Salisbury Incident

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:18 pm on 12th September 2018.

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Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham 4:18 pm, 12th September 2018

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Neil O’Brien, who made a very powerful speech, as have so many speakers in this debate. I pay tribute to Members in all parts of the House for the strength of their contributions. I pay particular tribute to the Prime Minister and to the Security Minister. At all times, their response has been sure-footed, decisive, resolute, and, most importantly, proportionate. That has been the hallmark of the British response. I am delighted to commend it.

A lot of Members across the House recognise that the situation we find ourselves in today regarding the state of Anglo-Russian relations is a very sad one. Although other hon. Members have made this point, it does bear re-emphasis: the Russian regime would have us believe that there is rampant Russophobia in the UK. Literally nothing could be further from the truth. As other Members have said, we have no quarrel with the Russian people; we have enormous admiration for them. This is a country that has made such enormous contributions in science and literature. In science, they have done pioneering work on lasers and in computer science. This is the country that invented the technology behind fracking, for example. In literature, many of us will have studied Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Blok, Pasternak and so many others.

We also pay tribute to the astonishing resilience of the Russian people. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of Russian history can be in nothing less than awe of the sacrifice that they showed in the second world war, or, as they would put it, the great patriotic war. There is no Russophobia and our quarrel is only with the Russian leadership. Indeed, our affection for the Russian people cannot blind us to the actions of that leadership.

Others have rehearsed this, but I will as well. This is a country that has invaded another sovereign state. It seems utterly extraordinary that we should even be saying those words at this time in global history. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough indicated, it is having the effect of normalising the outrageous. To invade a sovereign state is an extraordinary action. We have heard about the downing of MH17, with 298 people killed, but almost as shocking as that was the campaign of disinformation, which must have added immeasurably to the anguish of the families of the innocent people. The Russian state put out that MH17 was blown up by a missile intended for the Russian President’s plane and, in a suggestion of incalculable insult, that the plane was already full of dead bodies and deliberately crashed. To put out that kind of nonsense and propaganda is shocking. We have also heard about the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko, the violation of international airspace and election interference.

When it came to the Skripals, again, there were palpable lies and disinformation. The Prime Minister herself was blamed and even, lest we forget, Porton Down. I welcome the fact that the British Government have been robust but also lawful and proportionate, which must always be the hallmarks of our response. Beyond that, there has been a sophisticated and capable effort to mobilise international opinion. There has been a strong united response from 28 allies, with 153 Russian intelligence agents expelled.

I want to take this opportunity to make two points. First, in my capacity as the Member of Parliament for Cheltenham, I want to thank the intelligence agencies, and in particular GCHQ. These are some of the finest public servants anywhere in our country, not just because of their sheer intellectual brilliance and the abilities that they bring to bear serving the mission and the national interest, but because of their dedication to the values that mark us out internationally. In my experience, both as a lawyer before I came into this place and as a Member of Parliament, they are scrupulous about remaining within the law, defending the values we stand for and doing so in a way that is to the credit of this country.

My second point is this. The UK now has an offensive cyber-capability. That was made clear by George Osborne when he came to GCHQ in Cheltenham in November 2015, and it has been made clear subsequently. What we as a nation need to do, consistent with the values that I have just articulated, is to be clear about how we go about using that offensive cyber-capability, if at all. What are the rules of engagement? We are very familiar, of course, with the rules of engagement for conventional weapons, but what are the circumstances in which it is appropriate to deploy our offensive cyber-capability? What is the threshold of attack on us that is to trigger a response?

I say those things for three reasons: first, because the intelligence agencies look to us for a lead and want that lead; secondly, because we owe it to them to ensure that they comply with their best instincts of remaining within the law; and thirdly, because we always have to be mindful that, in these difficult circumstances, things can spiral out of control, and we do not want them to spiral out of control or escalate unnecessarily.

The hallmarks of our response must be consistent with the approach we have shown hitherto. We must be resolved. We must be determined. We must be clear. We must be united. This kind of behaviour is outrageous, inappropriate and will meet with a proportionate and condign response. It is easy to say that, but sometimes it is more difficult to achieve. We must turn our attentions with dispatch to ensuring that our cyber-response is calibrated, lawful and proportionate.