The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, may I say what a huge honour it is to close such a well-informed and insightful debate? Indeed, perhaps poignantly for all of us, it is the first debate of this kind to conclude the debate on the King’s Speech and mark the opening of Parliament as a whole. It is an honour to cover such a speech—many comments have been made.
I am sure that my soon to be noble friend Lord Cameron, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, will welcome the warmth of the comments made by many noble Lords from across the House, including the noble Lord, Lord Walney, my noble friend Lord Marlesford and the noble Lord, Lord Wilson. I have known the Foreign Secretary for a long time; indeed, it was he who appointed me to your Lordships’ House—so I feel that I have gone somewhat of a complete circle. Our first meeting was tinged with informed discussion but also a degree of amusement—from my perspective as well as his. He was straight into the role. We had the Indian Foreign Minister visiting, and the Foreign Secretary met them and had a very productive meeting. I agree with my noble friend Lord Frost about the importance of keeping issues live. The FTA with India was a key part of that discussion.
It would be remiss of me not to welcome my noble friend Lord Minto to his new role. I look forward to being one of the two bookends of a debate, as we are doing for the first time today, as I often did with my dear and noble friend Lady Goldie. Many noble Lords have rightly expressed their affection, their regard, their respect for her. My noble friend—Annabel—is one of those people who is infectious in terms of her personality, her company, her laughter, but also her insight and experience. As a roommate as well as a dear friend, she will be missed. We did many debates together in your Lordships’ House, but we were also able to travel, at times, on the global stage to show the strong association between the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence. I know full well that that will continue with my noble friend as he takes up these reins. I am sure my noble friend Lady Goldie will be taken with great emotion over the strong sentiment that has been expressed in the debate today.
I shall also reflect, if I may, on two quite notable maiden speeches. I said to my noble friend Lord Roberts a moment ago that The Aachen Memorandum was the first book of his that I read—my noble friend Lord Hannan also mentioned it—but I have also read the more serious side, including his biography of Winston Churchill, so I think I have read both fact and fiction: I will let noble Lords determine which is which. Equally, with the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Young of Old Windsor, when we listen to a debate of great length, we often reflect on how the words “old” and “young” have been intertwined. I remember his esteemed role with Her Majesty the late Queen. All of us, when we were paying tribute to Her Majesty, remembered her with great affection and regard. We thank him for being such a trusted confidant of Her Majesty for such a great period of time and welcome him to the House. I am sure we will be learning from his contributions, as we did today on the important issues of the Commonwealth and climate.
I say right at the outset that the Commonwealth remains important to your Lordships’ House and to the Government. It is notable that the department I represent is the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I also reflect on the speeches made by the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, and my noble friend Lady Mobarik. Again, they really demonstrated the strength of the personal nature of the insights that your Lordships bring, but also our history, the rich, diverse history of our country, and the sacrifices of so many, made across the world, in fighting for good over evil. I pay tribute to their contributions today.
I was also very much taken by the strength of emotion and sentiment in the various issues discussed. I am sure that, in the time I have, I will not be able to cover all of those, and in the customary way, of course I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lee, that I have the answers to all his questions but in the interests of time I will write. I said to my noble friend the Chief Whip that if I sought to answer all the questions I have answers for today, we would be going until what I as a Muslim would call Fajr time, which is the morning prayer just before sunrise. I am sure we do not want to stay that long in your Lordships’ House, but I am really grateful that the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, also talked about the Commonwealth and Zimbabwe. It is important that Zimbabwe meets the challenges that are in front of it. There have been various reports on the elections and of course there will be criteria that need to be met in terms of the Commonwealth.
The EU was a key part of the debate, raised by the noble Lords, Lord Morrow and Lord Hannay, my noble friend Lord Kirkhope and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford—it was no surprise that the noble Baroness mentioned the EU in her contribution. The UK-EU relationship is a mature and constructive one. I pay tribute to the now Home Secretary, the former Foreign Secretary, for his engagement in this regard. We work with the EU to address many global challenges. We have been meeting on the current crisis in Gaza and the abhorrent terrorist attacks on Israel. We have worked with key partners across the EU—and, yes, Germany and France in particular—to address global challenges such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy, security, climate and, of course, illegal migration.
On 7 September, the UK and the EU announced agreement on a bespoke new deal for the UK’s association to the world’s largest science and research programme, Horizon Europe. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, spoke more about transport, but she also acknowledged the importance of that deal. I know there are different views in your Lordships’ House on the Windsor Framework, but from the Government’s perspective it sets out a new way forward for a prosperous and stable future for Northern Ireland. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, that the United Kingdom becomes the United Kingdom with the addition of Northern Ireland as part of our great nation. We are all very proud of that. On the UK’s participation in EU programmes, Horizon Europe gives UK scientists a stable base for international collaboration, which was very much welcomed. I remember how many scientists on Radio 4 that morning were acknowledging and recognising the importance of that deal.
I turn to some of the challenges. I pay tribute to the contributions of the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, in their summing up and in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for his customarily broad introduction. I agreed with much of what he said. It was clear from the noble Lord and from my noble friend Lord Minto’s introduction that there is much in foreign policy and defence where we stand united, rightly, in light of the challenges that we face around the world—as we have done on sanctions with Ukraine—because that is an important element of what defines our incredible United Kingdom.
A personal inspiration of mine has always been Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi-ji, who once said:
“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation”.
That applies to us in the United Kingdom as it does to many of the challenges we face. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark talked about the diversity of our country but also, since those abhorrent acts of 7 October, the rising tide of anti-Semitism. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, spoke passionately about this. I listened to all speeches attentively, but I agreed with his passionate plea for all of us to come together and stand in the face of these horrors at home and abroad. We must also face the rising tide of anti-Muslim hatred.
We heard about optimism and those who may not be as optimistic. I am an eternal optimist about our incredible country. If we had not seen the success of cohesion, I would not be standing before your Lordships today—a Muslim Minister for the Middle East would not be reporting to a Prime Minister of the Hindu faith. These are times for celebration, notwithstanding our challenges. That is a reflection of our cohesion, our welcoming nature as a country and our sense of equality of opportunity. We all share those values and should strive for them. That is why I very much welcomed the excellent contribution of my dear and noble friend Lord Dobbs on the richness of diversity. We must stand together and recognise the strengths of our country. I am not saying for a moment that it is not without challenge or domestic issues, but our diversity is a real inner strength in how we act on the world stage.
Not only do we stand firmly with our old allies in Europe and through strengthening NATO and the G7 but we are forging new bonds with countries that can help us solve shared problems. We heard about the Commonwealth and from my noble friend Lord Vaizey about the CPTPP. I believe that the maiden speech of my noble friend-to-be will be on that very issue. That underlines our growing strength around the world; the commitment we have shown to ASEAN, with a specific designated ambassador, was also acknowledged.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Peach, reflected on the Government’s integrated review refresh. It is important that we continue to focus across the piece as a player in development. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that I hope we will return to 0.7%, but even with 0.5% we continue to be an important player in development on the world stage. He mentioned UNRWA. The United Kingdom is second only to the United States in support for the incredible and challenging work of UNRWA. I join with him, as I am sure all noble Lords do, on the tragic loss of life experienced by that organisation.
When I visited both Israel and the West Bank about 10 days ago, I had a direct call and met with the UNRWA lead in Gaza at that time, to identify how we could be more co-ordinated and reflective of the priorities that he was expressing.
The noble Baroness, Lady Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent, and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, talked about the importance of UK sovereignty, security and prosperity. Those are important elements. Therefore, the integrated review reflects what will be served best by patient, long-term investment in partnerships with a diverse range of countries. We are a country that is rich in diversity and it is important that this continues to be the case.
My noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, among others, also talked about the importance of dynamism. The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, talked about ensuring that the UN remains central to our thinking. It is of course important as a body. Is it under challenge? By God, it is. However, it is important that, as a P5 founding member of the UN, we seek to support reforms that the Secretary-General puts forward to challenge some of the issues and see how they can be made better, more efficient and effective.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Hodgson in every sense. We need women at the heart of conflict resolution. It is wrong in the world of 2023. It is not that there is a lack of women; it is because we do not actively facilitate that engagement. It needs to happen and I have suggested to our ambassador at the UN that we need specific clauses now in UN resolutions that name and put particular mediators into conflict resolutions, whether we are looking at the Balkans, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Peach, pointed out, or, as my noble friend Lady Helic talked with great passion again, the situation in Gaza. Frankly, when I am going around the Middle East, I am not seeing women leaders. They probably think, “Here comes another bloke from the United Kingdom”, but I assure you that I have personally prioritised this. I know there has been a sense of having several Foreign Secretaries, but I have been there for almost seven years now and it is important that we have that continuity of relationship. We need women at the heart of conflict resolution because that lends itself to stability and security across the world.
I am very conscious of time and I have not even got on to Israel yet, but I will talk about the abhorrent terrorist attacks committed by Hamas against Israel and its international citizens. When I met with Mansour Abbas, who is the leader of one of the Israeli Arab parties, he said to me, “Minister, they were international citizens but they were also Israeli citizens—who are Arabs, who are Muslim, who are Christian”. That is the rich diversity of the state of Israel—21% of its population is non-Jewish. So, yes, we should also recognise the importance of all communities that constitute the modern, diverse Israel.
The Prime Minister, the former Foreign Secretary and I visited the region and other near neighbours, so I welcome the raft of suggestions from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, the noble Lords, Lord Palmer, Lord Stevens and Lord Kerr, and my noble friend Lord Leigh on all the issues and the incremental approach we need on the ground. I am going to be travelling to Qatar over the weekend to meet on the key matter of hostages, which the noble Lord, Lord Mann, referred to, because that is needed to ensure we create the humanitarian spaces required so aid can get through in a sustainable, unhindered format. I assure noble Lords of my best offices, and I know I speak for the Foreign Secretary as well, on the prioritisation we are giving to this issue, because it is important.
Maybe one silver lining in this extremely dark cloud over the Middle East is that the world is seized of this issue right now and we should make it count. Of course, I will rely on many across your Lordships’ House for their input. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford talked about getting aid through. We are doing that; we have stood up aid, but it is important that it is consistent and that is why we are also looking at opening up other routes. We are talking directly to the Israelis about Kerem Shalom, for example. There are six lanes there. In Rafah, there is one lane. The maths is obvious, so that is why we need the opening—but for that we need to ensure we see security and stability across the piece.
We need to condemn unequivocally the abhorrent attacks. Tonight, there have been votes in the other place, as well as at the United Nations. I can share with noble Lords that the vote at the UN Security Council has passed, and it is important that it had a focus on humanitarian support.
Noble Lords touched on many other issues, including China. I assure your Lordships that the Foreign Secretary has said to me quite directly that he realises that, from seven years ago to today, our relationship with China has changed. However, as I said to the noble Earl, as we speak, a meeting between President Biden and President Xi has just concluded in San Francisco. There are things happening on the world stage and we have set out a very clear strategy.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, talked about our approach to China. We have taken China to task on issues at the Human Rights Council, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, knows all too well. Every time, we have seen an incremental increase in the number of countries that support our position. However, we recognise that China has a role in providing solutions to some of the key elements. For example, the inclusion of China in the AI summit, which my noble friend Lord Udny-Lister alluded to, is a key element, among other important issues such as climate change, of how we should take a balanced approach.
The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and others rightly talked about Ukraine, which is another area of key focus for the United Kingdom. Russia’s illegal invasion should not in any way be rewarded. The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, talked of the high stakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Browne, talked about principled positions in that regard. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, that UK military, humanitarian and economic support committed to Ukraine since the invasion amounts to over £9.3 billion, and our support to the UN, the Red Cross and NGOs has been increasing. The UK has committed £347 million in assistance to Ukraine, and we are looking at reconstruction, such as at the recovery conference we had.
We are working with key partners in the EU, such as Germany and France, as well as with the United States. A message of unity must go out to Russia that it will not succeed in Ukraine and we are united against it in pursuit of that aim. Russia can stop the war now, if it chooses to. We will continue to be unstinting in our support for Ukraine. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, also talked about our European partners, which I have mentioned. I will write to noble Lords about the military support we have given.
I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, that our position on Taiwan has not changed. I have talked about the broadness of our trade, and I recognise that we are working tremendously hard to ensure that we increase our trade revenues, but also our relationships, for the longer term.
My noble friend Lord Ashton of Hyde, among others, asked a series of questions on our Armed Forces. We are of course proud of our Armed Forces. The noble and gallant Lords who spoke in this debate brought their insights and experience, and I assure all noble Lords that I will write, together with my noble friend, about the issues of the size of the Armed Forces and support for Ukraine, which was raised by my noble friend Lady Hodgson, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Dannatt, along with Armed Forces accommodation, which was covered in the introduction to the debate. We have made progress but there is more to be done. The appointment of a specific Minister, not just for the Armed Forces but to look at veterans, is a crucial part of this and a statement of the intent of the UK Government.
I am conscious that I have reached time on my comments for today. There is a raft of questions on various areas that I have not been able to cover. Suffice it to say that, whether on issues of soft power in defence, foreign policy, diplomacy, and indeed on how we work on our development agenda, the United Kingdom remains committed to ensuring that we remain an important player on the world stage. We recognise that alliances, not just from our history but in the present, will lend themselves to how we position ourselves in future.
There are many conflicts around the world. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, talked about Sudan. Depending on how you define a conflict, there are anything between 40 and 65 live conflicts that we are currently dealing with. The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, asked about Turkey.
On a final note, talking about climate and the environment, we will of course participate in the COP in the UAE very shortly. I assure noble Lords that the United Kingdom remains committed to these important priorities, for us in our national interest as well as to the benefit of others. We look forward to the participation of the noble Lords, Lord McConnell, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, and others in the food summit. We will launch the international development strategy in the coming week or so; details will be shared in that regard. That will be about honest, clean and reliable investment through British investment partnerships, providing women and girls with the freedom they need. Importantly, it underlies our credentials as a development power on the world stage.
To conclude, the United Kingdom believes honestly and sincerely in working in partnership. The noble Lord, Lord Singh, talked from a Sikh point of view, from a religious perspective, with reflections of unity and strength in collaboration. I subscribe to that, but it is also important to recognise that when our allies are challenged, the United Kingdom is a reliable and strong supporter and partner to those under threat. Our friends we deal with in a spirit of co-operation and partnership. On those with whom we disagree—a number of them were mentioned, the DPRK and Iran to name but two—it is important that we directly ensure that we not only make diplomatic engagements but use all tools at our disposal, including sanctions, as we have done. In taking that long-term view, anchored in the values we define as our nation, the freedoms we cherish, the rule of law that we defend, the integrity of sovereign states and justice for all will remain central to our foreign policy, our development policy and our defence policy.