09:57, March 07 375 0 theguardian.com

2018-03-07 09:57:06
Corbyn urges May to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Jeremy Corbyn has challenged Theresa May over the government’s lavish welcome for the visiting Saudi crown prince, using prime minister’s questions to accuse her of failing to stand up to the Saudis over rights abuses and possible war crimes in Yemen.

May defended her links with Mohammed bin Salman, who will meet the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William, as well as senior ministers, during his three-day visit, saying engagement was the only way to have influence over the Saudis.

But the Labour leader urged May to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia over its intervention in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians and worsened a humanitarian catastrophe, and to take him to task over human rights.

Bin Salman, 32, has promised to liberalise Saudi society and allow more rights for women. However, he has also proved an authoritarian ruler, and his accession to power has coincided with increased Saudi involvement in Yemen.

“Despite much talk of reform, there’s been a sharp increase in the arrest and detention of dissidents; torture of prisoners is common; human rights defenders routinely sentenced to lengthy prison terms,” Corbyn told May.

“Unfair trials and executions are widespread, as Amnesty International confirm. As she makes her arms sales pitch, will she also call on the crown prince to halt the shocking abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia?”

The prime minister responded by citing security and anti-terrorist cooperation with the Saudis: “The link that we have with Saudi Arabia is historic, it is an important one, and it has saved the lives of potentially hundreds of people in this country.”

May said Corbyn’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, had called relations with Saudi Arabia important, adding: “She also said that doesn’t mean we should be pulling our punches, and I agree, which is why I will be raising concerns about human rights with the crown prince when I meet him.”

Corbyn then cited the situation in Yemen, where a combination of war and a blockade imposed as part of Saudi efforts to defeat Houthi rebels has caused mass hunger and disease.

While Germany had halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia, he said, UK ones had risen: “It cannot be right that her government is colluding in what the United Nations says is evidence of war crimes.”

May said the government was increasing aid to Yemen, and pointed to a meeting she had in December in Riaydh with Bin Salman, at which she demanded an end to the blockade of the Yemeni port of Hodeidah.

“I’m pleased to say that Saudi Arabia then did just that,” she said. “This vindicates the engagement that we have with Saudi Arabia, to be able to sit down with them.”

The rest of the pair’s Commons exchange was devoted to homelessness, a topic introduced by Corbyn with the question: “Why does the prime minister think that rough sleeping fell under Labour but has doubled under the Conservatives?”

May said the government was spending millions of pounds on the issue, and in response to another question from Corbyn, she said a government rough sleeping taskforce set up in November had now met, earlier on Wednesday.

The PM said: “This isn’t about figures, it’s about people. It’s about ensuring we are taking the action necessary to deal with the problems that people face, which leads to them rough sleeping. It’s also about ensuring that we build enough homes in this country for people to have.”

Corbyn responded by arguing it was a wider issue than just rough sleeping: “Just one step away from that fate are 60,000 homeless households in temporary accommodation.

“We are the fifth-richest country in the world. The growing number of people on our streets is a mark of national shame. With fewer social homes being built, less support for the homeless, and a taskforce that’s barely met, just how does the prime minister really propose to tackle the homelessness crisis?”