What's Happening in Parliament

30/11/17
Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP called an SO24 Emergency Debate on Yemen in Parliament.
The full debate can be found here https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-11-30/debates/1C24E14B-85C7-4C5C-9013-091AC89936F1/Yemen

Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP :

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the current situation in Yemen.

I am extremely grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate. There is rapidly rising concern in Britain about what is happening in Yemen and the part that Britain is playing in this crisis. There is deep concern that an almighty catastrophe of biblical proportions is unfolding in Yemen before our eyes, and a considerable fear that Britain is dangerously complicit in it.
I had the opportunity, thanks to Oxfam and the United Nations, to visit Yemen early this year, and I am most grateful to the Saudi Arabian authorities for facilitating that visit. I think I remain the only European politician to have visited Sana’a and the northern part of Yemen in the past three years. I want to pay tribute to the extraordinary work that the humanitarian agencies and the UN are carrying out, particularly the work that Jamie McGoldrick and his team at the UN are so brilliantly doing in almost impossible circumstances.

I returned from Yemen deeply concerned at what I had learned and seen, and I expressed my concern to both the Foreign Office and the British Government privately, and to the Saudi authorities, courtesy of His Excellency the Saudi Arabian ambassador. I regard myself as a friend of Saudi Arabia, albeit a candid one. Like many, I have great respect for the domestic reforms and modernisation currently in progress in the kingdom, which are being led by the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

My visit to Yemen enabled me both to spend time with the humanitarian agencies and to meet the Houthi leadership, the former President of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh and those currently leading what is the largest political party in Yemeni politics, the General People’s Congress.

APPG Member Graham Jones (Hyndburn Labour)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for securing the debate and for giving way.
A recent BBC documentary showed the Houthis in Sana’a putting posters up everywhere, sacking all the Sunni clerics from the mosques and putting Shia clerics in. The poster slogans and the chants in the mosques were “Death to America”, “Death to Israel” and “Curse on the Jews”. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is right and progressive and that the Houthis represent a peaceful way forward?

APPG Chair Keith Vaz (Leicester East Labour)

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. He was present at the meeting earlier this week when we heard from the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, who said that the Saudi Arabian Government do not believe that this war can be won. What is the point of continuing with a war that cannot be won?

APPG Secretary Alison Thewliss(Glasgow Central) led the SNP response.

I thank the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) for securing the debate. I agree with much of what he said —his expertise on the matter is valuable. I also agree with much that the shadow Foreign Secretary said. I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who is steadfast in his work with the all-party parliamentary group on Yemen, and to the aid agencies that are working in circumstances that are incredibly difficult both for their staff and for the people they are working with in Yemen.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned the difficulties in reporting from Yemen, and I rely heavily on some of the first-hand testimony coming through from Twitter, which seems a reasonable way of getting information out of the country. I mentioned the case of Hisham al-Omeisy in a letter to the Government. He was taken by the Houthis on 12 August 2017 and has yet to be seen again. I ask the Government to do all they can to try to secure the safety of journalists in Yemen.

Today I am missing the opening of the new Silverdale nursery in Dalmarnock. The nursery has 140 places for children under five and, while thinking about Yemen, it struck me that if 140 children in Dalmarnock were to die today, we would do something about it. If they were to die tomorrow, we would do something about it. Some 130 under-fives are dying every day in Yemen. If that were happening in this country, we would do something about it urgently and seriously. We would not have our own children dying from the very preventable cause of extreme malnutrition and disease, which take hold so easily when children do not have the food and resilience they need.

One child is dying every 10 minutes in Yemen. It is shocking even to think of the number who have died since the start of this debate. We cannot accept that any longer; it has been going on for far, far too long, and we have a global responsibility to children, wherever they are, to make sure that they are safe, that they are fed and that they will live a happy and healthy life. Anything we can do to that end we must do urgently.

For the children who survive, the impact will be lasting. Millions of children are, and have been, out of school. They do not have a nursery to go to. They are living with stunting, a lifelong condition that will affect their growth and development, including their cognitive development, throughout the rest of their lives. In 2012, UNICEF was already warning of stunting, saying that 58% of children under five were stunted, and that was before this latest conflict. That is a generation being left with a life-limiting condition that we could do more to prevent.

The International Committee of the Red Cross reported yesterday that it had purchased 750,000 litres of fuel to ensure that the water pumps in Hodeidah and Taiz can operate. Those pumps will last only a month on that fuel. The ICRC also reports that nine other cities do not have sufficient fuel to run their water supplies, which is a critical situation given that Yemen has already experienced one of the largest cholera epidemics in history, which has already left about 2,000 people dead. Although the outbreak seems to be on the wane, without water and access to appropriate sanitation it will almost certainly come back. As the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield mentioned, diphtheria, a very preventable disease that we do not even see here, is also taking hold. So I ask the Minister—I know he will do his best on this—to tell us what the Government are doing to ensure that fuel gets into the country, because without it the petrol pumps will run dry, which will have a knock-on effect on food prices.

Aid very much needs to get in, and aid agencies say so, but all agencies are also stressing the absolute necessity of getting commercial goods in. The scarcity and fuel prices mean that prices are high, and even where there is food people cannot afford to feed themselves. They do not know where their next meal is coming from. It must be incredibly heartbreaking for people to be able to see food on a shelf but not be able to afford to buy it to feed their family. We must bear in mind that many employees in Yemen have not been paid for some time—over a year in some cases at least. Médecins sans Frontières reported in October that 1.2 million Yemeni civil servants have received little to no salary for more than a year. MSF pays the salaries of 1,200 public health staff that it is using in its clinics, but clearly that is not enough by any manner of means. If the doctors trying to treat the people who are starving have no money to feed themselves either, the situation is a disaster. I urge Ministers to consider what else they can do to get more money in to allow staff to be paid, to get the economy restarted and to make sure people have something to live on.

I also urge, as I have urged following previous statements, that we need to see aid getting into the country in the first place, so the blockade must be removed as soon as possible. But that aid also needs to be able to travel around Yemen, and the border posts, the visas and the difficulties the aid agencies are facing in getting around the country are preventing that flow of aid. It is also clear that the different factions in the conflict are using the system as a means of diverting aid to their own people, so that aid that might be intended to go to one place of desperate need is being diverted. That is not to say that people there might not need it, because I am sure they do, but it is being diverted from the people who need to get it. We need to make sure that it can get through to those who need it and that it is appropriately used when it gets there. I urge Ministers to do anything they can to make sure that aid convoys going through the country can actually get to where they need to be.

Finally, I wish to touch on the issue of arms sales, because they are a crucial part of the influence and leverage our country has in this conflict. Sadly, the communiqué that came out of the Quint meeting concentrated far, far more on weapons and the security situation, which I know and appreciate is difficult, than on the humanitarian situation and the need to get goods in through the ports. I am sure the 25 aid agencies that contacted the Foreign Secretary in their open letter will feel very let down by that, and I echo the shadow Foreign Secretary’s comments about how the attendance list of that meeting could have been broader. Efforts need to be made to get more people from Yemen—from civil society and from organisations working there on the ground—involved in such things. In addition, if we look at the picture from the meeting, we note that there may be one woman at the back of the photograph, but women are not being included in this process. We need women as part of the process to help make the peace and make it sustainable.