Israel and Gaza

Matthew Offord Excerpts
Tuesday 26th March 2024

(1 month, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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The hon. Gentleman really should not expect me to make a different point from the Dispatch Box having already set out the Government’s position. That is the position of the Government, and that is what I will reiterate. On the arms export licensing and the application of international humanitarian law, I set out the Government’s position clearly in my response to the shadow Foreign Secretary. I have nothing further to add to that at this time.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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The UN resolution has undermined efforts to secure the release of the hostages held by Hamas, with a collapse in negotiations only today. Hamas have reiterated their hard-line positions, which were previously criticised by the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the resolution will not only embolden Hamas, who hope to achieve a ceasefire without releasing the hostages, but enable them to maintain their grip on the people of Gaza?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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It certainly should not do that. If I may, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the explanation of vote that was published at the same time as Britain supported the resolution yesterday. We said:

“We regret that this resolution has not condemned the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Hams on the 7th of October. The UK condemns these attacks unequivocally.”

I hope that he will bear that in mind in reaching his conclusions about resolution 2728.

Ceasefire in Gaza

Matthew Offord Excerpts
Wednesday 21st February 2024

(2 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Steven Bonnar Portrait Steven Bonnar
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I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. She is absolutely on the money. We cannot afford to sugar-coat the truth of the harsh realities being faced on the ground in Israel, in Gaza and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or the potential for further atrocities in Rafah. Two thirds of those who are dead are women and children. Is this just another conflict? Does that seem to be proportionate?

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Steven Bonnar Portrait Steven Bonnar
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No, I will not, and no, it is not proportionate. We are being asked to turn a blind eye to genocide. It is high time that the world recognised it as such: genocide. That is what is happening in Israel and Palestine. Innocent lives are being wiped out, families are being ripped apart and communities aare being decimated before our very eyes, never to return. The concern and the anguish that our Muslim and Jewish communities here in the UK are experiencing must be intolerable, watching the lives and the potential of their countrymen and women being destroyed by the senseless and horrific violence being meted out upon them. Their anguish is our anguish, their struggle is our struggle, and their fight for justice and peace is our fight for justice and peace.

The world is watching. We need an immediate ceasefire now. The SNP motion gives the House the opportunity to tell the world what kind of people we are; what kind of world we wish to live in; what kind of Parliament is this. I urge all those who believe in the inherent dignity and worth of every human life to stand with me, stand with us, and support our motion by voting for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza today.

--- Later in debate ---
Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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Yes, I have. That is why it is a great sadness that it has taken so long for this Parliament to have such an in-depth debate on this global issue of utter catastrophe. I am very pleased that my SNP colleagues have tabled this Opposition Day motion, which is important in allowing Members on both sides of the House to give voice to their constituents’ anguish over what is an utter disaster zone: 30,000 civilians dead; a stain on all our consciences. Civilians who played no part in the atrocities of 7 October—

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Offord
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan
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No, I will make progress. Too many Members need an in.

We are approaching five months of intolerable incarceration for those who were taken hostage on 7 October. Trying to extract the remains of your family from the rubble does not bear contemplation. As the state of Israel, you know you are in difficult territory when the United States of America tells you that you have gone over the top. The semantics in this Chamber are much to be regretted: a debate on the type of ceasefire is an indulgence that people who are not living in fear for their lives can allow themselves. A ceasefire is a self-explanatory, simple term, which the people of Gaza would very much like us to get to grips with and move in one motion or one amendment, so that the people of the United Kingdom can have their voice heard on this issue.

One troubling issue is the false equivalence that pervades the debate. The 30,000 civilian deaths in Gaza do not atone for the tragedy that befell Israeli civilians. The IDF represent the democratically elected Government of the state of Israel and the people of Israel. Hamas do not represent the people of Gaza. The equivalence is completely false. What is most important is that humanity must prevail, whatever the detail. That is why I will be supporting the SNP motion.

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Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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The hon. Gentleman raises a point of order, which he then interrupted. I will not be suspending the House. We need to put these questions. Mr Speaker will be in his place tomorrow.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Where is Mr Speaker?

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to make do with me, which I know is a great disappointment. Mr Speaker will be here in his place tomorrow.

Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories

Matthew Offord Excerpts
Monday 29th January 2024

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I do apologise; I will now call two from the Government Benches. First, I call Dr Matthew Offord.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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In November, a report by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education found that half of Gaza’s 500,000 school pupils attended UNRWA-operated education institutions and that the Palestinian Authority curriculum taught in those schools is replete with antisemitism and encourages violence. The Minister says that he is going to suspend future payments, but the damage has already been done by decades of UK funding.

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I can tell my hon. Friend that, when I was previously in government, I heard these allegations back in 2010, 2011, 2012. I asked to see and have translated these school books, and I have in the past year raised the same point again. I have not seen any evidence of what he is describing. If he would like to give the Government evidence, we will of course follow it up, but I must make it clear to him that both 10 years ago and in the past year no such evidence has been forthcoming.

Beneficial Ownership Registers: Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies

Matthew Offord Excerpts
Thursday 7th December 2023

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
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Indeed. I would love for us to be able to do this in a consensual way; that would obviously be the best way to proceed. Sadly, we have been waiting for 10 years, and my patience has worn a little thin. Given the implications both for national security and for the economy, the time has come to say, “Enough is enough.” We should use the powers that we have.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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The right hon. Member is being generous with her time. The 2022 ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union stated that unrestricted public access to beneficial ownership information was incompatible with the right to life. Will she cover that?

Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
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I will. The hon. Member will know as well as I do that we are no longer a member of the European Union, so we are not bound by that finding.

Why does all this matter? The epidemic of tax avoidance, tax evasion and economic crime flourishes in an environment of secrecy, and our overseas territories and Crown dependencies facilitate that secrecy. We know from the ever-growing number of leaks of data on financial misdemeanours that their role is central to enabling economic crime. Half the shell companies exposed in the 2016 Panama papers were incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. In 2017, the Paradise papers—a massive tranche of documents leaked from the offshore law firm Appleby—showed that a frightening number of frontline politicians held secret accounts, with the overseas territories appearing prominently as destinations of choice for hiding money. Those included people such as Justin Trudeau’s chief fundraiser, Donald Trump’s Commerce Secretary, Brazil’s Finance Minister, Uganda’s Foreign Minister, and our own Lord Ashcroft, who had—and probably still has—a Bermuda-based trust where he hides some of his wealth.

Some 20% of the files in the FinCEN—Financial Crimes Enforcement Network—leak of 2020 contained clients that listed an address in the British Virgin Islands. The leak also revealed, because it was a leak of documents from an American agency, that the Americans viewed Britain as a higher-risk jurisdiction for its role in money laundering and financial crime. The Pandora papers leak of 2021 involved 12 million files, with data from 14 different law firms and company services providers. Over two thirds of the companies analysed in that batch of leaked documents were registered in the BVI. A World Bank review of 213 corruption cases that were investigated over the 30-year period to 2010 found that 70% involved anonymous shell companies. The UK, its overseas territories and Crown dependencies accounted for the second jurisdiction in terms of the number of corruption cases associated with it.

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Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for the debate and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) on securing it.

As Members will know, there are many functions of beneficial ownership, both licit and illicit. Regardless of the legality of the arrangements, it goes without saying that a public register of these beneficial ownerships would play a vital role in combating tax evasion and other such unlawful activities—we can all agree with that. It is the desire of everyone in this House and of the Governments of the overseas territories that we work towards better transparency, to ensure these islands and territories are no longer associated with being tax havens and hotbeds of illegal financial activity. Places, including the overseas territories, do not want to be considered as such. When people from those places travel, their experience is clouded by comments they receive from others about how they harbour terrorist money or are all money launderers. That is simply unfair.

Many of the territories have already demonstrated progress in the fight against money laundering and tax evasion, none more so than the Cayman Islands. People may know that I have some links with the Cayman Islands. I do not have a bank account there, but I have many friends there and I have been involved in environmental matters in the country. The Cayman Government take the fight against illicit finance very seriously. In 2019, they were among eight territories committed to introducing a publicly accessible register by the end of the year. Progress has been made: draft proposals were initially published in 2021 and a consultation began shortly after.

Aside from the implementation of the register, the Cayman Islands have made great strides in navigating the complex intersections of transparency, governance and international standards, and it is worth bringing those to light so that they may serve as an example for other oversea territories and Crown dependencies, and provide Members with some hope that they are playing their part. For example, the Cayman Islands operates tax co-operation agreements with over 100 countries, including participation in the US Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act.

The Cayman Islands follow the common reporting standards—a global standard set by the OECD and advocated by the G20 nations. The progress made by the Cayman Islands has been recognised by the financial action taskforce, which confirmed that its anti-money laundering regime effectively deters and prosecutes financial crimes in the territory, and by His Majesty’s Government for effective implementation of its Russian sanctions taskforce, Operation Hektor. I know that Russian finance is of particular concern to many Members. It is worth noting that Operation Hektor has so involved the deregistration of more than 50 vessels and aircraft and the freezing of accounts worth approximately $8.32 billion and €230.1 million. That goes to show that there are many effective ways in which the overseas territories can tackle illicit finance operating in their jurisdictions.

Back in 2020, Ministers were clear that the introduction of comprehensive public registers would be a considerable ask for many overseas territories, particularly those that do not possess any existing company beneficial ownership register. It is worth pointing out that the Cayman Islands has, since 2017, maintained an electronic register of beneficial ownership information for all corporate and legal entities. Any such arrangement in the islands is verified and updated by authorised corporate service providers, which then pass on the information to UK law enforcement within 24 hours, under the exchange-of-notes agreement established in 2017.

That said, complexities arise with the proviso that public accessibility be at an accepted international standard, particularly among EU member states. As Members are aware, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) mentioned, the 2022 ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union stated that unrestricted public access to beneficial ownership information is incompatible with the right to private life. We may not be in the European Union any more, but the sentiment of many of those rulings remains. I know that, following that ruling, many territories sought legal and constitutional advice on the impact. Perhaps the Minister could provide his own assessment of the ruling, and tell us how he is working with territories to counteract it and ensure the smooth transition to public registers.

I know that Governments of the overseas territories and dependencies will be listening closely to this debate. I have no doubt of their commitment to providing the transparency needed. I also trust that many Members present, and the Government, will appreciate the work that has already been undertaken.

Israel and Hamas: Humanitarian Pause

Matthew Offord Excerpts
Monday 27th November 2023

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks, and I remind Members from all parts of the House to use the hotline to communicate with the emergency centre in the Foreign Office on behalf of constituents. In terms of the Gazans who have been displaced by the terrible events started by Hamas on 7 October, it is the British Government’s policy that those displaced should be able to return to the area from which they were driven.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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The mayor of Gaza City told al-Jazeera that not one litre of fuel has reached the Gaza municipality, likely due to the fuel being misappropriated. Why does the Minister think that the international community should trust Hamas to distribute any aid?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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As my hon. Friend will be aware, we are extremely careful about how British aid is distributed and do it only through trusted partners of whom we have long and detailed experience. This is perhaps the most observed and scrutinised aid programme of any that the British taxpayer and British Government pursue anywhere in the world.

International Development White Paper

Matthew Offord Excerpts
Tuesday 21st November 2023

(6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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The hon. Lady makes an extremely good point about the increase in humanitarian need—as she rightly, says, it has increased significantly—that I set out in my statement. That is why we have found £1,000 million to allocate in a budget for tackling humanitarian need next year. If she has a chance to look at the White Paper, she will see that it includes the resilience adaptation fund, which is designed to ensure that when crises take place, we can do things such as provide for greater irrigation, water retention and reservoir capacity in a drought, so that in the event that such crises take place again—which, alas, happens all too often—their impact is not as great as before.

The hon. Lady asks specifically about UNRWA. As we know, a very large number of UNRWA humanitarian workers have lost their lives, along with others, in the Gazan conflict. Any attack and any loss of life by a humanitarian worker is deeply to be regretted. Those are people who have put themselves in harm’s way for fellow members of humanity. They are unarmed and just trying to do good to their fellow citizens. On the humanitarian need overall, climate change has particularly exacerbated that, and it is of course the poorest who are hit first and hardest, as the White Paper emphasises.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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The lack of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities in developing countries particularly affects women, especially during childbirth, when they are routinely prescribed prophylactic antibiotics, and a greater number of women suffer from urinary tract infections when toilet facilities are absent. What discussions will the Minister have with partners at COP28 to further the WASH—water, sanitation and hygiene—agenda?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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I anticipate, along with my colleagues, having many such discussions, and not only at COP but in other fora. My hon. Friend is entirely right that the absence of water and hygiene facilities hits girls in particular and stops many from going to school. He will know that Education Cannot Wait—an international fund strongly supported by the British taxpayer, to which we allocated £80 million earlier this year—is able directly to help people caught up in conflict in that way. We want them to go to school and they often cannot do so, for the reasons he has given, and Education Cannot Wait tries to alleviate that directly.

Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories

Matthew Offord Excerpts
Tuesday 14th November 2023

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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The hon. Member will know that, in order to have a ceasefire, we need both parties to agree to it. Hamas have made it absolutely clear that they are not interested in a ceasefire. They made it clear that they want to repeat the actions of 7 October. I believe the right position is to press for pauses. That is the position of the Government and of the official Opposition.

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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I understand that just four Conservative Members have visited Israel since 7 October: the Prime Minister, the former Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and me. Last week, when I was there, I did see evidence of humanitarian protection by the IDF forces. I also saw videos and photographs of the things that happened in some of the kibbutzim, and they were, quite simply, crimes against humanity. Does the Minister agree that there is no moral equivalence between Hamas and the sovereign independent state of Israel?

Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell
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Yes, I completely agree with what my hon. Friend has said. He should know that the Prime Minister and other members of the Government have been in continuous contact with Prime Minister Netanyahu, including by holding frequent conversations and discussions. However, I have to say that it would be helpful if all those calling for Israel to protect hospitals would also call on Hamas to vacate the hospitals and stop using civilians as human shields.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

Matthew Offord Excerpts
Thursday 19th October 2023

(7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) on securing this important debate. I am pleased that she was able to do so in the same week as my debate on what I believe to be one of the most important sustainable development goals: access to water, sanitation and hygiene. I will not repeat what was said then, but some important contributions were made. Indeed, at least two other hon. Members who were at that debate are here today. I encourage others who were not to read the transcript.

I say that because the Minister will be aware of my strength of feeling over the importance of access to safe water, which is sustainable development goal No. 6. As has been pointed out, we are rapidly heading towards the 2030 agenda review of the sustainable development goals. As colleagues here will be aware, the SDGs are all intrinsically linked, with many being unachievable without the others. However, one important subject that I believe merits its own goal and much more attention is the issue of humanitarian mine action.

Regions of the world that have faced conflict inevitably face the second challenge of unexploded ordnance. Many are developing countries that are already confronting the challenges addressed by many of the established sustainable development goals. Mine clearance is a painstakingly long process and often continues for years and even decades after the end of a conflict. Many countries simply do not have the resources to clear mines; consequently, not only lives but sustainable development are put at risk. Given the coherence of so many of the SDGs, I believe that the further objective, an 18th sustainable development goal, of a landmine-free world would speed up the progress of many, if not all of the other 17.

For example, we cannot achieve environmental progress where land mines are still in the ground. Arable land will remain unused, barren and polluted, exacerbating food shortages and hunger. Replanting forests that have been destroyed in conflict will not be possible, leading to an increase in extreme climate events such as flooding, and ecosystems may never return. On top of that, decontaminated land that has remained unused due to the danger of mines could afford an opportunity for sustainable and carbon-neutral communities.

It is not just mines on land. By clearing explosive ordnance at sea, we open up more opportunities to work on SDG14, on conserving our oceans. The impact of removing a mine can be as simple as allowing safe passage for a child to get to school and access education—SDG4. I am pleased that the FCDO is prioritising education in our overseas development aid. By creating safe passages and removing literal physical barriers, we can also improve gender equality, which is SDG5—hon. Members will see where I am going with this—as young girls will be able to access education and women will be able to access the healthcare facilities they desperately need without harm.

As chairman of the APPG on explosive threats, I have twice attended the international conference on humanitarian mine action and the sustainable development goals held in Baku. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests on that matter. In Azerbaijan, I saw at first hand the results of mine clearance. Priority clearance areas that once lay barren and empty had been repurposed, bringing opportunities for education, employment and, most importantly, allowing people the right to return to their homes. I could continue talking about how mine action can help to achieve many of the SDGs, but I simply say to the Minister that he should embrace the UK’s legacy of being a world leader on humanitarian mine action and press for making a landmine-free world the 18th sustainable development goal.

I absolutely believe that the sustainable development goals are the right way to focus our overseas development aid, so I strongly encourage the Minister and the FCDO as a whole to demonstrate global leadership and prioritise the SDGs at the very top of Government. If we do not develop a holistic approach to how the UK will help countries to achieve the SDGs, we risk falling short of Agenda 2030. However, this is not just about financial resources and direct aid. The UK is fortunate to have the resources to encourage reform across the board, including reforms of the global finance system, giving low-income countries more of a voice and engaging with our extensive civil society to help deliver this agenda.

As I mentioned during Tuesday’s debate, the international development White Paper, which is due to be published soon, is the perfect opportunity to retune the UK’s aid to focus directly on achieving the sustainable development goals. I ask the Minister to carefully consider the evidence that he has heard today and the experienced and passionate words of many Members.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene: Sustainable Development

Matthew Offord Excerpts
Tuesday 17th October 2023

(7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered water, sanitation, hygiene and sustainable development.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Latham. This is the first time that I have had the opportunity to do so, and I am particularly pleased that the debate is about an issue that I know is important to you personally. It is also important to those here to speak today, and I thank them for their attendance. I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for a very important debate.

When the 17 sustainable development goals were set out by the UN in 2015, at the heart of that was one goal—to produce a blueprint for peace and prosperity. The 17 goals range from objectives such as economic growth to affordable energy, but they are all intrinsically interlinked and many of them will be unachievable without the others. Improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene—commonly known as WASH—is vital to many of the goals. Without the correct sanitation facilities, how can we expect women and girls to access education and workplaces? Without prioritising water resources, we reduce the ability to accurately manage and anticipate climate hazards. I will touch on these later in my speech, but I will start by saying that over the last 20 years we have seen that real progress is possible when WASH is prioritised in national development. However, we have also seen that many with the power to accelerate progress do not think that water, sanitation and hygiene are sufficiently important. That has led to progress being unacceptably slow, particularly among the poorest and most vulnerable groups and in the least developed countries and regions.

Now is not the time to slow down. Over the next decade, the populations in the areas of the globe with the worst access to WASH will grow—particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the population is expected to double by 2050. An increase in extreme weather events, political instability, conflict, disease outbreaks and the global economic crisis pose huge threats to WASH. This has resulted in a depressing image for the future of WASH. Currently, 1.9 billion of the world’s poorest people live in severely water-scarce areas that risk security for WASH services. It is predicted that by 2050 that will increase by between 42% and 95%, potentially meaning that 3.2 billion people will be affected.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this debate forward. I spoke to him beforehand to highlight an issue that I feel is very important, as I know he does as well. Some 600 million children around the world still lack safe drinking water; 1.1 billion lack safe sanitation; and 690 million lack basic hygiene services. The worst affected are women and children who are internally displaced persons, refugees and from minority communities.

Research by Open Doors, an organisation that the hon. Gentleman and I understand very well, shows that there is a worrying tendency for Christian communities to be deprived of access to development aid, including WASH programmes. That is also highly likely to be the case for other religious minority communities. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that these programmes must be monitored to ensure access for religious minority communities and displaced persons in particular?

Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Offord
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I certainly agree. Any IDPs or people who are removed from their homes or the places where they live will have an immediate problem with access to water in some parts of the world. That is particularly difficult, as we are seeing in Gaza at the moment, for example; we also see it in parts of sub-Saharan Africa as people move as a result of climate change or political instability. It is one of the important issues that link many different communities and religions as well.

Water is vital to many individuals not only on a practical basis but, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) says, on a religious basis. The practice of many religions involves using water—I am thinking, for example, of not only Hindus but Muslims—for their daily rituals, and these are very important. It is a point well worth making, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for making the point, which I had not covered.

The UK has traditionally been a leader in the WASH sector. Given the multitude of challenges facing us, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister today: how will the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office project WASH funding increasing? Investing in sustainable and safe WASH is fundamental for countries to have a healthy workforce—the foundation for a thriving economy. The consequences of inaction would be monumental for many people. Left unchecked, diseases will become more frequent, leading to an increased demand for national spending on healthcare and reduced productivity.

WASH is often framed as simply building infrastructure, delivered with little thought to how it will be managed over time to deliver any benefits. But WASH is not about one-time access; it is a group of services and related behaviours that need to be accessed or practised several times a day and sustained over time. That means WASH systems need to be strong enough to deliver services continually to entire populations and to ensure that good hygiene behaviours are reinforced. I saw that on a recent visit to Ghana, where we saw not only water but the idea behind WASH procedures being delivered. Good practice was certainly reinforced.

The FCDO shift towards supporting WASH systems and away from just delivering infrastructure is very welcome, but we need to see more such programmes. The FCDO has a vital role in ensuring that others follow suit so that all interventions lead to a stronger sector. Similarly, it should encourage the integration of WASH within health, as it has done with its ending preventable deaths approach.

At the moment, despite progress on such programmes, we are seeing an international decline in investment in WASH. Since 2018, UK aid for WASH has been cut by two thirds, falling to approximately £70 million in 2021. For comparison, we spent £364 million on education and £548 million on health. The total share of the aid budget going to water supply and sanitation was just 1% in 2021. That is despite polling indicating that 53% of the British public list water, sanitation and hygiene as one of the top three most important ways of spending UK official aid development assistance. There is clearly a mismatch between spend on WASH and the popularity of the issue among the UK public.

With the upcoming international development White Paper due to be published soon, I ask the Minister to carefully consider the evidence provided. As the Foreign Office Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), said in his statement on 18 July, the White Paper

“will chart the long-term direction for UK international development up to 2030”—

just in time for the review of the sustainable development goals. Can the Minister here today indicate what level of prioritisation WASH will have in the international development White Paper?

I stress to the Minister that Governments and countries as a whole stand to gain hugely if investment in sustainable WASH services is provided. Sanitation alone can have huge economic returns, contributing to the world economy. On top of that, the return on that investment is vast, with basic WASH services providing up to 21 times more value than their cost. Action on this matter overseas will provide direct benefits to people here in the United Kingdom. As covid-19 has shown, infectious diseases do not respect international borders.

Despite the global pandemic, the UN predicts that 3 billion people globally do not practise hand washing with soap, and over 2 billion simply do not have access to basic hand-washing facilities. As a result, diseases spread fast and most easily in places where preventive measures such as WASH do not exist or are inadequate. Most importantly, in some countries this can push health workers, who cannot rely on the availability of soap and clean water, to over-prescribe antibiotics as a preventive measure, contributing to the rising threat of resistance to antibiotics. Yet investing in basic services and healthcare facilities decreases the demand for antibiotics, breaks the chain of infection and removes the opportunities for resistant infections to become dominant.

It is important at this point to say that most resistant infections treated by the NHS originated elsewhere in the world, particularly in low and middle-income countries. Tackling that problem is critical to UK public health and to protect the NHS. Healthcare-acquired infections already cost the NHS at least £2.1 billion a year—costs that will increase as infections become increasingly resistant to antibiotics. As the Minister will be aware, a high-level meeting on antimicrobial resistance will be happening at the UN General Assembly next September, which could provide a significant moment to drive the political prioritisation of WASH and fighting disease abroad and here in the United Kingdom. Will the Minister commit to the UK encouraging political dialogue and drive financial commitments for WASH in the build-up to the conference? Of course, beyond the economic benefits and those for the UK, we are looking at action such as saving the lives of up to 300,000 children each year.

Touching back on achieving sustainable development goal 5—gender equality—women and girls face particular challenges when it comes to WASH. A lack of WASH facilities undermines the specific needs of women when it comes to menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. Improving the future prospects of women and girls can be as simple as providing clean water and toilets at home, which would prevent women and girls from wasting 77 million days every year on walking long distances in search of water. That is time they can spend in education or, indeed, working. Beyond that, their direct health outcomes will vastly improve when investment is made in improving access to water and sanitation in workplaces and public spaces.

As the Minister will be aware, the UK will be working towards sustainable development goal 6, which is primarily split between two Departments: the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which focuses on improvements here in the United Kingdom, and the FCDO, which is working to improve international results. I am positive that ministerial colleagues will work together to ensure that progress is made to achieve the international targets, but I would be interested to hear what those collaborations will actually mean. However, we understand that this is not always the case in countries struggling with access to WASH. Institutional fragmentation occurs, which undermines the effectiveness of the WASH sector.

Drinking water, sanitation and hygiene typically have their homes within different Ministries, and often the responsible Ministries may vary for rural and urban services. Hygiene, for example, cuts across many sectors, Ministries and Departments, including WASH, health, education, gender and nutrition, meaning that it is everywhere and nowhere. That contributes to problems when it comes to generating political leadership, setting policies and raising finance. It gives rise to co-ordination difficulties, weak regulation and accountability, fragmentation in capacity-building efforts and different—sometimes competing—monitoring systems. Ultimately, this results in a clear lack of ownership and prioritisation by decision makers and budget holders. What assistance are the UK Government providing to other nations to adopt approaches to WASH similar to the UK’s, including the establishment of development banks?

Despite huge progress, WASH is facing significant challenges. The world is changing rapidly. When disease and war hit, water and sanitation are often forgotten first but the consequences are experienced immediately by those displaced. I urge the Minister not to forget the issue. Water is not just the source of all life; it is the source of all future prosperity and peace for billions of people in this world.

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Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Offord
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I am very grateful for the contributions from the Members who have come along today. What has struck me is that so many people have not only developed a passion for this subject, but have seen the situation on the ground when they have visited countries where WASH projects have been undertaken.

The hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) mentioned the Ugandan visit that she and I made several years ago, and we certainly saw benefits occurring in that country. She also raised the issue of diarrhoea, which is very important: according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, 2,195 children die from diarrhoea each day—more than the number of children who die from AIDS, malaria and measles. Some 1.6 million people die each year from diarrhoeal diseases globally, and that is more than the number who die from suicide, homicide, conflict and terrorism in a single year. We often laugh about things such as diarrhoea in this country, but the statistics emphasise that this is a mass killer that we could easily overcome.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) spoke about her visit to Kenya through World Vision, as well as the issue of eye health—that is also very important to me—and sanitation. She mentioned that antimicrobial resistance kills more people than terrorism, and that fits in with the statistics I have mentioned.

The hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) says that she did not fall into her role with WaterAid, and she certainly did not; she has had a long and illustrious career in the international development sector. I was particularly interested to see that she worked in Serbia during the time of the war. As global head of campaigns at WaterAid, she will know, without any doubt, the importance of this subject, but I want to add to one of her points. She spoke about the unique experience of women and girls with access to water. One thing that I did not mention in my earlier speech is my understanding that the number of sexual offences against women and girls has a direct link with access to toilet facilities. Many girls do not use toilets at night or simply do not have the opportunity to, and those who do run the risk of sexual exploitation. So the issue of WASH is about not just health and sanitation, but sexual offences against women.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) mentioned his visit to Malawi, the issue of access to water and the three-day survival rule. The Minister may be a military man; I am not, but I am certainly someone who is interested in the outdoors. He knows the three-day survival rule, which is that human beings cannot survive for more than three days without access to water. They cannot survive for more than three minutes in extremely cold temperatures. They cannot survive for more than three weeks without food. But they cannot survive for more than three days without access to water.

The hon. Member makes a very good point about Gaza. It is certainly something that I will take on board. I think the Israelis should allow access to water. I defend them for not allowing access to other things, but I think that they should allow access to water. But I gently remind him that the EU did spend €100 million on putting 30 miles of water pipes into Gaza, and Hamas decided to remove those water pipes because they felt that they could make rockets out of those. I would certainly condemn that action.

The hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) emphasised the issue of hand washing and how it affects the entire world. I would point to the issue of bedbugs, which have spread across the channel very easily, so we can recognise that microbial diseases will spread even more easily than something as large as bedbugs. She mentioned her visit to Cameroon. Again, that emphasises the number of people who have visited and seen WASH projects.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) reminded us of the religious importance of water. I am aware that he had another important meeting to go to and was not able to stay for the rest of this debate.

I am grateful to the Minister, who outlined the Government’s actions, the additional funding, which is very important, and the importance of health programmes overall. I have, with others, met the Minister with responsibility for overseas development—my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)—and he unofficially reminded us that the issue of WASH would be included as part of the international development White Paper. I am grateful that today this Minister has publicly announced that it will be included in the international development White Paper in the coming months. I am also grateful that he has reinforced the fact that political accountability and leadership are a priority for the Department and that these issues will be raised at the forthcoming UN conferences.

I am grateful for what the United Kingdom has done in this area. Although the issue of overseas development funding can be contested, the issue of overseas development funding being spent on WASH facilities is not. The people of the United Kingdom feel very strongly about that, and I certainly feel very strongly about it. Water scarcity is a problem across the world, but I hope that we can play our part, reduce the inequalities and improve the life chances of those around the world.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered water, sanitation, hygiene and sustainable development.

Economic Aid to Sri Lanka

Matthew Offord Excerpts
Thursday 11th May 2023

(1 year ago)

Commons Chamber
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Matthew Offord Portrait Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)
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I am grateful to have secured this debate on the UK’s economic aid to Sri Lanka. It is a great pleasure to see the Minister in his place.

My constituency is home to many members of the Sri Lankan diaspora, many of whom still have family in the country. Therefore, the economic and political circumstances of Sri Lanka are important to many of them and, indeed, to me. I thank all the constituents who regularly make contact to update me on the situation in the country. I have also been fortunate to be in contact with many sections of the Sri Lankan community and charities across the UK, such as the Sylvia Lanka Foundation, through my chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka.

It goes without saying that the economic situation in Sri Lanka has been dire and remains so. The roots of the problem go beyond the global economic situation created as a result of the covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. For some years now, Sri Lanka has been undergoing severe macroeconomic stresses. Pre-existing conditions have simply been exacerbated by international circumstances. At points, the economy has been overvalued. Unnecessary populist reforms by the previous Government were mishandled, with significant tax cuts leading to a huge decrease in tax revenues, with an estimated loss at one point of over £1 billion. A severely misjudged ban on the import of chemical fertilisers led to a 30% annual drop in farming yields. Despite a reversal of the ban following protests, the damage was already done. In the throes of an economic crisis, the short-lived ban led to food shortages and heightened inflation.

A particularly important industry affected by the economic crisis has been tourism. Tourism to Sri Lanka once contributed 5% of the country’s GDP, and it saw a peak of over 2.25 million visitors in 2018. However, in 2019 the dreadful Easter bombings claimed more than 250 lives, and tourism struggled as a result. Before the industry had an opportunity to recover covid-19 struck, and visitors have slumped to just over 700,000 this year. Estimates put its contribution to the economy as low as 0.8%. That has impacted hundreds of thousands of jobs. The UK is Sri Lanka’s third largest source of tourists. I hope that UK tourism will increase, allowing a full return and boosting that vital sector.

All that, combined with congestion at ports in Colombo that has led to a lack of essential supplies such as pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, means that the situation in Sri Lanka is extremely worrying. Despite Sri Lanka taking great strides to reduce overall poverty over many years, the World Bank’s latest report in April estimated that the economic situation has led to the worst poverty levels since 2009, with the lower-middle income poverty rate going from 11% in 2019 to 27% today.

Currently, there are few signs of economic recovery. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the Sri Lankan economy will contract by 3.1% this year, on top of an 8.7% decrease in GDP last year. The global response has been mixed. It is the view of many that the Sri Lankan Government should have approached the International Monetary Fund much sooner than it did. In May last year, Sri Lanka defaulted on its debts, failing to pay back £63 million in interest payments. After lengthy negotiations, and hard work by the international community and the Government of Sri Lanka, in March the IMF approved a £2.4 billion fund to restore stability to the Sri Lankan economy and assist in unlocking its growth potential.

So far, the UK’s initial response has rightly been focused on humanitarian assistance. I am pleased that Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon announced a £3 million package of support at the UN General Assembly in September last year. I know the provision of pharmaceutical and medical supplies has been a great relief to many.

Beyond that, we are fortunate that the UK is already heavily involved in, and a large contributor to, many of the organisations assisting in Sri Lanka, such as the UN Central Emergency Response Fund and the World Bank. As a permanent member of the Paris Club, the UK will be heavily involved in the debt restructuring process. I hope the UK can support an early agreement on bilateral restructuring, which would release resources to revive the Sri Lankan economy. Will the Minister give an update on the UK’s involvement on that front?

It is increasingly vital that the UK uses its global influence in these organisations to assist in securing the best possible economic support for Sri Lanka and to provide debt sustainability. The UK must play a constructive role on the executive board of the International Monetary Fund during the full implementation of the extended fund facility, particularly during the biannual reviews.

Such influence is vital to counter the sway of nations such as China. I, in common with many of my colleagues, am increasingly concerned about the economic influence of China, which is using investment as a means of control. As the country’s biggest bilateral lender, China is owed some $7 billion by Sri Lanka. Many of the projects that were invested in by China have yielded little return for the country. Despite that, investments in major ports, such as Hambantota, have allowed China to have increasing access to trade in the Indian ocean, and a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman has said that the priority for Chinese diplomacy

“lies in China’s neighbouring countries”.

That is the very definition of what has been called debt- trap diplomacy.

I believe that the UK could always do more with regard to economic support, whether directly or indirectly through organisations such as UNICEF. Would the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office consider setting up a disaster emergency fund to ease the immediate crisis and assist the World Bank in reinvigorating the Sri Lankan economy?

Indeed, our own economic support to Sri Lanka can go far beyond humanitarian and direct financial support. Free trade is a global force for good and countries such as Sri Lanka thrive on the ability to trade their many goods across the globe. Sri Lanka has signed free trade agreements with countries including India and Singapore and is in the process of negotiating such an agreement with China.

Total UK imports from Sri Lanka increased by about 17% last year, to around £1 billion. While that is a promising sign, there remains an untapped market which would be hugely beneficial to the people of the UK and Sri Lanka. Now that the UK has reforged its way in the world as a global trading nation and is seeking new trading opportunities, I gently suggest that we focus on old friends, particularly those in the Commonwealth.

I am aware that this is not necessarily a matter for the FCDO. However, I would be interested to hear what conversations the Minister may have had, if any, with his counterparts in the Department for Business and Trade about how the UK can operate an aid-for-trade system with Sri Lanka. By using our aid as a mechanism to bolster Sri Lanka’s infrastructure, for example its ports, we can boost trade for the benefit of businesses, but also finance the ability to import essential supplies.

Beyond trade, Sri Lanka has an endless opportunity for the UK to invest. A long-standing and personal interest of mine is the environment and climate change, particularly investment in sustainable energy sources. I know from discussions with the former governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka that overall investment in climate-related projects in Sri Lanka is lacking, despite Sri Lanka having ambitious targets for transitioning to a green economy.

As a small island and a developing nation, Sri Lanka is acutely at risk when it comes to climate change and rising sea levels. There is a perfect opportunity for the United Kingdom to invest in something that is in the interest of us all: protecting the planet for future generations. Without the correct financial support, countries such as Sri Lanka will not be able to achieve the sustainable development goals set out in 2015. I know the Minister is passionately concerned about this area.

I am delighted that this Government have made a fantastic start on this. Through the UK’s climate action for a resilient Asia initiative, the FCDO has partnered with the United Nations Development Programme and the Sri Lankan Ministry of Finance to implement the Climate Finance Network. The network will focus on climate change-aligned budgeting and increasing direct access to international climate change finance. Importantly, it will also focus on ensuring peace and reconciliation in the country, which I will touch on in a minute. Will the Minister update the House on the progress of the Climate Finance Network and on what discussions the Department has had with the high commission in Colombo on helping Sri Lanka secure its climate future?

I believe that more can be done in terms of direct investment, particularly in areas such as renewable energy. Some 98% of Sri Lankan households are dependent on an already unreliable national grid. The Ceylon Electricity Board is being unbundled into 14 units, and foreign support is required in the form of capital and technological knowledge.

I would also like to see UK action on maintaining and boosting biodiversity in the country. Sri Lanka’s unique island biodiversity is facing decline through pollution, river diversion, habitat loss, and even man-made natural disasters such as the X-Press Pearl incident in 2021. I know the UK has taken great strides in helping developing countries to meet the 30 by 30 target, but I would be interested to hear what financial assistance the Government are providing to Sri Lanka to help to protect its habitats.

Finally, I wish to touch on the need for continued peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. I do not need to lecture the Minister—who knows better than many Members —on the intricacies of Sri Lanka’s political history. However, it goes without saying that Sri Lanka lies in a delicate balance, which the economic and humanitarian situation in the country risks tipping. Food shortages can lead to conflict anywhere they occur in the world, so it is vital that the UK plays its part in assisting the country to achieve food security.

The situation in Sri Lanka is undoubtably complex. A complex financial history has been worsened by populist politics. An economic crisis has spiralled into a political crisis and is quickly creating a humanitarian one. Of course, all this is made even more complex by the remnants of a long-standing conflict still lingering in the country. Economic aid to Sri Lanka should of course focus primarily on alleviating the humanitarian situation out there, such as by providing medical supplies, as I mentioned on earlier. However, we must not doubt Sri Lanka’s ability to stand on its own two feet, and the UK can play a role in helping our friends to achieve that.

The IMF deal is just the beginning of the journey for Sri Lanka. The challenge now is to help implement the IMF deal successfully, to assist Sri Lanka in restructuring its debt, to provide the right economic support to strengthen its national growth, and to ensure a peaceful and prosperous future for the island. The people of the island deserve that, as it is a member of the Commonwealth and has been a friend to us over many years. I leave the Minister with one final point: the UK Government should not, as V. V. Ganeshananthan writes in her new novel “Brotherless Night”, leave in their wake

“peoples divided by colonial powers, ancestral angers, and bullheaded pride.”

Minister, I am sure we can do more.