Commonwealth

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Tuesday 28th June 2022

(2 days, 1 hour ago)

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Baroness Anelay of St Johns Portrait Baroness Anelay of St Johns
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the progress made during their term as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth towards building a Commonwealth that is fairer, prosperous, more sustainable and more secure.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, over the last four years, the United Kingdom, as chair-in-office, has worked closely with our Commonwealth partners to pursue the shared priorities that leaders set out at CHOGM 2018 in London, with an investment of over £500 million in projects and programmes on girls’ education, trade, human rights and women’s economic empowerment. The UK’s assessment of its delivery of our chair-in-office priorities is outlined in two chair-in-office reports, the second of which was laid in both Houses in May this year.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns Portrait Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Con)
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My Lords, nearly a million girls in 11 Commonwealth countries do not have equal access to education. The UK’s most recent report as chair-in-office—the final report to which my noble friend referred—states that Rwanda is one of the 11 Commonwealth countries that marginalise girls. It is now the chair-in-office for the Commonwealth, so what commitment has it given to the UK that, as chair-in-office, the country will eliminate the marginalisation of girls in education?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, as my noble friend will be aware, the issue of girls’ education remains—and rightly so—a priority for Her Majesty’s Government and our Prime Minister. I can assure my noble friend that we have had a strong exchange of concerns and views with all members of our Commonwealth family over the importance of education, not least for girls across the now 56 countries of the Commonwealth. We will continue to pursue this objective, not just in our conversations with countries within the Commonwealth but beyond. Rwanda remains very much committed to the values of the Commonwealth family.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, one of the priorities set by the London CHOGM was LGBT rights. I congratulate the Minister on his work to ensure that this continued throughout the chair-in-office period. What can he tell us about how this work will continue over the next two years? We must bear in mind —as he acknowledged to me yesterday—that LGBT rights are now under threat globally, and we need to ensure that we continue to act.

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, one of the areas we pursued during our time in chair-in-office was to strengthen the voice of civil society within the context of the Commonwealth. Although I was not able to share this with him yesterday, I can now report to the noble Lord that, in the civil society engagement we had, we had well over 10 Foreign Ministers engaging quite directly. There was a quite specific question on the issue of LGBT rights. While it does remain a challenge in a number of Commonwealth countries where backwards steps have been taken, it is also notable that certain countries—including, for example, the likes of Botswana—have taken forward steps on this important issue. We continue, as we have done during our time as chair-in-office, to fund human rights priorities, including those of LGBT rights. They were featured very prominently in the civil society discussions, and I am sure of the important role civil society organisations will play in ensuring that all countries of the Commonwealth will adhere to the values of this important principle, and not just during Rwanda’s chair-in-office.

Lord Haselhurst Portrait Lord Haselhurst (Con)
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My Lords, if we are to expect the Commonwealth to remain a strong and influential organisation far into the future—bearing in mind the high proportion of Commonwealth citizens who are aged under 25—would it not be sensible to encourage, perhaps through officers of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the setting-up of a Commonwealth-wide youth organisation, just as has happened with both women, on the one hand, and small jurisdictions, on the other?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, again I agree with my noble friend. As he will be aware, within the Commonwealth context, there is the Commonwealth Youth Forum. Together with a number of other Ministers, including the Prime Minister of Canada and the President of Rwanda, I attended a meeting where the youth forum delegates were directly reporting back on the importance of their priorities. Of course, 60% of the Commonwealth is under 30— although I think that this House acts as a strong voice for the 40% who are not. Equally, we need to remain focused: the youth forum plays a central role in the thinking on this, and will be feeding not just to the chair- in-office but to the member states as well. In addition, the role of the CPA is well recognised.

Lord Bishop of Guildford Portrait The Lord Bishop of Guildford
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My Lords, as the Minister knows extremely well, this week marks a brief lull between the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda last week and the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief in London next week. Given the overlap between those two conferences, what progress has been made on this basic human right, not least given that three of the Commonwealth nations—India, Pakistan and Nigeria—are among the worst when it comes to protecting the rights, and even the lives, of Christians and those of other faiths and beliefs?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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The right reverend Prelate raises an important issue. It seems to be a continuum. As someone who is overseeing the FoRB conference as well, I was wondering whether the “Minister for Conferences” is being added to my portfolio. Nevertheless, it is an important area which is of focus to Her Majesty’s Government. I am working very closely with Fiona Bruce on the delivery of next week’s conference, at which over 30 countries will be in attendance. On the countries the right reverend Prelate referred to, I would also note that there are many where there are distinct constitutional protections for all communities and faiths. It is important that all countries of the Commonwealth stand up for the rights of the faiths and beliefs of all.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, at last week’s CHOGM, the communiqué read that the

“Heads emphasised the commitment in the Commonwealth Charter, to international peace and security, and to an effective multilateral system based on international law.”

What have Her Majesty’s Government, as chair-in-office, and the Prime Minister, in particular, done to talk to other heads of Commonwealth Governments to try to persuade them of the importance of supporting Ukraine and the British position on Ukraine, rather than seeing Prime Minister Modi alongside President Putin and President Xi?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, the importance of Ukraine—indeed the next Question I will be answering is on that very subject—was a discussion that did not meet with total agreement. I sat through and indeed represented the United Kingdom at the Foreign Ministers’ meeting. Nevertheless, I think we worked very constructively with all partners to ensure that the language on Ukraine was not just sustained but also recognised by all members of the Commonwealth. Our advocacy and that of other partners is important. The Ukraine conflict is far from over as we saw through the attacks only yesterday.

Lord McDonald of Salford Portrait Lord McDonald of Salford (CB)
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My Lords, the narrowness of the re-election of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth is almost as well known as the strength of Her Majesty’s Government’s opposition to that re-election. Will the Minister please say whether the Government think that the noble and learned Baroness has a mandate for her remaining time in office, and what will his relationship be with her for the remaining two years she has in office?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I am sure the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth will share my view that we enjoy a very strong, constructive relationship. That is important to take the Commonwealth forward.

Lord Howell of Guildford Portrait Lord Howell of Guildford (Con)
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My Lords, I must say that I welcome this, despite one or two difficulties that we have just touched on. I think an orderly transfer of the Secretary-Generalship in two years’ time is a very sensible thing. I also welcome quite a lot of achievement at Kigali. Two new members joined and there were many other successes, thanks not least to my noble friend the Minister sitting here and, on the commercial side, to my noble friend Lord Marland. Looking into the future, did my noble friend see any talk of the increasing Chinese involvement in island state after island state, coastal state after coastal state in Africa in a systematic advance not in just commercial matters but in military and officer training matters as well? Will he tell his expert planners in the Foreign Office that this is a real challenge to Britain’s security, as well as world security, and it needs a good deal more attention than it has had so far?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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Again, I agree with my noble friend in his expert analysis and the wise counsel he offers to the FCDO. It is important that we remain vigilant. Indeed, it is not just across Africa, when we see the recent engagement of China across the Pacific and particularly on specific islands. That is why we are, through the announcement of British International Investment, working with key partners in ensuring that there is a long-term structured offer to all members of the Commonwealth in ensuring their sustainability and economic progress.

Lord Anderson of Swansea Portrait Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
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My Lords, while welcoming the fact that the Commonwealth is still attractive to new members, we are bound to ask whether there are now any relevant criteria for membership such as links with Britain or human rights credentials.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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On the noble Lord’s second point, there is a very strong and objective criterion assessment. No new member state joins unless the existing members of the Commonwealth agree. On the issue of past history, I think the Commonwealth is moving forward. Rwanda was never part of our imperial past, but it is very much part of our common future within the Commonwealth family.

Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Tuesday 28th June 2022

(2 days, 1 hour ago)

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Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of Russia and the unrecognised Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) on behalf of British nationals Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, following their death sentence by a court in the DPR.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon)
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My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government condemn the sentencing of two British nationals, Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, held by Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine. Both are soldiers in the Ukrainian armed forces and therefore prisoners of war entitled to protection under international humanitarian law. The so-called trial in the non-government controlled area of Ukraine has no legitimacy, and the United Kingdom is fully supportive of the Government of Ukraine in their efforts to get them released.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
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My Lords, what discussions are taking place with our European and American partners to say to Russia that, if these executions go ahead, there will be serious repercussions? What guidance has been given to the estimated 3,000 UK nationals who are now fighting, many of whom have not joined the official army and therefore do not come under the Geneva convention, who are putting themselves at huge risk should they be caught?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, on the right reverend Prelate’s second point, the advice from the British Government has been very clear: do not travel to Ukraine. As for our work with allies and partners, first and foremost we are working very constructively with Ukraine. The detainees are part and parcel of the engagement the Ukrainians are having with the Russians directly and we are very supportive of those efforts—a point well made by my right honourable friend in her call with the Ukrainian Prime Minister this morning.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, I understand that the Government will not recognise these courts, because we do not recognise these territories, but I also understand that the defence team of the British nationals has deferred lodging a defence because they believe that UK ministerial intervention will be successful. Their deadline for this is 8 July. I understand that the Government are in a sensitive position; they have already made representations to Moscow, but has consideration been given to a humanitarian envoy who can give direct support to these individuals to ensure that they have the equivalent of personal consular support, even though that is not possible because of our lack of recognition of these regions?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. Of course, he is right to articulate that we have been making representations, including directly with the Russian authorities. We do not recognise the de facto authorities in occupied parts of Ukraine, and I think that is the right approach. I assure him of our good offices in every element of ensuring the rights of all the detainees who are currently being detained by Russia and strengthening the hand of Ukraine in their representation.

Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab)
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My Lords, in the case of Aiden Aslin, on 18 April, Graham Phillips, a former British civil servant and pro-Russian propagandist, published a video interview with him—a prisoner of war, in handcuffs, physically injured and manifestly under duress—and extracted from him an admission, in those conditions, that he was not a Ukrainian soldier but had a different relationship with the war. Experts who have studied this video and its circumstances say there is sufficient evidence there to support the view that this was a breach of the Geneva conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war, and that Phillips, a British citizen, is at risk of prosecution for war crimes. As he is a British citizen, ought we not to be further investigating this to see whether he has indeed violated international law, and issuing a warrant for his arrest?

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, prisoners of war cannot be prosecuted for taking part in direct hostilities. The whole process is about their early release, and they must be released and repatriated without delay at the end of hostilities, if not before. Certainly, that is the case we have been making. I can share with the noble Lord that, of course, these situations are extremely sensitive, but we need to remind Russia that it has an obligation to ensure it upholds the principles of IHL.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick Portrait Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB)
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My Lords, can the Minister say what contact, if any, the Government have had with the Red Cross, whose role is very clearly defined in terms of the Geneva conventions and prisoners of war? It was very active in rescuing a lot of people from Mariupol and therefore has no problem about contact with these illegal authorities.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, we are engaging directly with all agencies on the ground. The noble Lord mentions the Red Cross; of course, it has played an important role in reaching many communities within Ukraine, including those in the occupied areas, and we will continue to engage with it. But even an organisation such as the Red Cross is facing real challenges in this respect.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Portrait Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean (Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister did not answer my noble friend’s question about Graham Phillips and whether the Government are undertaking any investigation to establish whether or not he has violated international law. He was asked a direct question. I would be grateful if he would answer it, please.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I am sure the noble Baroness will appreciate that I am not going to comment on the specifics, particularly in the sensitive situation which currently applies to the detainees. I can assure her that we are looking at all elements of their detention. It is important that those representations for their early release are made through Ukraine. That is the position of our Government, but I cannot go further than that.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Portrait Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that the values displayed by the Russian Government in connection with this Question, and also with yesterday’s bombing at the shopping centre, display an indication that this is a conflict that we cannot allow Ukraine to lose?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I agree with the noble Lord. That is why we have been absolutely at one—and I appreciate the position of Her Majesty’s Opposition in this regard—in staying strong in our position on helping Ukraine with humanitarian support, diplomatic efforts and economic reconstruction, as well as military support for the fight. This is a war Russia started. Russia should stop the war and stop it now.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, the Foreign Secretary has promised to do whatever it takes to secure the release of these individuals. In addition to the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations that have intervened in similar circumstances, there is of course the office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who has been quite effective in direct communications with Russia, particularly on humanitarian corridors. Can the Minister tell us whether the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister has been in contact with the Secretary-General to raise these cases?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, as the noble Lord will be aware, the Secretary-General himself has had to face many challenges in his direct engagement with Russia. Indeed, although he made a visit to Moscow, that was possible only after various representations were made. Russia was blocking his visit, and I am sure that many within the international multilateral framework are frustrated by the lack of engagement Russia has shown on a wide range of issues. What I can share with the noble Lord is that we are engaging with all partners, including the United Nations, at the very highest level across a range of issues, including those of detainees.

Women’s Rights to Reproductive Healthcare: United States

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Tuesday 28th June 2022

(2 days, 1 hour ago)

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Asia and the Middle East. The response is as follows:

“Access to abortion services in the United States is a matter for the US Supreme Court and for authorities in individual states. The US Supreme Court opinion of 24 June in the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization does not make abortion illegal across America. Rather, it removes federal protection for abortions, hence allowing individual states to determine their own laws. Thirteen states have so-called ‘trigger laws’ that will automatically outlaw abortion; seven of these are already active. In total, we understand that 26 states are likely to ban or restrict abortion or have bans that predate Roe still technically on the books.

As the Prime Minister has said, this is not our court—it is another jurisdiction—but this is a big step backwards. I share his view. The United Kingdom’s position is that women and girls in the UK should have the right to access essential health services, including those relating to sexual and reproductive health, which includes safe abortion care. More broadly, the United Kingdom’s approach is to support sexual and reproductive health and rights, including safe abortion for women and girls around the world.”

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for repeating that response. In the other place, Amanda Milling highlighted the priority given to women and girls in the international development strategy, including the right to sexual and reproductive health. The judgment, as the Minister rightly says, is a matter for the US jurisdiction, but it will no doubt give oxygen to the evangelical right across all continents. So positive words will not be enough to protect a woman’s right to choose. Can the Minister highlight what we will do to support women, particularly civil society groups and other women’s groups, to ensure that their human right to choose abortion if they need it is protected? What will we do to support them?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord acknowledges that, over many years, the United Kingdom has taken a strong and principled position on this. Indeed, the noble Lord and I have had exchanges on this matter, and I am sure he recalls when challenges were posed in the United Nations Security Council, when a resolution was passed on conflict-related sexual violence with an omission on sexual and reproductive health. At that time—I was there—we used the explanation of vote as an opportunity to, once again, restate the very rights articulated by the noble Lord.

I do not think there is a difference of perspective here between the Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition, and it is important that we stand up for the right for women to have access in this way. As I have said before, what is happening in the United States is a matter for the United States, but the United Kingdom will retain its strong and principled stand in this respect.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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My Lords, the United States and the United Kingdom are recognised as global leaders in maternal healthcare and fully inclusive reproductive rights. Last year, the Government cut their pledge to the UN Population Fund by 85%. Given that an incoming US Government might reinstate a global gag at any time, could this Government pledge to reinstate some of that funding?

Secondly, could we strike a completely different note—one that sympathises with, rather than criminalises, women in desperate need of fully inclusive reproductive healthcare—and decriminalise abortion in this country?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Baroness’s final point is of course very much a matter of discussion. Various initiatives and discussions are currently under way to ensure, as I have stated before, the ability of every woman who so chooses to have rights and access to such facilities. The noble Baroness rightly raised the issue of access to the UN initiative in this regard. I can confirm that we have already allocated £60 million. When my right honourable friend the current Foreign Secretary took over office, the reduced funding on women and girls was restored.

Baroness O'Loan Portrait Baroness O'Loan (CB)
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My Lords, does the Minister not agree that it would be both illogical and embarrassing for the United Kingdom to make representations to the US on this issue? The US Supreme Court has simply returned the issue of the provision of abortion services to each state, leaving the decision in the hands of the democratically elected representatives of the people of each state. Is the Minister aware that there is no human right to abortion under either the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the European Convention on Human Rights, despite the regular but erroneous assertions that such a right exists? Is he also aware that the unborn child’s right to life is protected under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which we are a signatory?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that I am aware of all the respective conventions. We have articulated the clear position that this is a matter for the United States, but equally I respect—as we are seeing today—that people will have different perspectives, insights and principled views on abortion. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has articulated where we are currently. I think that many across your Lordships’ House and the other place share his view but, equally, respect that others may have a different perspective.

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Portrait Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer. I am sure that, having visited a whole range of countries across the world, he knows how important the work on reproductive rights with young women and girls is. I have been involved in working with young people from this country volunteering abroad with young people from their host country, doing some significant work. There is a real challenge now: because of the reduction in aid from this country, much of that work in some countries is now stopping. It is educational work around the health of women. Most of the young women I met never got to the abortion stage; they were working at a much earlier stage on their reproductive rights and sexual education. Will the Government have another look to make sure that our work and our reputation on this are not further undermined and can be restored at least to the levels at which they used to be?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I believe I have already stated that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has prioritised spending on women and girls, including on sexual and reproductive rights. Indeed, it is an area we have focused on for a number for years. The majority of our SRHR programming focuses on increasing and improving voluntary planning information supplies and services. In 2019-20, the UK supported 25.4 million women and girls to use modern methods of contraception, including the sharing of information. With all these efforts, it is important that we continue to work and remain focused on what we seek to do. I fully recognise the important efforts and the work of the noble Baroness in this respect.

Baroness Hoey Portrait Baroness Hoey (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, just as the United Kingdom allows every part of the United Kingdom to make its decisions on abortion, surely the Minister must agree that the United States, a democracy, must be allowed to have its individual states, whatever we think of the issue. Does he agree with me that, just as many of us got quite annoyed at the United States interfering in our decisions over something such as the protocol, we should keep well out of this and Her Majesty’s Government should not get involved in the internal affairs of the United States?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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The point made by the noble Baroness is exactly what I have articulated: we have made it clear that this is very much an issue for the United States. Of course, each state has its own elected representatives. It is for the people of those states to choose their democratically elected representatives.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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My Lords, I am glad my noble friend has reiterated that point; it is an important one. There are many Christians in this country who are very troubled about the whole subject of abortion, and that should be borne in mind as well.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I recognise what my noble friend has said. Any democratic country—any open society—gives everyone the right to express their view. What demonstrates the strength of our own country is that, while you might not respect a particular view, you respect and defend the right of someone to hold an opinion contrary to your own. We are a diverse, rich country in all sorts of aspects, including our faith diversity. We also recognise that America is a shining light and the closest ally of the United Kingdom. There is much that we share on strengthening democracy and human rights around the world; that will remain a strong sense in our focus globally as well.

Lord Judge Portrait Lord Judge (CB)
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Is not the lesson for this country from that decision that there should be absolutely no political involvement in the appointment of senior judges?

None Portrait Noble Lords
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Hear, hear!

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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The noble and learned Lord has expressed that view very clearly.

Earl of Sandwich Portrait The Earl of Sandwich (CB)
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As the Minister has just come back from the Commonwealth conference, can he say a word about Africa and whether he thinks some of those states will be backtracking on this?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, one important thing about networks such as the Commonwealth is that they allow us to look at a broad range of human rights issues in a progressive and productive way. As the United Kingdom’s Human Rights Minister, the guiding principles that I apply in discussions are, first, to be constructive and, secondly, to recognise that many countries across the world, including those within the Commonwealth, are on a journey, specifically in relation to human rights; that may be on media freedom, religious freedom, LGBT rights or, indeed, women and girls.

I look back on our own history and see that we as a country travelled on this very path, sometimes with great difficulty and challenges, but we overcame them—through the strength of our democracy, the rights of representation, and an open but independent judiciary. These are experiences from our journey that we share across the world, and the principles that we involve and engage with in our discussions with our Commonwealth partners.

British Council Contractors: Afghanistan

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Monday 27th June 2022

(3 days, 1 hour ago)

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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, the situation in Afghanistan is obviously dire: there are humanitarian and human rights crises. In the Commons last Thursday, we heard that just under 200 British Council contractors are still trapped in Afghanistan. All of them are in fear of their lives. We know their names but not their locations. Bob Blackman asked the Minister, Vicky Ford, if the applications for those people to come out of Afghanistan to the UK can be “lodged by other people” on their behalf. As he rightly pointed out,

“people will have to spend time online and getting to places that will be unsafe for them to travel to.”—[Official Report, Commons, 23/6/22; col. 966.]

In response, Vicky Ford said that she would examine whether “third parties” can put in applications. Can the Minister advise the House on the progress on this because speed is absolutely of the essence, lives are at risk and we owe a duty of care to these people who worked on our behalf?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, first, I put on record my sincere thanks to the noble Lord for his constructive engagement on this important issue both during Operation Pitting and subsequently. He will be fully aware of my direct engagement on this. We welcome the opening of this particular pathway.

The noble Lord makes a valid point about accessibility. We are working directly with the three key partners that we announced in the three cohorts; the British Council is primary among them. The important thing is to get these people registered on the portal and here. The difficulties within Afghanistan are well known to us; we are of course working with key partners, such as the British Council, to ensure that we identify and look for safe passage for those of whom we are aware and whose details we have—although their locations may be sensitive—to leave Afghanistan and move onwards towards the United Kingdom. I cannot delve into more detail than that but I can reassure the noble Lord that we are working directly with the organisations we have identified and the British Council is a priority among them.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, we owe these contractors gratitude and safety because they kept British officials safe, in the British Council and elsewhere. I understand that the pathway to which the Minister referred is temporary—it opened today—and the expressions of interest can be made only in a two-month period. Why is it temporary and why will it not be an ongoing rolling programme given many of the complexities, only one of which was rightly raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins? What will the turnaround time be between expressing an interest in using this pathway and receiving a final decision about accessing resettlement? Who is in charge of making the final decision?

I ask because, last week, my honourable friend Munira Wilson asked the Prime Minister about a case with a constituency interest. It concerns a former member of the Supreme Court of Afghanistan and a former government Minister who applied to be part of the ARAP scheme in October last year, received a ticket in February but has heard nothing since. The Prime Minister asked the Home Secretary to follow up; the noble Lord, Lord Harrington, was deemed to be the Minister responsible. I saw him in the Chamber earlier but he is obviously not answering this Question, although we are grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, is. Who is in charge and what will the turnaround time be?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I will certainly follow up with my noble friend Lord Harrington. I fully accept that there are undoubtedly cases; I am aware of several and am grateful to the noble Lord for identifying one. Let us see how quickly we can move through some of them. On the ARAP case he identified, that scheme remains open and will be open—of course, it is being administered directly by the MoD—but I will certainly follow up with my noble friend Lord Harrington. I am sure that one of us will be able to provide the noble Lord with an answer.

On contractors, the noble Lord is right that there is a time-limited window during which these expressions of interest can be taken forward. The window for this particular pathway will close because, on pathway 3, there is a limit for year 1 of settlement. Once we reach this, eligibility criteria will be applied on an objective basis. As I alluded to in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we are working directly with the three cohorts: the Chevening cohort—this is directly under the FCDO—GardaWorld and the British Council. We are doing so to identify, where we can, any information that we need.

Of course, when that window closes, another announcement will be made towards the end of this year for the following year’s scheme, when we will be able to identify an additional cohort based on the numbers we have identified. However, as my honourable friend Vicky Ford said, the number for this year is set at 1,500. Because of commitments that we have already made, priority will be given to those who are covered through the Chevening scholarships; those who are involved and engaged through GardaWorld; and, of course, those who were working with the British Council as contractors.

Baroness D'Souza Portrait Baroness D’Souza (CB)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for answering this question. Can he say whether he has any further information on the extent to which the Taliban in Afghanistan, particularly around Kabul, are still pursuing those linked to the British administration—and indeed many others who are linked to foreign organisations? As far as I can tell from the media, that is not a huge problem at the moment but I may be entirely wrong.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I thank the noble Baroness for her work in this area. The picture is different across Afghanistan. There are about eight or nine provinces where girls are being allowed to go to school and women are being allowed to work. However, there are certain places where the local commanders may be operating in a way that does not reflect the openness that we wish to see—even in a limited way—and that is being demonstrated in those eight or nine provinces.

On the specific issues around Kabul, I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say that our current focus is on supporting the direct victims of the tragic earthquake that took place in Afghanistan—and we are doing exactly that. However, the situation with some of the other priority issues, including girls’ education and the freedom of women to go out to work, are certainly among our priorities. As all noble Lords know, the situation is very difficult: we do not have a presence on the ground yet, but we are engaging with the Taliban at an official level. Have we seen co-operation? The short answer is yes. Indeed, I pay tribute to the officials in the FCDO who recently worked specifically, as noble Lords will be aware, on the release of British detainees. That was down to the fact that we worked in a very co-ordinated fashion and to the great courage and commitment of officials in the FCDO, who ensured the release of those detainees.

Lord Browne of Ladyton Portrait Lord Browne of Ladyton (Lab)
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My Lords, if I understand this correctly, these people are contractors for the British Council, and employees of GardaWorld are working as security contractors for the Government and the embassy. In Scotland, they are very well known to us; we know exactly who these people are and we know a lot about them. Presumably, given what they were doing, we must be very sanguine about their attitude towards security. Why were these people excluded from the ARAP scheme in the first place? Why does the British Council now tell us that it was allowed to put only employees through the ARAP scheme and not the contractors? Why is it only now that we recognise that we should fulfil our obligation not only to them but to their families, to the extent of 1,500 people? Why do we not just include them in the ARAP scheme and give them the flexibility that everyone else has, rather than putting these people—a lot of whom, as we know, are living in daily fear of their lives—through this short window of opportunity to get registered for resettlement and, we hope, to get back to security with us?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, first, as the noble Lord is aware, there are two different schemes: the ARAP scheme has its eligibility criteria and the ACRS—which is now open as this particular pathway—has its own criteria. I know of individual cases of people being considered for the ARAP scheme but not being accepted on to it. However, there have been opportunities, as we have seen in certain cases, allowing others then to go through the ACRS process.

On the small window of opportunity that the noble Lord asked about, there is a cap on the number we will be taking in year one which is both manageable and, I think, consistent with the announcements we have made previously. Equally, this is only year one; other pathways are also open to those seeking settlement, including Pathway 2, on which we are working very closely with the UNHCR. There are those people, including those from the cohorts we have discussed, who will be in neighbouring countries. We are working very closely with the UNHCR on that pathway as well. Therefore, ARAP, ACRS, Pathway 2 and, indeed, ACRS Pathway 3 are different routes, which enable people to go through a process which would allow for their resettlement in the United Kingdom.

Russia and Ukraine: Settlement

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Thursday 26th May 2022

(1 month ago)

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Lord Campbell-Savours Portrait Lord Campbell-Savours
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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the circumstances in which they would endorse the terms of a settlement between the government of Russia and the government of Ukraine regarding the current conflict.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, we applaud Ukraine’s efforts to engage in dialogue in the face of continued Russian aggression. The United Kingdom and our allies support Ukraine’s efforts to secure a settlement that delivers a sustainable peace in line with established principles of European security. Any outcome needs to ensure Russian withdrawal and a ceasefire, and to strengthen Ukraine so it is able to deter future Russian aggression and, if necessary, defend itself.

Lord Campbell-Savours Portrait Lord Campbell-Savours (Lab) [V]
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My Lords, why, prior to a war now riddled with Russian atrocities, did we reject the December 2021 Russian-proposed talks on a draft treaty covering security guarantees, arms control, self-government within Ukraine for Donetsk and the maintenance of the existing corridor of non-nuclear barrier states from Finland to the Black Sea? Jens Stoltenberg agreed to the talks; why did we not? Russia’s proposed treaty was only in draft. Why did we not use it—indeed, why do we not use it—and build on it as the basis for negotiation and at least try to end this proxy war? There is a copy of the draft treaty in our Library.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, there is a simple answer to that. Any partner to a negotiation needs to uphold the rule of law. Russia has repeatedly failed, including in 2008 through its aggression in Georgia and in 2014 through its annexation of Crimea. Those were illegal acts of aggression, as is the current war in Ukraine.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick Portrait Lord Lamont of Lerwick (Con)
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My Lords, has my noble friend read the speech of Henry Kissinger in Davos, where he advised attendees at the conference not to get swept up in the mood of the moment and suggested that negotiations to end the war had to begin in the next two months

“before it creates upheavals and tensions that will not be easily”

contained? He suggested that the starting point for negotiations should be the pre-invasion de facto borders. Does my noble friend agree that Dr Kissinger is no woolly idealist but a hard-headed diplomat with a very distinguished record? However inconvenient it may be, should not his advice be carefully studied?

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I had the opportunity to meet Dr Kissinger a couple of years ago. When we look at any conflict, all wise words need to be listened to, of course. What is equally important, however, is that the sovereignty and integrity of every nation are protected.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I completely agree with the Minister. If there is to be a negotiated settlement, as President Zelensky says there must be, Ukraine must be in the driving seat. But what can we do to support President Zelensky’s objective? When I met Barbara Woodward this week, she stressed that the Secretary-General is now much more proactive in trying to bring the parties together. There are also opportunities for bilateral support. Can the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to support those objectives?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. He and I have been speaking about this consistently throughout. I am glad that he met Ambassador Woodward. We continue to engage through all multilateral channels, particularly on humanitarian issues. We were first in line; indeed, I spoke with the Secretary-General in New York about the importance of engaging with all sides. Even at that time, as the noble Lord knows, Russia would not entertain a visit from him. Later today, I will meet the Ukrainian prosecutor-general, Iryna Venediktova, who is in town, to discuss our support for her work on the ground. We will continue to work with Ukraine, particularly on the current situation around food security, to which my noble friend Lord Lamont alluded. That issue is not just about Ukraine and Russia; it is about the whole world.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, the noble Lord is right to emphasise the importance of holding to account those who are responsible for war crimes in places such as Mariupol and Bucha, as well as for the illegal invasion of Ukraine. There is no moral equivalence between Ukraine and Russia here. Will the Minister report back to the House on what action is being taken to bring to justice those responsible for these terrible events? Also, will he say more about the opening up of grain supplies? This issue is now jeopardising people living in places such as east Africa and the Horn of Africa, where 20 million people already facing chronic drought and famine-like conditions will now be denied grain as a result of the blockade of Odessa.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that, as I have already mentioned, I have a meeting later today with the prosecutor-general, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary. The work we are doing through the ICC will also be a point of discussion. Yesterday, along with the United States and the EU, we announced an advisory group to look at aggression. We welcome the first prosecution that has taken place on the ground. On the noble Lord’s wider point, we have put additional funding and support into the Horn of Africa, primarily on this very issue of food security. I have visited north Africa and will do so again later next month.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, the element of futility in Putin’s human rights atrocities and slaughter of the people of Ukraine is that the current bombardments are purely within the buffer area of the Minsk agreements. Some of us do not take our foreign policy lead from Henry Kissinger. There have been calls from the Republican right to negotiate on that ceded territory. The Foreign Secretary is on the record as saying that the UK’s sanctions will be in place until all Russian troops have left Ukrainian territory. The very thing that Putin wants at this time, in what will be a long-term, protracted conflict, is western division. What mechanisms are in place for the UK to use to ensure that such division does not arise?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, it has been very important to show unity of purpose and unity of action. The noble Lord mentions the role of sanctions. As he said—I believe this passionately—the sanctions have worked because, where one country or region has led in front of others, we have co-ordinated and worked together. Those sanctions are hurting Russia, Mr Putin, the Russian Government and all those who support them. It is important that we retain them. As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said—I am in total agreement with him—any negotiation must be led by Ukraine and it is the job of any ally, partner or friend to be firmly behind Ukraine.

Lord Robathan Portrait Lord Robathan (Con)
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Your Lordships will know that, in 1938, France and the United Kingdom imposed on Czechoslovakia a deal that they had come to with the Third Reich. This is not a good precedent. The Government have rightly been praised from both sides for their actions on Ukraine. Can my noble friend assure me that we are talking to our allies, in particular France and Germany, to ensure that they do not try to impose their own settlement on Ukraine? It must be the Ukrainians who lead; we support them.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I totally agree with my noble friend. The Government are engaging at the top level. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister engages regularly with President Zelensky on the principles that he has articulated. Let us be clear: President Zelensky has said “Let’s meet” directly to Mr Putin. It is important that we get behind his efforts.

Lord Anderson of Swansea Portrait Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
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Does the Minister recall that the Foreign Secretary spoke of reclaiming all the lands lost by Ukraine, which would presumably include Crimea and be a recipe for continued and long-term conflict? That was at a time when President Zelensky was speaking of returning to the borders of 24 February, although I concede that he has hardened his line a little. Essentially, he has been pragmatic. Was it not unwise of the Foreign Secretary to be more hard-line than the President?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, what my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary articulated was on the basis of international borders and recognising the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine. The 2014 annexation of Crimea was illegal.

Baroness Sugg Portrait Baroness Sugg (Con)
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My Lords, in relation to the impending food crisis and the 20 million tonnes of grain that are being held hostage by Russia in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Rudenko offered yesterday to provide a corridor for vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine, but only if some sanctions are lifted. What is the Government’s position on this?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I assure my noble friend that food security is very much at the forefront of not just our thinking but our policy. Over the next three years, we will direct more than £3 billion of support to the most vulnerable countries, particularly in Africa. Yesterday, in engaging with G7 partners, Foreign Minister Kuleba said, I believe, that this agricultural crisis will not be for just one cycle but will be repeated.

There is grain in Ukraine currently. The issue is that Odessa and the Black Sea are blocked and mined. This requires Russia not just to show full co-operation but to pull back. It could demine certain parts where the Ukrainians themselves have provided mines—they know where they are—as part of the support. Equally, however, what guarantees do we have once we get into the Black Sea? That is where Crimea comes in. The Black Sea allows Russia to embargo any ship going through. Of course, mines remain a constant challenge.

Lord West of Spithead Portrait Lord West of Spithead (Lab)
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My Lords, it is quite clear that the early euphoria about how Ukraine is doing must now be tempered. There is no doubt that the Russians have twigged what a shambles they have made of this and are now focusing on much smaller areas; for example, in the Donbass. This war will grind on and Putin shows no desire to have some form of agreement. We know that he behaves appallingly and that Russia lies about these things. That means that this war will continue because he will not come to the table until he finds that it is causing real pain and the sanctions start to hit. It is therefore important that we keep supplying weapons to Ukraine and keep up that flow.

Can I ask a precise question? A lot of the weapons we have been providing and sending to Ukraine are from orders that were for people in western Europe. We have not let contracts to enable our arms manufacturers to produce these weapons for our own stocks and to replace the weapons being used in Ukraine. Can the Minister confirm that these orders will be let because this has gone on and on and that has not happened?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, without getting into the specifics of each contract—of course, that is a Ministry of Defence lead—I will look through the noble Lord’s question and answer appropriately.

Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 9) Regulations 2022

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Thursday 26th May 2022

(1 month ago)

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Moved by
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
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That the Regulations laid before the House on 27 April be approved.

Relevant document: 1st Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Considered in Grand Committee on 23 May.

Motion agreed.

Evacuations from Afghanistan

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Thursday 26th May 2022

(1 month ago)

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe and North America. The response is as follows:

“The Government are grateful to the Foreign Affairs Committee for its inquiry and detailed report. We will consider the report carefully and provide a written response on the timeline the committee has requested.

The scale of the crisis in Afghanistan last year was unprecedented in recent times. The report recognises that the Taliban took the country at a pace which surprised themselves, the international community and the former Government of Afghanistan. The many months of planning for the evacuation, and the enormous efforts of staff to deliver it, enabled us to evacuate more than 15,000 people within a fortnight under exceptionally difficult circumstances. The Government could not have delivered this evacuation without planning, grip and leadership.

The evacuation involved processing the details of thousands of individuals by MoD, FCDO and Home Office staff in the UK, and by a team on the ground in Kabul. In anticipation of the situation, the FCDO had reserved the Baron Hotel, so the UK was the only country apart from the United States to have a dedicated emergency handling centre where it could receive and process people at Kabul International Airport. FCDO staff were on the ground in Kabul throughout, alongside other government departments and the military.

RAF flights airlifted people to a dedicated terminal in Dubai, reserved in advance by the FCDO, where evacuees were assisted by another cross-government team. They were then flown on FCDO-chartered flights to the UK where they were received by staff from the Home Office and other departments who ensured they were cared for and quarantined. The evacuation was carefully planned and tightly co-ordinated, and it delivered.

As it does following all crises, the FCDO has conducted a thorough lessons learned exercise. We have written to the FAC with the main findings. Changes have already been implemented by the FCDO, for example in response to the Ukraine crisis.

We all regret that we were not able to help more of those people who worked with us or for us out of Afghanistan during the military evacuation. Since the end of the evacuation last summer, we have helped over 4,600 people to leave Afghanistan. We will continue to work to deliver on our commitment to those eligible for resettlement here in the United Kingdom through the ARAP programme and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.”

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question. I suspect all Ministers will find the report difficult reading, but no doubt the noble Lord will because he worked so hard during the crisis. I know that he was totally committed to helping people escape. However, the Doha agreement was signed 18 months before Kabul fell. It was obvious to many that the Taliban were emboldened by the difficulties faced by the Afghan security forces, yet their success seems to have come as a surprise to the Government. Does the noble Lord accept that this was a fatal flaw in our intelligence, and will he commit to a specific review into those particular failures?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right: I lived that crisis, and I continue to live and work on the situation and the response to the evacuation of Afghanistan. Even today, it remains the case that there are many people seeking to leave Afghanistan, particularly the most vulnerable, and it is important that we continue to engage. Certainly, through direct engagement and direct briefings—both at the FCDO and in Parliament—I have ensured that our colleagues across both Houses are fully informed.

On the specific issue of planning, I was engaged on this and, of course, I made my own assessments and provided appropriate briefings to the teams in the FCDO and Her Majesty’s Government. I recall that as late as July, I was at a conference in Uzbekistan where I met the then president, President Ghani; Foreign Minister Atmar; other key partners, including the United States, Turkey and all near neighbours; and international organisations. While it was very clear that the Taliban were gaining ground, no one—I repeat, no one—had made an assessment that this would happen so quickly. I fully accept the premise about when the fall of Kabul happened, on 15 August—indeed, I remember speaking to Foreign Minister Atmar on 11, 13 and 15 August, and then again on 16 August. Even as late as Thursday, with Kabul falling on the Saturday, there was an inward- bound Turkish delegation to Kabul.

We continue to work with partners. Undoubtedly there are lessons that have to be learned and improvements to be made—and, yes, some of those have been implemented in the response to Ukraine. But it is equally important to ensure that we remain vigilant to the current situation, which remains live in Afghanistan, including the humanitarian situation. Therefore, I am proud that, notwithstanding the challenges we face, the Government remain committed to providing support, particularly humanitarian support, to the most vulnerable in Afghanistan.

Baroness Kennedy of Shaws Portrait Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Lab)
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My Lords, the Minister knows that I was involved in evacuating a significant number of women lawyers and judges from Afghanistan, and chartered flights to do that. We managed to get six into the United Kingdom. After the military evacuations, only six of those 103 on the lily pad in Athens were allowed to come into Britain. That was possible because women judges here had mentored some of those judges, so they had received prior letters of evacuation—indeed, the Minister himself had provided some of them. We tried to get women at risk into this country afterwards but we did not succeed. How many visas have been given since the end of last August to women from Afghanistan who are at risk?

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I first acknowledge all the work that the noble Baroness engaged in both during the crisis and subsequently. She and I have worked on the important issue of vulnerable communities in Afghanistan, particularly the cohort of judges that she refers to. On the specifics of the number of vulnerable identified women, I can certainly write to her after consulting my colleagues at the Home Office. I have quoted an overall figure of 4,600 who have settled here in the UK since the evacuation, but I will write to her on the specific break- down after I have got the detail from the Home Office.

Lord Stoneham of Droxford Portrait Lord Stoneham of Droxford (LD)
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I pay tribute to the Minister’s role in this incident last year, but the report is pretty scathing about the Government’s mismanagement. It says that there were no necessary preparations for the withdrawal and no proper plan. There was mismanagement—indeed there seems to be a cycle of mismanagement in the Government—and I want to know precisely how the Foreign Office and the Government plan to stop this sort of action happening again.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, as I have always acknowledged, there are always improvements that can be made—the same is true in the current crisis in Ukraine. You cannot say that any Government have a perfect response in every crisis; you do not know, because every crisis is different. We had made plans. I remember myself, after heavy diplomatic engagement with near-neighbours, that I returned via Dubai deliberately on the day that we handed the keys back to the Emiratis. There was no panic in Dubai; there was a massive operation there and we are grateful to the Emirati authorities for the strong co-operation that we saw then. That would not have happened if it had not been planned.

On the issue of lessons learned, I lived through the Covid crisis when we were repatriating, and one challenge that we faced then was chartering flights. In Afghanistan, not only did we have chartered flights ready but we had a reserve option, and indeed a second reserve option with other large carriers. Previous crises fed into the planning. Of course there are improvements to be made, and they are being implemented. We have seen that in the strong cross-government co-operation in the response to Ukraine and in the leadership that we have been able to show within the international community on the Ukraine crisis and more.

Lord McDonald of Salford Portrait Lord McDonald of Salford (CB)
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My Lords, one reason why the Ghani Government collapsed so quickly was the suddenness of the disappearance of western forces. Can the Minister confirm that the timetable for that withdrawal was decided in Washington DC by the American military and that, for whatever reason—possibly now to their regret—the Americans did not listen to their allies, including the United Kingdom?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, again, the noble Lord speaks with great insight and knowledge of the situation. Yes, there was a decision that had been taken by the United States in relation to the NATO engagement in Afghanistan, and we were of course part of that engagement. It was very clear that, once the United States had made that decision to withdraw and the timetable had been set, we had to work to those parameters. The challenges that we saw were immense. I turn to the point on the speed, even on the day, at which the Taliban took over Kabul. There are now some incredible women leaders right here in London; they were sitting on planes ready to leave and do their daily business—no one expected the fall of Kabul as quickly as it happened. Equally, it is important that, when partners work together, they share intelligence so that, in extremely challenging and unprecedented situations, decisions can be made to deliver the best possible outcomes.

Lord Cashman Portrait Lord Cashman (Lab)
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My Lords, I wish to recognise the incredible work done by the Minister on this issue, particularly since the fall. I want to raise the issue of vulnerable groups. A large number of LGBT people who were hoping to get out of the country are now in hiding. Are the Minister’s Government still in regular contact with Amnesty International, Stonewall, Rainbow Migration and the other organisations that are working very hard and on the ground on this issue?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we continue to work with key groups that have links with NGOs on the ground. I referred earlier to some of the incredible, courageous women leaders; they are also very much part of my formal engagement, and are informing our decisions today and our medium and long-term policy when it comes to Afghanistan. On LGBT people and other minorities, the situation is dire—the noble Lord knows the Taliban’s approach to this issue. However, that does not mean that we should be deterred from our focus on and support for these communities in Afghanistan.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
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My Lords, briefly, I declare an interest as chair of the HRC. I wrote to the Minister about trying to evacuate the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. For brevity, can he just tell me whether he will write back to me to tell me what happened there and whether any of its members got out?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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I can say to the noble Baroness that a number of its members left, but I will write to her in this respect to allow for further questions.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
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My Lords, I am part of a charity that managed to facilitate the extraction of a number of LGBT people from Afghanistan. Fortunately, some of them came to Britain. However, others are stuck in neighbouring countries, where although not facing certain death they are still in grave danger. Can the Minister say what is being done to enable those people to come to the United Kingdom?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, as I have already said to the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, we will continue to work with them. If the noble Baroness has any specific information to assist, I will of course be pleased to meet her.

Lord Anderson of Ipswich Portrait Lord Anderson of Ipswich (CB)
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My Lords, the Minister, whose conscience and industry in these matters is doubted by no one, will be aware of a case that was publicised in the Guardian on 1 May. Does he think it fair to say of an Afghan judge currently in fear for his life, who, in an ISAF-led counterterrorism court, tried and removed to custody hundreds of insurgents captured by British and other ISAF forces, and who has applied to be resettled here through the ARAP scheme, that he did not make

“a material contribution to HMG’s mission in Afghanistan”?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence are working as quickly as they can on a number of ARAP cases that have arisen. Of course, ARAP is one pathway; there is also the ACRS pathway. I suggest to the noble Lord that there are a number of judges, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said, and other notable communities and minorities. I assure the noble Lord of my best offices. Efforts are ongoing to help a number of people and communities who are still very vulnerable.

However, I will also be candid: the challenge in any engagement, as we have with the Taliban at an official level, is that the situation is becoming more dire. Recently, we have seen the challenges imposed by the Taliban on girls seeking to partake in education. It is not the same throughout the country but there are challenges. More recently, we have seen regressive attitudes towards women. It is not just about the UK and our obvious key alliances and partnerships. We must work with Afghanistan’s near neighbours, the Islamic world and the OIC to stop the poisonous narrative of the Taliban, which it continues to peddle against minorities and vulnerable communities, be they women or those very professionals who set up the Afghanistan we all want to see—an inclusive, progressive Afghanistan. We stand by those people and will play our part.

House adjourned at 3.33 pm.

Xinjiang Internment Camps: Shoot-to-Kill Policy

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Wednesday 25th May 2022

(1 month ago)

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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, for some time this House has called on the United Kingdom Government to back a UN visit to Xinjiang to assess the scale of human rights abuses, which we have now seen so shockingly illustrated by the BBC report. Michelle Bachelet has finally arrived. However, it is reported that her access is being restricted, with the UN stressing that the visit cannot be considered an investigation. While Amanda Milling reiterated yesterday the call for unfettered access, can the Minister tell us what steps the Government are taking, with our allies, to secure proper access for the UN?

On future policy, Amanda Milling said the Government

“will continue to develop our domestic policy response, including introducing further measures to tackle forced labour in UK supply chains.”—[Official Report, Commons, 24/5/22; col. 159.]

An opportunity starts with the Procurement Bill, which has its Second Reading this afternoon, to protect British customers and consumers from complicity in the Uighur genocide. Will the Minister support amendments to back British businesses which generally want to do the right thing?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and I have been working together, and I am conscious of and grateful for the strong support on the issue of Xinjiang. The continuing trials, tribulations and persecution of, and indeed violations against, the Uighur community in Xinjiang are appalling and abhorrent, and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has put out a statement to that effect.

On the noble Lord’s first point on Michelle Bachelet, the High Commissioner is well known to me. Indeed, the United Kingdom was the first country to call, both directly in a bilateral meeting with her and at the Human Rights Council, for a visit to Xinjiang, which, as the noble Lord acknowledged, is under way. However, he is quite right that it is, to use quite diplomatic terms, a managed visit. Clearly, access will be quite limited. We are certainly working with our friends and partners. We also press the High Commissioner for a specific report on the situation in Xinjiang. Earlier today I was scoping as to either a direct call or a visit to Geneva to pursue that very issue. I will update your Lordships’ House on that specifically.

The Government are committed to tackling the issue of Uighur forced labour in supply chains. In September 2020, there was an ambitious package of changes to the Modern Slavery Act. I am sure the noble Lord noted that these measures will be included in the modern slavery Bill, which was announced as part of the Queen’s Speech in May this year. On the other point he raised on procurement, I do not know and cannot predict what amendments will come forward, but the Procurement Bill is also looking quite specifically at supply chain issues. From experience, I am sure that many a noble Lord will look at that Bill quite specifically.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, the fact that we have been able to witness this dreadful information is testimony to there being a free and open media, in stark contrast to what the people of China themselves will be denied seeing by their Government. I have asked this on three occasions now. Given that we are trade dependent on China for goods, with a trade deficit now of more than £40 billion—the biggest trade deficit with a single country in our country’s history—our leverage is limited, but what are the areas in which preferential access to UK markets will be restricted by state-owned enterprises, especially in the financial services sector? The Government have signed a number of agreements with the People’s Republic of China, but the Government have not been able to say whether any triggering mechanisms on human rights abuses exist. Are there any areas in which the Government will restrict access to China on the basis of these grotesque human rights abuses?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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First of all, I agree with the noble Lord about the issue of human rights abuses. As the UK’s Human Rights Minister, it is something very specific to the agenda that I am following directly and with partners through all networks. We raise issues and concerns directly and bilaterally, and through various UN and multilateral fora.

On the specific issues of our trade with China, we must make sure that our trade with China is reliable, but that it avoids any kind of strategic dependency, and of course the important issues that the noble Lord draws to our focus about human rights abuses. One hopes also that, through some of the measures we are taking in the Bill that I announced on modern slavery, and also the discussions that we will have on whatever legislation comes forward, we will continue to focus on eradicating those human rights abuses, and that those companies which still seek to trade in that capacity will be held to account.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Uyghurs. It was the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, who said that a genocide is under way in Xinjiang: the ultimate human rights violation, the crime above all crimes. At a meeting with her and the Prime Minister, held with sanctioned parliamentarians, we were promised that government policy on genocide determination would be reformed. Will the noble Lord tell us how this can be expedited, and whether he will arrange a follow-up meeting with the Foreign Secretary? Will he urgently draw John Sudworth’s admirable BBC documentary to the attention of the UN’s Michelle Bachelet during her current visit to the region?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, on the noble Lord’s final point, that documentary—I have certainly seen part of it, not in full, but I have also seen many of the images associated with it—really makes your stomach churn, in every sense. It is abhorrent, in every sense. I was pleased that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, and the Prime Minister, met with the noble Lord, amongst others. I am also aware that the PM at that meeting demonstrated how seriously we are taking this issue. I will follow up and of course update the noble Lord.

Lord Polak Portrait Lord Polak (Con)
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My Lords, 20 months ago I asked my noble friend whether he could confirm that we will not support China’s election to the Human Rights Council. It seems clear that China continues to abuse its position at that council. I ask my noble friend the Minister, following John Sudworth’s harrowing report, whether the UK Government will now do the right thing, and lead a campaign to suspend China from the Human Rights Council.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, first of all I pay tribute to my noble friend’s persistent focus on this particular issue. On the issue he raises about the Human Rights Council, every country that stands for election to the Human Rights Council, and is present in its 47 members, needs to demonstrate a strong human rights record domestically. There is now precedent established within the UN, but removing a particular country from a particular UN body is never easy. However, what I would say to my noble friend is that the fact that China persists and seeks to campaign for continued membership of the Human Rights Council also provides a huge opportunity—notwithstanding the fact that its human rights record is deplorable—for us to raise issues with it quite directly, and also demonstrate and showcase the consistent abuse that takes place, particularly against the Uighur community.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Portrait Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, these horrific matters have been raised many times in your Lordships’ House. There is clear evidence of genocide, forced organ harvesting and other human rights abuses, clearly recorded by Sir Geoffrey Nice. We did not act decisively enough when Putin seized Crimea eight years ago and went on to commit murder in Salisbury, and we saw the consequences. Could the Minister say what further action the UK will take, in conjunction with democratic partners, to call China to account, or will history simply repeat itself with the invasion of Taiwan?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, we are certainly working with our partners. As I am sure the noble Lord acknowledges, we have acted to hold to account senior officials and organisations who are responsible for egregious abuse of human rights within Xinjiang. That said, we keep policy constantly under review and it remains very much on the table. We will continue to work in co-ordination with our partners in that respect.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, the Answer given in the other place made no reference to an asylum response to these shocking reports. As it is very clear that the Uighurs are being persecuted because of their religion and ethnicity, and are in need of legal protection, will the Government issue visas for Uighurs fleeing persecution in China, including or perhaps particularly those who are in countries where they face the risk of deportation to China?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very valid point, and I assure her that the United Kingdom has been and remains very much a place where people seek sanctuary. That applies to the Uighurs specifically and indeed to any other persecuted community around the world. This is a tradition and a right that continues to be alive—and long may it continue.

Baroness Sugg Portrait Baroness Sugg (Con)
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My Lords, can my noble friend share the Government’s assessment of British business’s supply chain activity in Xinjiang? What support is being provided to enhance transparency for British consumers who wish to know the origin of the products they are purchasing?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My noble friend raises a valid point. In terms of practical steps, the Department for International Trade is very much focused on the provisions we will bring forward in the modern slavery Bill. Within that, we will seek to provide advice to business on this specific issue. Alluding to the sourcing of particular products is a valid suggestion, and I will certainly share that with colleagues at the FCDO and DIT.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe: Forced Confession

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Tuesday 24th May 2022

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Asia to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“The treatment of Nazanin by the Islamic Republic of Iran has been horrendous. Her ordeal was extended when Iran made it clear that it would not allow her to leave Tehran airport unless she signed a document.

A UK official was present to help facilitate the departure of both Nazanin and Anoosheh Ashoori, and passed on the message from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that she needed to sign a confession. Given the situation Iran put Nazanin in at the airport, she took the decision to sign the document. No UK official forced Nazanin to do so. Iran has a practice of insisting that detainees sign documents before they are released. Nothing about the cruel treatment by Iran of detainees can be described as acceptable, including at the point of release.

We will continue to raise human rights concerns with the Islamic Republic of Iran, including over its detention of foreign nationals. The Government of Iran must end their practice of unfairly detaining British and other foreign nationals. We will continue to work with like-minded international partners to achieve this end.”

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer. It is hugely welcome that Nazanin is now safely at home with her family, where she belongs, but Morad Tahbaz remains detained in Iran and Amanda Milling said in the other place that the Iranian Government failed to honour the commitment to release him from prison on indefinite furlough and that the UK Government

“urge Iranian authorities at every opportunity to release him immediately.”

Can the noble Lord tell us precisely when the Foreign Secretary last raised Morad’s case with her counterpart in Iran and what the FCDO’s strategy is to secure his release?

On the forced confession, I hear what the noble Lord repeated: it is an Iranian practice to insist that detainees sign documents before releasing them and that the UK official did not force Nazanin to do so. However, can he tell us exactly what the Government’s assessment is of how the confession could be used by the Iranian Government against Nazanin in the future, and what the department’s strategy is for dealing with this policy by the Iranian Government in the future more generally?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I associate myself with the comments of noble Lord: we all breathed a huge sigh of relief, and rightly so, when Nazanin’s ordeal came to an end. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary engages regularly on this issue. The noble Lord may be aware that she also met Nazanin directly, as did my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. She spoke directly to the Foreign Minister of Iran about this case in advance of Nazanin’s release. I will update the noble Lord specifically on the follow-up contact she has had on the specific issue of Morad Tahbaz. It was very clear in Morad’s case that an undertaking was given, as the noble Lord correctly said, on his release under furlough. That was welcomed as the next step and there has certainly been a reneging on that deal. I add that it is within Iran’s remit to release Morad Tahbaz today if it so chose.

The forced confession is, of course, unfortunately yet another example of the coercive practices deployed by the Iranian Government and organisations working within the Government, and we will raise the issue. It is quite obvious that it was a forced confession and any such actions, including the continued detention of other detainees, are absolutely deplorable.

Baroness Northover Portrait Baroness Northover (LD)
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My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord for repeating the Answer. The interview with Nazanin was very moving. One of the most moving parts was her concern about those who had been left behind. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the case of Morad Tahbaz, and we must ensure that we continue to press for his release. I urge the Minister to continue to do that.

Nazanin rightly protested that she had to sign a false confession. Will the United Kingdom Government agree with Redress, which helped very much in her case, that they should now set up an independent external review of FCDO policies on protecting British nationals overseas from torture and ill treatment? The noble Lord will have heard what Nazanin said about the Prime Minister’s words and how damaging they were. Will the noble Lord make a clear apology for those?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second question, I believe the Prime Minister met Nazanin and Richard directly, as I said in my earlier answer, and he has previously expressed regret if his statement in any way impacted on Nazanin’s continued detention.

I can confirm to the noble Baroness that we have indeed received Redress’s most recent correspondence. While we do not recognise all the claims made in the letter, we will respond in due course.

On the issue the noble Baroness raises of British nationals and detainees around the world, I am sure she is aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee has announced an inquiry in this respect, and we will of course co-operate fully with it.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick Portrait Lord Lamont of Lerwick (Con)
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My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests. I express my dismay—indeed, anger—at this extraordinarily cruel treatment of Nazanin after agreement had been reached between the two Governments for her release. Was this not a clear breach of the understanding that had been reached between the two Governments? Is this not the second time in this negotiation for the release of dual nationals after the payment of the tank money had been made that the Iranian Government broke their word, as they had promised to release Morad Tahbaz from Evin prison and then he was rearrested after 24 hours? How on earth can the Iranian Government expect people to accept their word in any negotiation over a nuclear agreement that may or may not be reached? Have we not reached the point of disillusionment?

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. The IMS debt, a subject which several noble Lords have repeatedly raised, was owed by the United Kingdom Government and it was right that it was paid. While the details of the terms remain confidential, it is clear that the proceeds of those funds are primarily assigned specifically and only for humanitarian causes. Equally, I agree with my noble friend that Iran needs to do some really hard thinking because, when agreements are reached, particularly on sensitive issues such as those around the JCPOA—the deal is now ready and on the table— every country comes to a negotiation in good faith and once agreements are reached it is incumbent on every country to uphold them.

Lord Anderson of Swansea Portrait Lord Anderson of Swansea (Lab)
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My Lords, there is no personal blame attached to the Minister, who is highly respected by all sides of House, but would he, on reflection, agree that the length of custody of the poor, unfortunate Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been lengthened as a result of government action and inaction? I cite first the fact that the Prime Minister when Foreign Secretary misread or misinterpreted the purpose of her visit to Iran, and then the long delay in repaying a loan which everyone agreed was due and owing to Iran at the time. Finally, did the Foreign Office official simply stand idly by at the airport and make no protest or written note of what was happening? Was Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe warned in advance that she would be asked to sign this false confession? It all sounds very unsavoury.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I have already answered the final point the noble Lord raises. On the IMS debt, I am sure that he accepts that it was a complex negotiation and it is important that we reached a settlement. That debt has now been honoured on our part and paid. On the broader issue I agree that, irrespective of where you come from on this issue, Nazanin’s detention was wrong, it was flawed, and it had to be addressed. Yes, she was in detention for far too long. She did not deserve any detention, even for a day, and the same applies to those currently detained in Iran, and I again call on the Iranian authorities. It is within their gift to release British nationals who are being detained—and, in the case that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised, a tri-national, so there are also sensitivities with the United States, but we will continue to call for the release of all detainees in Iran.

Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Portrait Lord Campbell of Pittenweem (LD)
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My Lords, for a long time Ministers at the Dispatch Box were refusing any suggestion that the £400 million should be paid. Why was there so much delay? That delay cost this woman six years of her life.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, certainly in terms of what I have said we have always said that we would settle the IMS debt. We have now done so and the payment was made in full compliance with our international obligations, international sanctions and global counterterrorism financing. It was in parallel with the release of the nationals, but equally it was a debt. We have never accepted that our nationals be used as diplomatic leverage and we paid the debt because it was owed.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack (Con)
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My Lords, anybody who saw the programme last night would have been, as the noble Baroness said, deeply moved by the dignity of this woman—it was amazing. Has the Foreign Secretary, since Nazanin returned to this country, summoned the Iranian ambassador and torn him off a strip and told him just how appalling it is that this forced confession should have been a condition of her leaving the country?

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Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I too heard the interview and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. As someone who campaigns on the central issue of human rights, her detention was not just a challenge beyond belief for her personally but obviously for Gabriella and for Richard, and we pay tribute to their work in this respect. On the issue of engagement with the Iranian authorities, we regularly raise issues specific to different cases. Some work we do privately, because that is reflective of the engagement that those who are detained and their families ask of us. Of course, we will continue to implore, particularly on the case that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised, that when Iran comes to and reaches an agreement, it needs to uphold it.

Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 9) Regulations 2022

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Excerpts
Monday 23rd May 2022

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Grand Committee
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Moved by
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon
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That the Grand Committee do consider the Russia (Sanctions) (EU Exit) (Amendment) (No. 9) Regulations 2022.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
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My Lords, a copy of these regulations were laid before this House on 27 April. They were laid under the powers provided by the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, and they came into effect under the “made affirmative” procedure. I say from the outset that this instrument has been considered and not reported by both the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee.

In lock-step with our allies, we continue to develop the largest and most severe package of economic sanctions that Russia has ever faced. These measures are already helping to cripple Mr Putin’s war machine through restricting finance access, targeting his corrupt cronies and cutting them off from the international community, and indeed paralysing the Russian military-industrial complex for years to come.

This new legislation introduces trade sanctions relating to internet services and online media services. Put simply, this allows us to cut off propagandists and organisations spreading the Russian regime’s vicious lies and disinformation online. The Russian Government are conducting an aggressive set of online information operations against Ukraine at times in a transparent but clearly shameful attempt to justify their illegal war on Ukraine. This must be stopped.

Ofcom has already removed the broadcast licence of “Russia Today” on the basis that it is not fit and proper to hold it. However, until the regulations now being debated in your Lordships’ House entered into force, no powers existed in the UK to block access to the same disinformation being spread by way of the website, social media accounts and applications of “Russia Today”. This instrument will ensure that social media services, internet services and app stores will have to take reasonable steps to prevent UK users encountering content produced or uploaded by a person designated for this purpose. Indeed, it will be for Ofcom to enforce this new legislation, and it has been given the power to impose fines on those who fail to comply.

ANO TV-Novosti, the parent organisation for RT, and Rossiya Segodnya, the parent organisation for Sputnik, were designated for the purpose of these measures by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary on 4 May 2022. These puppet organisations are demonstrably part of Russia’s global disinformation campaign, as RT’s own editor-in-chief has made clear in the past when she called the network an “information weapon” of the Russian state. These organisations are propaganda arms of the Russian state—as a consequence of both their ownership and of Russian law, which prevents the war being reported objectively and truthfully. Now that third parties are required to restrict access to content pumped out by these designated organisations, this will limit their audience and blunt the effect of their Russian state message of aggression against Ukraine.

To conclude, we will not cease in delivering further sanctions while Mr Putin’s illegal and egregious invasion continues. The ultimate objective is to ensure that Ukraine succeeds. The whole of the UK Government—I also fully acknowledge the support in your Lordships’ House and across all parties—together with our international allies are working to ensure that this happens. Our fight against disinformation and harmful propaganda forms a key component of this. Mr Putin’s war on Ukraine is based on lies. Britain has helped to lead the way in tackling disinformation, and this new legislation enables us to blunt Mr Putin’s weapons of war and hit the shameless propagandists who push out his fake news and narratives. I beg to move.

Lord Purvis of Tweed Portrait Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD)
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My Lords, the Liberal Democrats support this instrument, having consistently maintained views the Minister has indicated. This is the ninth sets of such regulations that we have scrutinised and supported. The Minister is absolutely right that, as this illegal aggression continues, depressingly, we continue to see horrors inflicted on the people of Ukraine. Therefore, the Government’s response, supported by the Opposition—to use every mechanism to seek to impact on the decision-making of the Putin regime—is to be supported.

There are early signs that the collective imposition of the sanctions from the United Kingdom and our allies is impacting on the Russian economy. We are mindful that many people in Russia are in receipt of the lies and misinformation of the Putin regime, in addition to those around the world, and they are likely to be victims of this. That is why, as President Zelensky has indicated, it adds to the pressure on the Putin regime to come to a diplomatic solution and to cease the violence.

I want to probe just a couple of areas, and then ask the Minister a couple of questions on aspects related to these sanctions, rather than the sanctions themselves. First, we have been aware of the European Union sanctions on social media on 2 March, and then the reciprocal decisions by Russia on Instagram determining Meta as an extremist organisation on 11 March and blocking Euronews on 21 March. On 14 April, it registered as foreign agents under its laws 79 NGOs and 131 media outlets. The Putin regime is not only waging war on the people of Ukraine, but it is waging war on free media around the world. It is right, therefore, that the European Union, the United States, Canada and the UK, as the Minister said, work in lock-step.

Will the Minister demonstrate how robust these measures will be, given that there has been a gap between the EU operating its sanctions and the measures before us, and that there is some indication that RT and Sputnik have been successful in working around some of the EU regulations? The Minister has highlighted the designated persons measure, which I support, but we have already seen in respect of the equivalent for those indicated by the European Union the use of proxy sites and other social media platforms to disseminate information. The use of visual content bearing RT logos but not originating from RT, uploaded by users, has been co-ordinated and has an absolute purpose to work around the sanctions. How robust does the Minister consider these measures will be, in the light of what we have seen of RT-hosted material on other platforms around the world? How easy is it for those to be used in the United Kingdom?

Will the Minister confirm that these measures will cover virtual private networks? Use of VPNs and RT content through other countries has increased by 50%. If someone is seeking to access RT, Sputnik or other material from designated persons via a VPN, is that an offence under UK law?

My second question regards the extraterritorial jurisdiction nature. It is right that the designated persons are overseas entities, but can the designated persons be operating across all groups seeking to use the disinformation tactics of the Putin regime? I mention specifically Wagner Group, one of the arms of which has been sanctioned by the UK as named individuals. That is correct, and the Minister knows I am on record as wanting the Government to go beyond that and have it proscribed as a terrorist organisation. It is active, as are other mercenary groups, as the disseminator of disinformation and misinformation.

Can mercenary groups be designated persons under these matters? I know that the Minister will say that they keep the list of designated persons under review, but I should like him to go beyond that and say that there are no limits under the terms of the legislation on who designated persons could be. It would be regrettable if there were those seeking actively, with resource from the Putin regime working in many countries, to work around sanctions such as these, but they were not included. Can Ofcom police them if they are designated persons who are groups outside the UK? What legislative powers does Ofcom have to work with international partners on policing?

Finally, I ask the Prime Minister—the Minister, although I see I had a Freudian slip into a dream world I have, even if the Conservatives are in power, that someone might be doing a better job than the Prime Minister. Now that I have emphasised that point, Hansard will not be able to correct me.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman is now on record as indicating why we are not in lock-step with one of our allies, Canada, on the sanctioning of Alexander Lebedev. As the Minister will well know, the Canadians have been working extremely closely with the UK and others and the Minister said that we are working in lock-step, but when it comes to the judgment of the Canadians that Alexander Lebedev should be sanctioned, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said,

“it’s not for me to comment on the judgment of a different country”.

What do we believe the Canadian judgment to be and why do we not share it? Alexander Lebedev has been singled out by the Canadians as worthy of being sanctioned. What mechanisms do we have in the United Kingdom to ensure that this individual, sanctioned by one of our closest allies, or any of his family members will not be able to use the United Kingdom to circumvent Canadian sanctions? With those questions, I support the regulations overall.

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Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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The noble Viscount is absolutely right. The real issue here, on our policy of ensuring that Putin cannot act with impunity, is that this Government act with one voice and that all departments—be it the FCDO, the Home Office or the Department for International Trade—act in concert. I hope the Minister can respond to that point.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to today’s short but insightful and timely discussion. I will address the important questions that been raised. If there are questions that I do not cover specifically, I will flag them and write to noble Lords in the usual way.

First and foremost, on that final point, the Government work across government but also with key sectors. We also work with British companies so that they fully understand the impact of the sanctions being imposed, because challenges are being felt far and wide because of them.

Equally, I say from the outset to the noble Lords, Lord Collins, Lord Purvis and Lord Rooker, that we absolutely have to work in lock-step. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, is fully aware of my view as the FCDO Minister responsible for sanctions that the most effective sanctions are those where we work in absolute lock-step with our key partners—the likes of Canada, the US and the European Union. I assure all noble Lords that we have regular and frequent conversations about the designations we will make, but equally about the designations that other jurisdictions are making, to ensure that any semblance of difference can be addressed quickly and in an expedited form. Indeed, the measures we have had to introduce over the last few months reflect the Government’s desire to ensure that our own regime and framework reflect our ability to act, and quickly. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, for recognising that. As all noble Lords will recognise, there is a need for agility to act very quickly.

While I cannot give assurance beyond what I normally state about future designations, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that nothing, or no one, is out of our consideration for any designations of individuals or organisations. It would be speculative to go into any further detail, but we are looking at this in terms of ensuring that our sanctions team is extensively resourced and of working very closely with our allies in this respect. We have directly sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals and more than 100 businesses since Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. This is constant. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that the number of designations and the information I see, and the fact that we are having our ninth or 10th debate on specific issues in this respect, reflect the Government really focusing on the priorities.

The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, asked about the Crown dependencies, as did the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, about the OTs. In all instances, our legislation has direct impact in the Crown dependencies and the OTs. There is an exception in two OTs—Bermuda and Gibraltar—where an Order in Council cannot be issued and they legislate for themselves, but they have been legislating to effect anything introduced in the UK jurisdictions elsewhere. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we are working very closely with all our Crown dependency Governments, as well as the OT Administrations and Governments, to ensure they follow the UK Government’s lead. The Order in Council allows us to act decisively when it comes to the OTs.

I thank noble Lords again for their strong support of the Government’s position. As I acknowledged in my opening remarks, I am grateful in particular to the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, for their strong support for the Government’s position, both in and outside the Chamber. As I have done previously, I will continue to update them as required and appropriate to ensure that they are fully up to speed with the Government’s position and the future actions that we will take.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised the important issue of VPNs and asked whether this was an offence under UK law. It is not as it applies in the UK and the EU. The issue is cutting off the information at the source of spread—that is, the ISPs and social media companies. The measures we and our partners have been taking act on the providers, not the individual users, of the internet. In our view, it is not appropriate to place the offence on individuals who may be using VPNs. That said, VPNs have been used as a tool to circumvent, as the noble Lord mentioned, but our position is that this is not unique to the UK; we are talking to our partners to see how, as Russia continues with its approach on misinformation, we can work in a more co-ordinated fashion.

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Viscount Waverley Portrait Viscount Waverley (CB)
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My Lords, I will just take this opportunity briefly to address VPNs. VPNs are a two-way street: a VPN can also enable information from outside Russia to get into Russia to enable those Russians who wish to understand what on earth is going on better to do so. That may be somewhere in the mix, but this is a rhetorical question; the Minister does not need to respond.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Portrait Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon (Con)
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The noble Viscount partly answered my point on VPNs. He is quite right that they are used as an important tool and we are working with key organisations on this. What is very different with the BBC World Service, for example, is that it reports independently of government and autonomously. However, the use of VPNs has a benefit. That is why I suggested to the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that we could perhaps meet to address some of these issues.

As to the noble Lord’s other question, I have gone as far as I can at this time. Our responsibility is for what applies in the United Kingdom. In the designations we have made we have acted to ensure that, where we identify family members who may be involved—in this case we looked directly at the family members of Mr Putin, for example—they are individuals who we look at very closely and designate as appropriate. As I said, we continue to look at all situations concerning individuals and organisations, and will keep this under review. We are also mindful of the actions our allies are taking. With that, I once again thank noble Lords for their contributions and their continued support of the Government’s position.

Motion agreed.