The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) (Con)
My Lords, as ever, it is a great honour to address your Lordships’ House on behalf of the Government and to close this incredibly informed debate on foreign affairs, defence, trade and development. It has been a debate in which we have had varying contributions covering many countries and many issues. As my noble friend Lord Grimstone said in his opening remarks, these are very challenging and testing times—a point articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, in his remarks just now. A point made by all noble Lords is that it is important to stress again the importance of alliances, partnerships and working together and, yes, to renew that vision, the vision we share, for a fairer world based, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, reminded us, on the tenet of the strength of democracy, openness and freedom—the ability to disagree with each other, but doing so within and respecting the rule of law, whether that is domestically or internationally.
I start by conveying congratulations on behalf of these Benches to the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, on becoming a grandfather. When he was talking, I was reflecting. I still have a very young family myself. It is about opportunities. When you look towards your children, grandchildren and generations to come, sometimes you sit back and ask yourself: what is happening in the world? It is a point of reflection for all of us that, in our own way, we have a role to play. We want to be able to look at ourselves and say, on reflection, that we have played a part by trying to do our best in whatever roles we have.
The 67 speakers we have had in this debate, whatever perspective they have expressed, again demonstrated depth, quality, expertise and insight on the important issues we have discussed. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who spoke about the tone of engagement when it comes to international affairs, that I assure him that when not just our best diplomats but our Ministers engage, there is a softness to our tone, but a firmness in the message we wish to convey. I think that reflects the best of British diplomacy, and long may that continue.
The noble Lord, Lord McDonald, and my noble friend Lord Sterling talked of our diplomatic network. Our diplomats are the best of the best. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of addressing the heads of missions who are convened here in London. As the noble Lord, Lord McDonald, reminded us, it was also a great pleasure to sit down today with Melinda Simmons, our ambassador to Ukraine, to get her insights but also to recognise her courage, dedication and devotion—not just in representing the United Kingdom’s interests in Ukraine but in reflecting the best of our diplomats as they represent our interests and strengthen our relationships with countries across the world.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, talked about Brexit and declining influences. It will not surprise her that I will respond to that by saying simple things about our place in the world. I have seen directly over the last five years or so, as a Minister of State at the Foreign Office, as a joint Minister and now at the FCDO, the deep respect that the United Kingdom has among nations. That is reflected when you look at elections, for example within the ITU. Very relevant to the debate today was the election success we had within the ICC, with Joanna Korner being elected as a judge and Karim Khan as a prosecutor. I add that Karim actually stood against a number of European countries and won quite decisively. I think that reflects the deep regard and respect many countries have for the United Kingdom’s place in the world. Again, that is something we will continue to strengthen in our relationships.
As we look toward the world today, my noble friend Lord Grimstone spoke earlier about the warnings made back in 2021. But, to be completely honest, I was there for the wind-up in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, and none of us would have expected—and certainly did not hope—that those warnings would come true. Sadly and tragically, they have. Territorial expansionism and atrocities that we hoped had been consigned to the history books expose the very weaknesses of the post-war security architecture and require us to find new ways to stand up to aggression. Indeed, the whole world order, including that of the United Nations, has really been tested. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, reminded us that when you have a P5 member acting as the aggressor, it totally changes the whole dynamic of how we respond.
But in the darkness we have seen great courage, great resilience and a deep generosity, across the world and in our country, in response to the challenges we face, particularly those in Ukraine. We have witnessed the power of a drive for freedom, democracy and self-determination. That has inspired us and united us with our friends around the world. Issues of security and trade are important. While there are lessons for the West to learn together from Mr Putin’s war in Ukraine, I believe that our alliances with our partners in Europe, NATO and the G7 have been strengthened, with a new unity of purpose. It has been tested—absolutely—but we see it emerging in the world today in a very positive fashion in terms of ensuring that we act, and act together.
We must embrace the challenge of setting out a vision for international co-operation, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, pointed out in his closing remarks. As ever, the noble Lord talked in his customary style about coming together and working together. Irrespective of our differences, it is important that I reiterate once again—I know I speak for all my colleagues on the Government Front Benches—our deep appreciation for the insights that we gain through direct engagement with your Lordships’ House. That will certainly be reflected in what we do across the areas of foreign policy, defence, trade and development.
But equally, as my noble friends Lord Frost and Lord Udny-Lister both indicated, our experience also tells us that issues of democracy, free trade and open markets are what very much define our country. These are the kinds of values we need to stress and engage with as we face aggression around the world. They are very powerful diplomatic tools. Indeed, when we look around the world, it is important that our diplomatic networks also extend the importance of trade as an enabler—trade empowers.
I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord German, when he spoke about the power of education being fundamental to how we go about ensuring that the world really is empowered. That is why our Prime Minister has repeatedly articulated his absolute commitment to 12 years of quality education for girls. But I accept the premise of what the noble Lord, Lord German, said: to educate people, you need teachers. As we found through the challenges in Afghanistan, a conflict can really put a country back in terms of its achievements in that respect. We need to invest more in education to ensure that every child has an opportunity to realise their ambition.
Isolationism, on the other hand, offers little in terms of economic security, health security or, indeed, cybersecurity. I agree totally with the noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Coussins, in terms of how we need to invest more in languages. I pay particular tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, who is a constant advocate for the importance of investing in our Diplomatic Academy but also for the importance of learning languages. Her continued lobbying ensures that we as a Government retain a focus on these important issues.
I will come on to Ukraine in a moment, but let me touch on a few specific issues. My noble friend Lord Eccles talked about the Commonwealth, as did the noble Lord, Lord McDonald. While it does not perhaps figure in the Queen’s Speech with the strength that certain noble Lords said it did, it is a very proud part of my title, and I am looking forward to further strengthening the work of the 54 member states as we hand over the chair-in-office mantle to Rwanda. Indeed, the Rwandan Foreign Minister has been visiting London as he goes on to Geneva, and we are looking forward to being in Kigali. We will be looking to progress a number of priorities at CHOGM, including those on trade and investment, women and girls, climate and the environment, democracy, peace and security. I look forward to updating your Lordships’ House in this respect.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Suttie and Lady Cox, also talked about various situations around the world. First, with reference to central Asia, I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, that I would very much value engaging with her directly. It was mentioned earlier about an ever-expanding portfolio, but I am, among other things, the Minister for Central Asia. I have seen quite directly with the situation in Afghanistan—not just in Ukraine—the real challenge on the ground that these countries have had to face. And yes, while some of them abstained in the votes at the General Assembly, I think we have to quantify and qualify that abstention. If you are one of those near-neighbouring countries from central Asia, facing Russia, with Russian minorities within your own borders, there is a genuine fear, and we have to ensure that we build those relationships. I look forward to engaging with the noble Baroness in that respect.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also talked about the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, in terms of the territorial sovereignty, and the issue featured in others’ contributions. The UK position when it comes to Azerbaijan and Armenia is that there must be respect for the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. We also support the ongoing efforts to bring Azerbaijan and Armenia together, in order to resolve all outstanding issues. We support the peace deal that has been reached, and the protection of cultural heritage. That is vital, and we work not just directly with those countries but also through agencies such as UNESCO, whose primary purpose is the protection of heritage sites.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also raised the issue of the situation in Nigeria. My colleague Vicky Ford, the Minister for Africa, regularly discusses security with the Nigerian Government, and I am acutely aware of the issues through discussions I have had with the noble Baroness, and of how attacking particular religious minorities is part and parcel of those who seek to bring further discord and disruption to Nigeria.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and the noble Lords, Lord Trees and Lord Whitty, all talked, and rightly so, about climate change. Again, there is more to be said than in the time I have and I will write in terms of our focus, but for example I visited Egypt recently, and part of my engagement with Foreign Minister Shoukry, who is going to be the next COP president, is ensuring there is a continuity to what was achieved in Glasgow. My good friend and colleague, Minister Alok Sharma, was there as well to discuss these particular issues. It would be wrong for me not admit that the conflict in Ukraine has distracted, but it is important that we do not forget and lose focus on the importance of climate change, and the UK Government remain committed to our five-year pledge on the £11.6 billion of spending on international climate finance.
On the issues of soft power, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, reminded us of the importance of the BBC World Service. He also met earlier with Melinda Simmons, and the FCDO is providing the World Service with over £90 million per year, and an additional £1.44 million in 2022-23 to counter disinformation, specifically in Russia and Ukraine.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about Colombia and human rights concerns. I recently met the Colombian President at the UN. We remain concerned about the continuing worrying rates of murder and threats, of course, but I would highlight that, although Colombia remains an FCDO human rights priority country, we have seen progress on issues such as justice and accountability. This includes holding perpetrators of sexual violence to account, which continues to be an area of focus for us; indeed, not so long ago, I had a virtual visit to Colombia in which that was a focus for my area of engagement.
I will briefly turn to other areas. The noble Lord, Lord Hussain, talked about the situation in Kashmir and human rights in India more broadly. I assure him that, in any engagement I have with India and on my visits there, human rights issues are raised. On the human rights report itself, it is not necessary that every country where we may have human rights concerns should be featured in it; various criteria are applied on that.
The noble Lord also mentioned sanctions. I cannot speculate on that issue, but I remind him that we work closely with India, which, through its own constitutional protections, has at its heart the issue of protecting all communities. That is something on which we engage very constructively with India.
My noble friend Lady Warsi highlighted a particular case. I will of course follow up with her on it. In the time we have, perhaps we can engage on the issues she raised to ensure that, where we can make progress on particular issues, we look at how best to move that forward.
My noble friend Lord Dundee talked about Ukraine in the context of praising the work of the Council of Europe. Through the expulsion of Russia from the CoE, we have seen how other partners in Europe are standing together to ensure that a clear message is sent to Russia.
Turning quickly to Russia and Ukraine, I do not agree with the assessments of the noble Lords, Lord Skidelsky and Lord Campbell-Savours, but many noble Lords—the noble Lords, Lord Ricketts, Lord Triesman and Lord Dannatt, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and my noble friend Lord Dobbs—talked powerfully and passionately about the importance of our role in Ukraine. I am genuinely grateful for the strong support we have received from across the House for the Government’s approach.
Equally, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and others reminded us that it is also important to focus on what happens in this particular crisis not just through the humanitarian response but by building an economic response to the situation in Ukraine. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that we will work constructively and engage with your Lordships’ House on whatever the next steps are. The Government have already allocated more than £400 million, including £220 million in humanitarian support, and a further £1.3 billion for defence and military support. I am sure noble Lords would acknowledge the positive response we have had from President Zelensky. Like others, including my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, I am in close contact with the Foreign Minister as part of our relationship.
We are also working closely with the ICC. The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, mentioned war crimes. We are working closely with Karim Khan and his team on both formal technical and financial support and support on the ground, linking to the Ukrainian Government directly.
The noble Lords, Lord Burnett, Lord Ricketts and Lord Dannatt, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and my noble friend Lord Cormack talked about NATO expansion. This is an ironic situation. I am sure that the Russians will reflect on the fact that one unintended consequence of their direct intervention has been to speed up the process. When you go to Finland, in particular, you see the vulnerability. I visited Estonia, where I saw directly the importance of our presence and the role of NATO, which has strengthened; we have seen real resilience being built. I agree with the assessment made so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Owen: we have seen that NATO is very much the bedrock of European security. It is important that the United Kingdom plays its part.
The whole issue of defence is very key, and I will move on that in a moment. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, talked about sanctions, and that has become a very effective tool.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, is reminding me that time is nearly up—