James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to an Urgent Question on the level of aid funding to Yemen.
Yemen: Aid Funding
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, if he will make a statement on the level of aid funding to Yemen.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for raising this urgent question. The situation in Yemen remains among the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Two thirds of the entire population—more than 20 million people—require some form of humanitarian assistance. The UN estimates that in the first half of this year, 47,000 people will be in famine conditions and 16.2 million will be at risk of starvation. Improving the dire circumstances faced by so many Yemenis continues to be a priority for this Government.
Yesterday, I attended the high-level pledging conference for the United Nations humanitarian appeal for Yemen. I announced that the UK will provide at least—I repeat, at least—£87 million in aid to Yemen over the course of financial year 2021-22. Our total aid contribution since the conflict began was already over £1 billion. This new pledge will feed an additional 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month, support 400 health clinics and provide clean water for 1.6 million people. We will also provide one-off cash support to 1.5 million of Yemen’s poorest households to help them buy food and basic supplies.
Alongside the money that the UK is spending to reduce humanitarian suffering in Yemen, we continue to play a leading diplomatic role in support of the UN’s efforts to end the conflict. Yesterday, I spoke to the United Nations special envoy, Martin Griffiths, and we discussed how the UK could assist him in ending this devastating war. Last week, the United Nations Security Council adopted a UK-drafted resolution that reiterated the Council’s support for the United Nations peace process, condemned the Houthi offensive in Marib and attacks on Saudi Arabia and sanctioned Houthi official Sultan Zabin for the use of sexual violence as a tool of war.
Just last night, a Houthi missile hit and injured five civilians in southern Saudi Arabia. I condemn that further attack by the Houthis on civilian targets in Saudi Arabia and reiterate our commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend itself.
We are also working closely with our regional and international partners for peace. On 25 February, the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Saudi Foreign Minister, Faisal bin Farhan, about the Yemen peace process, and he also recently discussed this with the US Secretary of State. I discussed Yemen with the Omani ambassador to the UK on 4 February and spoke to the Yemeni Foreign Minister on 20 January regarding the attack on Aden and the formation of a new Yemeni Cabinet.
The UK is also leading efforts to tackle covid-19 in Yemen and around the world. This month, as part of the UN Security Council presidency, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary called for a ceasefire across the globe to allow vulnerable people living in conflict zones to be vaccinated against covid-19. The UK, as one the biggest donors to the World Health Organisation and GAVI’s COVAX initiative, is helping ensure that millions of vaccine doses get through to people living in crises such as Yemen.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this question and thank hon. Members for their continued interest in Yemen. The conflict and humanitarian crisis deserves our attention, and the UK Government remain fully committed to doing what we can to help secure a better future for Yemenis.
The Minister is a decent fellow and will not have enjoyed what he announced yesterday. Last night, he will have heard the United Nations Secretary-General tell him that, for Yemen,
“cutting aid is a death sentence.”
Cutting it by 50% is unconscionable. As Sir Mark Lowcock, a senior and respected British official at the UN, said, millions of Yemeni children
“will continue the slow, agonising and obscene process of starving to death”.
I understand that I remain the only European politician who has recently been into Sa’dah in north Yemen to see an acute malnutrition ward in the hospital there, part-funded by the British taxpayer—life-saving work, which will now be halved. My right hon. Friend told the House just last month that
“Yemen will remain a UK priority”—[Official Report, 8 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 31.]
and yet the fifth richest country in the world is cutting support by more than half to one of the poorest countries in the world—and during a global pandemic.
Every single Member of this House was elected just over a year ago on a promise to maintain the 0.7%. Aid has already been cut under that formula because our economy has contracted, but the Government told the House that they would protect seven strategic priorities, including “human preparedness and response”. No one in this House believes that the Foreign Secretary wants to do this. It is a harbinger of terrible cuts to come. Everyone in this House knows that the cut to the 0.7% is not a result of tough choices; it is a strategic mistake with deadly consequences.
Mr Speaker, this is not who we are. This is not how global Britain acts. We are a generous, decent country. The 0.7% is enshrined in law. This House must surely have a vote. We must all search our consciences.
I genuinely thank my right hon. Friend. He speaks with authority and passion as an experienced Member of this House and as a former Secretary of State for International Development. I remind the House that the commitment we made at the pledging conference represents a floor, not a ceiling, and that the figures that we have ultimately distributed in previous years have, in every one of those years, exceeded the figure pledged. We are going through a process at the moment where we work out how we distribute our official development assistance. In whatever way that process concludes, we will remain, in both absolute and percentage terms, one of the most generous ODA-donating countries in the world, and to Yemen itself, we still remain one of the largest donors to that humanitarian crisis.
I now call the shadow Minister, Preet Kaur Gill, who also has two minutes.
The Government’s announcement yesterday at the high pledging conference discarded the British people’s proud history of stepping up and supporting those in need. In the middle of a pandemic, when millions stand on the brink of famine, the Government slashed life-saving support to the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, halving direct aid to Yemen weeks after they announced £1.36 billion in new arms licences to Saudi Arabia. This is a devastating reminder of the real world impact that the Government’s choices to abandon their manifesto commitment on aid will have on the most vulnerable people and shows that this Government just cannot be trusted to keep their word.
After six years of brutal conflict, two thirds of the Yemeni population rely on food aid to survive and thousands of people in the country are at risk of famine. Cutting aid is a death sentence that this Government have chosen to make, so will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise? Alongside this cut in humanitarian support, the UK continues to sustain the war in Yemen. Will the Minister follow the lead set by President Biden by stopping all UK arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition, so that we can use our role as the penholder on Yemen to help bring this brutal conflict to an end?
If the Foreign Secretary is willing to brazenly slash support to people living in the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, despite claiming for months that humanitarian crises were a priority, then the question is, what is going to happen to the rest of the aid budget on other priorities? The Minister has refused
“to talk to the aid and development community about what will be cut”
because he is ashamed. He is ashamed that the Government’s cuts will put millions of people’s lives at risk. This Government cannot continue to pretend otherwise. So will they publish a full list of the cuts made in 2020 and of the cuts to be made in 2021 by the end of this week?
What we saw yesterday are not the actions of global Britain. That phrase rings hollow. Make no mistake: as the UK abandons its commitment to 0.7%, it is simultaneously undermining our global reputation. Does the Minister believe that he has the support of this House to make this appalling cut and, if so, will he bring forward a vote on the 0.7% commitment? Tomorrow, the Chancellor has a choice. He must reverse his decision to make the UK the only G7 nation to cut its aid budget. He must reverse his Government’s retreat from the world stage and celebrate Britain’s proud history as a country that stands up for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable in society. That is the true test of global Britain.
Our aid budget, our ODA spend, is incredibly important. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made it clear that, this year, that figure will remain at £10 billion. That £10 billion represents one of the largest aid budgets in both absolute terms and relative terms in the globe. The hon. Member speaks about the change from 0.7% to 0.5%. I remind the House that Labour politicians have been talking about 0.7% of GNI as an ODA budget for decades, yet they never once got near it. Even in years of benign economic circumstances, they never went above 0.51%. Under Conservative Prime Ministers, this country has spent 0.7% consistently, and we have done so even in difficult economic circumstances. As I am sure the Chancellor will outline tomorrow in the Budget, we are now presented with a unique set of economic circumstances that are unprecedented in our lifetime, representing a constriction of the UK economy unseen in centuries. And yet, against that backdrop, we maintain a commitment to spend £10 billion on the international stage.
Money is not the only thing that the UK can deploy in support of the people of Yemen. I outlined in departmental questions the work that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has done at the international level to bring about change in the UN Security Council. I spoke yesterday with Martin Griffiths, the UN special representative, about the diplomatic efforts the UK can bring to bear to bring about the end of the conflict, because that is the precursor to a truly sustainable improvement in the situation. That is why we condemn the continued attacks by the Houthis and those who support them. That is why we have sanctioned senior Houthi leaders for the use of sexual violence as a tool of war, and that is why we will continue working bilaterally and internationally to bring about a conclusion to this terrible conflict.
I welcome my right hon. Friend saying that this is a “floor, not a ceiling”; I hope that the ceiling will be somewhat greater than he has announced. Does he agree that the UK’s position, while generous, leaves a large gap if there is any cut, and the world’s poorest will be the ones to suffer? Has he reached out to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman to ask them to help fill the gap, or perhaps even Iran, which has used the Houthi people as its tools and instruments of violence in the region? Has he asked it to stop the instrumentalisation of terror and to perhaps fund the rebuilding after the destruction that it has caused?
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee makes a very good point about the convening power that the UK can exercise and the strong bilateral relations we have with countries in the region. I am pleased to see that a number of countries in the Gulf were very generous, even though they, like us, are suffering from economic difficulties. We will continue to lobby the international community for support. I have not had and, unfortunately, I do not think we currently enjoy, the bilateral relations with Iran to make credible requests, or to make requests that will be forthcoming, but we will continue to encourage and push Iran to be a better regional neighbour and a better regional partner. In the immediate term, we strongly encourage Iran to stop supporting the Houthis, and we encourage the Houthis to end their campaign of violence against Yemenis and Saudis alike.
I call the SNP spokesperson Chris Law, who has one minute.
Gosh, this Government should hang their head in shame. The UK cutting humanitarian aid to Yemen by 50% is confirmation that the UK Government are playing a pivotal role in the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. The UK has shamefully confirmed that it will continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, laying bare the reality of this Government’s vision for global Britain—profiteering from weapons without concern for the devastation they cause, and relinquishing its responsibility to those who are starving and to save lives. Let us be in no doubt: this is not global Britain—this is more like little Britain.
Indeed, the UK is actively adding to 16 million people being put into hunger, 5 million civilians facing starvation and more than 3 million people being displaced as a result of this conflict. As Mark Lowcock said at the UN,
“If you’re not feeding the people, you’re feeding the war.”
In response to continued SNP calls to halt UK arms sales to the Saudis, this Government have always stated that they are also the biggest aid contributor, in order to clear their conscience. So I ask the Minister: is his conscience still clear, and what is this Government’s response going to be following these death sentence cuts?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that the United Kingdom remains one of the largest donor countries—not just to the Yemen humanitarian crisis appeal, but on the international stage. I also remind him that, just yesterday, Houthis sent missile attacks against civilians that injured Saudis and Yemenis alike. The best thing that can happen to secure a sustainable humanitarian improvement is the end of the conflict, and the UK is working hard to do that. However, countries have the right to defend themselves, and the consistent attacks—both within Yemen and into Saudi—must stop. Our support for the humanitarian situation in Yemen will remain. We remain one of the largest donors and, as I say, we are proud of the fact that we are helping to feed children, and to provide clean water and medical assistance.
My right hon. Friend will know that the UK is one of the biggest donors to the crisis in Yemen, committing well over £1 billion in UK aid since the conflict began back in 2015, but we all know that money alone is not enough. Does he agree that progress can be made only through international co-operation, with everyone playing their part to solve the crisis?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Money makes a difference. We recognise that, which is why we remain one of the most generous bilateral donors to the humanitarian appeal. But money itself will not bring about a positive conclusion to the situation in Yemen. That is the philosophy that underpinned the merger of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department for International Development. To ensure that our diplomatic efforts and our development efforts go hand-in-hand, the Foreign Secretary and I regularly raise the issues of this conflict with regional partners and others, and work with the United Nations and Special Representative Martin Griffiths to bring about a permanent conclusion to the conflict in Yemen. We will continue to do so until that comes about.
Minister, what is the reason behind cutting the aid to Yemen by 60%? What impact assessment has been made of cutting aid to those who were previously supported? I am particularly thinking about the impact on women and girls, people with disabilities and internally displaced people.
I remind the hon. Lady, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, and the House that, as I said in my speech, this represents a floor, not a ceiling. In every year previously, we have exceeded our initial pledging total, and we hope to be able to do so again in this situation. However, I also remind the House that we face an unprecedented economic situation. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor have all made it clear that this is a temporary reduction and that we will seek to get back to the 0.7% as soon as the economic circumstances allow us to do so. We will continue our work on the international sphere to address what we hope to be the short-term issues of this humanitarian crisis, while putting in the full weight of UK diplomatic efforts to try to bring about a sustainable and peaceful solution to the conflict.
Our £214 million-worth of aid funding for Yemen this year will support at least 500,000 vulnerable people each month to help them buy them food and household essentials, treat 55,000 children for malnutrition, and provide 1 million people with improved water supply and basic sanitation. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that he is stressing to the conflict parties that it is essential that they allow this aid to reach the areas that it is intended to help? Does he agree that, given these figures, now is not the time to be reducing aid to those whom we supply in Yemen who are most in need?
I recognise the point that my hon. Friend makes about the totality of our aid spending and my colleagues will have heard that. We also very much support his point about ensuring that the aid gets to the people who need it and that we maintain humanitarian corridors. That is why we have spoken with the Houthis and others about ensuring that those humanitarian corridors are maintained.
The crisis in Yemen is wholly human made. Thousands have died as a result of the war, thousands of children have lost homes and lost schools, and poverty and starvation are the order of the day. Britain’s record in this is appalling. Throughout this whole conflict, we have armed Saudi Arabia knowing full well that those missiles are killing people in Yemen, and at the same time claiming to be the harbingers of peace by organising a resolution at the United Nations. Will the Minister make it very clear that all arms sales to Saudi Arabia will stop and that Britain will be a determined partner in trying to bring about a peace process through a ceasefire as quickly as possible and to build good relations with all countries in the region? Too many people have died. The conflict has gone on too long and it simply has to stop. We should be a party to ending the war, not promoting the war.
The right hon. Gentleman speaks with an authoritative voice, particularly on Iran. Perhaps if he would also call upon the Iranian regime to no longer give lethal support to the Houthis, that might be a big step in the right direction to bring about sustainable peace in Yemen.
There is a strong convention that before a Government undertake a policy that puts lives at risk, they get prior approval from this House. We cannot make a 50% cut in this budget without cutting into crisis and healthcare support, thereby putting at least 100,000 children’s lives at risk. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee that before the Budget votes are held next week we can have a written statement giving a breakdown of the cuts made this year in the aid budget and undertaking that no more cuts will be undertaken unless and until this House approves it?
I am not completely sure that the convention my right hon. Friend refers to is relevant in this situation. As the Foreign Secretary has said before, we are looking very carefully at what is required by law. The legislation envisaged that the 0.7% target may not be met in a particular year in the light of economic and fiscal circumstances. The legislation provides for reporting to Parliament in the event that the target is not met. The Government obviously intend to abide by the legislation. The economic situation is difficult to predict, but we do wish to get back up to 0.7% as soon as the economic circumstances allow.
The Government’s appalling decision to cut aid to Yemen has been described as “a death sentence” by the UN Secretary-General, and he is right. This enormous cut, in a year when 400,000 children under five might starve to death, is not only heartless but, just like the cut to the 0.7%, damages the UK’s international reputation, and they are doing this just weeks after announcing £1.36 billion in new arms sales to Saudi Arabia—the exact opposite of what the United States is doing. Is this what we can now expect—the UK Government shrinking away from their commitments, leaving other, more compassionate countries to pick up the slack?
The hon. Lady implies that expenditure is the only appropriate measure for compassion. If that is the case, she should recognise that the UK is one of the most generous ODA-donating countries in the world, in both absolute terms and relative terms. I therefore remind her that she, and indeed the House, should remain proud of the position the UK takes. However, I also remind her, and the House, that we face unprecedented economic circumstances, and the quicker that those are resolved, the quicker we can get back to being the generous international aid donor that we all wish to be.
The legislation allows the Government to miss the 0.7% target by accident or in an emergency, but not to plan to miss it for an indefinite number of years ahead. Can my right hon. Friend give a commitment today that further cuts will not be made until the necessary legislation promised to this House by Ministers who announced this policy has been put to a vote so that this House can express a view?
I hear what my right hon. Friend says. The Foreign Secretary, as I said, is looking carefully at the requirements of the legislation. I can assure my right hon. Friend, from this position at the Dispatch Box, that the Government are well able to listen to the mood of the House without the need for legislation in this Session.
The Minister referred to the humanitarian aid that the UK has already given to Yemen, which we recognise, but I am afraid he has failed today to explain why the Government have now decided to cut that contribution by more than half. Doing the right thing in the past is not a justification for doing the wrong thing now. Yesterday, a Yemeni aid worker co-ordinating food aid distribution, said this:
“Children are dying every day here. It is not a moral decision to abandon Yemen.”
Why have the Government done this when for example Germany, which is also facing the same unprecedented economic situation—to use his own words—has managed to pledge twice as much as the United Kingdom?
Different countries at yesterday’s pledging events put forward their pledges. Some increased their pledges; some reduced their pledges. Each country is facing its own economic challenges. The UK remains, despite the unprecedented economic circumstances we face, one of the largest donors both in general terms and in terms of humanitarian support for Yemen. I would also make the point that while the money is of course incredibly important—that is why we have committed to at least £87 million this financial year—there are other resources we bring to bear to bring about an improvement in this situation, including our voice on the international stage, our lobbying power and our political power. We will continue to work to bring about an end to the conflict in Yemen.
We need to get on with the list. I am going to finish at ten past.
The Minister started his remarks by saying that money matters. Yes it does, but what this cut represents is a cut to projects, a cut to aid and a cut to assistance that will put lives in jeopardy. If the Government are so reassured by their position, then I suggest that they bring a vote to the House on this issue and they can truly gauge the strength of feeling. We have a moral duty to lead on this issue and I hope he will consider bringing a vote before it is too late.
As I said previously, the Foreign Secretary is looking at the legal requirements around the situation. I completely understand my hon. Friend’s passion, but I remind him and the House that we remain one of the largest donors in this humanitarian crisis.
According to the report published yesterday by the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, the last remaining Jewish communities in Yemen were ordered to leave in 2020 and the Yemeni Christian community, which once numbered some 41,000, has now shrunk to just a few thousand. Moreover, the Yemeni Baha’i community faced increased persecution at the hands of Houthi authorities last year. Will the Minister share his views on how aid spending in Yemen can be better used to support religious and belief minority groups in Yemen?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The UK provides secondees to the office of Martin Griffiths, the UN special representative. A number of those secondees focus specifically on broad engagement with minorities within the peace process. I have spoken on a number of occasions about the importance of ensuring protection for minority communities and religious minorities in conflicts, and about getting an inclusive set of people around the negotiating table once peace negotiations are under way.
As chair of the all-party group for Yemen, yesterday I spoke to some very brave women from within Marib, which is under long-term siege from the Houthis. They told me that most of the Houthi forces are young men and teenage boys recruited from the most impoverished parts of Yemen. They also told me that Marib is now hosting over 2 million displaced people across 144 camps. Many children are not just suffering from famine and disease; they have been deeply traumatised after having been driven out by the Houthis. They all rely on generous UK aid and the example it sets to other countries who need to step up in the humanitarian aid effort and the subsequent reconstruction. How can indicating a cut in UK aid at this crucial time do anything but prolong this terrible conflict?
The situation my hon. Friend describes in Marib is deeply concerning. We have called on the Houthis to end their assault. Marib has become the temporary home for many internally displaced people, and the situation there is dire. A number of people have mentioned our support for, or our relationship with, neighbouring countries, and of course defending Marib against this Houthi assault is part of the conversations we have. But, ultimately, the best thing we can do is bring about a swift end to this conflict.
No matter how much the Minister attempts to hide behind how much the UK gives, it will not disguise the impact that this brutal 60% cut will have on the life chances of Yemenis. Save the Children says that already 400,000 children under the age of five are at risk of starving to death this year, so I ask the Minister: how many deaths are he and this Tory Government prepared to have on their conscience, because they certainly do not act in my name?
The UK has consistently been one of the largest donors to the humanitarian appeal, and our money is keeping people alive. We are very proud of that fact. The economic circumstances we are currently living through have meant that we have to temporarily reduce the amount of money we are spending in overseas development assistance, but as has been made clear by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and others, as soon as the economic circumstances allow us to get back to where we were, we will do so.
The humanitarian crisis is terrible, as has been said, and there are also more international terrorist attacks organised from Yemen than anywhere else in the world. The Biden Administration is rewriting their foreign policy towards Yemen. I cannot think of a better opportunity to end this tragic civil war, but I am not picking up a Yemen strategy that befits the strap line of global Britain. May I ask the Minister to match the political courage of our closest security ally in tackling the humanitarian crisis, cutting arms exports and being ready to lead any peacekeeping force, should the UN require it, once a ceasefire is agreed?
Yemen remains one of the priority areas for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. As I say, I spoke only yesterday to Martin Griffiths, and we discussed what further support the UK Government can provide for his work to bring about a sustainable ceasefire. The House will have heard, and indeed my Government colleagues will have heard, the suggestions my right hon. Friend has put forward. We will consider all suggestions to bring about an improvement in Yemen, but at this stage I cannot commit to the points he has made.
The world’s largest humanitarian crisis is getting worse. Blockades of ports and airports are restricting vital humanitarian aid getting to the 80% of the population who need it. This year alone, 2.3 million children under the age of five face acute malnutrition. Cutting support as the country battles coronavirus and faces a cholera outbreak is callous and heartless. Can the Minister explain how this fits into the Government’s pledge to build a global Britain?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point about access for humanitarian aid, and I am very proud of the fact that the UK Government have lobbied international partners to maintain those humanitarian access routes. We have also provided support in a technical manner to help assess the best way of distributing aid so that it gets to the people most in need. We will continue to provide not just financial support, but technical support to help the people of Yemen, while also working to bring about a conclusion to this conflict.
It is essential that our aid is effective in Yemen, so can I ask the Minister what recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts and the UN regarding the recent panel of experts report on Yemen, and whether he will agree to meet me and representatives of humanitarian organisations, local NGOs and the Yemeni private sector? Their vital role in providing essential food and commodities to Yemenis and supplying the humanitarian operation has been undermined by the serious shortcomings and factual inaccuracies contained within the panel’s report.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the point he has made today and also for the correspondence we have exchanged on this very important issue. We are well aware of the allegations made in the panel of experts’ most recent report, and they are significant and concerning. We share the panel’s vision for the Government of Yemen and the Yemen central bank to become more accountable. I am more than happy to ensure that he, I and people more knowledgeable about these issues are able to speak in the near future.
The Minister began his remarks by saying that improving the situation for Yemenis was
“a priority for this Government.”
How he can say that with a straight face I do not know. Not only has he announced a 50% cut in aid to Yemen, but since the Saudi-led war in Yemen began, his Government have licensed £6.7 billion-worth of arms sales to the Saudis. That is British-made bombs dropped from British-made jets flown by British-trained pilots. Instead of warm words and crocodile tears, will the Minister take the necessary action for peace and end arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
The hon. Lady raises this issue on the day after Houthi missiles were sent into civilian areas of Saudi. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seeks to defend itself against such aggression, as every country in the world has the right to do. Our arms export regime is robust, and the best thing that we can do, as I say, to help the people of Yemen is to encourage all the parties, both those in Yemen and regional partners, to bring this conflict to an end.