Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  5:03 pm, 13th January 2020 

I am most grateful to be called so early in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to follow Emily Thornberry, who raised some important issues. I wish her success in the campaign she is about to embark on, and I hope her candidacy lasts a little longer than that of Barry Gardiner, who has just left the Chamber.

It is good to see so many hon. Members in the Chamber for this debate, particularly new Members, a number of whom intend to make their maiden speech during the course of it. They bring expertise and knowledge that I have no doubt will be immensely valuable in our deliberations, and I look forward to hearing their contributions.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary knows, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Vote Leave campaign. I welcome the emphasis placed by the Queen’s Speech on delivering Brexit, which people voted for more than three years ago. I support Brexit not just because I believe in the economic opportunities, but because I believe there is a real role that this country can play in international affairs. We are not little Englanders; we want to look beyond the shores of the European Union. Indeed, many of our greatest opportunities now lie in countries beyond Europe. It is likely within the next 10 years that the five biggest economies in the world will be America, China, Brazil, India and Indonesia. None of them have trade agreements with the European Union, but I hope we will have trade agreements with them as soon as possible within the next decade.

Photo of Bob SeelyBob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

The gravity school of economics argues that we always trade more with those closest to us, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the history of the past 200 years suggests the opposite? We have taken beef from Argentina, we have had a closer economic relationship with the United States than with any other single country, and we have incredibly close relationships with India, to which we sold cotton, and with Australia and Canada. Does he agree with me—this is the point he is making—that the gravity school of economics is really rather flawed?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is short-sighted to look at nearby countries only. Our history shows that we have a tradition of trading right across the globe—I am delighted to have the nod of my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade, who is in her place.

Photo of Bob StewartBob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

I have spent quite a lot of my life serving the country well outside of Europe, and I say in support of what my right hon. Friend says that we still punch well above our weight when we are in Asia or in Africa.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he brings me on to the issue that I wanted to raise—

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

But before doing so I will give way to the hon. Lady.

Photo of Chi OnwurahChi OnwurahShadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Industrial Strategy)

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous. I fear that Bob Seely is confusing gravity with geography. Of course, it is entirely possible to trade with nations around the world, but the issue in today’s integrated supply chains is the speed with which parts can be delivered into advanced automated manufacturing. Is the right hon. Gentleman arguing that it is equally quick and efficient to get a part from Chicago as it is to get it from Munich, for example?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I understand the hon. Lady’s argument, but this is not a binary choice. I want us to have a strong trading agreement with the European Union, and I am confident that we will obtain that under this Government, but that does not exclude us from also having much stronger trading relationships with other countries around the world.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I will give way perhaps one last time.

Photo of Suella BravermanSuella Braverman Conservative, Fareham

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech and many points with which I agree. On the point raised by Chi Onwurah, does my right hon. Friend agree that our focus will rightly be on negotiating a good trade deal with the EU after Brexit day? However, our ability to negotiate with the US is just as important. Both are vital to increase export opportunities for UK businesses, but the US trade agreement is important so that we can increase our leverage with the EU.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that we will get on with negotiating those agreements simultaneously as soon as possible.

Coming back to the point made by my hon. Friend Bob Stewart about the strength of our voice in international affairs, I understand that some of our partners in the European Union will miss our voice within the Council. We have been a strong voice on issues such as standing up to Russia and the imposition of sanctions, but there are many other opportunities for us to have a decisive influence. We are still a member of the United Nations Security Council, and we are the second biggest contributor to NATO. We will play an active role in the Council of Europe and in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, where I am proud to be a member of the Parliamentary Assembly.

I want to highlight one particular organisation— I happen to be the chair of the British group—and that is the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I would encourage new Members to get involved in the IPU. It was founded 130 years ago by Randal Cremer, a British statesman, and Frédéric Passy, a Frenchman, and we have recently celebrated that anniversary. It now comprises 179 countries, and its purpose is to strengthen relations between Parliaments. It is possible to pursue issues through parliamentary dialogue that are sometimes impossible to raise between Governments, and I will give one or two examples. It was in 1984 that the IPU invited a delegation to the UK from the Soviet Union. The delegation was led by a then pretty much unknown Russian politician called Mikhail Gorbachev. That led to the meeting between Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev and, as a result, it eventually led to the reform of the Soviet Union. Indeed, it led to the collapse of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Photo of Bob StewartBob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

You were probably there, John.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I was not quite there.

I also point to the dialogue we have built up over a number of years between parliamentarians from the UK and those of Argentina, and the good relations that now exists between our two countries have been fostered through that dialogue. We also have dialogue with North Korea. I hope we will continue to give our full support to the IPU, which is a valuable organisation for developing relations with countries with which there are sometimes considerable tensions.

Photo of John RedwoodJohn Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Will my right hon. Friend add the Commonwealth to his list of organisations that will be increasingly important? We have a number of very close ties with the Commonwealth, to which we need to add free trade ties. We will be able to do that once we are no longer represented by the European Union, which has not done it. In connection to that, does he think it would be a good idea for Her Majesty’s Government now to offer practical help to Australia at her time of trouble? A lot of people in this country feel we have close links with Australia and ought to show our sympathy in a more practical way.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I agree with my right hon. Friend. There are many people in this country who feel close ties with Australia, despite the geographical distance that separates us. I hope the Government, as I believe they will, will give any help to Australia that is requested.

Soft power allows us to exert a far greater influence in the world than our size would perhaps suggest. The UK is perhaps the most effective country in the world in deploying soft power. We have huge assets, perhaps the greatest of which is the English language, which is the second language of almost every country in the world. We take advantage of that, and students from all across the world want to come to study in British schools and British universities.

We use the British Council to promote UK culture around the world, and I encourage my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to continue giving full support to the British Council in its excellent work. The other organisation with which I have had some involvement over recent years is the BBC, and I am an absolute supporter of the BBC World Service. The World Service is now approaching its target of reaching 500 million people every week. It is by far the most respected media organisation internationally, and its reports are not regarded as propaganda or fake news. People across the world rely on the BBC World Service.

Photo of Catherine WestCatherine West Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green

The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent contribution on the BBC World Service. Does he agree that part of the current issue in Iran is the worrying pressure that BBC Persian journalists are being put under due to the current chaos in Iran?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. I was delighted to host an IPU/BBC World Service event at which we heard from the head of the BBC Persian service. Its journalists are all based in London, and they dare not travel to Iran. It is their families who are being harassed and persecuted, which is wholly unacceptable, and I know it is one of the issues that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised and, I hope, will continue to raise.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, and this is an excellent example. I commend the Government’s work on media freedom. It was my right hon. Friend’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt, who made media freedom a priority and who hosted the international conference in London last year. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is continuing that work and has already told the House about his recent meeting with the Canadians, who have also led on this.

We have made some progress. Forty-nine journalists died last year, which is a historically low figure, but it is still 49 too many. Perhaps worryingly, a greater proportion than in previous years died outside conflict zones and were perhaps deliberately targeted, often by their own Government. Three hundred and eighty-nine journalists are still in prison around the world, with nearly half of them in three countries: China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

In her speech, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury talked about the death of Jamal Khashoggi. I completely agree with her that although we are told that some people have been held responsible, the masterminds behind that murder have not yet been identified. Nor, I suspect, have the masterminds been identified in another shocking case from just a couple of years ago, which is the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, a country in the European Union where the ramifications are still being felt. There is still work to do on media freedom, and I am pleased that that was highlighted in the Queen’s Speech and that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gives it such priority.

I wish quickly to mention one other issue. As I think you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I also chair the all-party group on Ukraine. I was delighted to meet the Ukrainian ambassador earlier today, and I am grateful to colleagues from all parties who came and signed the book of condolence for the families of those who died in the plane crash. It is now nearly four years since Russia illegally occupied part of the sovereign state of Ukraine—Crimea—and since the fighting broke out in the east of Ukraine. It is plain that those actions by Russia were in breach of all international law. We have taken sanctions, but they have proved ineffectual so far: the Russians are still in occupation in Crimea and the fighting in Donbass continues. Just last week, another three Ukrainians died in that fighting.

We have a responsibility: first, because we were one of the original signatories of the Budapest memorandum, which guaranteed the sovereign integrity of Ukraine in return for Ukraine’s giving up its nuclear arsenal; and secondly, because a European country has been invaded. I hope we will continue to support President Zelensky in his efforts, but the Gracious Speech also refers to sanctions. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that, now that we are leaving the European Union, it gives us an opportunity to impose stronger sanctions without having to reach agreement throughout the European Union.

Not only would I like to see sanctions against the people responsible for the invasion of Ukraine and, indeed, against those Ukrainians who have previously stolen money—much of which has not yet been found—from their own country, but we should also take advantage of the Magnitsky list, which the House passed yet has so far not been implemented. Media freedom is an excellent example—I commend the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which was chaired by my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat —of where there is a real opportunity to add teeth to our words about the importance of media freedom by taking out sanctions against those responsible.

I commend the Gracious Speech, particularly for its in emphasis on international affairs and the attention that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary rightly gave to these issues in his contribution.