20 October 2021
James Cleverly responds to a debate on the humanitarian situation in Yemen

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to a debate on the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) for securing this important debate. The situation in Yemen is beyond despair. As the hon. Lady rightly said, it remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with two thirds of Yemenis—more than 20 million people—requiring some form of humanitarian assistance.

The crisis results from a perfect storm of poverty, war and economic collapse, and has been exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic. It is clear that any sustainable solution can only really begin when the conflict comes to an end. The hon. Lady says that it is not the first time I have said that, but it is true none the less. That is why the UK Government are working and have worked with countries in the region and the wider international community to bring about peace, as well as playing our part in directly addressing the humanitarian suffering. Today, in response to the various questions, I will give an overview of the work we have done and are doing.

Sarah Champion (Rotherham) (Lab)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) for securing this debate, but like all of us, I wish we did not have to be here. Can the Minister give us more information, because unless there is a political solution, this will be going on for another seven years? It seems that there is a real unwillingness on the part of the main players to come round the table. Can he give us any hope that the UK and UN interventions will make that meeting happen, so that we can negotiate peace in the near future?

James Cleverly 

I know that the hon. Lady and other Members in the Chamber and elsewhere take a very close interest in this issue. She and I have discussed it both formally and informally. I wish that I could give her the certainty that she asks for. The sad truth of the matter is that at this point, I am not able to do so. However, we will continue to work with partners in the region, including those who are directly involved in the conflict, and indeed, when the opportunity arises, directly with representatives of the Houthis themselves. That channel has been denied to us recently, but we will nevertheless continue to work with anyone and everyone we feel can help to bring about peace in Yemen, so that the real work of rebuilding the country and its society can start in earnest.

In terms of humanitarian support, the UK Government have been one of the largest donors since the crisis began, having contributed more than £1 billion in aid. We pledged £87 million this year and have already distributed 85% of it. While I am conscious that our contribution this year is smaller than in previous years, for reasons the House is very familiar with, the importance of the timely distribution of our aid cannot be overstated. Despite financial pressures at home, we remain of the largest donors to the UN appeal.

Our funding this year will provide at least 1.6 million people with access to clean drinking water. It will support 400 clinics to offer primary healthcare and it will feed 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month. We are working with partners to ensure that priority is given to those suffering the most from food insecurity, to marginalised communities and vulnerable displaced people, and to those living in conflict-affected areas.

Sadly yet predictably, the conflict has been particularly hard on women and girls. Reports of gender-based violence have risen significantly since the conflict began. That is totally unacceptable, and it is why we are co-hosting the international gender co-ordination group with the Netherlands later this month to boost international efforts to tackle gender-based violence. To improve the life chances of newborns and young mothers, we have funded UNICEF to provide over 2 million pregnant women and new mothers with nutrition counselling and education since 2018, and we expect to support more women with reproductive health services over the next year. Since 2018, we have helped 85,000 women receive trained medical support during childbirth, and we expect to support 50,000 more by March 2022.

Anna McMorrin 

Of course, those are all good things to be doing, but will the Minister answer the question of when the cut in aid of 50% is going to be reversed?

James Cleverly 

I and other Ministers have made it clear that the reduction in official development assistance spending is driven by the worst economic crisis this country has faced in 300 years. Luckily— no, not luckily; thankfully—because of our world-class vaccine roll-out programme, our economic recovery seems to be working at pace. We have the fastest recovery among our G7 partners. Hopefully that will mean we are able to recover to the 0.7% level, which we are committed to returning to as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I am not able to give an accurate prediction of the future trajectory of the UK economy and, therefore, cannot give the hon. Lady a specific point in time. It remains our aim and commitment to return to 0.7% as soon as the economic conditions allow.

Valerie Vaz 

I thank the Minister for his attention to this subject. Could I ask a double-headed question? I am sorry, but time is obviously limited. What accountability is there to ensure the money is actually going to where it should go, and when was the last time the Minister spoke to Martin Griffiths?

James Cleverly 

To answer the second question first, I speak with Martin quite regularly. I cannot remember the precise date on which I last spoke to him, but he and I have an excellent working relationship, and we speak quite regularly.

With regard to accountability, we take the prevention of aid diversion incredibly seriously. We probably have one of the most robust donor frameworks, and we always ensure that where possible, we minimise aid diversion, because we know—particularly in areas of conflict—that diverted aid can go to reinforce the conflict, rather than to humanitarian aid. Work is ongoing in this area, as it is in all others.

Sarah Champion 

I am sure the Minister is aware that Martin Griffiths is no longer the UN penholder, but he is, of course, the co-ordinator for UN humanitarian relief. Will the Minister detail whether he has had a meeting or conversation with Hans Grundberg, who is the new UN penholder?

James Cleverly 

As I say, Martin’s role has changed, but he is still an influential player. I spoke with Hans shortly after his appointment.

To further expand on the point that the right hon. Member for Walsall South made, to ensure that humanitarian spending is effective, we channel our support through organisations with a strong record of delivery and fund the independent monitoring of our own programmes. Ministers and officials co-ordinate closely with other donors, the UN and non-governmental organisations to maximise the effectiveness of the global response and improve access to, and conditions in, Yemen. For example, in August, I had discussions with David Gressly, the UN resident humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen, and I stressed that UK aid must not be diverted from those in need. At the UN General Assembly, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) recently urged parties to allow humanitarian access across the country in accordance with the principles of international law.

Aid alone, however, will not solve the crisis facing Yemen and Yemenis. We are working with the US, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates through the economic quad to help support the stabilisation of Yemen’s economic crisis, as well as through the joint economic programmes of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the United States Agency for International Development. We are providing technical support to the Central Bank of Yemen on foreign exchange and reserve management, as well as technical advice to the Yemeni Prime Minister’s executive bureau to deliver much-needed economic reform. We are also working closely with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to provide development finance that can help alleviate Yemen’s hard currency crisis, which is driving depreciation of the Yemeni rial in Government-held areas.

The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), my former opposite number, has mentioned the Safer oil tanker and the environmental impacts, as well as the catastrophic economic impacts, that it has created. She is right to highlight it; she is wrong to say that the UK is not doing enough. If I remember rightly, she wrote to me in September 2020, exactly two months after I raised this issue, so I can assure her that the Government and I are very alive to it. Indeed, I brought it up when I had a face-to-face meeting with a representative of the Houthis during my trip to Oman in October 2020, highlighting the importance of allowing access to that ship and for repairs or transfers to take place.

Anna McMorrin 

I appreciate the Minister’s answer on this issue. Can he tell me what access the UN is going to have to that ship following that conversation? As we know, four times as many tonnes of oil are on it as were on the Exxon Valdez, which would lead to a catastrophic disaster if it leaked.

James Cleverly 

I am precluded by time from going into the detail for which the hon. Member strives, but I have written extensively on that issue and can forward her links to the various statements and calls for international co-operation that I have made, including directly with the Houthis, which I would like to think have played a part in some access to that ship being allowed—but nowhere near as much as is deserved. I hope right hon. and hon. Members will forgive me, but I am conscious that we are tight on time and I want to get through a number of important points before we finish.

The conflict has been punctuated by reports of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The UK Government condemn all violations, including the denial of humanitarian access and the recruitment and use of child soldiers. We monitor, collate and analyse such reports and support the UN-led verification of them, as well as the production of the UN Secretary General’s reports on human rights and children affected by armed conflict.

Accountability is key. The UK regrets that the mandate of the group of eminent experts on Yemen was not recently renewed in the UN Human Rights Council. The group provided crucial reporting on human rights in Yemen. The UK Government urge all parties to respect international humanitarian and human rights law, and we are working to secure a political solution that creates the conditions for legitimate government to improve the protection of human rights.

As I said at the start of my speech, covid-19 has compounded an already dire crisis. It continues to rip through the country, with reports of overwhelmed intensive care units in both Sana’a and Aden. In the last financial year, the UK provided £30 million to mitigate the impact of covid-19 in Yemen, which helped boost the resilience of the primary healthcare system. COVAX has allocated 2.3 million vaccine doses to Yemen, thanks in significant part to the UK’s £548 million donation and ongoing support. We are discussing vaccination roll-out with the World Health Organisation and other partners and are working to ensure equitable access across the whole country.

As I said at the outset, the key to solving Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is ending the conflict and negotiating a political settlement that holds. As I said earlier, I spoke to the incoming UN special envoy Hans Grundberg in August to offer the UK Government’s continued support for his work to bring the parties to the negotiating table. We will do all that we can to support those efforts, including as the UN Security Council lead on Yemen.

Although the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen do not get the media attention they deserve, the UK Government are nevertheless working doggedly to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people, and we are using our diplomatic and humanitarian expertise to do so. We continue to be one of the top donors to the UN-led response, but we know that the only way to end the humanitarian crisis in the long term is a peaceful settlement to the conflict. That is why we have played and will continue to play a leading role in moving the peace process forward and supporting the work of UN special envoy Hans Grundberg.