All 10 Chris Stephens debates involving the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office

Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Thursday 17th March 2022

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My right hon. Friend is right to make the point about distinctions in language. Discrimination, disparity and disadvantage all mean different things. They can correlate and they can be related. Now that we have an action plan and something written, I can assure him that we will be propagating it across Government and not just across but beyond Whitehall.

My right hon. Friend is right to raise the case of Brighton and Hove. In fact, I read in a paper today about a black mother who complained that the anti-discrimination training is actually discriminatory. He is right to raise the case of Tony Sewell, who, unbelievably, had an honorary degree withdrawn because he did not believe that this is a racist country. That is an example of the sort of silencing of ethnic minorities that we are seeing across the board. It is terrible, and I have to say I was disappointed to see the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) congratulate Nottingham University on cancel culture. She will find that those sorts of actions prevent ethnic minorities from participating in public life.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I thank the Minister for advanced sight of her statement. Only by acknowledging and understanding institutional inequalities will we be able to effectively tackle them in all aspects of life. That is certainly true in the world of work, where BAME people were already in a precarious position in the labour market before the pandemic, and is linked to the disproportionate economic impact on those groups of the cost of living crisis.

I have two quick questions. The TUC recently warned that insecure work is tightening the grip of structural racism in the labour market, with BAME workers overrepresented on zero-hour contracts. Will the Minister urge the Government to introduce the long-awaited employment Bill to tackle zero-hour contracts?

Unlike with gender pay gaps, there is currently no legal requirement for UK businesses to disclose their ethnicity pay data. Will the UK Government follow the recent recommendations of the Women and Equalities Committee and introduce mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting by April 2023, including urging employers to publish a supporting action plan?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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We have made an action on ethnicity pay gap reporting in the report, and we will be issuing guidance to help businesses and organisations to deliver it. What we are not going to do is mandate ethnicity pay gap reporting. It is very different from gender pay gap reporting, which is binary—male and female. Men and women are represented equally across the country. Ethnicity pay gap reporting covers multiple categories that are not necessarily applicable in each area, so mandating it in a particular way could actually end up distorting and skewing the figures. What we are going to do is support organisations that want to understand what is going on in their businesses and help to progress pay and opportunity for ethnic minorities.

FCDO Staffing

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Thursday 16th December 2021

(5 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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James Cleverly Portrait James Cleverly
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I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised his recent trip to Brazil. He is right to say that that country plays an important role commercially, agriculturally and environmentally, and I have no doubt that we will continue to make the most not only of our bilateral relationship with Brazil but of his language skills and experience in that incredibly important country.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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FCDO staff need only to look at the experiences of the staff at the British Council, a departmental agency, where there have been massive cuts and job losses. Will the Minister tell us what is being done to minimise redundancies at the British Council? Also, why was the decision taken to outsource the Turing scheme, which will undermine the jobs, skills and experience of the British Council staff?

James Cleverly Portrait James Cleverly
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that we have gone through an unprecedented financial contraction because of covid. The British Council, which derives a significant proportion of its income from tuition, has been hit because of the difficulty in providing tuition in the era of covid, but it has done genuinely fantastic work using technology to continue to provide those services. The Foreign Secretary and I recently had a meeting with the senior leadership of the British Council to discuss what we could do to protect the things that we value highly in terms of its delivery of soft power, to ensure that it not only survives but thrives, once we are able to get past this covid situation.

British Council

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Wednesday 8th September 2021

(8 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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I thank the hon. Member for his contribution and for his work with the all-party groups, which are important as they are cross-party. Criticisms of the Government’s British Council closures come not only from the Opposition Benches, but from across Parliament. In relation to the Balkans, the British Council is a part of how we demonstrate to our European friends and neighbours that we want to continue in a close partnership despite having left the EU, which I and many other Members disagree with.

Devastating cuts have already been made. The choices have been made by the Minister and his staff. The cuts are the result of cutting ODA spending, a policy hated across the country that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) referred to, and hated across this House, as I mentioned, including in the Minister’s own party. Perhaps, this is the inevitable outcome of merging the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is something we warned about last year. That was also done in the name of cost savings, but it is as yet unclear whether any savings have been made from that decision. Perhaps the Minister will let us know when information on the merger will be made available.

I understand there is also an expectation at the Treasury that all Departments will have to reduce their spending by 5% at the next review. The British Council has already gone through so much hardship, has already had to agree to a reduction in spending of more than £185 million over the next five years, and is already looking at making 20% of its staff redundant here in the UK and across the world. Further cuts will put pressure on the future of the British Council itself. Will the Minister provide reassurance that he will fight to maintain his Department’s budget, and will he consider ring-fencing the current level of grant funding that the British Council receives?

Our soft power is rooted in who we are as a country. It is central to our international identity, and its strength cannot be taken for granted. Those are not my words, but those of the Government’s own integrated review, published just months ago. It is absolutely remarkable that the Government pay lip service to the importance of the British Council while simultaneously undermining it. I urge the Minister to address that in his speech.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. She was in a meeting online this week with me and members of the Public and Commercial Services Union. I should refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Is she as concerned as I am that the business plan is going forward and the whole redundancy exercise is being done in secret? We really need a bit more disclosure, and we need more parliamentary scrutiny as to how the restructuring is being carried out.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain
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I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I was pleased to join him earlier this week. One thing that struck me from the meeting was the longevity of some of the staff there, how long they had worked for the British Council, their passion and dedication and how the current actions and what was happening were undermining how they felt about their organisation. I agree that it is very important that we have a degree of transparency, particularly for a non-departmental public body such as the British Council.

Soft power is important. My colleagues and I see the benefits of the UK’s being trusted and respected around the world. Our education system is outstanding, and we want international students to come and benefit from it. I want students from around the world to come to the University of St Andrews in my North East Fife constituency. The British Council helps to support that aim, engaging with the Turing and Erasmus programmes, science, technology, engineering and mathematics scholarships, technical placements and assistance with applications.

Those students bring countless benefits to us at a local level, not only to our local economic circumstances, but with their experiences and knowledge. Speaking as a member of the Scottish Affairs Committee, we should remember the importance that international students have in Scotland in particular, which we picked up in our inquiry. Their fees are no doubt part of that.

Tourism contributes £106 billion to the British economy and supports 2.6 million jobs. We cannot recover without it, particularly in North East Fife, so we need to encourage visitors to our shores. Despite current temperatures, I am yet to meet a tourist who says they came to the UK for the good weather. People come for our history and to experience our culture. They go to Stratford to learn about Shakespeare, they go to the pub just about anywhere, they want to experience our vibrant arts and theatres and, at least in North East Fife, they definitely want to have a round of golf. Of course, all those good things exist independently of the British Council, but its presence around the world, teaching English, sharing our culture and demonstrating that we are an open and welcoming nation, plays a significant role.

We also need trade deals. We need to export our goods and services, be it Scotch whisky or cutting-edge science, technology, engineering and maths knowledge, but what country is going to make a trade deal with a country it does not trust? What does it say to the countries we want to work and trade with if we turn our backs on them and withdraw our institutional presence? What does it say about our commitment to tackling climate change if, as reported today, this Government are considering doing away with agreements around climate change when they look at trade deals, such as that with Australia?

The biggest challenges we face today do not affect us alone and cannot be solved by us alone. We face a climate crisis; we face a growth in extreme ideologies around the world. The world is a less safe, less stable and less prosperous place, and retreating solves nothing. For better or worse, we have already retreated from the European Union—I firmly believe it is for the worse—but we still need to work together to respond to global health crises, to house and support refugees coming from Syria, Afghanistan and other places, to tackle cross-border crime and terrorism, and to make the shifts required to respond to the climate crisis.

--- Later in debate ---
Nigel Adams Portrait The Minister for Asia (Nigel Adams)
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I thank the hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) for securing this important debate on the British Council’s global presence. I will take my mask off; that would probably help. I am grateful for the interventions of other hon. Members. I am also conscious that I need to give the hon. Lady a couple of minutes, if she would like that, to sum up.

The hon. Lady has already said that the British Council plays an absolutely crucial role as one of the UK’s international organisations for cultural and educational opportunities and cultural relationships. It is an arm’s length body of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. It has a core mission to promote English-language education, arts and culture across the globe, and it does a fantastic job of that. It delivers key soft-power benefits to the United Kingdom, and it is a crucial part of our overseas presence, operating in over 100 countries. The British Council’s own figures show that, in 2019-20, it reached 983 million people.

We recognise the British Council’s considerable contribution to promoting our influence and values overseas. It is important to acknowledge, however, the devastating impact of the covid pandemic on British Council operations. As the chairman has said a number of times, the organisation went from producing almost £1 billion of revenue to producing virtually zero overnight. It takes a lot to recover from that.

At the peak of the pandemic, over 90% of the British Council’s teaching and exam centres were forced to close. The hon. Lady referred to the fact that we have provided the council with additional financial support in an extremely challenging fiscal climate. We are facing the worst economic contraction in over 300 years and a budget deficit of close to £400 billion. However, to depart slightly from the bonhomie, I politely suggest that the hon. Lady’s remark that we were refusing to provide financial support to the British Council is frankly, on every level, inaccurate. Despite these unprecedented economic circumstances, we have allocated over £600 million to the council since the pandemic hit. The hon. Lady may not be aware of that figure.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I thank the Minister for giving way. Can he tell us today what the conditions are for that £600 million in terms of loans?

Nigel Adams Portrait Nigel Adams
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I can certainly go into some more detail on the financial settlement. It included a 2021-22 spending review settlement, in 2020, that totalled £189 million. That is a 27% increase. Furthermore, £150 million of the settlement is composed of ODA, while the non-ODA allocation of £39 million is triple that of the 2020-21 baseline. In addition to the settlement, we are providing loan support, which the hon. Member for North East Fife referenced. That is up to £245 million and includes a £100 million loan to support restructuring efforts and to rebuild commercial surpluses.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Will the Minister give way?

Nigel Adams Portrait Nigel Adams
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I will come on to the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens). The hon. Member for North East Fife suggested that the British Council had to provide a business plan to secure a loan. I am not entirely sure that a business plan requirement is a particularly heinous thing to ask of the British Council. I would be grateful if any hon. Members could point me to a bank or any lender that would provide a loan without at least politely asking what that money would be used for. We worked very closely with the management and board of the British Council to come to this arrangement on the loans. We have worked very hard with them; they have done an incredible amount of work, and I pay tribute to Stevie Spring, the leadership and the interim chief executive.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I thank the Minister; he is being very generous. There are problems with the restructuring, and the outcome is that some of the industrial relations from the British Council need to be improved. Is the Minister’s Department scrutinising how the British Council is carrying out the restructuring? Would he be prepared to meet me and PCS representatives to hear our concerns?

Nigel Adams Portrait Nigel Adams
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I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman or any hon. Member here today to discuss the British Council. We discussed it in the main Chamber quite recently, and I am more than happy to do so again. Members are very welcome to come into the FCDO and meet me and our soft-power team, who work incredibly closely with the British Council. Clearly, changes such as staffing are operational matters for the council itself. We understand that it is working incredibly hard to restore its commercial operations and to maximise its revenues. It is a particularly difficult time.

While we have had to make difficult decisions across all Departments and in other areas, we are increasing the money we are providing to the British Council. Never has there been a clearer endorsement by the Government of the British Council and the important soft-power role it plays. However, the unprecedented impact of the pandemic has forced the Government to take tough but necessary decisions about the British Council’s global presence. It has reinforced the need for the council to do more to adapt to a changing world. As the interim chief executive of the British Council said at the time, the British Council will stop spending grant-in-aid funding in 11 countries and will deliver grant-in-aid programming through offices for a further nine countries.

Let me re-emphasise that decisions on presence were taken only after a thorough assessment alongside the British Council of how the council’s priorities link with the Government’s foreign policy objective, as set out in the IR, as well as how the British Council can achieve the greatest impact.

In the debate in the main Chamber, some said that the British Council can make a meaningful impact only with an office in-country. That, frankly, is incorrect. I said in June that it would be a strategic mistake to judge the impact of the British Council in a digital world by its physical presence. This crisis—the pandemic—has changed the way we all operate, and the British Council has done an excellent job.

ODA Budget

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Monday 26th April 2021

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber
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James Cleverly Portrait James Cleverly
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The 2015 Act envisaged that there might be circumstances in which a Government would be unable to meet the 0.7% target. As I said, this is a truly unique and unprecedented set of economic circumstances. We will look to get back up to 0.7% as soon as the situation allows. We will look at the situation with regard to legislation.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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Will the Minister confirm—he has yet to do so—whether any impact assessment was made of the cuts, in particular to Yemen of 60%, Syria two thirds, Libya 63% and South Sudan 40%? Does he not recognise that the feeling of the House is such that those serious measures, those damaging cuts, should go to a vote of the whole House?

James Cleverly Portrait James Cleverly
- Parliament Live - Hansard - - - Excerpts

Of course the whole process that we are going through is to balance the decisions that have been forced on us by economic circumstances and the impact that they would have. The whole job of the Department is to make those incredibly difficult decisions. That is the job that we do each and every year. Those decisions have perhaps come into sharper focus this year because the economic situation has forced the reduction in our ODA expenditure, but this is what the Department does: it balances the expenditure that we have at our disposal and assesses the best way in which we can maximise the positive impact of that money.

Treatment of Uyghur Women: Xinjiang Detention Camps

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Thursday 4th February 2021

(1 year, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Nigel Adams Portrait Nigel Adams
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I thank my hon. Friend for his comments; I knew there was going to be a “however” or a “but” at some point. I know how passionate he is about this issue. To his first question, of course it is not right that we should be entering into these agreements with genocidal countries. I can again be absolutely clear that we understand the strength of his feeling on this matter, and that of other hon. and right hon. Members. We want to work, and we are working, with hon. and right hon. Members right across the House—work that will continue in the run-up to next Tuesday, when the Bill comes back to this place.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP) [V]
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The extent of these crimes of sexual violence can only be considered to be systematic and a further symptom of the genocide being carried out, using a whole armoury of appalling tactics, by Chinese officials. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government are considering adopting an atrocity prevention strategy to ensure that the resources of all Departments always operate in a way that is consistent with our values?

Nigel Adams Portrait Nigel Adams
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We are working incredibly hard with our international partners to ensure that there is an effective response to the situation in Xinjiang. The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. We will continue to do that. I do believe that our diplomatic pressure is having an international impact, by virtue of the fact that the most recent statement had 38 countries joining us. We will continue to work both directly—bilaterally—and internationally to ensure that China is held to account for its international obligations.

Oral Answers to Questions

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 13th October 2020

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I reassure my hon. Friend that the raison d’être of the merger is to bring together our aid clout and heft with our diplomatic reach and muscle. If he looks at the visit I made to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, he will see the support we provided for the Palestinians in dealing with covid alongside our diplomatic support for a two-state solution; if he looks at the situation in Yemen, he will see that we are doing the same; and he will see the same in our response to the explosion in the port of Beirut. I think he will find that we are practising what we preach, which brings together the aid—taxpayers’ money—with our diplomatic muscle to make a real difference on the ground.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what representations the Government have made to the Turkish authorities over their latest silencing of political opposition, with the arrest of 82 members and office bearers of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the HDP? Do the Government share the view of many of us that those actions are, once again, a fundamental violation of human rights against the Kurdish population?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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As the hon. Gentleman will know, Turkey is a close NATO ally, but that has never stopped us from raising human rights across the whole range. We will obviously continue to do so as a part of our partnership.

British Citizens Abroad: FCO Help to Return Home

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 24th March 2020

(2 years, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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I thank my hon. Friend, first, for the credit he has given to the consular team at the Foreign Office, but also for raising the point of the G20. We also have a G20 leaders meeting, which will be virtual and remote, coming up. It is critically important that we make sure we work not only with the G7, the G20 and within the EU, but with all international forums, not least because of the broader range of countries involved and the ability as a result to secure routes back via hub routes and, in particular, transit routes. I have mentioned Singapore, but there are many others we can talk about, particularly in the Gulf.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I thank the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who have been enormously helpful. He may be aware that in Australia, British embassy officials are telling people to contact their Members of Parliament, so there are two things I ask him to raise. First, the travel insurance companies are providing no help and are refusing assistance to people who have been stuck abroad. Secondly, there is the exploitative nature of some airlines. The cost to leave Australia with Qatar Airways has ramped up to 10,000 Australian dollars. Will the Foreign Secretary condemn that practice and take those sorts of practices up with airline companies?

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tribute he paid to FCO staff. I can tell him that we are constantly talking to the airlines about limiting the additional cost expense put on travellers. Of course, the airlines are under acute pressure right now, with the number of jurisdictions to which they can fly limited. The high commission has set out the details so that people who are concerned can register so that they can be informed about the flights that will be organised to take them home. We have more than 1,700 British nationals who have already registered. That works, so the key thing is to disseminate those contact details. If he needs them, I am happy to provide them.

British Children: Syria

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 22nd October 2019

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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That is a reasonable analogy to draw, because we are dealing with UK law, and these children ultimately will be returned to the UK. In my view, we need to use the same standards, norms and principles with these children as we would apply in the UK. I note my hon. Friend’s point. He will understand that the piece of work under way is trying to identify precisely where these families are, who they are and what can be done. I do not think the numbers are vast. [Interruption.] He is right to say from a sedentary position that that does not matter. These are individual cases, but the press reporting 70,000 in al-Hol camp, for example, gives the impression that there are thousands and thousands of people in the frame for this. I can say without betraying any confidences that that would be a grave exaggeration. We are talking about a relatively small number of people. This should be a containable piece of work, and it is, I assure him, under way.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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The Minister will be aware that there are different interpretations, particularly from those on the ground, of the Ankara-Washington ceasefire. Is that hampering the Government’s and agencies’ attempts to repatriate children? Does he agree that the UK Government need to increase the number of children being resettled here in the UK?

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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I think the hon. Gentleman raised a similar point before on the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which I am very proud of—20,000 people by 2020 is a big commitment, particularly when it is taken along with our financial commitment to tackling the dreadful humanitarian crisis in Syria. He mentions the ceasefire. I assure him that we have used every opportunity to do what we can in relation to vulnerable people in north-east Syria during this period and will continue to do so, assisted, I hope, by the continuation of the ceasefire, and we have to hope for the best this evening.

Turkish Incursion into Northern Syria

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 15th October 2019

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
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At the NATO Parliamentary Assembly on Saturday, I made the point very clearly that that is not the kind of language we expect from a NATO ally. I have explained the position on sanctions, and we will keep it under review. Within the EU, we decided on balance not to go down that path. I agree with my hon. Friend that the refugees in the region cannot be used as some kind of geopolitical pawn against other international partners, particularly European allies.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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The anger of the Kurdish community in Scotland and the UK is replicated in a letter I have sent, which has been signed by over 70 cross-party Members of this House. Is it UK Government policy that there should be a no-fly zone across northern Syria, and what is the Foreign Secretary doing to achieve that? Can he assure us that an arms embargo is being reviewed on a daily basis? Some of us believe that there should not be any arms sales to Turkey at all.

Dominic Raab Portrait Dominic Raab
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The concerns relating to a no-fly zone are partly principled and logistical, but they are also about the practicality of enforcing it on the ground. We have made it clear that we have suspended arms exports of anything military that could end up being used in Syria. We will keep the situation under review for that period. The key thing now—the overarching priority—is to get Turkey to withdraw and end the intervention, and then we can look with our international partners at how we take the country and the region forward.

US Troop Withdrawal from Northern Syria

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 8th October 2019

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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Yes, I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. We are doing everything we realistically can to try to bring some equanimity to this situation. That has been our position from the start, but we also have to be realistic about what we can individually achieve. We are influential, but we are one of several, and we will continue to work with our friends and partners within the coalition to try to ensure that this goes in an appropriate direction. As I have said on repeated occasions during my remarks, that does not involve an incursion by Turkey into Syria.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I refer the Minister to early-day motion 2772, which reflects the strong feelings that have been expressed in this House today and by the Kurdish community, many of whom are in Glasgow South West. May I say to the Minister that, obviously, pleas have been made to Turkey, but pleas in the past have been ignored—I am thinking particularly of the situation in Afrin last year—and ask him to reflect on that? Is it not time that the Government now immediately suggest to the Trump Administration that they must reverse this policy to protect one of the stable regions in Syria?

Andrew Murrison Portrait Dr Murrison
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I think it is important to say—this is what we understand to be the case—that the US is not agreeing with Turkey by potentially withdrawing from this piece of territory, so it is not endorsing Turkey’s action at all. I hope that it will be joining the UK and the rest of the coalition to impress upon Turkey that this is not the best way forward in our principal aim for Turkey and others, which is to defeat Daesh, which poses a threat to Turkey, a big threat to Syria and a threat to the UK and the US, too. As Turkey’s reputation is on the line in this matter, I hope very much that it listens to its friends and allies and desists from this particular course of action. That is the line that we have taken, and I am hopeful that we will have some success in getting it to revise its position in this particular matter.