The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, it is huge privilege for me to address your Lordships’ House on this wide-ranging debate covering many areas. It was a tour of the world as we know it in terms of development and the role of the United Kingdom. I will immediately respond to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, by saying that it is not just the perception of the United Kingdom, but the reality. Our recent influence in standing up for the rule-based international system has been demonstrated by the strong level of support we have seen for British candidates for the prosecutor role at the ICC and for the election of Judge Korner. There are many other examples I could quote.
It would be remiss of me not to recognise the valuable contributions of all noble Lords. I single out my noble friend Lord Udny-Lister. I have known him for a couple of decades or more in different guises—perhaps that reflects our ages. One thing I know is that his devotion and dedication to public service is recognised at local level within London and internationally. I noted in particular his comment that he will hold the Government to account. As the Minister responsible for foreign affairs—and I am sure I reflect the sentiments of my noble friend Lady Goldie—I regard that comment with some trepidation. We look forward to his future contributions.
I also welcome my noble friend Lord Herbert to his new role. I cannot find him in his place. There he is—this is the challenge of an ever-evolving House. I hope we will get back to a degree of normality. I welcome my noble friend’s appointment; I wish him well in his new role, and look forward to working very closely with him on the important agenda for which he is responsible.
In thanking all noble Lords, I recognise the importance of this debate and the richness of the contributions. There was, of course, much challenge to the Government. I, as the Minister responsible for foreign affairs and development affairs in your Lordships’ House, along with the Minister for Defence recognise not just the richness of this debate but the value, expertise and insight that your Lordships provide in challenging the Government and in shaping the future direction of our great country.
We have had recognition of the various issues. I made a particular note of the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds. He spoke of his Church experience. A cleric—a priest or a vicar or a representative of any faith—has to make sure that what they say is reflected in their deeds. As a Minister in the Government, I assure him that I share some of those sentiments quite directly. I also recognise the importance of the role we are now playing on the world stage through the creation of the FCDO. I welcome the response from my noble friends Lord Northbrook and Lady Meyer who recognised the importance of this merger. It has brought together diplomacy and development in a way that has strengthened the role of the United Kingdom on the world stage.
On ODA, I recognise the important role my noble friend Lady Sugg has played. Questions were asked by the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, and others. Of course it was regrettable that we had to reduce the commitment made in legislation by a Conservative-led Government from 0.7% of GNI but, as has been said before, it is our stated intent to return to that figure at the earliest opportunity. Notwithstanding the challenges and cuts that have had to be endured on programmes, we approached this in the FCDO by looking at core projects and ensuring that we retain equity and our leadership on the world stage. We will now be spending more than £10 billion, which is still among the highest of our G7 partners, on the important area of development around the world.
As we continued through the debate, I made different notes. My noble friend Lady Hooper provided insights on Latin America, which are always well-recognised, and questions were asked about the importance of our relationships within the European Union by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. I say to her that we value our relationship with key partners in the EU, as demonstrated by the attendance of the leading official from the European Commission on Foreign Affairs at the G7. We participate with the European Union quite directly on the key issues and challenges we are facing, including the Covid challenge and the environment. This is a year of global leadership, as has been recognised by several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Meyer, and we are putting at its heart the health response and the challenges around COP 26, and focusing attention on these important issues.
The integrated review has set out our Prime Minister’s vision for a stronger, more prosperous union in 2030 and outlined the actions we will take, at home and abroad, to realise that vision in a more competitive age. In this regard there are four key areas we will be focusing on.
I will now seek to address many of the questions raised by noble Lords. From the outset, as the Minister with responsibility for the Commonwealth, the United Nations and our multilateral policy, I will say that I recognise the important contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, among others, stressing the importance of the rules-based international system. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that we are putting it at the heart of our response in our support for international institutions, including the International Criminal Court. Whether it is at the United Nations, through our current role as Commonwealth Chair-in-Office, in NATO, or at the Human Rights Council, the G7 or COP 26, that underlines the strength of global Britain today.
We are focused on many different areas, but I will cover some of the issues and our relationships. My noble friend Lord Risby talked about the importance of our relationship with the US. The US remains a central and key partner to our relationships across the world, whether through multilateral organisations or by co-ordinating across a range of foreign policy issues, including on Iran, Russia, China and Myanmar. We also welcome the US reaffirming its commitment to NATO, re-joining the Paris Agreement on climate change and remaining in the World Health Organization, and the £4 billion commitment to COVAX which has been made. I assure noble Lords that, at the very highest level, through President Biden and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State Blinken, and others, we are dealing with the US directly on a range of different priorities.
China was understandably raised by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord King, who spoke of the challenges around cyber, and my noble friends Lord Jopling and Lady Fall. I assure noble Lords that, yes, we have got a relationship with China; it is vital we establish a relationship with China. There are many issues we discuss within the context of our P5 membership of the UN Security Council. We face some challenges where, without China, we will not achieve our ambitions, including climate change.
We want to build a trade relationship in the medium to long term with China. However, that will not prevent us calling out the disagreements we have and the abuses of human rights we have seen in places such as Xinjiang. And it will not stop the steps we have taken to ensure the rights of BNOs within Hong Kong. As many noble Lords will know, we have taken specific actions through the global human rights sanctions regime against four Chinese Government officials and one entity responsible for serious human rights violations in Xinjiang. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, again asked about future sanctions policy with respect to Hong Kong and other areas. We keep the situation under review, but I am not going to suggest what may happen in the weeks and months ahead. My noble friend Lady Fall asked a specific question about the NSC subgroup on China. Our policy towards China, as my noble friend will be aware, is agreed by the NSC and is reviewed regularly.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked a question about security partnerships in the world and the recent statements made by New Zealand. It is of course for New Zealand to determine its own policy towards China, as we the UK Government have our own approach. Recently, the Foreign Minister of New Zealand has confirmed again that New Zealand is not hesitant but recognises the value of the Five Eyes partnership.
Looking further afield, my noble friend Lady Helic raised the issue of Russian activity in the Balkans and what we can do as a Government. I assure my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that I totally accept the point that civil society has a central role to play in building new sustainable societies, and the Balkans is no exception. The Government have played an important role—including on preventing sexual violence in conflict, an area I cover on behalf of the Prime Minister. We will continue to work with key partners, including NATO, the EU and civil society, in this respect.
I turn to science and technology. In his excellent maiden speech, my noble friend referred to the importance of cyber and technology. We seek to strengthen the UK’s place at the leading edge of science and technology, which is essential to our prosperity agenda, competitiveness and security.
The noble Lord, Lord St John, talked about the role of the Commonwealth. I assure noble Lords that we have taken specific action to strengthen the response to cyber challenges and have invested quite directly in cybersecurity through the Commonwealth, particularly for smaller, vulnerable island states.
We are looking at strengthening open societies, human rights and free trade through our important relationship with the EU. I was delighted that we were joined by my noble friend Lord Frost earlier. To those—including the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford—who challenge that Europe is not important to us, I say that here we have a Minister appointed to the heart of government, in the Cabinet, responsible for our relations with the European Union. It comes back to those points. It is not just words but action.
We will deepen our ties in the Indo-Pacific, Africa and the Gulf. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, among others, raised the important role we will continue to play in Africa. Let us not forget that Africa has a number of important Commonwealth countries, and that relationship will be taken to new levels. We will work towards dialogue partner status at ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and are looking forward to early accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
We will also lead action to reinforce and reshape the international order of the future to ensure that the United Kingdom is at the heart of areas such as space and cyberspace. I assure noble Lords that we will reaffirm our commitment to strengthening democracy and human rights across the piece. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, talked about some elements of this, particularly with regard to the situation in Belarus. We have called out the suppression of journalists. I note quite carefully some of the points that he raised, including the important work of my noble friend Lord Blencathra in this respect. I look forward to working with him specifically on some of the more sensitive issues, particularly on some of the individual cases.
On the current situation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, we are well aware of the allegations from both sides that war crimes have been committed. We have urged relevant authorities to investigate and understand the situation on the ground. I know my colleague, Minister Morton, is working very hard in this respect and has visited the area directly and had discussions with all sides.
I have addressed the issue of the EU quite directly, and I hope my comments have provided some reassurance to both the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds and the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, about the importance we continue to attach to our relationship with the European Union. I am glad the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, recognised the diplomatic status we have extended to the EU representative to the United Kingdom. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and others continue to work closely not just with the likes of France and Germany; we are committed to wider partnerships within the EU. My right honourable friend recently met Nordic and Baltic counterparts to see how we can strengthen our rights further. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, also asked about citizens’ rights. In the interests of time, and that being more of a Home Office lead, I will write to her.
I assure my noble friend Lord Northbrook on the specific issue of the overseas territories and our preparation. They are part of the British family. We have helped them during the Covid challenge and supplied vaccines directly, and we stand ready for any challenges that may be faced by the overseas territories, and indeed the wider Caribbean, as the hurricane season comes forward.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, again a great champion of human rights, talked rightly about the emerging situation in Tigray, particularly in respect of sexual violence. I assure him that only this week I have reviewed quite specifically the situation on the ground. We are looking to deploy our team of experts shortly to ensure that we can collect and start collating evidence to allow for successful prosecutions at the appropriate time.
The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, talked of the situation in north Cyprus. I assure him directly that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is engaged very much on this agenda, and we work closely on the issue of Cyprus more generally with the United Nations.
The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury rightly raised the important issue of conflict stabilisation and mediation. He used the word “reconciliation”; there is no better word. That is now very much structured within the work of the FCDO, and we will see how we can further strengthen our work in this respect. It is important that we bring communities together.
In this case, the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, talked about conflict management and resolution, supporting refugees within Africa. We will continue to work with key partners, including the African Union. My noble friend Lord Naseby talked about the importance of reconciliation with Sri Lanka, which I was due to visit in the coming few days—unfortunately, the national lockdown there has prevented me from making that visit next week. Nevertheless, I am engaging directly with the new Government—but we stand by the strength of our resolution, passed at the Human Rights Council.
In talking about conflict resolution, I come to the important issue of the Middle East and the current situation on the ground in Israel and Palestine. Of course we deplore the continuing cycle of violence; we have been at the forefront of stating this at the UN Security Council. I assure my noble friend Lord Polak and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that we will stand up and speak out strongly against anti-Semitism. Anyone who seeks to target any community in the United Kingdom should be called out: anti-Semitism has no place in the UK—indeed, no faith should be targeted, across the United Kingdom.
I also assure the noble Lord, Lord Hussain, and my noble friend Lady Warsi that we have called for an immediate ceasefire in this conflict. As he said, it is important that we recognise access in relation to humanitarian support. I am sure that we all have our personal reflections, and it is clear that the United Kingdom’s position has not changed. Settlements are illegal, and the only way to resolve this—for the long term, for a sustainable, peaceful solution—is a secure, safe Israel, living side by side with an independent, sovereign Palestinian state. I assure all noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Warsi, that that remains central to our work.
I turn briefly, in the very limited time left, to defence. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Goldie will reflect on the important contributions made. In this respect, I assure my noble friend Lady Anelay of our continued commitment to Afghanistan. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, rightly raised the issue of our role, particularly in relation to demining. My noble friend Lady Hodgson and the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, spoke in support of the work that we have done to date—but it is a challenge, and, in the continuing negotiations that take place on the ground, it is important that we do not lose the gains that have been made. However, the Taliban’s continued co-operation is a key area of concern, and, as the Minister responsible for Afghanistan, I am engaging directly with key interlocutors, including President Ghani and Foreign Minister Atmar.
We will take a more robust approach to security; I assure all noble Lords in this respect. This includes the £85 billion that we are spending on new defence equipment and support in the next four years alone, driving forward modernisation—my noble friend Lord Sterling in particular noted the importance of modernising our defence response—and investing in research and development and our cyber response in our state-of-the-art National Cyber Security Centre. We will continue to work closely with our key allies to further strengthen our response.
I note our commitments to rapid modernisation in shipbuilding and accelerated R&D, and I appreciate the strong support that we have had from the noble Lord, Lord West, on the shipbuilding element. We will continue to reflect on our ambition for defence to be an important part of the global Britain brand.
I turn to some of the specific questions. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about supply chains. The procurement reform Bill will slash the number of regulations governing public procurement and introduce a single uniform framework that can unleash the potential for public sector innovation and partnership. We are very much committed to the Armed Forces covenant legislation; it will continue to be a key focus of ours to secure a duty of due regard to its principles. I assure the noble Lord, Lord West, that we will invest in assets: our aim is to increase the number of frigates and destroyers beyond the 19 that we currently have by the end of the decade.
Defence modernisation was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord West, and my noble friend Lord Sterling raised the deployment of HMS “Queen Elizabeth”. We are leading the way in driving both capability and modernisation in developing new ways of operating more effectively.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Smith and Lady Northover, asked about Armed Forces numbers. I can do no more than point to the response of my noble friend Lord Lancaster. I draw all noble Lords’ attention to his contribution, because it underscored the importance of broader elements of the forces and paid a real tribute to our reservists, who play a phenomenal role in the defence of our interests, across the world. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, that the lessons to be learned should reflect our important duties and obligations to all who serve in the Armed Forces. I noted the points that he raised very carefully and am sure that our colleagues in the MoD will reflect on them.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Brixton, raised important questions about national insurance contributions and their impact on veterans. We are working to maximise the employability of veterans and, as we said in our manifesto, we are investing specifically to ensure that the skills invested in our veterans are there for the medium and long term.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, rightly raised the issue, championed by the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, of duty of care, as did other noble Lords. She will know that my noble friend Lady Goldie is aware of and personally engaged in this issue.
If noble Lords will indulge me, in the short time I have I will briefly turn to some other key points on development. I assure noble Lords that I will continue to work in a co-operative manner across your Lordships’ House in ensuring that our development priorities are communicated effectively to the House, in working through the impact of the challenging decisions we have had to make and in ensuring that we continue to fulfil our mandate and obligations on the global stage. Through our presidency, we will revitalise G7 co-operation and are putting women and girls at the heart of our approach. Earlier this month, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary hosted G7 Foreign and Development Ministers face to face for the first time in over two years. We are looking for an integrated approach to foreign policy and international development. The G7 has agreed to tackle pressing geopolitical challenges including, as a number of noble Lords mentioned, the destabilising issue of Russia and particularly its role in Ukraine, as my noble friend Lord Risby pointed out.
The challenge of Covid and the response to it was raised by a number of noble Lords: the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, and my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, among others. We are engaging directly in WTO discussions on the intellectual property waiver proposal. Waiving intellectual property rights would not, as my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe said, be an effective action to boost vaccine manufacturing. That comes directly from some of the manufacturers. We support voluntary partnerships and licensing. As the Minister responsible for India, I know that the work we did to strengthen the contractual relationship between AstraZeneca and the Serum Institute was part and parcel of that process, prior to it being discussed at the World Trade Organization.
We have also invested heavily in the COVAX facility, which is a clear and right decision. With over £0.5 billion of British investment, the COVAX facility was set up so that the most vulnerable countries around the world could access the vaccine, and that is now happening. As of 5 May, COVAX has shipped over 53 million Covid-19 vaccines to more than 120 countries. One of the key practical issues that we need to look at is the logistical challenge in-country, to ensure that, once the vaccines arrive, they can be distributed. That remains a key focus. We are also working closely with other key partners and are delighted by the commitment shown by the United States.
To those who say that the UK is withdrawing, on the contrary—we believe in reforming international institutions but, as our increased contribution to the World Health Organization demonstrates, we stand firmly behind these multilateral organisations. Issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone. I assure her that while we have had to make some challenging decisions, such issues will remain very much at the heart of our approach. I have seen the benefit of what they have delivered and argued the point personally within the context of the UN Security Council. As the Prime Minister’s lead on PSVI, that will remain a key area of my focus. I look forward to working with the noble Baroness directly to see how we can continue to sustain a focus on this important area.
In my closing remarks, I assure noble Lords that we will retain our leadership on international development. My noble friend Lady Sugg has pushed me a number of times on clarity, transparency and our obligations. I say to her: patience is a virtue. We have committed to being transparent and will certainly do so. I will seek to be clearer than I have been in ensuring that the impact of the reductions we have had to make are translated.
I hope my noble friend will respect me for saying this, as will the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, among others who I know care passionately about this issue, as many noble Lords do. I assure them that in the reductions we have made, we have sought to sustain the core elements of the programme so that, at the appropriate time, we can scale up and retain the important equities that we have on the ground. That will continue to be our approach. On when we will return to the figure of 0.7%, as I have said before, we will seek to do that at the earliest opportunity. I assure my noble friend that we remain very much committed t, and totally respect our obligations under the Act and to Parliament.
We are promoting the G7 outcomes, protecting freedoms with the OSCE, chairing the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and celebrating 75 years of the United Nations. These reflect our strength whether that is through defence, development or diplomacy. We have now agreed trade deals with 67 countries, including one with the EU. We have announced a new comprehensive strategic partnership with India and, as I said earlier, thanks to our friends in the Asia-Pacific region, we are on track for ASEAN dialogue partner status later this year.
We have also won elections at an international level and, notwithstanding the Covid-19 challenges, we have upped our commitments on issues such as COVAX and girls’ education. We look forward, as I am sure all noble Lords do, to hosting the COP 26 conference on climate change in November this year, alongside Italy. In this respect, we have also acted according to our words by putting £11.6 billion into international climate finance and setting an ambitious 10-point green plan to reach net zero by 2050.
The integrated review has sent a clear message that we are very much joined-up in our thinking and strategic in our approach. The review has also sent a strong message about what we stand for as a country: as an independent actor on the global stage, an active European country but with a truly global perspective. It is a commitment to be more proactive and adaptable; to be more dynamic; to engage with partners and work with civil societies and key Governments. We will call out abuses of human rights through our sanctions policies but also through working with key partners. Whether it is on health, climate or human rights, we will continue to play our central and pivotal role as global Britain on the world stage. It is a commitment of global Britain to work with our allies, and as a force for good. It is a commitment of global Britain that we will proudly take forward in the years ahead.