Hugh Robertson responds to Foreign Affairs Committee report on North and West Africa

Hugh Robertson responds to a debate on the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report ‘The UK’s Response to Extremism and Instability in North and West Africa’.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess. I start by thanking the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for its report and hon. Members for their contributions, and by apologising for not being the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds)—the Minister with responsibility for Africa—who has been responding to the debate in the Chamber. I will try my best to answer the questions that have been put to me, but if I cannot, I hope that hon. Members will accept a response in writing after the debate.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), the Opposition spokesman, said that there was not a million miles—was it a million or 100 million?—between us. The honest truth is that there is not even 1 mile between us on this matter. The danger, as pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is that we tend to examine threats and then the focus moves on. Since the Committee produced its report, the focus moved to Syria and is now on Iraq. The spotlight moves on and we tend to follow it. As many hon. Members said, the underlying problems are long term and systemic, and only by committing ourselves to the region multilaterally will they be addressed.

Before addressing the points raised in the debate, I was asked to put on the record the apologies of the Prime Minister’s representative for the Sahel, my right hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O’Brien), for not being here. He is in Niger, where, I am glad to say, he is overseeing the first contract signed by that country with a UK company, so there is progress of a sort.

The best way for me to respond might be to go through the various contributions to pick up the questions asked—[Interruption.] I have just been told that that is probably not the way to do it, but there we go. Let me start with the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South, the Chairman of the Committee. He and others are right that Morocco and Algeria are natural allies of ours. They are two countries for which I am responsible and I have visited both this year. In the past, we might have suffered from the misapprehension that, being Francophone countries, they look to Paris, but they are keen to broaden their approach and to do more business with this part of the world, and, as the hon. Member for Wrexham said, the English language is key to that. Younger people in both countries are keen to learn English—the language of the internet. The idea that the quid pro quo for that should be a much more proactive involvement in the international affairs of north and west Africa is absolutely something that they understand and agree with.

Western Sahara is the sticky issue that prevents that, however. Relations between the two countries are not good. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that both recognise that relations are not good and that that is a barrier to further progress. I hope that a slight change in how this country deals with Morocco—to set parameters regarding Western Sahara and then to encourage it to meet them, which is a more proactive involvement, spearheaded by our excellent ambassador in Rabat—is starting to make a difference.

I agree with my right hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Committee, that the definition of development assistance must be enhanced and he is right that security and other areas can play a role; it cannot simply be the traditional definition. The same is true for the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There was a time, some 20 years ago perhaps, when the Foreign Office saw its role in terms of pure diplomacy. These days, our relationships with countries are also about defence, security, health and education and, in some places, even culture and sport. We must learn to engage across a much wider waterfront.

Mentioning a wider waterfront brings me on to the question about the boat. The best answer is that I will write to my right hon. Friend, but I will have a go. Task Force Mediterranean is focused on prevention rather than stopping people leaving in the first place. I suspect that the answer to his question is that once a boat of migrants is intercepted, they would be returned to the nearest safe port or their home country, whichever is closer. That is the common-sense answer, but I will check and write to him.

The hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) talked mainly about Nigeria, which I have not visited, but I was struck by the impression that it had made on her. She is right to say that the UK Government should give as much support as possible. I presume that she is aware of the package of support announced by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on 12 June, following the London ministerial meeting, which includes direct tactical training and advice for Nigerian forces about the fight against terrorism. We are also involved in a regional intelligence-sharing partnership with France, the US, Nigeria and its neighbours. The Department for International Development and the United States Agency for International Development partnership will hopefully draw a million more children into education by 2020, which is in addition to the million that this country committed to in May under the UN safe schools initiative, and DFID will commit to 60% of its spend in northern Nigeria over coming years. Before coming here, I asked about last night’s debate introduced by the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), and was delighted to hear that it went well. Indeed, I believe that he welcomed the UK’s support for Nigeria.

The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), the former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, made a thought-provoking speech, and I absolutely agree with him. He will be amused to know that when I first met the Foreign Minister of the Kurdish autonomous region, as we were walking out at the end of a half-hour meeting, he said, “I forgot to do the thing that I should have done, which is to thank you for saving us all in 1991.” He then laughed and said, “And blame you for causing the problem in the first place.” The lines that we—Sykes and Picot in that case—drew across maps have caused many repercussions, and the hon. Gentleman is right to point to their illogicality.

The hon. Gentleman is also right that engagement with a country—this has really struck during my 10 months in the Foreign Office—is always much more powerful than standing off and criticising. It is all too easy to think that because we are uncomfortable with some things that a country does it is better to disengage and criticise. It is almost always right to get involved and then make comments from the position of critical friend. There is a balance, but he is correct to say that non-intervention also has consequences. When we do not intervene, the problem often arrives in due course anyway.

The hon. Gentleman asked in particular about arms and ammunition in Libya. The Government have committed £20 million to address that problem. I am not sure whether this came out in the inquiry, but it was suggested to me that more than 400 arms dumps were left across Libya when Gaddafi fell, and that more arms and ammunition were floating around than when the eastern bloc fell in the late 1980s, which is a worrying statistic.

In another excellent speech, the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick) made some good points about Mali, Nigeria, Libya and others. On Libya, the Prime Minister has just appointed Jonathan Powell, who used to work for Tony Blair, as special envoy. He will work closely with his US counterpart to try to support and bring together reconciliation efforts in the country. Every country must take its share of responsibility. Looking across the whole area, the key to solving the issues and to long-term, sustained engagement will be a multilateral approach, involving us, the French, the United Nations, African forces and the rest coming together to achieve a common agenda. It is fair to say that that has not been the case up to now, and we are in the early stages of doing it, but that is clearly the way forward.

The hon. Member for Wrexham also made that point—the multilateral approach using stable countries will be the key to progress in the region—and he is absolutely right to talk about the phenomenal potential of countries such as Algeria and Morocco. We have both visited Algeria, a country that is changing extraordinarily quickly. The Algerians said to me, “The west has only just woken up to what we went through in the 1990s,” and, having come out of that, slowly but surely, they are keen not only to forge closer links with us in the west, and probably to shake off that Paris focus in policy, but to see what they can do in the region. When I was last in Algeria, on my second visit, the Algerians were in the process of hosting peace talks for the Malian Government. That was the first time, I think, that the Algerian Government had reached out beyond their own borders. We applaud such encouraging signs there.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to talk about the key role of the English language. In a sense, the British Council can never do enough in such areas, although we have been helped enormously by the fact that English has become the language of the internet and the preferred language for many young people. It gives us a real opportunity, which we should not miss.

We have spoken about reconciliation between Morocco and Algeria, but the hon. Gentleman also made a good point about Tunisia, the home of the Arab spring and in many ways its most successful graduate. There has been progress, although things seem to get there just before the critical moment. As he said, however, it is good to see that elections are scheduled for the autumn. It is vital that this country continues to support the Tunisians.

I will deal with the easy points made by the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right about civil rights and Nigeria—he is on the money there. On the question of ministerial responsibilities, the situation predates me, and I took over from someone with the same brief as mine. On the question of how things are divided up, the danger of grouping the middle east and all of Africa is that together they are a large part of the cake, which raises the issue of whether someone could give the region all the attention it deserves. I suspect we follow the Arab League arrangements, which take in the countries of north Africa, but not much further beyond.

When I arrived in the Foreign Office, however, the Foreign Secretary said that he was always open to moving responsibilities around as situations changed. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and that is something we should definitely keep under review. If there is a more sensible way to arrange responsibilities, there is no political reason for not doing so.

I finish where I started, and thank the Select Committee and its Chairman for a thoughtful piece of work, which we in the Foreign Office have read carefully. Many of the points made are good ones, which we agree with, and the report has given us a firm platform for progress in the years ahead.

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