Foreign Affairs - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 3:43 pm ar 5 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Devolved Issues) 3:43, 5 Mawrth 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the Minister, who, in the way that he has dealt with questions and debates in this House, has won the respect of your Lordships’ House. We certainly welcome the debate and appreciate that the Foreign Secretary and the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, have ensured that, at a critical time in world affairs, we can draw on the expertise across your Lordships’ House—the speakers’ list promises an interesting and useful debate. I smiled when the Minister spoke about a sense of nostalgia when he introduced this debate. All of us, when looking back at foreign affairs, always have a sense of nostalgia that somehow things were better in the past—we are not always right.

This really is a critical time. It is two years since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Negotiations for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza continue. We have seen a fourth round of UK airstrikes against the Houthis. Tensions continue in the Indo-Pacific region, and we must acknowledge the growing threats from various hostile states. A further dynamic is that, this year, across the world, billions of people will vote in crucial elections, against a backdrop of huge technological change, bringing greater potential for disinformation and external interference. Today’s world leaders face multiple risks and challenges, including conflict, terrorism, the climate emergency and migration.

The first duty of government is the security of its citizens. Throughout history, every Government, in every country, have had to adapt to meet the risks of the age. The driving force behind the creation of both the EU and the UN was a desire for greater co-operation and lasting peace. At a time when trust in government and wise counsel is most needed, we have also seen a rise in those who wish to spread conspiracy theories, fake news and extremism. This creates unpredictability.

The UK holds a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, plays a major role in NATO, retains membership of numerous international organisations, and is a signatory to important treaties and conventions. We take pride that our international relationships with long-standing allies, the Commonwealth and key international partners, give us a wide-reaching diplomatic network. Yet it is a sad reflection that in the past 14 years we have become increasingly disconnected from some of our important allies and institutions.

We have had a significant role in relation to Ukraine and Gaza, but we have retreated from or cast doubt on our commitment in other areas. We had policy differences when the Foreign Secretary was in Downing Street, but we also accept that his Administration were serious about foreign policy. More recently, the Government’s conduct on issues such as Brexit and the protocol, the Northern Ireland legacy Act and the Rwanda agreement has tarnished our long-standing reputation for respecting human rights and upholding the rule of law. Ill-advised comments about foreign leaders, the slashing of international aid, reducing our diplomatic presence and a casual attitude towards the importance of international law, and lecturing others while watering down the UK’s climate commitments undermines our soft power.

Yet as a world response to the actions of hostile states, international co-operation has rarely been more important. Such states are deploying increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks against western parliamentarians, hospitals and civil infrastructure. In some ways it is like a modern-day version of the Zinoviev letter, in seeking to influence and disrupt the diplomatic process. The Foreign Secretary looks at me askance—I was not around then either, if it is any consolation.

The Home Secretary has expressed concerns about the potential impact on the UK when foreign actors are involved in major disinformation campaigns. This does not just affect elections; such external campaigns are designed to impact on domestic and international stability. Parliament has an opportunity to address this in the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill, currently before your Lordships’ House, where amendments will be tabled to try to tackle the issue of political deepfakes. I appreciate that the Bill is not the responsibility of the Foreign Secretary, but, given the international implications of this and its seriousness, can he look at it with his Cabinet colleagues? We are open to further discussions on that issue.

At our last Oral Questions with the Foreign Secretary, my noble friend Lord Collins was somewhat bemused when he announced that he had been sanctioned by the Putin regime. He joins an elite group of parliamentarians, but our response to this must be robust. Can the Foreign Secretary outline how those issues are discussed between government departments and with international partners to ensure that modern state threats are more effectively identified and countered?

In his introduction, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, spoke of the death of the courageous Alexei Navalny. There is also the increased imprisonment of political opponents in Russia and other countries. How we respond to this with our international partners can have important repercussions. Who was not moved to see thousands upon thousands of people queueing to pay their respects, even though they knew that they were at risk from Putin in doing so?

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine impacts across the whole of Europe and beyond. I was honoured to briefly meet President Zelensky when he visited Parliament —his leadership is inspirational. We all condemn the illegal invasion. Keir Starmer has been clear that, if we are in government later this year, we will stand with Ukraine—because Britain and this Parliament stand with Ukraine.

Months ago, we called for legislation to enable the utilisation of seized Russian assets. We were pleased that President von der Leyen supported doing just that to fund rebuilding Ukraine. Andrew Mitchell in the other place has said that the Government hope to have positive news on this soon. I hope the Foreign Secretary can provide an update when he responds in a few hours.

The attacks by Hamas on Israel on 7 October unleashed catastrophic devastation, and we totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, and others, that fighting must stop now. A sustainable and sustained humanitarian ceasefire observed by both sides, underpinned by the release of all hostages and the ramping up of aid, is essential. Alongside that, diplomatic engagement is paramount. We are aware of the intense efforts taking place as we speak, and we want to remain optimistic, however difficult that is. An offensive in Rafah would create an even greater humanitarian catastrophe, and such action during the holy month of Ramadan would further inflame regional tensions.

I will not repeat the noble Lord’s five points, but we concur with the points he made. The eventual aim of a two-state solution must be kept alive, despite the huge challenges—a safe and secure Israel, but also a viable Palestinian state without Hamas. We are a long way from there.

Last week, the noble Lord confirmed that the aid getting into Gaza is not enough, and that 500 to 600 trucks are needed daily. Is there any evidence yet of a significant improvement, or the likelihood of one, in the days to come?

On the Red Sea, we have supported the limited targeted action taken by the UK, alongside allies, to diminish the Houthis’ ability to disrupt maritime navigation, and we acknowledge and thank our Armed Forces for their professionalism, capability and commitment. We have now had a fourth round of strikes. I ask the Foreign Secretary at what stage the Government would consider this to be a sustained campaign and, if we cross that threshold, what accountability to Parliament might look like. When we last had a Statement on this issue, I asked the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House whether the Ministry of Defence is content that the strategic objectives are being met. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm these objectives today and say whether they have changed? Given that, whenever possible, military action should be accompanied by diplomatic efforts, can he say more about the efforts taking place in the region?

I know that the Foreign Secretary is aware of the huge disappointment when the Government down- graded international development—particularly in reducing the target from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP, when GDP was falling—and in how that money has been used. For many years, including when he was in a different role, there had been a consensus on retaining that ambition of 0.7%. Yet not only was that figure reduced but the way in which it was done—so quickly and immediately, without consultation, and with no transitional arrangements put in place—had serious consequences and implications.

We have heard on a number of occasions in your Lordships’ House of the damage that has been caused to international development programmes that were funded by that money. The Foreign Secretary knows the importance of the SDGs and the Government have committed to implementing them, yet the way in which the aid cut was undertaken makes implementing the international objectives even more difficult. What confidence is there that we can actually achieve those aims? This does not just impact on the perception of the UK across the world and our soft power; it impacts directly on the projects that were taking place on the ground, saving lives. Can he offer any hope of an improvement from this Government?

In the time available, I have not been able to comment on the many issues that will be part of today’s debate, specifically our relationships with China and Taiwan and issues in the Indo-Pacific region. However, my noble friend Lord Collins will respond to the debate on those issues.

We remain of the view that, when the world is increasingly shaped by geopolitical events and trade flows, when risks and challenges are international, the UK should step up, engage and show leadership, rather than step back. In recent years, it has been felt that the Government have been too casual and uncommitted to our international obligations. I can think of no other Government, including the Foreign Secretary’s, where senior figures would seek to defy international law, or where legislation to protect citizens’ rights would become a political football.

I suspect that the Minister would agree with Keir Starmer. I expected a reaction then—but I think he would. The nation’s foreign policy must prioritise restoring our place on the world stage. That is not about being jingoistic or unrealistic about resources, but about how we, once again, make the UK a force for good. In the past, we have helped shape international institutions and norms; we have played a key role in conflict resolution; and we have used our convening power to build an international consensus around major events. We want to work with the EU as genuine partners; to be a dependable NATO ally, supporting Ukraine’s accession; to implement AUKUS; and to strike new security and intelligence partnerships. We want to again lead in development and seek to lead on climate action too.

Everyone stands to gain if we can lift vulnerable countries up and do something to accelerate climate mitigation. For our security and prosperity, and for those of our allies, Britain must reconnect with the world and become a positive leader once again.