Migrant Crossings: Role of the Military

– in the House of Commons at 12:35 pm on 18th January 2022.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee 12:35 pm, 18th January 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Armed Forces to make a statement on the migrant channel issues and the role of the military.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Unacceptable numbers of people continue to make these dangerous channel crossings, and last November’s tragic deaths serve as the strongest reminder of the need to stop them. The Government have been exploring every avenue to prevent further crossings, and have now appointed the Ministry of Defence to take operational primacy for cross-channel counter-migration operations. That will mean a much larger and more visible role for the Royal Navy in operational planning, asset co-ordination and operational delivery.

As the Home Secretary explained during Home Office questions yesterday, the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence have worked closely on countering the small boats challenge through the military aid to civilian authorities process. Throughout the last 12 months Defence has provided a range of support, including the provision of surveillance aircraft, additional accommodation and planning expertise, and has assisted in the delivery of trials for novel tactics to help Border Force and the Home Office to better interdict and deter migrant vessels.

Details of how Defence will deliver and maintain the primacy of cross-channel counter-migration operations are currently being worked through. The Government’s objective is that no one should arrive illegally in the United Kingdom on their own terms, and all vessels transporting illegal migrants across the channel must therefore be intercepted before, or as, they land. Defence is committed to delivering that step change. Details of how it will be achieved will be made known in due course, but the House can be reassured that the MOD is working hand in hand with the Home Secretary and her Department to achieve this goal while ensuring the safety of all individuals involved and protecting other Defence priority output.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification.

We are rightly proud of our armed forces, who watch our backs and defend our interests across the world, and who are equipped and trained to step forward and assist other Government Departments in times of emergency. However, the bigger picture is clear to see. Our world is becoming more dangerous and more complex, and demands on our military—not least the Royal Navy—are increasing. The integrated review maps out the importance to the UK economy of retaining the freedom of the seas, increasingly challenged by China, Russia and, indeed, Iran. The Defence Committee’s recent review of the Royal Navy concluded that it is now too small to meet its current commitments in the Atlantic, in the Mediterranean, in the Gulf, off east Africa, in the Caribbean and in the Arctic, and, of course, with the tilt to the Indo-Pacific. Yet here we are introducing another task: co-ordinating the migrant crossing response, which is normally the responsibility of the Home Office.

As the Minister said, the migrant channel issue is complex and is not likely to go away soon. It is not an acute emergency, so why is the Navy being drawn in, even in this limited capacity? I say “limited”; the Minister spoke of “operational primacy”, and he is now responsible for it. There is a real danger of mission creep, with further navel assets being sucked into this challenge. Please will the Minister explain who will pay for this mission, what success looks like, and how long the task will last?

This tactic may, on the face of it, look popular, with 28,000 migrants now crossing every year—“send in the Navy to sort it out”—but it is not the strategy that will solve the problem of the movement of migrants. We need first to break up the gangs who encourage migrants in the first place, and secondly to help restore governance and security in the very countries from which these people are fleeing—places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia. Ironically, those are parts of the world where we have used our own hard power to intervene but then departed before there was enduring stability, and now families are fleeing towards Europe.

Unless the fires are put out at source, we will never reduce the numbers. We need a broader strategy than simply tasking the Navy to the channel, which will not be the answer.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I thank my right hon. Friend for elaborating on his urgent question. I take issue with his point that the Navy has to make a binary choice between work at home and work overseas. Ships are deployed all over the world right now, and other ships are making ready to set to sea in response to whatever crises may unfold in the Euro-Atlantic over the coming weeks.

In addition, there is capacity to do as we do year round, which is to deploy naval resources into the channel for purposes such as fishery protection and, indeed, securing our border. That is an important point. The purpose of our nation’s armed forces is to secure the UK’s national security interests both at home and abroad, and I would argue that deploying our armed forces to ensure that our borders are robust is a perfectly appropriate use of them. Indeed, as I know my right hon. Friend is very aware, there are parts of Europe right now in which state-sponsored illegal migration is being used as a sub-threshold weapon of competition. I am not suggesting for a second that the migration across the channel is that right now but, in the absence of robust defence of our borders, it could be in the future, and the MOD therefore has a perfectly reasonable role to play in ensuring that our borders are robustly protected.

My right hon. Friend specifically asked about pay. Clearly this will be a multi-agency effort under Royal Navy command. Where agencies are already doing things in the channel, they will continue to be funded by the Departments that own them.

Success is that we do not allow anybody to land in the UK on their own terms. For how long? Until the deterrent effect is achieved and the cross-channel route for small boats collapses.

There is a limit to my right hon. Friend’s question, which is the role of the Royal Navy and the military within the channel—that is what I am here to answer today—but I completely agree that this is just one part of a wider system. Indeed, he is right to note that the MOD has plenty of equity in providing stability in countries such as Iraq and in the Sahel, where the majority of migrants are coming from, and we are engaged in that.

Nobody is pretending that the presence of a rear admiral and a few extra Royal Navy ships solves this issue. It is regrettable that only part of the Government’s solution should appear in the papers, and I will do my best to answer any questions my right hon. Friend asks.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence

This Government now really are desperate. They are desperate to distract attention from accusations about the Prime Minister lying and partying in Downing Street, and they are desperate to prop up a Home Secretary who has been utterly failing for two years as the number of cross-channel migrants has tripled. The military are there to protect the nation, not Tory Ministers.

The Minister has confirmed today that the armed forces will be involved in what he calls operational delivery. He says the details are still being worked through, so let me try again. What will the armed forces now do? Will naval vessels be deployed in the channel? Will the Navy be used to push back migrant boats? Will the Navy use sonic weapons, as No. 10 wants? Will it step up the use of drones for surveillance? Will it transport migrants from British beaches? What military accommodation will be used to house and process migrants? We are told by the media that Rear Admiral Utley has been put in charge. To whom will he report, the Home Secretary or the Defence Secretary?

This announcement is official confirmation that the Home Secretary is failing. Our armed forces are always the Government’s last resort. The military aid to the civil authorities code means such assistance is granted only when

“the civil authority lacks the necessary capability to fulfil the task”.

Who will pay the military’s bills for this work? What will be the arrangements for co-operation between the UK and French military? The Minister promised me last month that he would

“publish details of Military Aid to the Civil Authorities…tasks on a fortnightly basis beginning in January 2022. These updates will be placed in the Library of the House.”

When will he actually do this, and will he publish the detailed terms of this MACA agreement?

The Navy was used before, in 2019. Two patrol vessels were redeployed from defence tasks to the channel. They intercepted no boats, at a cost of £780,000 to the taxpayer. Will the Minister guarantee that this military deployment in the channel will not compromise our armed forces in any of their fundamental defence tasks? When will the Home Secretary step up to do her job to secure a proper security agreement with the French, break the smuggling gangs, and prevent more tragic deaths of migrants in the channel?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. I do not share his view of the Home Secretary; we have worked closely with her on a number of issues, including Op Pitting over the summer, where she made a number of courageous decisions about how to accelerate border flow at the Baron Hotel, and indeed throughout the past year when the MOD has been trying to support the Border Force. The fact is that this is not a MACA request; it is something quite different. It is asking the Navy to take primacy, from a command-and-control perspective, to bring to bear all the Government’s maritime assets that set sail, across all agencies, in order to try to cohere a more robust response at sea. It is an evolution of what we have been doing rather than a replacement of something that had previously existed.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there may be a requirement for more naval assets—warships—to be in the channel, but they sit too high off the water to be a credible platform from which to cross-deck people from a dinghy, so the presence of naval assets is probably from a command-and-control perspective rather than from an interdiction or interception perspective. There are better platforms within the Government’s inventory, and things that we can lease from the open market, that will be much more effective for mid-channel cross-decking under RN command and control.

Neither the Royal Navy nor the Royal Marines will be engaged in pushback, but that tactic has been developed by Border Force, and if it is applicable it will be used. The Royal Navy will not use sonic weapons. The Royal Navy or the wider military may be involved in transportation of people when they reach the shore as they enter the processing system. There may be a use for military accommodation. As I said, this is a UQ responding to a partial revelation of the plan, and I make no apology for the wider plan being still in development.

Rear Admiral Utley continues to report to the fleet commander, who reports to the First Sea Lord, who reports to the Secretary of State. Costs will lie where they fall, other than for novel capabilities, in which case there will be a chat with the Treasury. The MOD and the Navy enjoy excellent relations with the French MOD and the French Navy. We are confident in our ability to manage the cross-channel relationships.

I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman if I promised him an update on MACAs; I forgot that I had done so and I will make sure that that is rectified.

Photo of Richard Drax Richard Drax Conservative, South Dorset

I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. I do not see any problem with the Royal Navy getting involved with this issue. For weeks—for years—those on the Opposition Benches have been whingeing and whining that we are not doing enough. It is excellent that the military are taking control and that we are co-ordinating all the assets that we have. It makes perfect sense. When a ship intervenes somewhere in the middle of the channel, will it have the power to take the people back to France, where legally they should be, or do we have to take them into our country and then face all the problems of removing them if indeed they should not be here?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

No. There is no power to enter another country’s sovereign waters to return people. This evolution in the capability of command and control means that there is a more robust response at sea so that nobody lands on their own terms and they enter a process in the United Kingdom that may take them to return or to some other outcome. The evidence in Australia and elsewhere is that that very quickly has a deterrent effect. I am answering questions on merely a part of the plan, and the House can sense my discomfort at being unable to illuminate it fully.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Rural Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Manufacturing)

Let me start by underlining what a worrying development this is from the Government, both operationally and morally. The motivation to militarise this situation, in which desperate people make perilous crossings to reach safety and security, is immediately apparent, to say the least: this is the use of military camouflage to disguise a political crisis at the heart of the Government. We are talking about the Ministry of Defence, which is charged with the defence of the state and its people against external state or terrorist malign activity, threat or attack; not in any recent cogent assessment has the MOD or our armed forces been reconfigured to protect the state against civilians.

Will the Minister update the House on the admiralty’s critical analysis of whether to undertake significant maritime operations in respect of civilian subjects that are fraught with operational and reputational risk to the Royal Navy? Will he confirm that the Home Office request goes way beyond the realms of military aid to the civil authorities and instead represents an alarming politically expedient morphing of a civilian crisis into an entirely inappropriate military operation that is doomed to fail?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I take issue with the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which was that people need to get into a small boat to find sanctuary. They are coming from France, which is a safe country. Those who continue their journey do so because they want to be in the United Kingdom, not because they are scared of where they are.

As for the idea that the MOD is not configured to protect against civilian threats, we have just been through two decades of counter-insurgency and reconfiguring to deal with the emergence of sub-threshold threats. Threat no longer wears a uniform or drives around in a painted military vehicle that flies a flag; it is increasingly likely that the threats posed to the United Kingdom come not from military sources. Of course the Ministry of Defence, which is charged with the defence of the homeland, has a role to play in ensuring that our borders are more robustly protected.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

I welcome the announcement that the military are finally to be brought in to supersede Border Force—or, as some of my constituents refer to it, “taxi force”. We need to add credibility to this announcement, so, first, what operational name is the mission to be given; which armed forces units are likely to be involved; and thirdly, if they are not going to be involved in pushback or to deploy sonic weapons, what are they actually going to do?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My former boss on the Energy and Climate Change Committee, Angus Brendan MacNeil, is sure that he knows the name of the operation, but I am afraid he is wrong: its name is Operation Isotrope. In all probability, the units involved initially will be some of the batch 1 offshore patrol vessels that are permanently committed to home waters, probably with some P2000s.

As I said earlier in response to the shadow Secretary of State, John Healey, when he pointed out that military warships have not previously been applicable in mid-channel cross-deckings, their height off the water makes them an inappropriate platform to be hands-on in the process; their role will be one of command and control, if, indeed, anything at sea. The reality is that, as I think my right hon. Friend appreciates, the Government have a large inventory of maritime assets. We argue that if the full spectrum of those maritime assets were brought to bear on this problem and cohered under a military command structure, that would provide a step change in capability.

My right hon. Friend will be disappointed that the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines will not be using pushback tactics, sonic weapons or whatever else but, as I have said clearly in response to previous questions, Border Force has been trialling those tactics and they may have a purpose. That is all part of the ongoing military estimate. I would argue that the deterrent effect is achieved not just through an ability to push back mid-channel, with all the problems that come with that. If we can guarantee that nobody gets to land in the UK on their own terms and that the system beyond that delivers an effective outcome that acts as a deterrent for those deciding to put themselves in the people traffickers’ hands, this approach could and should work.

My right hon. Friend will be frustrated that I am unable to unveil the full scope of the plan. That is partly because I do not know it. I also think that the Prime Minister would like to do that himself later in the month.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Labour/Co-operative, Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

The Minister said that the Royal Navy will not use sonic weapons, but long-range acoustic weapons are already fitted to Border Force vessels. As the Royal Navy has assumed operational control of Border Force, will he state that no Border Force sonic weapons will be used for migrant crossings? Will he also publish a rule of engagement for using sonic weapons against civilians? Even the leaking and spinning of that suggests a really dark force that we do not need in the debate.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. If Border Force vessels are fitted with a capability that the Royal Navy commander feels is inappropriate for use, he will not direct that it is used. That is his judgment. The hon. Gentleman, as the proud MP of the Royal Navy in Devonport, probably appreciates that in the MOD we deal with operational mission command and the Royal Navy uses its judgment to bring to bear what it thinks is best. I trust Rear Admiral Utley entirely to make the right decisions in that regard.

I will be honest with the hon. Gentleman: I am not entirely clear about the custom for publishing rules of engagement. Perhaps he will let me write to him with that in due course.

Photo of Andrew Bowie Andrew Bowie Conservative, West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

Can my hon. Friend guarantee that no resource—be that manpower or asset—will be removed from another theatre to which an already overstretched Royal Navy is currently deployed, carrying out its primary role of protecting the UK and its interests, and those of our allies around the world?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I can. Commander UK Strike Force is a UK-based two-star commander—I suspect that my hon. Friend, as a former Navy man, knows that—and the ships mentioned as possibly having utility in this context are already committed to home waters.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Well, there we have it. Yesterday, No. 10 was briefing that this is the new tough approach to migrants, and today the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box and says that he has not got a clue what the plan is or what is proposed. He mentioned deployment of assets. We had nine offshore patrol vessels until 2019, when HMS Clyde was decommissioned; others are committed overseas, including in the Pacific, and in home waters for tasks such as fisher protection. So what assets are there? There are not any.

May I check two things? First, will the Navy abide by the UN conventions on people in distress at sea? Secondly, the Minister said that Rear Admiral Utley will answer to the Defence Secretary, so has the MOD taken over control of Border Force and its operation, with the Home Secretary having no role? If so, that is a huge kick in the teeth for the Home Secretary.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

First, the OPV fleet is well deployed around the world. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, Trent is in Gibraltar having just got back from autumn in the gulf of Guinea; Medway is in the Caribbean; Forth is in the Falklands; and Tamar and Spey are in the south Pacific and far east. Further, three batch 1 OPVs continue and are routinely deployed in home waters. That is not just for fishery protection, as he sought to characterise; they routinely take on the role of fleet-ready escort and are used for whatever is required to protect the United Kingdom’s interests in her home waters, and this task clearly comes within that bracket.

I am disappointed that the right hon. Gentleman felt it necessary to ask whether the men and women of the Royal Navy would still feel bound by their compulsion under the safety of life at sea convention. Of course they would. The Chief of the Defence Staff is a sailor, and Rear Admiral Utley is obviously a sailor, and they have been clear throughout that military involvement is about delivering a robust plan, but they will not endanger life at sea.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about how this is all reflected in Government policy and ownership of policy. I reflect back to him that Rear Admiral Utley is a sailor working within the MOD for a part of our border protection that has been placed into the hands of the Royal Navy. He clearly reports through his chain of command to the Secretary of State for Defence, but that is not the totality of the Government’s migration policy nor the totality of the role of protecting our borders. Obviously, the Home Secretary owns the wider system and she is doing a good job in doing that.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

Did Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean not teach us that increased efficiency of interception leads to an increased number of attempted crossings? This policy will have the reverse effect of that intended, won’t it?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

No, I do not think that is the case. There was a key difference with Op Sophia, and that is what happened when people landed on the European continent and what EU nations did with them thereafter.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The Minister will be aware that in 2019 two Navy patrol vessels were deployed in the channel to deal with channel crossings. Yet they intercepted no boats and it cost the taxpayer £780,000. What will be different this time?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

It is unclear whether the right hon. Lady is reading from Hansard because that is exactly the question asked by the Front-Bench spokesman, which I have answered already.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Behind the criminal gangs often lie the root causes of disease, famine, poverty, poor governance, conflict and war. We have heard reference today to Syria, Iraq and Libya. My hon. Friend mentioned the Sahel. What discussions has he had with his defence counterpart in the French Government about President Macron’s decision to withdraw the 5,000 troops based in the Sahel, which of course will stretch UK armed forces further in that important region?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

We speak to our French counterparts regularly, and the Sahel is a frequent topic of conversation. The French would argue that they are going through a transition from one operation to another—from Barkhane to Takuba—but that is clearly a decision for France. The UK’s commitment in the Sahel through the UN peacekeeping mission operation MINUSMA and our support to the French through Op Newcombe remains in place, but it will not surprise my right hon. Friend to know that the UK is looking for opportunities all the time to do more in western Africa. We recognise that the instability in the Sahel poses a direct threat to the UK’s interests. Indeed, were it not for the telegraphing of the intent of my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood to ask the urgent question, I would have been in Accra today having exactly those conversations. But it is a pleasure to be here answering these questions.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I welcome what the Minister says about not using sonic weapons—an idea that was described by a Home Office source in the press today as “f***ng bonkers”. When the Home Office is saying that your idea can be classified as that, you have to think you have taken a wrong turn in your planning somewhere. May I press the Minister on the relationship between the Royal Navy and the Marines, on the one hand, and UK Border Force? He tells the House—I welcome the assurance—that the Royal Navy will not be engaged in pushing back boats with refugees in them, but that leaves open the door that the UK Border Force might still do that. In that case, how can he possibly say that operational primacy sits with the Royal Navy?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that there may be some disagreement between Departments, I can only reflect that my great friends the Under-Secretaries of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friends the Members for Corby (Tom Pursglove) and for Torbay (Kevin Foster), work with me all the time, not just on this matter but on Op Pitting and all sorts of other issues where Home Office and MOD interests align. The right hon. Gentleman is right to note that I was clear that Border Force is developing a tactic. It may well be that the commander is comfortable with that tactic being employed, and there is a difference between the reason why the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines will not deploy that tactic and the reason why Border Force may. Border Force has the appropriate vessels, potentially, to do so safely; the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines do not.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Does the Minister consider that use of the Royal Navy will reduce the number of migrants who land in the United Kingdom?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I believe that it could, as part of a wider system that is under development.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges

The Minister calls it Operation Isotrope—not Isotope—which means having properties that apply in all directions. That pretty much sums it up. The honest truth is that it is Operation Red Meat, and it has no beef in it whatever. Nothing has changed. There is no plan—he admits that himself. The Government have completely failed to tackle the real issue, which many of our constituents worry about, and the people who bear the brunt of all this danger are those who are being illegally trafficked, many of them in miserable situations. The Government need to sort out the relationship with France and make sure we have a proper deal with the whole of the European Union so people can go back to the country where they originally landed. The Minister has used one phrase repeatedly today—that they will stop people landing “on their own terms”. What on earth does that mean?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

First, there are a lot of questions coming from the Opposition about the incompleteness of a plan. I would just reflect that Labour is routinely and continually silent on what it would do to ensure that our borders are protected and illegal migration is stopped. As for the UK-French relationship, no one has pretended that the part of the plan that I am answering questions on today is, in and of itself, the answer to that challenge. Before it, there is a responsibility to have relationships with France and the EU within which that can be discussed; there is a requirement to attack the criminal networks that do the trafficking; and there is a requirement to deal with migration flows in the first place.

What “land on their own terms” means is that nobody gets to set foot on United Kingdom soil without having been intercepted and brought ashore by the Royal Navy or other agencies. They are then put into a system that I have every confidence will act as a deterrent to make the cross-channel route collapse thereafter.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Conservative, South West Wiltshire

I declare an interest as a serving naval reservist. I appreciate that the Minister is being bounced into this, but he must have a plan. Can he say when that plan will be available, and on what date command and control of the operation will swap from the Home Office to the Ministry of Defence?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is asking me to better articulate the MOD’s plan, which I have been trying to do and am happy to elaborate on further, or to elaborate on the wider plan which, regretfully, I am not able to do. The MOD’s plan is to bring all of the Government’s maritime inventory under the command of Commander UK Strike Force. We believe that if all assets were better cohered, it would be possible to have a more robust interception capability in the channel. That then feeds into a wider requirement that other Departments are engaged in delivering to make sure that what happens next, combined with that certainty about our ability to intercept at sea, provides the deterrent that we have been seeking for the last year. The plan is that that primacy is in place by the end of the month.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Minister seems to forget the desperation of the people making these crossings. If there were alternative safe and legal routes, does he not think that people would take them rather than risking their lives in such a way? Is he aware that Human Rights Watch has condemned the regular and persistent degrading treatment of adults and children in Calais by the French authorities? It is hardly a safe country for them.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Lady’s final point, about France being a dangerous place, feels like something that is—

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

France is, in my view, an entirely safe country. Migrants do not need to put themselves into the hands of people traffickers to be smuggled across the channel. I hope that they will soon see that there is no point in doing so because they will not get to enter the UK on their own terms if they do.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

In the absence of Ministers having the political will to use pushback, what is the point in appointing a royal naval admiral to help Border Force to be a more efficient taxi service so that the migrants will know, “Now we’ve got the Royal Navy to pick us up—we’ll be taken safely to the UK, we'll be put in a hotel and we'll never, ever be sent home”? This is just an embarrassment. Will the Minister now co-ordinate with his colleagues to do what we have been suggesting for months and get rid of the pull factors—namely, ensure that we reform any piece of legislation necessary, including the Human Rights Act, and that people who do the illegal crossing are arrested, put in a prison and deported?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend’s exhortations and those of colleagues have been heard.

Photo of Ian Lavery Ian Lavery Labour, Wansbeck

On a point of clarification, the reason why there are lots of questions from the Opposition is that this is an urgent question—that is what we are doing here.

I would like to ask the Minister whether the Government have seriously been considering using sonic boom weaponry against people seeking to come to this country in already hazardous conditions in the channel. Can he please explain to the House what impact that weaponry has when used on individuals? May I also say that Operation Red Meat or Operation Save Big Dog—whatever you want to call it—is not in my name?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman’s last point is self-evident. The use of sonic weapons is something that people have been exploring around Government. The Royal Navy is clear that they will not be used by the Royal Navy. As the operation will be under Royal Navy command, it will be down to the Royal Navy commander whether he wishes other agencies to use them.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Conservative, South Holland and The Deepings

The people who come here genuinely seeking sanctuary and who fear persecution deserve our compassionate care. The people traffickers and those rights lawyers who encourage, facilitate and give succour to people who know that they are not seeking asylum—who are economic migrants—deserve our condemnation. The Minister has made it clear that this proposal can be only part of the solution. Will he arrange for a Minister—possibly the Home Secretary—to come to the House to reassure us that offshore processing, the deportation of illegal immigrants and secure accommodation for those awaiting deportation form part of the policy? May I say in addition that, as my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh has just said, we must bring forward the reform of the Human Rights Act and other legislation as a matter of urgency?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that he can expect to hear exactly what he hopes for very soon. It is unfortunate that today I have been required to come and expose part of the plan early, but that is my duty to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House. There will be a wider exposition of the plan in due course, I am certain.

Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

The Royal Navy website says:

“Whether disasters are human-made or natural…Responding to these life-threatening scenarios is central to our ethos”.

Given that the Government have decreed that, contrary to what Sir John Hayes just said, almost two thirds of people crossing the channel in these small boats are so-called genuine asylum seekers, does the Minister agree that any genuinely responsible politician would refuse to be involved in further endangering the lives of these desperately vulnerable people? Before he accuses me of reading from Hansard, as he did so rudely with Ms Abbott, he said today that the Navy will not be involved in the pushback of people, but we all know that that could change tomorrow. Will he put on record his agreement that involving our Navy in pushing people back into dangerous waters would directly contradict that noble ethos?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I have somewhat more confidence in the Royal Navy than the hon. Lady does. I am absolutely certain that it can operate in the channel robustly, in the nation’s interest, but compassionately. As Royal Navy mariners, with all the fine traditions of that service, they are clear about their job and they will not threaten the life of innocent people.

On her point about vessels operated by the Royal Marines being involved in pushback, I have been very clear from the Dispatch Box that that will not happen. It cannot happen: the vessels are inappropriate for the practice.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

We on this side of the House are determined to smash the gangs that charge desperate people thousands of pounds to take a perilous journey. It would be better if they did not undertake that journey in the first place, so what discussions has my hon. Friend had with the French military on intercepting boats before they set off and returning them to France, where they should belong?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Clearly, that is a conversation that we will be having, and would like to have, but all of that is with the Home Secretary, and I know she remains engaged with it.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

This is fast becoming as ludicrous as it is disturbing. Yesterday, the Home Secretary was unable to explain what the military could do that Border Force could not, and the Minister has failed again today. Everybody knows that this announcement coming at this time is part of the campaign to save the Prime Minister’s job. How does the Minister think the armed forces feel about being used for that purpose?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The Chief of the Defence Staff has been involved in all the conversations. As I have made clear, we should not be dismissive of the importance of securing our borders, not only from an immigration perspective but from a national security perspective. Migration is being used as a subthreshold weapon of competition elsewhere in Europe, and it cannot endure that our border is not properly secured.

The hon. Gentleman asks what the mindset is of the military. I can tell him that from the nation’s most senior serviceperson downwards, they take great pride in making sure that they play their part in the plan to deliver what the democratically elected Government set as priorities.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

This is not Operation Red Meat; it is Operation Dog’s Dinner. If the mission statement were to reduce illegal people trafficking across the channel, I would support it, but, as far as I understand it, the mission statement is to lower the number of people landing on their own terms on UK beaches.

With the deployment of royal naval vessels, the Minister has effectively announced that asylum seekers need get only halfway across the channel before being intercepted by the Royal Navy, under royal naval command. This will incentivise people traffickers. They will see the Royal Navy ship on the horizon and say, “Point your dinghy in that direction. You only need to get halfway,” and the Royal Navy will pick them up. The only way this will work is if the Royal Navy intercepts asylum seekers and returns them to France. Without the second bit, this simply will not work.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

My hon. Friend knows that the last bit would be impossible without French permission, and French permission has not been given. I do not accept his characterisation of what is being spoken about today. The Ministry of Defence mission is to make sure that nobody arrives in the UK on their own terms. [Interruption.] That means that nobody arrives in the UK without having been intercepted at sea or as they land. What happens next is that we will just have to wait a short while, and I am sure all will become clear.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Trade Team Member), Chair, International Trade Committee, Chair, International Trade Committee

I am glad to see my old colleague from the Energy and Climate Change Committee doing so well in government. He will be aware of course that there is a vacancy coming up at the top quite soon, and I have high hopes for him that he will indeed go further.

I welcome that this has not been thought through very much—it is just like the rest of Operation Red Meat, to be honest—and I am glad that the Minister has indicated that the Navy will not intercept the small boats, unless, I would hope, there is a risk to life and there are people in distress, because around the world small boats have to be avoided for the terrorist risk. It will not take a terrorist with a PhD to see the opportunity of some of this, and I hope that the Government are thinking seriously about that. What assessment has been made of the terrorist risk both to the Navy and to the poor migrants, who are often escaping terrorists in the first place—as well as the efforts, of course, of international arms sellers—to find themselves in the channel?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The hon. Gentleman notes that the Royal Navy will not be directly involved in the interception of ships, and as I have explained, that is to do with the suitability of the vessel. However, I would not want him to think that that means we are not intending to intercept all dinghies. We are; it is just that there are better platforms to use for that under Royal Navy command and control.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to identify—this is the point I have been seeking to illustrate—the justification for using the armed forces as part of this mission. Our adversaries, whether they are state or non-state, are very good at spotting where vulnerabilities are in countries. I would argue that the flow of migrants has reached a point where it is a threat to our national security, so it is entirely appropriate that the Royal Navy should play a role in the co-ordination of the response.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

Any of my constituents watching these exchanges will note the comments of Opposition Members who are trying to pour cold water on a plan that my constituents actually want. They want to see an end to this cross-channel illegal immigration, and they will also be disappointed to hear from the Minister that plans are not yet finalised, because hints and announcements have been made about the use of the Navy for many months—years, probably—and our military are adept at putting together plans quickly to respond to emergency situations. Can the Minister at least give my constituents some hint of when a robust policy will be in place and the Navy will be involved?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

Very imminently indeed, and I would certainly imagine within the next few weeks.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Independent, Islington North

In all the awful answers the Minister has given, he has not shown one iota of empathy for desperate people putting their own lives at risk to try to get to a place of safety, many of them coming from war zones around the world that Britain has been involved in. Can he not show some humanity and sympathy to these people and come to a European-wide agreement on support for asylum seekers and refugees? Can he not also look at the sources and at why people come, as well as the awful conditions that many face when they arrive in this country? These are human beings trying to survive in a very difficult world, and history will judge very harshly those Governments who use military means to repel refugees at the time of a refugee crisis around the world. Let us have some humanity, not just reach out to the military all the time.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I know that it was very much the right hon. Gentleman’s policy as Leader of the Opposition not to use the military at all, and probably to defund it as a consequence. I reject, however, the suggestion that we are not guided by a deep sense of compassion. The right hon. Gentleman is correct in observing that these people are desperate—so desperate, in fact, that they are putting themselves in the hands of exploitative criminal gangs that put them to sea in dinghies, increasingly in sea states that those dinghies are woefully ill-equipped to deal with. The responsible, compassionate response to this threat is to provide a robust deterrent so that people no longer put themselves in the hands of the criminal gangs, and that is exactly what we are doing.

If you will indulge me on a final point, Mr Speaker, the idea that conflicts in which I proudly served, as did hundreds of thousands of other British service personnel, are somehow the cause of why people are coming here now is utterly for the birds. Our nation’s armed forces are engaged around the world trying to provide stabilisation and security in some of the countries that need it most precisely so that people do not feel they need to take on the perilous journey across continents to the United Kingdom.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs)

I congratulate the Chair of the Defence Committee on securing this urgent question. He is absolutely right to say that this plan is not a long-term solution. As deputy Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, I have been pushing for the Home Office to consider our recommendation that claims to the UK asylum system should be able to be made from France, because the reason that people are desperate is that there is a dearth of safe legal routes to the United Kingdom. Can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with the Home Office about that possibility as a long-term solution to the problem that would free up the Royal Navy for more appropriate duties?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Tom Pursglove, is sitting beside me. As the hon. and learned Lady was asking her question, I was told that the French Minister of the Interior has said in the French Parliament that the hon. and learned Lady’s proposal would be completely unacceptable to France.

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough

Red dog, dead dog, red meat—I don’t know what this is, but it is a total embarrassment. Pope Francis has denounced the

“narrow self-interest and nationalism” in how European countries treat migrants and in how they

“persist in treating the problem as a matter that does not concern them”.

Is it not time, as the Pontiff says, to treat our brothers and sisters seeking sanctuary with compassion? Is it not time to attack the root causes, not the people who pay the consequences?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I would argue that that is exactly what our policy does. We are engaged around the world through our aid and military efforts to provide security and stabilisation in the countries from which most people are fleeing. I think that the work of our armed forces and of the brilliant people in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office who do international development is succeeding to an extent, but there is much more to be done. Criminal gangs are exploiting the most vulnerable, and it is right that we and our partners around the world get after those gangs to stop their work, because it is deeply insidious and malign.

It is also our responsibility to the people of this country to ensure that our borders are secure, for two reasons. First, it acts as a deterrent for those who are in France and are considering making an illegal crossing that will cost them their life savings and risk putting them to sea in a boat that is woefully ill-equipped for the sea state. Secondly, the people of the United Kingdom want control over their borders and over migration, and this Government are committed to delivering it.

Photo of Jonathan Edwards Jonathan Edwards Independent, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr

Diolch, Mr Speaker. It is disappointing that the Minister has not ruled out pushback in his answers today, because it poses an obvious danger to life. In response to the announcement this week, navy sources have said that they deem pushback to be unethical. If Border Force implemented that policy and a small boat capsized, what would be the policy for Border Force staff?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I have been clear that the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines will not use the tactic, principally because they simply do not have the platforms that are appropriate for doing so. Arguably, the Border Force does; it has been doing trials with it, so it remains an option. But let us be clear: there are parts of the channel in which it definitely cannot be done, and there is a small part of the channel in which it might possibly be done. That is for the Navy commander to consider in due course.

Having a robust response that starts with the guarantee that we will intercept all boats either at sea or as they land, and then bringing people into a system that itself acts as a deterrent, is the right way to go. The people want the Government to get control of our borders—it is one of the Prime Minister’s top priorities. The MOD has a part of that plan, which we are confident in our ability to deliver; the rest of the plan will be unveiled in due course.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

Since 2014, more than £200 million—about half a million pounds a week of taxpayers’ money—has been given to France, yet crossings are increasing. The latest announcement will do absolutely nothing to halt those dangerous crossings. The Minister and the Government need to be smashing the criminal gangs. That is the reality; this is just red meat headlines, but more of the same failed policy.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

The Government are introducing life sentences for people smugglers. We agree vigorously with the hon. Gentleman that the absolute key is to get upstream of the problem, prevent the migration flows in the first place ideally, and get straight after the organised crime gangs to attack the network. That is very much part of the plan, although not necessarily a part of the plan the MOD owns. As he would expect, that sits much more neatly in the Home Office and the National Crime Agency, and in the Foreign Office when it comes to diplomacy. As I have been clear throughout, it is suboptimal that I am able to unveil only our part of the plan in response to an urgent question today, but in due course the full system will be made clear.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)

Nearly five years on the Defence Committee has demonstrated to me that the woeful legacy of a decade of cuts to non-frontline services mean there is probably little option. The Defence Sub-Committee on contracted services to the MOD has also shown the pernicious effect of outsourcing services, such as those, for example, at HM Naval Base, Clyde, which affected so many of my constituents. Will the Minister give his word to the House today that there will be no private sector involvement in Operation Isotrope? If there is one thing we and the poor souls in the channel do not need, it is for Serco and Capita to get their tentacles into a very lucrative Government contract.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

About 45 minutes ago, I was clear that there would be leased platforms that are far more appropriate for use in the channel. The hon. Gentleman suggests that this might be a contract with a single provider. That is not the case. What I am talking about is contracting platforms to come fully under command. I cannot say who they are owned by, but the names of the big conglomerates he just mentioned have not been mentioned.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

Bringing in the military seems to be the Government’s solution to everything these days, to the extent that I was surprised it was not part of the Culture Secretary’s plan yesterday for the future of the BBC. Given the conflation of responsibilities, in particular around issues of aid and security, can the Minister confirm that there will be no creative accounting in any attempt to hive off the costs to the overseas development assistance budget, or, for that matter, the NATO 2% target?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

I am not sure that the military is brought in for everything, as the hon. Gentleman says. Our country has just been through an extraordinary period. We are drawing on the mass, expertise and commitment of our armed forces to support the NHS and civilian authorities through the pandemic. I think that that is a sign of the extraordinary service and professionalism of the men and women in our armed forces. Actually, I think it is good that the Government have been willing and able to draw on that capability throughout. As to his wider point, there is a requirement for a robust response. The Navy is able to bring that robustness not necessarily through the ships it can set to sea, but through its command and control, and through bringing all the Government’s maritime assets—there are many of them—to bear in a co-ordinated way. If we can do that, we can do things differently from how they have been done over the past few years.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

We must remember that we are talking about 25,000 people who came to the UK in this dangerous way last year, a threefold increase that proves the Government’s plans are simply not working. The only thing we do know is that creating safe routes takes away trade from criminal gangs. Why are the Government making the situation worse without having clear objectives, rather than addressing the real problem?

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

There are many safe routes to the UK. I have been very clear that the part of the plan I have been able to answer questions on in the House today is not the full breadth of what needs to be done. The hon. Lady is right that the most decisive things we can do on migration are upstream of the channel. If she can wait just a few weeks, I am sure she will be illuminated fully.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Minister for his answers to questions. Recent figures show that in 2021 some 28,000 migrants crossed the channel in small boats. That number is rising. The UK has a long-established asylum system, but the use of military vessels sends an unfortunate message. There are many civilian companies every bit as efficient, so can the Minister confirm co-ordination between our Border Force, other vessels in the channel, and civilian companies that have the capability, expertise and the talent to do the job? That, Minister, could be a much better solution.

Photo of James Heappey James Heappey The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence

It is absolutely the case that there are more appropriate vessels for cross-decking people in the middle of the channel than Navy vessels and, indeed, Border Force cutters. There is already a vessel contracted for that purpose. Our expectation is that we would contract more of that design in order to play a role. That is not to hand it over to a company that runs all those vessels; that is to bring those vessels into service under the command of the Navy commander.