John Howell – 2020 Speech on Yemen

The speech made by John Howell, the Conservative MP for Henley, in the House of Commons on 24 September 2020.

It is a great pleasure and a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) in this debate. This is not the first debate on Yemen that I have spoken in, and Members present who were in the previous Parliament will recall the eloquent contributions that our former colleague, Keith Vaz, made to those debates, having been born in Yemen himself.

There are two issues that we are trying to gather together today. The first is the petition, which my hon. Friend has already described. At present, it sets out to put pressure on all groups to halt their attacks in order to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered. I will say more on that in a moment. The second issue is the letters I have been receiving that originated with Oxfam. They are one-sided in their approach and put pressure on the Government to try to prevent arms from being sold to Saudi Arabia. I will deal with these two issues in turn.

We must all agree with the sentiment of the petition. I am glad to say that the UK has taken a great lead in making available just under £1 billion to provide assistance in what has been described as an absolutely terrible situation. I am pleased that the UK is among the top donors. As my hon. Friend has already pointed out, the coronavirus is making the situation considerably worse. We have to couple that with our diplomatic efforts to bring fighting in Yemen to an end.

As we have heard, 80% of the population is in humanitarian need. My hon. Friend said that there were 2 million displaced people; I think that the figure is actually closer to 4 million. We have heard about the big impact on children and their access to schools. We should also note that humanitarian access is constrained—and many people delivering humanitarian aid have been threatened or detained—in the Houthi-controlled areas.

Let me turn to the second matter: the letters originating with Oxfam, which puts the blame almost entirely on Saudi Arabia. There may be many reasons for doing that and there might be a justification for all those reasons, but we need to separate them out if we are to make any headway and put the blame where it belongs, which is with the Houthi rebels. I say that this is one-sided because the Houthi rebels are being funded by Iran; that has been admitted. Unless we can stop the ​Iranian funding of the Houthi rebels, it is useless to put all the blame, and an arms embargo, on Saudi Arabia. That simply takes one side out of the equation, but leaves the other side fully funded.

There is also a link between the Houthis, and ISIS and al-Qaeda. It is a flimsy, nebulous link, and there is a lot of double-talk in describing it, but it is there and it is making a big impact. I would therefore ensure that we double our efforts to get a good diplomatic solution.