blatant breach of trust by the Israeli Prime Minister. The Foreign Secretary says that it is better to raise issues than not, but how does he measure success in raising them, because we see absolutely no evidence of success?
I do not think it is news to anyone in the House that the situation in Israel and the OPTs is complicated and long standing. We are not the only country in the world that raises these important issues, and we can continue to do so because we have a strong working relationship with both the Government of Israel and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority—as I said, I had conversations with both very recently. We will continue to work at what we think is in everyone’s interests: a sustainable two-state solution. We will not be fatalistic about it. We will not give up just because it is difficult. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that we should walk away just because it is a long-standing challenge, that is up to him. We will not abandon the Israelis or the Palestinian people. We will continue working for a sustainable two-state solution.
Sanctioned Russian Assets
4. Whether he is taking steps to seize and repurpose sanctioned Russian assets to assist the reconstruction of Ukraine. (904052)
The simple principle is that Russia should pay for the harm and damage that it has caused. We must ensure that any proposals are robust, safe and compliant with domestic and international law, and we will of course consider all lawful routes to ensure that Russia pays for the damage and harm it has caused.
The UK Government have frozen Russian assets, but the EU has already set out a plan to shift such assets into a fund to help to rebuild Ukraine, and Canada has already passed a law to do the same. What is stopping us? Why can we not do the same?
Both those projects are still in train; neither has come to a conclusion and no country has liquidated frozen assets. As I say, anything that we do needs to be in complete compliance with both domestic and international law.
Reconstruction of Ukraine will also require rehabilitating and helping women. In the wake of what we have done on preventing sexual violence in conflict, what steps will we now be able to take to help those who have been victims of sexual violence?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has done in this area for many years. I am proud of the fact that the UK has been at the forefront of the campaigns for preventing sexual violence in conflict. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad organised a conference on this very issue last year. We must ensure that the perpetrators, the facilitators and those ordering this brutality are all held to account, and we will work with our international partners to ensure that that happens.
I call the shadow Minister.
Ukraine’s 2023 budget alone has a $38 billion gap, and the cost of the damage done to critical infrastructure runs into the hundreds of billions. There is one party responsible: Russia. We support the Government’s plans for a reconstruction conference this summer, but we cannot have any dragging of the heels in making Russia foot the bill for its barbarous war. We have heard about other international examples, so when will the Foreign Secretary set out a clear plan to seize—not just freeze—Russian state assets and repurpose them?
The sad but simple truth is that it is not as easy as the hon. Gentleman’s question implies. The fact is that there have been conflicts around the world before and there have been perpetrators before, but there has never been a seizure of assets. As I say, we need to ensure that we are compliant with both domestic and international law. We will look carefully at the proposals being explored and tested by our close friends and allies, but I can reassure him and the House that we will ensure, working in close co-operation with our friends internationally, that Russia pays for the brutality that we are seeing in Ukraine.
Iran: Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
6. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ role in Iran’s internal repression and activity in the region. (904054)
The UK will continue to hold the Iranian regime, including the IRGC, to account for its repression. We have imposed sanctions on the individuals involved in the repression of women in Iran, and we continue to sanction the IRGC in its entirety.
Order. Mark, wait for two questions.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary for his answer, but the evidence of the IRGC’s brutality in Iran, particularly towards women, is clear. The evidence of its wider malign influence in the region is clear. Likewise its links supporting Russia and its reach to Europe, including threats on these shores. How much more evidence do he and the Government need to see before they do what I have asked many times in this Chamber and proscribe the IRGC?
As I said, the IRGC is already sanctioned in its entirety. Where it is involved in illegal activity, our security forces and police take action, and I commend the action they take. We do not routinely discuss future designations and sanctions, but we will always take actions that protect the British people and British interests and that deter malign activity.
Like the hon. Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), I have repeatedly come to this Chamber to ask about proscribing the IRGC, which is widely recognised on both sides of the House as a bunch of clerical fascists and homicidal maniacs who particularly enjoy torturing and murdering women. I suspect the Foreign Secretary agrees with us, so why does he not take the final step and proscribe the IRGC?
The actions this Government take with regard to the IRGC are to deter its malign activity within its own borders, within the region and here in the UK and to protect British citizens, including dual nationals, and British interests overseas. We will always act in accordance with those principles. As I say, the UK Government do not routinely speculate on future designations.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (904074)
Yesterday I set out how the Government will ensure that the country remains safe, prosperous and influential. In San Diego yesterday afternoon the Prime Minister, alongside President Biden and Prime Minister Albanese, announced that we will deliver a multi-billion-pound conventionally armed but nuclear-powered submarine capability to the Royal Australian Navy.
Last month we negotiated the Windsor framework for Northern Ireland with our European Union colleagues, and last week at the UK-French summit we struck a deal that will help to stop the boats bringing illegal migrants to the UK.
On Ukraine, the UK stands ready to provide a further $500 million of World Bank loan guarantees to cover the cost of vital Government services. We are accelerating delivery of our £2.3 billion-worth of military aid and Challenger tanks and will keep—
Order. I call Matt Vickers.
On behalf of the people of Stockton South, I offer our deepest condolences to the families of victims of last month’s devastating Turkish-Syrian earthquake. I was glad to see the Government’s fast response in sending humanitarian aid, but can my right hon. Friend ensure that the UK will assist both Syria and Turkey in elaborating strategies to prevent any future natural disaster from having such a devastatingly high fatality rate?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Development Minister, who travelled to the region shortly after the earthquakes, keeping a close eye on the swift financial and technical response we deployed. I can assure both my hon. Friend and the House that we will continue to pay close attention to the humanitarian need as a direct result of the series of earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.
I call the shadow Minister.
In recent weeks, allies in the US and EU have moved to ban TikTok from Government phones, but the UK Government’s response is to say that it is a personal choice. Will the Foreign Secretary clarify whether the Government will recommend a Government agency ban, or whether the UK will be behind the curve again?
As it is a security matter, this issue is taken up by the Security Minister, which is a Home Office competency.
T3. Last week, the UK warned that the regime in Tehran is now dangerously close to weapons-related activities, after Iran was caught enriching uranium to 83.7% by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Considering that Iran has systematically escalated its nuclear activities in the face of diplomatic efforts, does my right hon. Friend agree that the time has now come for a snapback in sanctions, as enshrined in the joint comprehensive plan of action? (904076)
We continue to work closely with our international partners and the leadership of the IAEA on Iran’s nuclear activities. Our position is clear: it is unacceptable for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon or nuclear weapon technology. We will continue to work with our international allies to prevent that from happening.
T6. Many people who come here on small boats are fleeing war where this country has sold weapons, natural disasters where this Government have given up on tackling climate change, and hunger and disease where this Government have slashed the aid budget. How does anything in yesterday’s integrated review tackle the push factors that cause so much displacement and migration in the first place? (904079)
The integrated review published yesterday sets out a comprehensive approach to dealing with all those issues, including migration in particular. Migration is a complex area that requires a whole series of different interventions. There is, alas, no silver bullet.
T5. The behaviour of Iran is increasingly concerning, particularly that of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) said earlier. What more will my right hon. Friend do, particularly by working with our allies, to ensure that we attack that threat head on? (904078)
We have sanctioned individuals and entities in response to their malign behaviour, including the sanctioning of the IRGC in its entirety. We continue to work very closely with our international allies and friends in the region to deter Iran and the IRGC from further such actions.
T7. I was in Ukraine two weeks ago, where I heard stories of horrific war crimes by Russian forces against the Ukrainian people, including sexual crimes and rapes of children as young as four and of women as old as 90. What are the Government doing to ensure that a special tribunal is set up for the crime of aggression? (904080)
We continue to work with the International Criminal Court on ensuring that it is able to bring people to justice. We are working closely with our friends internationally to look at what other legal vehicles we may need to ensure that everybody—from perpetrators and facilitators right up to the decision makers in Moscow—is held to account for the brutality and perverse actions taken by Russian troops in Ukraine.
The abduction, so-called re-education and illegal adoption of 6,000 Ukrainian children is an act of genocide. So far, the UK has sanctioned only two Russian governors who are complicit in that activity, which has clearly been learned from China in Tibet and Xinjiang. Will we now back the Avaaz campaign and sanction the further eight responsible individuals, including the directors of the so-called boarding houses for Ukrainian children?
The abduction, forcible deportation and—to all intents and purposes—kidnapping of Ukrainian children is a terrible and perverse act. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that we will not rest until the people who are involved in that are held to account. She will know that we do not routinely discuss future sanctions designations, but I can assure her that, with our international partners, we look very closely at that terrible state of affairs.
The Ukrainian economy is suffering immeasurably because of the war imposed by Russia. One of the things that would help the Ukrainian economy now and post conflict is more joint ventures with western multinationals, which help with not just economic growth but governance reforms. What steps are we taking to help Ukrainian companies to partner with western multinationals?
My hon. Friend makes the right point. As well as ensuring that the Russians who have violated Ukraine repair the damage they have caused, there will be a need for a long-term relationship to rebuild the Ukrainian economy. UK Export Finance will help British-based companies to help Ukrainians rebuild their homeland once we have helped them to successfully defend themselves against this invasion.
For the past 15 months, my team and I have been battling to bring five British children who are in hiding in Kabul to safety. Their British father was blown up by the Taliban. Their Afghan mother will not be granted a visa by the Home Office and they are too young to travel alone. Neither the Foreign Office nor the Home Office are responding to my correspondence on this case. Please will the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers grant me an urgent meeting, so that we can bring this family to safety?
I will look into the point that the hon. Lady has made about her correspondence not being responded to, and I will—[Interruption.] I will, of course, take the opportunity to meet with her to find out the situation. As she knows, we do not have a consular presence in Afghanistan, but our consular teams in neighbouring countries provide remote support for British nationals overseas.
Earlier in this session, we heard about the importance of respecting self-determination when it comes to the future of the Falkland Islands. Can my right hon. Friend update the House with regard to consultations with the Chagossian people on the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory?
My right hon. Friend Lord Goldsmith had a meeting with representatives of the Chagossian community. We will ensure that, as far as we can, we keep those lines of communication open.
On 25 January, in the urgent question on whether the Government had assisted the Wagner Group in circumventing UK sanctions, I asked the Minister, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), how many exceptions and waivers to the rules there had been over the past two years. The Minister said that a letter would be sent to me. It is now 14 March, so will the Foreign Secretary ensure that that letter is sent to me?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing that issue to my attention. I will find out why there has been such a protracted delay, and ensure that he gets a response in good time.
AerCap is the largest provider of commercial aircraft in the world and, after the imposition of sanctions, it required a number of leased aircraft in Russia to be returned. That has not happened; instead, those aircraft have been re-registered in Russia, and continue to fly and operate. I know that there is a court case on the issue of loss with the insurance industry, but do the Government consider that to be an example of sanctions evasion?
It is very difficult for me to come to an assessment based just on the points made in the hon. Gentleman’s question. I am more than happy to look at the matter in more detail, if he will write to me about it or catch me privately. As I say, with regard to the legal action, he will understand that the Government cannot comment while that is ongoing.
I recently visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and what I saw made a deep and lasting impression on me. Does the Minister agree with me and with former Israeli ambassador Ilan Baruch, whom I met yesterday, that the UK and others must stop giving Israel impunity for its illegal actions under international law and again become serious and active players for peace?
I assure the hon. Lady that we want nothing more than peace in that region. I have visited the OPTs and have met representatives of the Palestinian Authority and Israelis. Of course, it is in everybody’s interest that we have peace in the region: it is in the interests both of Israelis and Palestinians and of the wider region. That will continue to be at the heart of UK foreign policy in the region.
British nationals Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof still remain incarcerated in Iran. What is the Foreign Secretary going to do to bring them home?
I assure the right hon. Lady that we continue to make every effort to support British dual nationals incarcerated in Iran. This remains an ongoing piece of work, and she will understand that it is not always possible, or in the best interests of the individuals, for us to go into details. However, I assure her that it remains a priority for the UK, and is one of the reasons why it is important that we maintain a bilateral diplomatic relationship with Iran.
The Foreign Secretary will be well aware of the huge demonstrations in Israel opposing the Government’s plans to control the judiciary, which will undermine the rule of law—a situation described by the President of Israel yesterday as “very serious”. Does the Foreign Secretary share President Herzog’s concerns?
Ultimately, of course, the Government of Israel need to understand that they have a responsibility to the people of Israel. We always suggest that, when there are protests, Governments listen to why those protests are happening, and of course, we want to see Israel abide by the rule of law.
The Russell Group has co-ordinated new research, highlighting the scale of the ongoing delays in the academic technology approval scheme, which is having a detrimental impact on students, research projects and universities. These delays have already led to businesses retracting funding and PhD applicants withdrawing from UK opportunities. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his Cabinet colleagues about that, and will he meet me to discuss the Russell Group findings?
We recognise that international students coming to UK universities is an incredibly important part of our economy. That is important for our soft power internationally, and it is one of those things where the knowledge that those students take back to their countries of origin helps those countries, too. We recognise how important it is, and I will continue to work with other Departments to ensure that our international offer to students remains top quality.